All entries for Wednesday 20 May 2009

May 20, 2009

Problems of Bardolatry #1: Cardenio

As another Cardenio makes the rounds, it seems a perfect opportunity to point out one of Bardolatry's most glaring negative consequences.

Producing a "lost Shakespeare play" is, without a doubt, one of the best theatrical marketing strategies you can hope for. In the case of Cardenio, every now and again a new staging of Theobald's Double Falsehood turns up, usually with claims that either the acting company or attendant academic have decided that it is, in fact, almost entirely Shakespearean. It's a necessary marketing factor: the more Shakespearean it is pretended to be, the more important it becomes (poor John Fletcher) and therefore the more attention and selling power it will have.

What is forgotten by the Bardolaters seeking for new Shakespeare is that the claim for the authenticity of Double Falsehood is actually dependent on its UNLIKENESS to Shakespeare. The claims that the play appears to be Shakespearean actually diminish the play's chances of having a genuine Shakespearean connection.

To explain this, we need to go back to 1728 and the publication of Lewis Theobald's hugely successfully Double Falsehood; or, the Distressed Lovers. The play did well on stage, and was subsequently published by Theobald as being Shakespeare's, fitted up for the contemporary stage by Theobald himself. Theobald's claim was that he, somehow, had acquired manuscripts of a Restoration adaption of a Shakespeare play, which he had now adapted himself. Suspiciously enough, despite the fact that he claimed to have no fewer than three copies of this manuscript, they were never seen by anyone else (or, at least, anyone who recorded seeing them). Then, conveniently, they were apparently burned up in a fire at Covent Garden, where they were on display. Again, no-one records viewing them.

This is, quite patently, extremely suspicious, and instantly cries out "Forgery!". That was the opinion of Theobald's contemporaries. It was pointed out that the play bore far more resemblance to the works of John Fletcher, and that Theobald's ascription of the play to Shakespeare was fraudulent. Theobald realised he didn't have a leg to stand on, and quietly withdrew his claims, omitting the play from his Complete Works of 1733 despite his promises five years earlier that he would publish the play in full, along with his arguments for its veracity. It seems that even Theobald lost faith in his own ascription. The subsequent centuries have largely assumed that this was a simple exercise in Bardolatrous forgery, similar to that of William Henry Ireland.

However, records were discovered much later suggesting that Shakespeare HAD written a play in his final years of active work, a collaboration with John Fletcher called Cardenio, the source (from Cervantes' Don Quixote) for the story in Double Falsehood. Theobald did not know of this. As recent scholarship has pointed out, he would therefore have had no reason to imitate Fletcher's style in forging a play. If the play IS a forgery, it would be pseudo-Shakespearean. Instead, it is Fletcherian, which actually supports the play's authenticity.

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare's plays fitted them to the demands of the time. In the 1660s, the vogue was for Fletcherian tragicomedy, and Shakespeare's plays were fitted to this requirement (see, for example, the happy ending of Nahum Tate's King Lear). Most pertinently, Davenant and Dryden's adaptation of Fletcher and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen into The Rivals excised almost all of Shakespeare's sections of the play while retaining most of the fashionable Fletcher. It follows, then, that a Restoration adaptation of Cardenio would likewise be primarily at Shakespeare's expense.

The authenticity of Double Falsehood as an adaptation of an adaption of Cardenio is now largely accepted. However, as explained above, this authenticity has been established on the grounds of the play's general unlikeness to Shakespeare and general likeness to Fletcher.

For modern companies and academics to claim that the surviving Double Falsehood is largely Shakespearean, therefore, defeats the point. If Theobald's play is seen to be like Shakespeare, then that fact actually instead supports the original assumption that the play is merely Theobald's attempt to mimic Shakespeare's style as part of a deliberate fraud. By buying into the Bardolatrous desire to credit Shakespeare with as much as possible, the play is actually pushed further away from canonical status.

It is notable that professional academic scholarship is generally united in the belief that any Shakespearean fragments surviving in Double Falsehood are few and brief. The claims for substantial Shakespearean authorship are primarily made by amateur or unaffiliated scholars (see also: the authorship conspiracy theorists), or by actors who are inevitably more familiar with Shakespeare than Fletcher anyway, and whose basis for comparison is therefore skewed. It's a shame, as with The Two Noble Kinsmen, that the majority of people are so concerned with the question of who wrote which bits. Is the importance of the play as a fragment of part of Shakespeare and Fletcher's later repertoire not enough? Sadly, it appears, not.

P.S. The history page at the new Cardenio production's website has some interesting suggestions for further reading. It appears to be written in black on a black background, though, so you need to highlight the text in order to see it!


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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