Lucio Gentle and fair, your brother kindly greets you.
Not to be weary with you, he’s in prison.
Isabella Woe me, for what?
Lucio For that which, if myself might be his judge,
He should receive his punishment in thanks:
He hath got his friend with child.
Isabella Sir, make me not your story.
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure I. iv. 29
Quoting this and other passages, the OED gives as one meaning of story:
‘A person suitable to be the subject of a tale or anecdote; (hence) an object of amusement; a laughing stock. Obs.’
Lewis and Short’s primary definition of fabula is ‘a narration, narrative, account, account, story; the subject of common talk.’ It derives from for, fari, fatus sum. The rest of the L&S entry perhaps reveals how easily common talk passes from truth to fiction.
People need stories: history, legends, myths, folk tales, or just true stories about other living people—or failing that, false ones; and this need is what frightens Isabella.
It has been suggested that stories in their crudest form have only two plots:
A person nearly dies, but doesn’t;
A couple meet and get married—or don’t.
These two perhaps account for a large number, and they are two that people want to hear again and again. They can be elaborated to include myth, notably the myth of the descent to the underworld. Indeed, in some of the James Bond stories—with the same plot that people never tire of hearing—Bond does descend to some kind of underworld: he goes behind the Iron Curtain or somewhere equally hideous, or actually goes underground into some hellish place, to be tied down and confronted with a psychopath wielding a chainsaw.
But there is more to it. An attempted analysis can be found in Christopher Booker: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Bloomsbury, 2004. This book, by a contrarian writer and journalist, has been highly praised, and also angrily rejected.
Much has been written on this subject. The Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) system of classification is interesting.
Next post: August, and the Palus Pomptina.