Shakespeare in the news. It’s always stuff that isn’t Shakespeare or stuff that Shakespeare isn’t, isn’t it? Shakespeare not by Shakespeare. What a bore. Shakespeare a Catholic. What a bore. Poems that Shakespeare didn’t write. Stylometric fingerprinting suggests to boffin and Dan Brown readers that a scholarly conspiracy has occluded The Truth, which is to be found by the chosen ones who can decipher the acrostics scribbled in the gents in the Middle Temple crypt. What a bore.
Now it’s Cardenio, Shakespeare’s famously lost play. What a bore. A play called Double Falsehood, which could if you were feeling really generous be described as second-rate, was printed by Piddling Tibbald, as Alexander Pope called his enemy Lewis Theobald, in 1728. It’s based on the Cardenio story, one of the not especially whizzy novella-ish tales embedded in Don Quixote. So, presumably, was the play called Cardenio or ‘Cardenna’ or some such performed by the King’s Men – Shakespeare’s company – in 1613. So, probably, was the play called ‘The History of Cardenio’ which was entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1653 by Humphrey Moseley (who printed upmarket stuff), where it’s ascribed to ‘Mr Fletcher, and Shakespeare’.
Theobald could just about have known that there was a lost Shakespearean play about Cardenio out there somewhere. In his preface to Double Falsehood he claimed to have prepared the text from no fewer than three manuscripts of this play, all since lost. He inveighs against those who alleged that it was ‘incredible that such a curiosity should be stifled and lost to the world for above a century’. His were manuscripts of venerable provenance. Well, one of them was at least sixty years old, which takes us to, ooh, only forty odd years after Shakespeare’s death (unless of course he’s alive and well and living with Elvis in Peru). Theobald didn’t include Double Falsehood in his collected edition of Shakespeare’s works a few years later because he lost his nerve, or because Pope had teased him so mercilessly about the flattest of its many flattish lines: ‘None but itself can be its parallel.’ (So it was, like, unique then?)
Now the Arden Shakespeare has published an edition of Double Falsehood. And a jolly good edition of Theobald’s play it is too: judicious, balanced, no faraway look in the eye and no daft theories. It soberly argues that the play was probably an18th-century adaptation of a Restoration adaptation of play in which Shakespeare collaborated to some unspecified degree right at the end of his career. Well probably.
Yes, it’s hot news. And if you read Double Falsehood through fastish there are a lot of lines that sound as though someone was dimly remembering what Shakespeare could have sounded like. Flashes of almost, like the line ‘A gleam of day breaks sudden from her window.’ But soft, have we not heard that somewhere before?
Of course a bard by any other name would smell less sweet. We’re served this reasonably competent generic romance so well edited, so persuasively introduced, because it could, well couldn’t it just, perhaps some of it, or maybe only a teensy-weensy little bit of it somewhere, be Shakespeare? How about the description of the lovely heroine Leonora as having ‘a face would make a frozen hermit/Leap from his cell and burn his beads to kiss it’? Well, maybe not. Or try drinking pure organic pleasure from such lines (certifiable 1720s bog-standard pap) as ‘I was this other day in a spleen against your new suits.’
Reading the whole play through, you experience repeated drunken lurches in literary history: 18th-century Shakespearean pastiche dissolves into Restoration heroic drama which then melts into something that could be Fletcher trying to sound like Shakespeare. And the feeling of dissolution gets stronger as the play goes on because it’s chiefly in Act I that you could, for the odd instant, distantly feel that once, well, possibly, perhaps – and then you get a line of Shakespearese like ‘Sweet as the lark that wakens up the morn.’ All hope goes, and the flatness of the plot takes over. Oh please not, surely, a violated girl called Violante, who dresses as a shepherd and then, oh please not, is eventually married to the cad who…
If it is an 18th-century rehash of a Restoration adaptation of a play largely by Fletcher for which Shakespeare could have written some scenes, chiefly in Act I, then perhaps at the most charitable estimate not more than 5 per cent of the words in this play might just have been written by Shakespeare, and those, if they are there, are buried under layer on layer of silted adaptionese.
But now it’s out there, indistinguishable in its layout from the Arden Hamlet, with no indication on its cover that it probably isn’t by Shakespeare at all. It just says ‘The Arden Shakespeare’ then ‘Double Falsehood edited by Brean Hammond’. I’m sure the world would be well served by really good editions of Shakespeare adapted or Shakespeare adulterated. But if a supermarket labelled something as carrots that might possibly contain 2 per cent carrot-derived matter then the nice man from Trading Standards would go along with his clipboard and issue a severe reprimand with a reminder that carrots is carrots and reconstituted soya protein is reconstituted soya protein. Kelvin MacKenzie would foam at the mouth. But if the Arden Shakespeare prints something that might be a bit Shakespeareish and suggests on the cover that it just is Shakespeare then it’s all good news.
I say, and the Sun would probably say so too, bring back the bard. Or at the very least bring back natural proportional justice. In my capacity as Trading Standards Officer of the Litree World (Midlands Region) I propose that the Arden Shakespeare should be entitled to use not more than 20 per cent of Shakespeare’s name in branding a product that is certainly not more than 5 per cent Shakespeare. So proper labelling requires that it’s called not ‘The Arden Shakespeare’ but ‘The Arden …er’.
Oh, by the way, anyone fancy a bit of Love’s Labour’s Won? You see I just found this manuscript in the chimney of a friend’s house near Stratford. Well, only forty miles away. Yours for fifty grand. Can’t give you the actual manuscript as such, but I transcribed it really well before it smouldered away to dust… amazing it had survived for so long.