Spam, Spam, Spam, Shakespeare and Spam: Double Falsehood, One Dead Unjugged Rabbitfish Later (Part 2 of 3)

for the first post in this series, click here; for the third, click here.

Wife: I don’t want ANY spam!

Man: Why can’t she have egg bacon spam and sausage?

Wife: THAT’S got spam in it!

Man: Hasn’t got as much spam in it as spam egg sausage and spam, has it?

Waitress: Shut up! (Vikings stop) Bloody Vikings! You can’t have egg bacon spam and sausage without the spam.

Wife (shrieks): I don’t like spam!

Man: Sshh, dear, don’t cause a fuss. I’ll have your spam. I love it. I’m having spam spam spam spam spam spam spam beaked beans spam spam spam and spam!

My first post in this series ended on a cliffhanger: the chain of argument that leads some scholars to believe that Double Falsehood, first presented in 1727, was based on a play called Cardenio written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher in 1613:

  1. 1613: A play by Shakespeare and Fletcher called Cardenio is presented at court;
  2. 1653: Humphrey Moseley registers a play called Cardenio “by Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare”;
  3. 1660s: A prompter slices and dices Cardenio for performance, probably cutting out most of the Shakespeare in the process, and makes a copy;
  4. 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.

There’s supposed to be a “broad consensus” that the timeline is essentially correct, although it’s harder to find scholars who endorse it than you’d think, if that were true. Jonathan Bate certainly does (in The Genius of Shakespeare as well as in the linked review). As the New York Times article I linked to in my first post shows, Stephen Greenblatt does not, though the fact that he has a competing version might just color his judgment a tad (or “tad bit,” as people are wont to say these days, although a tad is a bit). In the same article Harold Bloom, never anything less than most emphatic, most emphatically does not. James Shapiro does, rather more cautiously in the Times article than in this really wonderful bit from the program to the Classic Stage Company’s production (“Davenant” is William Davenant, a seventeenth-century actor who liked to let it be thought that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son):

As fate would have it, the day after CSC decided to produce Theobald’s alleged adaptation, I ran into the Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro on the street. I told him what we were about to embark upon and asked him if he thought there were any truth to Theobald’s claim that his DOUBLE FALSEHOOD was indeed a version of the missing Shakespeare work that had become “the holy grail” for many Shakespeare aficionados. James smiled and pointed to the street beneath out feet. “See this street? Underneath this street is another street and underneath that street is cobblestone and underneath the cobblestone: Dirt. It’s the same thing with this play, DOUBLE FALSEHOOD. There’s Theobald’s adaptation, underneath that is probably Betterton’s prompter’s adaptation, and underneath Davenant’s and underneath Davenant’s: Shakespeare.”

“As fate would have it” indeed. The same way fate contrived to have Marshall McLuhan just happen to be standing behind that potted plant in the theater lobby in Annie Hall. (The “James” is simply priceless.)

So where is this “consensus”? In a somewhat unusual circumstance, it all goes back to a single 1969 article by a scholar named John Freehafer. As far as I can tell, Freehafer invented the timetable, and everyone who accepts Shakespeare’s hand in Double Falsehood follows him. Professor Hammond certainly does, stating that “Freehafer’s essay is, in my opinion, a remarkable piece of work, one of the finest essays, it may not be too sensational to assert, I have ever read on any literary subject.” That’s pretty damn sensational, all right. And in fact the article is ingenious and extremely learned. I see only two problems with it. It begs the question whenever the opportunity arises, and it ignores contrary evidence.

Go back to the start of the timeline, and the crucial assumption should be obvious: that Cardenio is a play by Shakespeare and Fletcher. To go all pedantic, the entries of payment to the King’s Men that show that a Cardenio play existed mention six plays: Cardenio, The Captain (by Fletcher), The Alchemist (by Ben Jonson), The Hotspurr (i.e Henry IV Part 1), Benedicte and Betteris (i.e. Much Ado About Nothing), and A Badd Beginninge Makes a Good Endinge (an even more mysterious play than Cardenio). There’s no reason to doubt that this list is accurate and that it therefore establishes the existence of a play called Cardenio. But that doesn’t show that Cardenio was written by Shakespeare and Fletcher. The only actual evidence, rather than ingenious speculation, that Freehafer presents—or could present—is the very ex post registration of the play in 1653 as by “Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare.” As I mentioned, Humphrey Moseley, the publisher who registered the play, registered five other plays as being by Shakespeare, and we don’t take any those seriously; why should this case be different? Because unless this case is different, there’s no reason at all to ascribe the lost Cardenio to any particular author. Freehafer goes so far as to say that since Moseley was Fletcher’s publisher, he would have preferred a solo-authored play by Fletcher, but this strikes me as simply disingenuous given Moseley’s other attributions, which Freehafer doesn’t mention.

(A quick digression here. If you clicked on the link to Freehafer, you found yourself at the JSTOR archive of academic literature. Many, many, many academic articles that might be of interest to ordinary folk are hidden behind this paywall, a matter that used to cause me immense frustration until I realized that I could access JSTOR through the Toronto Public Library. If not for the TPL I could not have written this post. This is not just a shoutout to it, though, but a note to you; if you can’t access a database such as JSTOR or the Oxford English Dictionary, check your library’s website. This is also a note to politicians everywhere: HANDS OFF OUR FUCKING LIBRARIES. And if that’s too vulgar for you, take it from Philip Pullman. All right, soapbox back in storage.)

Here is my view of the timeline. I see no reason to doubt the existence of Cardenio, but no demonstrative evidence that Shakespeare had a hand in it. Working backward, I see no reason to believe that Theobald forged Double Falsehood, or to doubt his story that he was working with a Restoration prompter’s manuscript. But despite Freehafer’s speculations, I don’t have any idea how accurately that manuscript represented the original Cardenio, so I have no idea how much, if anything, of the original—whether or nto there was Shakespeare in it—got transmitted to the play Theobald presented (Freehafer acknowledges that Theobald’s adaptation of Richard II, for which we have a text and which did not have a Restoration intermediate hatchet job, preserves “about a quarter” of Shakespeare’s language; what’s the percentage likely to be when we have one and possibly two intermediate “editors,” all bent, as Freehafer also acknowledges, on excising as much supposed Shakespeare as they could?). So the questions, for me, are at both ends:

  1. Did the 1612–1613 play have any Shakespeare in it?
  1. Was the sliced-and-diced manuscript that Theobald pureed into Double Falsehood spam, spam, spam, spam, Shakespeare, and spam, or was it just spam?

I’ve gone as far into Double Falsehood as you could reasonably expect somebody to do who wasn’t getting paid for it, and I simply haven’t found an answer I can accept. Read Freehafer, read Hammond with these two questions in mind and you’ll see them time and again simply assuming that the answer to both is “Yes.” Their opponents have no evidence for any alternative (if there’s no Shakespeare in it, what is in it? Fletcher? Beaumont? Massinger? Dead unjugged rabbitfish?) As a lawyer (retired, but I still have my certificate), I’d have to say that the burden of proof rests with the pro-Shakespeare faction, and that they haven’t met it. (By the way, lawyers love mock trials about Shakespearean topics. Instead of the authorship controversy—two such mock trials presided over by sitting justices of the United States Supreme Court have been blamed for sparking modern interest in the subject—perhaps they should take up Double Falsehood.)

I wish I could tell you that Professor Hammond has more persuasive arguments. I’m disappointed to report that for the most part he’s content to rehash Freehafer and to make all the same debatable assumptions. Worst, as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t address contrary arguments even when he notes them. Only once did I note him really engaging with a critic of the claim that Shakespeare had a hand in Double Falsehood, and that was to nitpick at some of the critic’s careless writing. When he doesn’t have points to score, he retreats or passes over the criticism on silence. This is most notable at the very end of his introduction, where he recounts a conference in New Zealand:

Tiffany Stern’s keynote lecture was the most openly skeptical contribution. Her study of the various ways in which plays could be plotted in Shakespeare’s period—in particular her contention that co-writing might not actually involve two hands being present in the finished article because one of the authors might be responsible only for the “plot” or narrative content—paves the way for saying that both Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s hands need not be found in a collaborative play by them. . . . Stern built up a case convincing enough to render any editor of the play cautious. And “cautious” is what I hope this edition has been.

“Cautious”? I do not think that word means what he thinks it means. Had Professor Hammond’s edition been “cautious,” it would not have been published in the Arden Shakespeare with no indication on the cover that it is not by Shakespeare. Professor Stern’s lecture must really have been a bombshell; I have the impression that most of the scholarly community is waiting for its scheduled appearance in print later this year. But it’s at best irresponsible of Professor Hammond to wait; at worst, it undermines his credibility to mention a critique with devastating potential and not even try to respond to it. From what he says about Professor Stern, her point seems to me to be unanswerable; just in the last decade we’ve come to a much deeper understanding of collaboration in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater than ever before. We now know it’s completely possible that one author could have supplied just the plot and one or more others the words. Double Falsehood, with its mashup of Shakespearean plot elements, would offhand seem ripe for this kind of analysis. It could always have been a collaboration that was all spam.

Hammond should have known this perfectly well; he even cites Brian Vickers’s landmark Shakespeare: Co-Author, the book that first brought home to me how varied the forms of collaboration are in early modern drama. But perhaps because Vickers is dismissive of, even hostile to the suggestion that there’s any Shakespeare in Double Falsehood, Hammond doesn’t deal with him. Which brings me to my last point, which I’ll try to make quickly in one last post.