Wife: Have you got anything without spam?
Waitress: Well, there’s spam egg sausage and spam, that’s not got much spam in it.
Blogging about Shakespeare isn’t all wine and roses, beer and skittles, milk and honey, or even bread and circuses. Sometimes it’s more like shit and apricots (and a prize goes to whoever first identifies where I got that phrase. Hint: it won the Booker.). There’s writing about Shakespeare (the apricots) and then there’s writing about all kinds of ancillary issues (the . . . you know). One such issue is the revival of Double Falsehood, an eighteenth-century play that some believe contains residues of Shakespeare. It’s made the New York Times, so it’s officially News. (But to give the Times its due even behind its paywall, check out this hilarious review, which gets double props from me for its correct use of “patresfamilias.” The Newspaper of Record may be dying, but at least it hasn’t fired its copy editors, unlike the New York Review of Books.) This obscure play is getting so much attention because the Arden Shakespeare, the most respected Shakespeare series and my preferred texts, published an edition last year. In this way a play manifestly not by Shakespeare has snuck its way into the canon.
When it was just an extremely expensive text, the status of Double Falsehood was the kind of inside-baseball issue I want to keep away from in this blog, which is supposed to be about how Shakespeare can and should suffuse our daily lives. Now, with productions in London and New York attracting punters’ hard-earned money and advertised under false pretenses, it’s no longer academic. Like your mom always said, its all fun and games until somebody loses an eye–in this case, the eye on the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. So these three posts are going to be a little more technical than usual, as I tear the lid off what Shakespeare scholars really talk about when the rest of us aren’t looking.
The issue is of interest in another way as well: the arguments and techniques used to determine the authenticity of Double Falsehood are those that are deployed in the Authorship Controversy, only writ in miniature. If we work our way through Double Falsehood now, we may be a little better prepared when Roland Emmerich, the man who gave us 2012, is set to jump the gun by three months with Anonymous, apparently an Elizabethan-era spy story that incorporates the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship (in the radical form according to which Oxford not only wrote Shakespeare’s works but was also the son of Elizabeth I, no less). If you thought the wave that froze Manhattan in another Emmerich extravaganza, The Day After Tomorrow, was something, just wait until you see what hits the fan on September 30, 2011.
Thanks to Bookfinder.com, the site for used books, I’ve acquired a secondhand copy of the Arden edition of Double Falsehood, so I have been able to read the introduction to that edition by Professor Brean Hammond, the man responsible for the revival. I’m afraid I’m not impressed. I’ll say why not in my second post, after we see what the fuss is all about.
Double Falsehood was staged in 1727 by Lewis Theobald, who is better known, to the extent he’s known at all, for two things. He was the first serious editor of Shakespeare, and he was the King of the Dunces in Alexander Pope’s mock epic The Dunciad. The two are related. Theatrical tradition, from the Restoration through the eighteenth century, played very fast and loose with texts. In this connection everybody mentions the notorious version of King Lear by Nahum Tate, which not only had a happy ending but invented a romance between Cordelia and Edgar to explain her alienation from Lear (as we’ll see when we get to Lear, you couldn’t come up with a worse misreading if you stuck zombies into it). In 1725 Pope produced an edition of Shakespeare that took these theatrical liberties with the texts—extensive cuts, removal of puns, moving passages he didn’t like to the footnotes. The following year, Theobald produced a jeremiad whose full title says it all: Shakespeare Restored, or a specimen of the many errors, as well committed, as unamended, by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet, designed not only to correct the said edition, but to restore the true reading of Shakespeare in all the editions ever yet publish’d. Pope got his back, but as Jonathan Bate says, “it is to Shakespeare Restored that modern Shakespearean editing owes its origins.”
Thus there was, as many have observed, a rivalry between Theobald and Pope for the mantle of Shakespeare. Imagine what a coup it must have seemed when, in 1727, Theobald announced that he was working on a play based on an unknown Shakespearean manuscript. Double Falshood (as Theobald’s spelling went) was a success on stage but Theobald did not include it in his edition of Shakespeare published in 1733. Thereafter, it remained a minor curiosity in the scholarly literature until the Arden edition.
Why does anyone care now?
Because of the lost play called Cardenio. A play by this name was performed at court in 1613 by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men (we have the record of payment in the King’s Treasurer’s accounts). Plays known to be by Shakespeare and other plays known to be by John Fletcher, his successor as house dramatist for the King’s Men, were also performed on this occasion. From the name, we assume Cardenio is an adaptation of a story in the first volume of Don Quixote, which had been translated in 1612. But why do we associate it with Shakespeare and Fletcher, rather than just Fletcher, or Fletcher and his collaborator Francis Beaumont, or even Ben Jonson (whose The Alchemist was another of the plays performed at court)? Because—bear with me for just a bit—of a 1653 entry in the Stationers’ Register (the record of publishers’ applications for the right to print a work) which attributes “The History of Cardenio” to “Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare,” although with a period after “Fletcher.” Tantalizing! Downright Shakespeare Code-y! The only problem is that the publisher who registered the play, one Humphrey Moseley, played very fast and loose with his attributions of plays to Shakespeare. He registered five other plays as being Shakespeare’s in whole or in part, and .166 is not exactly a batting average that will keep you in the majors.
Nonetheless, although Theobald didn’t say which lost play of Shakespeare’s he was adapting, the story of Double Falsehood is that of Cardenio from Don Quixote, with the names changed, so the heart leaps at the thought that he was working from a manuscript of Shakespeare’s—a document that would, if it existed today, be more precious than a Gutenberg Bible, or even one of the First Folios such as the Durham copy mangled by Raymond Scott. But the alarm bells are already ringing. If Theobald had an authentic lost Shakespeare play, why didn’t he publish it in his edition of Shakespeare? If he had three manuscripts, as he claims in the introduction he wrote when he published Double Falsehood under royal warrant the following year, why didn’t he ever show them to anybody? What was he even doing with three manuscripts of Shakespeare, when not another is known to have survived for even the 110 years that separated the two writers? Two of those three manuscripts disappeared completely, if they ever existed. The third was kept at Covent Garden and is supposed by everybody to have been conveniently destroyed in a fire in 1808. But 1808 is long after the apotheosis of Shakespeare in the mid-eighteenth century, even after the first professional Shakespeare editors, Edmond Malone and George Steevens. Why didn’t they mention it (Malone did write about Double Falsehood; he thought it was a forgery)?
Before we go all Dan Brown here (and some people have), there are answers to these questions. Theobald didn’t claim to have a manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand. He says that it’s in the handwriting of a prompter from the 1660s. As to why he never published it, there’s a scholarly consensus that he came to realize that it wasn’t purely Shakespeare but had—as he denied in his published introduction—the hand of Fletcher in it as well. Since he didn’t know that the two collaborated, this had to have caused him to question his original attribution sufficiently to refrain from publishing.
Real anoraks will want to go off with Professor Hammond into a quiet corner and complain that I’m not talking about the copyright issues (Jesus tapdancing Christ, even then!) that may have influenced Theobald’s decision not to publish. Let’s leave them there, sum up a timeline that follows from the above and that Professor Hammond would probably accept, and take a breath before we pass on to our second post.
- 1613: A play by Shakespeare and Fletcher called Cardenio is presented at court;
- 1653: Humphrey Moseley registers a play called Cardenio “by Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare”;
- 1660s: A prompter slices and dices Cardenio for performance, probably cutting out most of the Shakespeare in the process, and makes a copy;
- 1720s: Theobald acquires the prompter’s copy and two others and slices and dices it further, probably removing even more Shakespeare, and presents the result as Double Falsehood.
I think we all need a drink.