One of my most exciting and enthralling Christmas presents was a copy of The Arden Shakespeare’s Double Falsehood, a play from 1727 by Lewis Theobald purportedly based on three or more copies of Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s play Cardenio (or The History of Cardenio), performed at court in 1613 and otherwise lost. Cardenio’s title indicates it was based on a story-within-a-story from Don Quixote by Cervantes, first published in an English translation in 1612 and more recently published in an excellent comic strip adaptation by Rob Davis.
The introduction (which takes up more of the book than the actual play) goes into as much detail as possible about the provenance of the play and – as you might expect – concludes that treating Double Falsehood as part of the Shakespeare canon is a worthwhile exercise, even if very, very little of it is recognisably Shakespeare, as it was written in collaboration, and has been rewritten by one or more hands.
The fundamental issue, at least as I see it, is whether Theobald could have known about Cardenio by any other means. The only reason we know about today is because of a 1613 record of payments to the actor John Heminges and the Stationer’s Register from 1653. Could Theobald have known about either of these things? If so, or if he heard about the play by some other route, then it’s possible that Double Falsehood could be a not-particularly-elaborate fake. But it seems to me to be unlikely that the memory of a short-lived play would endure for over a century. It also seems unbelievably unlikely that if Theobald were to consider ‘faking’ a Shakespeare play, he would - by coincidence - base it upon the same story from Don Quixote that Shakespeare actually did use as the basis of a play.
The mystery, though, is why Cardenio wasn’t collected in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works. It could, at a stretch, be down to quality. Or availability. But my guess – and it can only be a guess – is that it wasn’t included for the same reason that The Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles weren’t included, because they were collaborative works, and that the compilers only wanted to include solo Shakespeare works, either out of a sense of authorial integrity, or because the rights weren’t available (John Fletcher still being alive at the time). Maybe the compilers thought The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio would be better suited to a collection of John Fletcher’s works (such a collection appeared in 1647, but initially didn’t include The Two Noble Kinsmen).
The Double Falsehood play itself does share several qualities with The Two Noble Kinsmen, as they both offer the simplistic, almost fairy-story type of storytelling with no real subplots and with basic stereotypical characterisation and have contrived dramatic situations overcome without recourse to logic or ingenuity. They both also seem to have chunks of the story missing, set-ups with no pay-offs and pay-offs without set-ups. In Double Falsehood, the well-worn plot device of disguise is handled particularly clumsily; there’s an almost funny scene where some shepherds laugh at Julio chatting up a girl that they think is a boy, but that’s about it. The scene where Julio reveals his true identity is quite wilfully perverse in the way it avoids dramatic potential.
Double Falsehood also shares some similarities with A Winter’s Tale and Pericles in having a change of location and a passage of time for the pastoral fourth act. Oddly, it also has a few things in common with The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, with its storyline about a chap betraying a friend by sending him away to court so he can seduce his girlfriend (Verona has a chap following his friend to court and then attempting to seduce his friend’s girlfriend). Most problematically, to my twenty-first century politically-correct sensibilities, they also both handle rape (or attempted rape) plots rather dubiously; in Verona the assaulter expresses remorse and is spontaneously forgiven by everyone (including his victim) while Double Falsehood goes one step further by having Violante (the victim) remain in love with her attacker (Henriquez) and has, as its resolution, Henriquez falling in love with Violante anew. It’s not as if the play treats the moral and emotional consequences of sexual assault particularly lightly – it doesn’t – it just ‘solves’ the problems raised incredibly glibly (and, even in its own terms, implausibly). But that is, I imagine, just down to the fact that attitudes now are so different from back then, when rape and domestic abuse were considered ripe subjects for theatrical comedies, whereas now the notion induces a reflexive cringe (though our soap operas are no less salacious and exploitative and even more superficial in their treatment of emotion, so we can claim no moral high ground).
Anyway, it was a fascinating read, even if it’s the Shakespeare equivalent of, oh, The Beatles’ I’ll Be On My Way, and I look forward to my other presents, Sir Thomas More and Edward III.