Shakespeare Lost and Found

Don Quixote Picasso
Picasso: Don Quixote

Today is Shakespeare Day, and the big news in Shakespeare right now is that Lewis Theobald’s play Double Falsehood may actually be Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio, which he wrote with John Fletcher.

Shakespeare has long been connected to Cardenio. We know that his company performed Cardenio in 1613, right before he retired. And in 1653, thirty seven years after Shakespeare’s death, publisher Humphrey Moseley registered the play and attributed it to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Fletcher was indeed Shakespeare’s writing partner near the end of his career. (Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen are both Shakespeare/Fletcher plays.)

Cardenio itself is based on a section of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Thomas Shelton published an English translation of part of the book in 1612, and scholars who compare these things say that when you read Theobald’s Double Falsehood, you can see that Shelton’s translation is the main source for the play. (The names of the characters are changed in Double Falsehood. It’s probable that Theobald did this, and not Shakespeare and Fletcher, since the Shakespeare/Fletcher play was called Cardenio, and Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote.) But think of that: Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote a play based on a part of Don Quixote, which was performed just one year after Don Quixote was published in English, and during Cervantes’ lifetime. By the way, there are some really cool parallels between Shakespeare and Cervantes, right down to their appearance.

Enter Lewis Theobald, 1727. It’s important to understand that Theobald is, to this day, a respected scholar and critic. Generally, he is not seen as a charlatan. But when he presented Double Falsehood and claimed it was his own improvement of manuscripts he had found of a lost Shakespeare play, naturally everyone wanted to see those manuscripts. When he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, produce them, his claim was considered to be a hoax. Double Falsehood was thought to be just a play by Lewis Theobald, based on the Cardenio story, written in a style like Shakespeare’s. Some believed he did have manuscripts, but that they were later Restoration era rewrites, and not originals––and fairly recent stylometric studies seemed to support this.

So the big question for Theobald has always been: if you had manuscripts––even Restoration era copies––why on earth would you not display them? It’s hard to believe that, for someone like Theobald, the temptation to be someone who has produced a great work of art would be greater than the desire to be the guy who found those manuscripts. A find like that is what Shakespeare scholars dream of. It would have been the kind of achievement that led to canonization in the world of Shakespeare studies. And as a Shakespeare scholar, Theobald would have been discerning enough to know that Double Falsehood would never measure up to a work like, say, Hamlet, any more than does The Two Noble Kinsmen.

But now, in the light of recent research from the University of Texas at Austin, there are only more questions for Theobald. The researchers claim that through statistical, psychological, and stylometric evidence, they are certain that Theobald’s Double Falsehood was written by Shakespeare and Fletcher––mostly by Shakespeare. They also claim that there is no strong evidence that any of it was written by Theobald, that if Theobald did anything other than change the character names, his “improvements” were minute. If these researchers are right, that means Theobald actually had manuscripts containing a play written mostly by Shakespeare. And then he chose not to make that find his crowning achievement as a Shakespeare scholar. That is mindboggling.

See, it was originally thought that he lied about having the manuscripts at all, because he couldn’t produce them. Now it seems that he did have them, and that he may well have destroyed or hidden them. Did he destroy those manuscripts so he would never be found out? Could someone who cared as much about Shakespeare as he did even do something like that? Even if he thought they were Restoration rewrites?

Theobald had a bit of a tangle with Alexander Pope. In his Shakespearean work, Pope was known to have rewritten some of Shakespeare’s lines. Theobald corrected Pope’s work in a very public way. But did Pope’s reworkings give Theobald the idea for his own supposed reworking of Shakespeare, Double Falsehood? Theobald was the better scholar and critic, but if he could pass off a Shakespeare play as his own, he would also be the better poet. Alas, I would love to blame this on Pope, since he is on my list of historical figures I’d like to punch, but Pope never destroyed or hid a manuscript of a lost Shakespeare play.

The good news is that Cardenio may have been found, hiding in plain sight all these years.

Happy Shakespeare Day.

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