The Shakespeare mystery

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 7, 2008

Is that it for the Shakespeare connection?
Not quite. In 1727, Lewis Theobald brought out a play called Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers that he said he had edited from three manuscripts he had acquired; the original, he alleged, was by Shakespeare. It was staged at Drury Lane in 1728 and ran for 10 performances, a good showing in those days. There can be no doubt that Double Falshood is based on Cervantes’s Cardenio tale, though the names are changed: Cardenio is Julio, Luscinda is Leonora, Don Fernando is Henriquez, and Dorotea is Violante. Whether Theobald knew that his play draws on Don Quixote is unclear — he never mentions the name Cardenio as a title of the play or in any other context, and he seems not to have known of the King’s Men’s Cardenio or Moseley’s registration of a “Shakespeare” Cardenio. What’s also not clear is whether Double Falshood is a 17th-century play or one that Theobald wrote himself.

Can’t the Shakespeare scholars look at the three manuscripts and figure it out?
They could if Theobald had made those manuscripts public. He published his own edition of Shakespeare in 1733 but didn’t include Double Falshood — possibly because he wasn’t sure Shakespeare wrote it and didn’t want to have to defend his decision (he had already been targeted in Alexander Pope’s 1928 Dunciad), possibly because he was the real author. One theory is that he gave the manuscripts to Covent Garden and that they burned with the theater in 1808. In any case, we don’t have them.

So neither of these plays is Cardenio?
That’s a distinct possibility. What The Second Maiden’s Tale has going for it is that it’s an actual Jacobean play, from 1611, and it draws on the Cardenio “subplot,” “El curioso impertinente.” Against that, most scholars think Thomas Middleton wrote it, the main plot of the play bears only a faint resemblance to the Cardenio tale, and the play is neither very good nor very Shakespearean. Double Falshood does retell the Cardenio story, and it’s a better work. But it may be something that Theobald wrote to look like Shakespeare, and if there was an original, we don’t know who wrote it or how much of the author’s work survived editing.

We do know that the King’s Men staged Cardenio in 1613. John Fletcher was succeeding Shakespeare as the King’s Men’s chief playwright at that time, so he’s a likely candidate for its author. Moseley names him along with Shakespeare in the 1653 registration, and he rather than Shakespeare is the playwright who emerges from the mists of Double Falshood. So it might be more to the point to speak of “Fletcher’s Cardenio.” If Shakespeare was still writing for the King’s Men in the spring of 1613, he may well have had a (large or small) hand in it.

Can I look at the evidence and judge for myself?
Yes. Charles Hamilton in William Shakespeare with John Fletcher: “Cardenio, or The Second Maiden’s Tragedy” (Marlowe & Company, 1994) argues, largely on the basis of handwriting, that The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is Cardenio and that Shakespeare wrote it, with help from Fletcher; he includes an edition of the play. Henry Salerno in “Double Falshood” and Shakespeare’s “Cardenio”: A Study of a “Lost” Play (Xlibris Corporation) argues that Double Falshood is Cardenio and that Shakespeare’s hand is evident in acts four and five, a text of which he includes. Neither book is well written; both are dismally argued. A complete text of Double Falshood is available
here.

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