Cardenio’s Ghost

Charles Nicholl

  • BuyThe Arden Shakespeare: Double Falsehood edited by Brean Hammond
    Arden Shakespeare, 443 pp, £16.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 1 903436 77 6

Lewis Theobald’s Double Falsehood had its premiere at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane on 13 December 1727. It was a romantic tragicomedy in a Spanish setting; the story was from an episode in Don Quixote. Theobald’s statement that it met with ‘universal applause’ is untrue, but it certainly created a buzz. The play ran for ten consecutive performances – no mean feat in the quick-change repertoire of those days – and the first edition, published in January 1728, sold out in a few weeks. This stir of interest had little to do with Theobald’s reputation as a playwright, which was rather middling: his most recent employment was as a librettist of light operatic pantomimes. Nor was it due to the drawing power of the celebrated Barton Booth, who had been billed to play the lead role of Julio but was too ill from jaundice to appear. What drew the crowds to Double Falsehood was the involvement (in a manner of speaking) of another, even bigger theatrical star, for it was Theobald’s remarkable claim, teasingly publicised over the previous months, that his play was based on a hitherto unknown work by Shakespeare. ‘It is my good fortune to retrieve this remnant of his pen from obscurity,’ he says with studied modesty. He calls it ‘this orphan play’, and ‘this dear relick’. On the title page Double Falsehood is described as ‘A Play … Written Originally by W. Shakespeare; and now Revised and Adapted to the Stage By Mr Theobald’.

The 40-year-old Theobald was an attorney by training, and a literary jack-of-all-trades by profession, but his standing as a Shakespeare expert was high. The previous year he had published an impressive book, Shakespeare Restored, challenging what he saw as the errors and complacencies of Alexander Pope’s 1725 edition of the works, and offering many examples of his own editorial skills, particularly in the elucidation of difficult or corrupt passages. So his exalted claims for the provenance of Double Falsehood seemed to carry some weight. But the play’s success was brief: a spate of curiosity which swiftly ran into doubts and insinuations. Writing a couple of weeks after the opening night, Theobald notes some of the objections that had been raised. Some considered it ‘incredible’ that a Shakespeare manuscript could have been ‘stifled and lost to the world for above a century’. Some thought they discerned the ‘colouring’ and ‘diction’ of Shakespeare’s younger contemporary John Fletcher, rather than Shakespeare himself, in the play. Others objected that as for ‘the tale of this play being built upon a novel in Don Quixote, chronology is against us, and Shakespeare could not be the author.’ This last, at least, Theobald was able to refute: Don Quixote was published in 1605 and the first English translation in 1612, and as Shakespeare lived until 1616, this left ‘a sufficient interval of time for all that we want granted’. These particular quibbles are instances of a broader, more intuitive disappointment. Today the first impression of anyone reading (or, very rarely, seeing) Double Falsehood is that little of it sounds much like Shakespeare. An 18th-century audience would perhaps have had lower expectations in this respect: contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare were far more common on the stage than the original plays; they were often pretty free, with interpolated heroic couplets and musical interludes, and they quite deliberately diluted the richness and difficulty of the original language. Nonetheless, the general blandness of Double Falsehood, and its many narrative defects, did not encourage those who knew their Shakespeare to believe it was the genuine article.

And then there was the spat with Pope, initiated by Shakespeare Restored. The obvious agenda of that book was Theobald’s desire to produce his own edition of the plays – an ambition he would realise in seven volumes in 1734 – but its more immediate result was the sharp displeasure of Pope, who was soon venting his pique against ‘piddling Tibbald’ in The Dunciad, published in May 1728, and elsewhere. In this context of rivalry, the appearance of Double Falsehood seemed suspiciously convenient. What better way for Theobald to demonstrate his editorial expertise than to produce out of his hat a supposed lost play by the master? And given his close knowledge of Shakespeare, as shown in Shakespeare Restored, could he not have botched together a pastiche himself? Thus, ironically, Theobald’s Shakespearean credentials became in themselves a cause for scepticism, and the play’s many echoes of canonical Shakespeare lines were seen as signs of fabrication. In his preface to Double Falsehood, Theobald responds with attempted nonchalance to these ‘unbelievers’ who ‘are blindly paying me a greater compliment than either they design or I can merit’ – the compliment, that is, of thinking he had written something that was actually written by Shakespeare. ‘I should esteem it some sort of virtue, were I able to commit so agreeable a cheat.’ But the charge of forgery stuck, particularly in the pro-Pope camp, as in David Mallet’s ‘Epistle to Mr Pope’ (1733), which describes Theobald as a thief and scavenger of Shakespearean leftovers: ‘See him on Shakespeare pore, intent to steal/Poor farce, by fragments, for a third-day meal.’ One obvious answer to these accusations would have been for Theobald to produce the old manuscripts he claimed to have used, but there is no evidence that anyone else ever saw them.

Though Theobald had his supporters, the consensus view during most of the 18th century was that Double Falsehood had no connection with Shakespeare. Either it was a ‘cheat’ or hoax cooked up by Theobald to bolster his editorial kudos; or it was genuinely an adaptation of an old play, but not one by Shakespeare. It was not until some years after his death in 1744 that scraps of evidence started to appear, suggesting that Theobald may after all have been telling the truth, if not quite the whole truth. The discoverer of this new information was the great Shakespearean editor and biographer Edmond Malone. He was initially a sceptic: he thought Theobald had tricked up an old play, perhaps by Philip Massinger, with Shakespearean touches. His own copy of Double Falsehood survives, tartly annotated, especially where he found genuine echoes of Shakespeare: he thought the line ‘Throw all my gay comparisons aside’ (clearly parallel to ‘lay his gay comparisons apart’ in Antony and Cleopatra) had been ‘inserted by Theobald to give a colour to the imposition that he meant to put upon the publick’; another parallel was deemed ‘an interpolation of Theobald’s to countenance his fraud’. But Malone found reason to change his mind when he came upon an old entry in the Stationers’ Company register, referring to an unknown play co-authored by Fletcher and Shakespeare. It was called The History of Cardenio. He must have immediately seen the link to Double Falsehood, for Cardenio was the name of the central character in the Quixote story on which the play was based (though in the play the names are changed, and Cardenio becomes Julio). Malone published this information in 1782, in some notes he contributed to a new edition of David Baker’s Biographia Dramatica. Somewhat grudgingly, he acknowledges that this unpublished History of Cardenio ‘may possibly be the same as The Double Falsehood, afterwards brought to light by Mr Theobald’.

Over the years more evidence has mounted up, cumulative if not conclusive, and it is now widely accepted that Double Falsehood contains some remnants of a lost play called Cardenio, and that at least some of Cardenio was written by Shakespeare. These are certainly the views of Brean Hammond, whose sumptuously detailed new edition for the Arden Shakespeare was ten years in the making. The Arden series of single-play editions has been going since 1899, and this is the first devoted to a play not actually ‘by’ Shakespeare (a fact that earned it more news coverage than all the rest put together, which would certainly have pleased Theobald). And so Double Falsehood slips, as if through a side door, into the august literary premises of the Shakespeare canon, not because it is itself a great play, or even a very good one, but because it is the nearest we can get to a Shakespeare play which has otherwise vanished.

You are not logged in

[*] Charles Nicholl wrote about Mountjoy and Shakespeare in the LRB of 24 June.