Reader Shannon Knight commented on Facebook that she wanted to read more about the connection between Mr. Fox and Shakespeare. Here is an excerpt from Bluebeard Tales From Around the World. It is itself an excerpt as explained below. So the best estimate is that the Mr. Fox tale is at least 400 years old and the first evidence of it predates Bluebeard by 100+ years. I'm not going to block text this, but everything from this point is from the book, slightly edited.
The following is essentially a reprint with commentary of Halliwell’s “Mr. Fox,” that appeared in the Chambers’ A Book of Days, a bestselling miscellany of popular antiquities connected to days of the year and a bestseller in the latter 1800s. Unlike most folklore anthologists well-versed through classical education in that era, Chambers does not assume the reader is overly familiar with the referenced texts and thus provides quotations which merit its inclusion in this anthology.
IN SHAKSPEARE’S Much Ado About Nothing, Benedict (Act I., Sc. 1) alludes to “the old tale—it is not so, nor ‘twas not so, but indeed. God forbid it should be so.” It is believed by his laborious commentator, Mr. Halliwell, that Shakspeare here had in his recollection a simple English nursery story which he had probably heard in his infancy at Stratford, and of which some memory still survives. The story is given by the learned commentator as follows:
Once upon a time there was a young lady, called Lady Mary, who had two brothers. One summer they all went to a country seat of theirs, which they had not before visited. Among the other gentry in the neighbourhood who came to see them, was a Mr. Fox, a bachelor, with whom they, particularly the young lady, were much pleased. He used often to dine with them, and frequently invited Lady Mary to come and see his house.
One day that her brothers were absent elsewhere, and she had nothing better to do, she determined to go thither; and accordingly set out unattended. When she arrived at the house, and knocked at the door, no one answered.
At length she opened it and went in; over the portal of the hall was written,
“Be bold, be bold—but not too bold,
lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.”
She opened it; it was full of skeletons and tubs full of blood. She retreated in haste, and coming down stairs she saw Mr. Fox advancing towards the house with a drawn sword in one hand, while with the other he dragged along a young lady by her hair.
Lady Mary had just time to slip down, and hide herself under the stairs, before Mr. Fox and his victim arrived at the foot of them. As he pulled the young lady upstairs, she caught hold of one of the banisters with her hand, on which was a rich bracelet. Mr. Fox cut it off with his sword; the hand and bracelet fell into Lady Mary’s lap, who then contrived to escape unobserved, and got home safe to her brothers’ house.
After a few days, Mr. Fox came to dine with them as usual. After dinner, when the guests began to amuse each other with extraordinary anecdotes, Lady Mary at length said she would relate to them a remarkable dream she had lately had.
“I dreamt,” said she, “that as you, Mr. Fox, had often invited me to go to your house, I would go there one morning. When I came to the house I knocked, but no one answered. When I opened the door, over the hall was written,
‘Be bold, be bold—but not too bold.’
But,” said she, turning to Mr. Fox, and smiling, “it is not so, nor it was not so.”
Then she pursued the rest of the story, concluding at every turn with “It is not so, nor it was not so,” till she came to the room full of dead bodies, when Mr. Fox took up the burden of the tale, and said, “It is not so, nor it was not so: and God forbid it should be so,” which he continues to repeat at every subsequent turn of the dreadful story, till she came to the circumstance of the cutting off the young lady’s hand, when, upon his saying as usual, “It is not so, nor it was not so: and God forbid it should be so,” Lady Mary retorts, “But it is so, and it was so, and here’s the hand I have to show;” at the same time producing the bracelet from her lap: whereupon the guests drew their swords, and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.’
It is worthy of notice that the mysterious inscription seen by the lady in Mr. Fox’s house is identical with that represented by Spenser (Faerie Queen, III. xi. 54), as beheld by Britomart in
“— the house of Busyrane,
Where Love’s spoyles are exprest.”
It occurs in the following stanza:
And as she lookt about she did behold
How over that same dore was likewise writ,
Be bold, be bold, and everywhere Be bold;
That much she mus’d, yet could not construe it
By any ridling skill or commune wit.
At last she spyde at that rowme’s upper end
Another yron dore, on which was writ,
Be not too bold: whereto, though she did bend
Her earnest mind, yet wist not what it might intend.
It cannot be said that there is much in the story of Mr. Fox; but it is curious to find it a matter of familiar knowledge to two writers like Shakspeare and Spenser: and we learn from their allusions that, rude and simple as it is, it has existed for about three centuries, if not more.
Chambers, Robert, editor. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1879. pp. 291-292.