Cardenio’s Ghost

Charles Nicholl

  • The 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.

We have a skeletal early history of Cardenio. Two performances by the King’s Men are recorded in the royal Chamber Accounts for 1613. On 20 May, payment was authorised for a total of 20 performances they had given, one of which is listed as ‘Cardenno’. As is customary in these accounts no authors’ names are given. The list includes several Shakespeare plays, including two performances of Much Ado about Nothing (which the accountant calls ‘Benidicte and Betteris’), plus The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Othello and probably the two Henry IV plays (listed as ‘The Hotspurr’ and ‘Falstaff’). Also listed are four plays by Fletcher, all collaborations with Francis Beaumont, including two performances of Philaster. The dates of the performances are not specified, but it is likely that some of them were part of the Shrovetide festivities around the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (the future ‘Winter Queen’) to the Elector Palatine on 14 February 1613. The majority of the plays are comedies or tragicomedies. Cardenio, judging from the Cervantes source and the Theobald adaptation, was a tragicomedy – a suitable divertimento, perhaps, for these celebrations, which were tinged with the sadness of Prince Henry’s sudden death the previous November. The King’s Men performed the play again on 8 June 1613, at a courtly soirée in honour of the Duke of Savoy’s ambassador, Giovanni Battista Gabaleoni, Marquis de Villa. He was a fan of English theatre – ‘he makes no great dainty of himself,’ the letter-writer John Chamberlain noted, ‘but goes with his troupe to the ordinary plays.’ Payment for this performance was collected a month later by Shakespeare’s colleague and future editor, John Heminges: £6 13s 4d ‘for presentinge a playe … called Cardenna’.

Nothing further is heard of the play until 1653, when the bookseller Humphrey Moseley entered a miscellaneous group of old playscripts in the Stationers’ Register, one of which – the entry spotted by Malone – was ‘The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher & Shakespeare’. (There is a faint full stop after Fletcher, which seems to make Shakespeare an afterthought, but there is similar superfluous pointing elsewhere in the list.) This entry, dated 9 September 1653, is the only direct documentary allusion to Shakespeare’s involvement in the play so far discovered.

These records, though 40 years apart, are corroborative. The Moseley entry attributes the play to Fletcher and Shakespeare, and the performance dates of ‘Cardenno/Cardenna’ belong precisely to the period when the two authors are known to have been working together. The Tempest, performed in 1611, was Shakespeare’s last single-authored play, but his revels were not quite ended. He wrote at least three further works (if Cardenio is accepted) in collaboration with Fletcher: the other two are a history play, Henry VIII, also known as All Is True; and a pastoral tragicomedy, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Fletcher was 15 years his junior, a gentlemanly author (his father had been bishop of London, his uncle a well-known diplomat), a writer of wit and flair, and already popular for his plays written with Beaumont. Marriage and ill-health forced Beaumont’s retirement to the country in about 1613, and Fletcher was thereafter groomed as Shakespeare’s successor as chief playwright of the King’s Men, a position he would hold, with prolific results, until his death in 1625. So Cardenio is at once a very late work of Shakespeare’s – among the last things he wrote – and a new venture for his younger colleague. The choice of the story may or may not have been Shakespeare’s, but it chimes with the romance atmosphere of his late plays: a lovelorn ‘knight’ wandering the wilderness of the Sierra Morena; a girl living among the shepherds dressed as a boy; love sonnets discovered in the saddle-pack of a dead mule; doleful music floating eerily amid the crags; betrayals and broken relationships moving by twists to a healing resolution. It is typical of Cervantes, a romantic story told with wry deflatory humour, though the dramatists had their work cut out to condense its narrative sprawl of flashbacks, tangents and interruptions.

The story as they told it – assuming the plot line of Double Falsehood is a reasonable guide – is as follows. Julio and Leonora (Cardenio and Luscinda in Quixote) are lovers who intend to ask their fathers’ permission to marry. They are parted when Julio is summoned by letter to the court of Duke Angelo; this summons, we soon learn, has been engineered by the Duke’s libidinous younger son, Henriquez (Fernando), a friend of Julio’s who has designs on Leonora. Henriquez has already seduced and abandoned a virtuous village girl, Violante (Dorotea), and hopes to escape the consequences by hurriedly marrying Leonora – his desertion of Violante and betrayal of Julio constitute the ‘double falsehood’ of Theobald’s title. Leonora’s father is keen on this advantageous match, and she is forced to accept. She manages to smuggle a letter to Julio, who returns in time to witness the ceremony from that favourite Shakespearean vantage point, ‘behind the arras’. As the reluctant bride is about to be given away Julio bursts from his hiding place, but is chased off by the Duke’s attendants. Leonora swoons; a dagger is found on her, and a note explaining her intention to stab herself rather than become Henriquez’s wife. The scene now switches to the Sierra Morena (which is where it begins in the Quixote original, with the foregoing pieced together in retrospect). Julio is a ragged refugee, maddened by grief at the loss of his sweetheart and the perfidy of his friend: an Orlando Furioso figure. By coincidence (a busy plotter in most tragicomedies), Violante is also in the vicinity, disguised as a shepherd boy, and so is Leonora, who has taken sanctuary in a secluded convent. Through the agency of Henriquez’s virtuous brother, Roderick, Leonora is sprung from the convent, and in a final scene strongly reminiscent of Shakespearean romance, Julio and Leonora are reunited, their fathers reconciled, and Henriquez accepts in an ardour of penitence his duty to marry Violante.

The composition of the play can be dated quite accurately. Thomas Shelton’s translation of the first part of Don Quixote, which includes the Cardenio story, was registered at Stationers’ Hall on 19 January 1612 and published not long afterwards. English writers were certainly aware of Quixote before this – Beaumont’s burlesque The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c.1607) is clearly indebted to it (whether Fletcher had a hand in this play is debated) – but precise phrasings from Shelton’s translation are scattered throughout Double Falsehood and are likely to be part of the original text rather than cunning interpolations by Theobald. The termini for the play’s composition are the publication of its source book sometime after 19 January 1612 and its first recorded performance sometime before 20 May 1613. It is a pleasant addition to our meagre knowledge of Shakespeare in this period. Some of the time he was up in Stratford, in what one might call semi-retirement, but he is sighted in London in May 1612, giving evidence in a lawsuit involving his former landlord Christopher Mountjoy, and again in March 1613 when he signed the mortgage deed on a property in the Blackfriars.[*]

The two performances in 1613 bring Cardenio close to the Shakespeare-Fletcher Henry VIII, which was first performed at the Globe in June 1613. It was playing there on the 29th when a burst of ordnance onstage ignited the thatched roof, and the theatre burned to the ground; in a letter recounting this catastrophe, Henry Wotton called it a ‘new play’. Of the three collaborations, only Henry VIII was included in the First Folio of 1623. The Two Noble Kinsmen, based loosely on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, was first published in quarto in 1634. It is described on the title page as ‘written by the memorable worthies of their time, Mr John Fletcher and Mr William Shakspeare’. The order of the authors’ names suggests, and stylistic evidence agrees, that Fletcher wrote the lion’s share of it. The same order of names, with the same likely inference, is found in Moseley’s copyright entry for Cardenio. The exclusion of these two plays from the Folio probably reflects an editorial policy on collaborations which did not have enough Shakespeare in the mix. Pericles, a collaboration with George Wilkins, was also left out, though later included in the more capacious Third Folio of 1663-64.

The early references to Cardenio are bodiless – a title without a text – but it is possible that one fragment of the Jacobean Cardenio survives independently of Theobald’s adaptation. This is a song, ‘Woods, Rocks & Mountains’, found in a manuscript collection of settings by the Jacobean lutenist Robert Johnson (who is not to be confused with the Tudor church musician of that name, or indeed with the great Delta blues singer of the 1930s). Johnson is known to have composed music for King’s Men productions, and his beautiful settings of Ariel’s songs in The Tempest survive. The historian Michael Wood has ingeniously argued that the lyrics of ‘Woods, Rocks & Mountains’ are suggested by the wilderness setting of the Cardenio story and have some parallels with phrases in Shelton’s Quixote. He thinks the song was performed at the point in Cardenio equivalent to Act IV Scene ii of Double Falsehood, where the wronged Violante sings off-stage, to the accompaniment of a lute. The words of the song in Double Falsehood – ‘Fond Echo, forego thy light strain’ – are certainly Theobald’s, and were ascribed to him when reprinted in musical miscellanies, but the original audiences of Cardenio may have instead heard her singing:

Woods, rocks & Mountaines & you desert places
Where nought but bitter cold & hunger dwells
Heare a poore maids last words kill’d wth disgraces
Slide softly while I sing you silver fountaines
& lett yor hollow waters like sad bells
Ring ring to my woes while miserable I
Cursing my fortunes dropp, dropp, dropp a teare & dye.

Wood believes these words are by Shakespeare, though others since have thought Fletcher more likely – another of the Johnson songs in the collection is certainly from a play Fletcher wrote with Massinger, The Lover’s Progress of c.1623.

This snatch of Jacobean blues aside, we are left with the 1728 edition of Double Falsehood as our only text for Cardenio – hardly an authoritative text, something like a very late ‘bad quarto’, but a text nonetheless. According to the title page, Theobald ‘revised and adapted’ the original play. One’s immediate reaction is to wish he hadn’t, as one would much rather have seen it before the rewrite, but a hand-wringing ‘Why oh why?’ is not the best question to ask at this point. A more useful question would be: what exactly did Theobald revise and adapt? What, in other words, was he working from when he wrote Double Falsehood?

In his preface to the play, responding to scepticism on this score, he gives some account of the materials he used. He claims to have in his possession no fewer than three manuscripts:

One of the manuscript copies which I have is of above sixty years standing, in the handwriting of Mr Downes, the famous old prompter; and as I am credibly informed, was early in the possession of the celebrated Mr Betterton, and by him designed to have been ushered into the world. What accident prevented this purpose of his, I do not pretend to know; or through what hands it had successively passed before that period of time … Two other copies I have (one of which I was glad to purchase at a very good rate), which may not, perhaps, be quite so old as the former; but one of them is much more perfect, and has fewer flaws and interruptions in the sense.

This seems coherent enough. The eldest of his manuscripts dates from the mid-1660s; it belonged to the great Restoration actor Thomas Betterton; it was in a transcription by John Downes. These men were colleagues – Betterton as star, Downes as prompter – in Sir William Davenant’s troupe, the Duke’s Company, whose theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields opened in 1661; in that year Pepys saw ‘Baterton’ play there, and thought him ‘above all that ever I saw’. That Betterton had intended to ‘usher’ the play ‘into the world’ – in other words, stage it – is plausible, since he and Davenant produced versions of the other Shakespeare-Fletcher plays at this time: Henry VIII in 1663 and The Two Noble Kinsmen (retitled The Rivals) in 1664. A production of Cardenio with Betterton in the title role would have been a natural follow-up to these, but for one reason or another it did not happen. Theobald also says that his Restoration manuscript had certain ‘flaws and interruptions’, some but not all of which were ironed out in one of the more recent manuscripts he had. These could be physical flaws – missing or damaged pages – but more probably he means that the text itself was in some way defective. ‘Interruptions’ might signify awkward transitions and inconsistencies in the narrative, and indeed Double Falsehood has a good many of these.

To cut a long bibliographical story short, it seems likely that Theobald’s manuscripts were not preserved copies of the Jacobean Cardenio, but copies of a Restoration adaptation of it by Davenant. This idea was proposed back in 1969, in an influential essay by John Freehafer, and is enthusiastically pursued in Hammond’s introduction to the Arden edition. In this reading Double Falsehood is an adaptation of an adaptation: two degrees of separation from Shakespeare (or three if one counts the Fletcherian ‘colouring’ which suffuses much of the play, as spotted by those first sharp-eyed critics in the 1720s). We have a parallel to this putative Restoration version of the play in the form of Davenant’s reworked version of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Hammond sums up somewhat bleakly the drastic surgery this play underwent before emerging onstage in 1664 as The Rivals. Davenant’s ‘main objective as an adapter was domestication’, he finds. He ‘removed all the elements of ritual, mythology and medievalism’; replaced the tragicomic climax of the original with a ‘banal test of virtue written in heroic couplets’; reduced the number of principal parts to the Restoration norm of nine; shortened the action by amputating most of the first and last acts; added a comic subplot and some songs; changed the names of the main characters; and – as well he might after this thorough makeover – gave it a new title. Something along these lines may have been done to Cardenio in the 1660s, including the new title, under which it would eventually appear in 1727.

This need not become an exercise in blame-shifting. Davenant, here summarised as an artless bodger, was actually a good poet – rather better than Theobald – and a committed Shakespearean: his adaptation of Macbeth (1664) contains what are thought to be some genuine Shakespeare lines omitted from the Folio edition; so we need not be entirely gloomy about his intervention. But certainly this double provenance would explain much that is unsatisfactory about the structure of Double Falsehood: it inherits the ‘flaws and interruptions’ of another author’s cuts. It would also explain Theobald’s reluctance to show anyone the original manuscripts (or indeed to include the play in his own later edition of Shakespeare). He knew the copy he was working from was already adulterated. The play was ‘written originally by W. Shakespeare’ – as he says on the title page, and no doubt genuinely believed – but he did not actually have a copy of W. Shakespeare’s play, only a doctored Restoration version of it. He does not tell us this. He implies throughout that he is working from some kind of original – a ‘remnant of his pen’, a ‘relick’ – albeit in a flawed transcript. If that constitutes a ‘cheat’, he was guilty of it.

For the hunter after Cardenio – and few venture into the thickets of Double Falsehood for any other reason – all this sounds like bad news. The original text remains tantalisingly out of reach. It survived for a while – the manuscript copyrighted by Moseley in 1653; the manuscript adapted by Davenant in the 1660s – but it did not survive intact into the 18th century. Nor, unfortunately, is it likely to turn up now, though a pair of post-Dan Brown novels – J.C. Carrell’s The Shakespeare Secret and Jean Rae Baxter’s Looking for Cardenio – have turned on this possibility, and there has also been an unconvincing attempt by Charles Hamilton to prove that it survives as the anonymous playscript known as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, which is more sensbly attributed to Thomas Middleton. There is no sign that Theobald had any specific knowledge of the earlier Cardenio text, records of which re-emerged after his death. (He did know it was late Shakespeare – written, as he puts it, ‘in the time of his retirement from the stage’ – but that was something he could easily have deduced from the date of Shelton’s Quixote.) Most telling is that he did not know the original title of the play: in all his writings on the subject, he never once mentions the name Cardenio. This strongly argues that he only knew the later, retitled version.

But though he lacked information about the old play, Theobald obviously knew it had once existed, and perhaps there is a crumb of comfort somewhere in this narrative of attenuation and loss. Eighteenth-century adaptations of Shakespeare are invariably, and detrimentally, a movement away from the original, but in this case the adapter was trying to get back to the original. It is worth remembering just how good Theobald was in more conventional areas of Shakespeare editorship. Though harshly criticised by Dr Johnson, his stock is high among modern editors and experts. According to Gary Taylor he was ‘one of the finest editors of the last three centuries’, while Brian Vickers accounts him ‘the best all-round editor of Shakespeare in this period or any other’. In Shakespeare Restored, Theobald set out his stall as a new kind of editor – scholarly, specialist, always ready to grapple with the textual corruptions endemic in the First Folio and other early texts. An editor, he wrote, must endeavour to ‘restore Sense’, and by ‘reasonable Emendation, to make that satisfactory and consistent with the Context, which before was so absurd, unintelligible, and intricate’. An example of this is his famous alteration of a sentence from the Hostess’s speech in Henry V, describing Falstaff on his deathbed. As printed in the Folio it read: ‘For his nose was as Sharp as a Pen, and a Table of greene fields’. Theobald’s proposed correction of ‘a Table’ to ‘’a babled’ – i.e. ‘he babbled’, with the familiar Shakespearean contraction for the pronoun, as used elsewhere in the Hostess’s speech – rescues a line of great poignancy from the garbled reading set down by one of the Folio’s compositors a century earlier. This idea of the editor as a ‘restorer’, a recoverer of obscured nuggets of text, carries over into his rather different project with Double Falsehood. We can at least feel that Theobald knew what he was doing, and that his version would have salvaged as much of the Jacobean original, and removed as many of the Restoration accretions, as he could. However, he is also likely to have ‘reconstructed’ material he thought had been cut or rewritten, thus muddying the text with pseudo-Shakespearean additions, including those half-quoted lines from other plays which aroused the suspicion of Malone and others.

It is broadly agreed that Shakespeare’s hand is more discernible in the first two acts of Double Falsehood, though we have no idea how the original collaboration with Fletcher might have worked, and this is not at all a watertight division, just a general consensus between old-style connoisseurs who think they can ‘spot’ an author’s style and new-fangled stylometrists who use complex statistical sampling to create what they call a ‘lexical fingerprint’. The play opens with a melancholy Duke Angelo talking of mortality, which makes one think of Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, or the funereal opening of All’s Well that Ends Well. It is done with typically Shakespearean casualness, dropping us straight into the play in the middle of a conversation:

Roderick My gracious father, this unwonted strain
Visits my heart with sadness.
Duke Why, my son?
Making my death familiar to my tongue
Digs not my grave one jot before the date.

We are then swiftly apprised of the distinction between the Duke’s two sons – the good Roderick, ‘who, with my dukedoms, heirs my better glories’; and the wayward Henriquez, ‘thy irregular brother’, who is a ‘truant to my wishes and his birth’, and whose ‘taints of wildness hurt our nicer honour,/And call for swift reclaim’. The scene is sleekly written, bears the hallmarks of rapidity and economy, and shows some distinctive linguistic touches, such as the use of ‘heir’ as a verb, quoted above; also ‘spreads me with blushes’; ‘hot escapes of youth’; ‘bosom’d trust’. In the following scene we first meet Julio, who in the original was Cardenio, the Quixotic lover and outcast. The dialogue between him and his father is rather flat, but the tempo picks up with the arrival of Leonora. In a brief soliloquy before her entrance, Julio voices his fear that her love for him is cooling:

I do not see that fervour in the maid
Which youth and love should kindle. She consents,
As ’twere, to feed without an appetite.
… This affection
Is such a feign’d one as will break untouch’d,
Die frosty ere it can be thaw’d; while mine,
Like to a clime beneath Hyperion’s eye,
Burns with one constant heat …

Leonora in turn fears that Julio’s impending visit to court will seduce and distract him: it will ‘banish my image’ from his mind,

And I be left, the scoff of maids, to drop
A widow’s tear for thy departed faith.

These lines certainly could be Shakespeare, as could various others in Act I, for instance Henriquez’s rhapsody about the lowly but beautiful Violante, as he stands beneath her balcony with his musicians. It begins:

This maid,
For whom my sighs ride on the night’s chill vapour,
Is born most humbly …

I am cherry-picking, obviously. These are high points; around them is a more level terrain across which the verse moves at an iambic jog-trot which seems at best Shakespeare-lite.

The opening of the second act is interesting in a different way, because it exemplifies those ‘flaws and interruptions’ in Theobald’s source. It introduces two bluff countrymen, Fabian and Lopez, who never appear again, and are perhaps a relic of an excised subplot; it has Henriquez abruptly announcing that he has raped Violante (‘By force alone I snatch’d th’imperfect joy’) in a way that suggests an earlier scene is missing; and it prints as prose some lines which scan as regular pentameters. Here is Henriquez agitatedly mulling over what he has done:

Was it a rape then? No. Her shrieks, her exclamations then had drove me from her. True, she did not consent: as true, she did resist; but still in silence all. ’Twas but the coyness of a modest bride, not the resentment of a ravish’d maid. And is the man yet born, who would not risk the guilt to meet the joy? The guilt! That’s true. But then the danger, the tears, the clamours of the ruin’d maid, pursuing me to court. That, that, I fear will (as it already does my conscience) something shatter my honour. What’s to be done?

I give this in Theobald’s prose, though Hammond restores part of it (‘’Twas but … that’s true’) to verse. How good is it? Is it genuine Shakespeare, or an efficient pastiche of Hamlet-style self-interrogation? And if the latter, is it pastiche by the co-worker Fletcher or by one of the later adapters? Reading Double Falsehood – or rather, trying to read Cardenio – you become giddy with options, doubts, voices that fade in and out like bad radio signals.

There is one brief passage towards the end of the first act which even the doughtiest sceptic has to confess sounds incontrovertibly Shakespearean. It is a put-down, essentially, or a frankly phrased dismissal. The long-suffering Violante has had more than enough of Henriquez’s insistent romantic attentions. She looks down at him, this importunate upper-class dandy serenading under her balcony. ‘Home, my lord!’ she says firmly. And then this:

What you can say is most unseasonable; what sing,
Most absonant and harsh. Nay, your perfume,
Which I smell hither, cheers not my sense
Like our field-violet’s breath.

Of the five English writers whose ‘lexical fingerprints’ can be found on this hybrid playscript – Shelton, Fletcher, Shakespeare, Davenant, Theobald – there is surely only one who could have written this particular piece of it. ‘Absonant’, with its hard neologistic consonants; the ‘perfume’ wafting up from the overbred gallant or oversexed stallion below; the country girl’s sweet possessive, ‘our field-violet’ (compare The Winter’s Tale, ‘our carnations and streak’d gillyvors’); the lilting rhythm running on through the line-breaks. The ghost of Shakespeare’s Cardenio is only fitfully raised in Theobald’s third-hand 18th-century redaction, but we should undoubtedly be grateful to him for even its briefest apparitions. Perhaps the play’s tenuous survival is in part a measure of its original middling quality. It is 1613, and the maestro is tiring, or coasting, or not quite what he was – it is mostly Fletcher’s show. But here, for a few moments of stage-time, he rolls out this gorgeous four-line riff which touches us and lifts us. This piece of late Shakespearean verse, like some others of comparable quality in The Two Noble Kinsmen, is in essence valedictory: the magical stuff he could always produce, and can still produce if he chooses, which increasingly he does not.

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