The Shakespeare mystery

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 7, 2008

How does this become a play in Shakespeare’s time?
In October of 1611, an untitled play was submitted to King James’s censor, George Buc, for approval; he passed it, with “the reformations,” for public acting, dubbing it the “second Maydens tragedy.” This play, which most contemporary scholars attribute to Thomas Middleton, has a plot that vaguely resembles that of the Cardenio tale in Don Quixote — with completely different names — and a pretty accurate subplot version of “El curioso impertinente,” with characters named Anselmus, Votarius, and “Wife.”

So is this play Cardenio?
Well, that’s the question. There’s no character in it called Cardenio, so you wouldn’t think so. But it has its own mystery: Thomas Shelton’s English translation of part one of Don Quixote didn’t come out till 1612. So either the Second Maiden’s Tragedy playwright(s) could read Spanish or he/they had access to Cervantes’s source.

This is confusing. Is there a play that is called Cardenio?
Yes. An entry in the Revels Accounts for 1613 states that John Heminges was paid for a play the King’s Men presented at court on May 20 called Cardenno, and again for a play presented June 8 called Cardenna. Given the popularity of Shelton’s translation — and the vagaries of spelling in Shakespeare’s time — it’s reasonable to assume that these references are to a single play and that the title character is Cervantes’s Cardenio.

Were those the first performances?
We can’t say. We don’t know whether Cardenio was ever presented in a public playhouse. We just know there were these two performances.

So what happened to the play?
Well, we don’t have it. The Globe Theatre burned down on June 29, 1613, when, during the King’s Men’s production of Henry VIII, a shot from a cannon saluting the entrance of the king caused the theater to catch fire. The playbook may have burned up there, though you might think that the actors, who would have had their individual parts in their lodgings, could have reconstructed it.

It didn’t appear in the First Folio, then?
No. At this point, we don’t have any reason to think that Shakespeare had anything to do with the play, except that the King’s Men was his company and he might still have been writing in 1613. There’s some question about what made it into the First Folio. Shakespeare scholars believe that Henry VIII is partly by Shakespeare and partly by John Fletcher. That play is in the Folio. Shakespeare scholars also believe that Two Noble Kinsmen is partly by Shakespeare and partly by Fletcher, but that play is not in the Folio. Neither is Pericles, which everyone believes Shakespeare had some part in.

How does Shakespeare come into it?
On September 9, 1653, the bookseller Humphrey Moseley paid the fee to register “The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher & Shakespeare.” At the same time he also registered Henry I and Henry II, both being attributed to Shakespeare and Robert Davenport. In 1660 he registered The History of King Stephen, Duke Humphrey, and Iphis and Iantha, or A Marriage Without a Man — all alleged to be by Shakespeare. If we take at face value Moseley’s assertion that the Cardenio he intended to publish was in part the work of Shakespeare, then we have to consider the possibility that Shakespeare wrote, or co-wrote, a large number of plays that we never heard about in his lifetime and that weren’t included in the Folio. Moseley never published any of the “Shakespeare” plays he registered, and we don’t possess any of them. Henry I had been licensed for performance by the King’s Men in 1624 — eight years after Shakespeare’s death — as a play by Davenport. It’s possible that Moseley added Shakespeare’s name to plays written by other dramatists to improve sales.

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