In 1612, a literary sensation swept through London’s cultural class. For the first time, part one of Miguel Cervantes’s 1605 novel Don Quixote was available in English, and it quickly gripped the imagination of the British public.
The great Bard himself, William Shakespeare, was not immune to the charms of the errant Knight of la Mancha and his sidekick Sancho Panza. One can imagine him diving into the book, his eyes lighting up at the kindred feeling he must have felt as he read the tale that exhibited the same themes he was interested in—romantic comedy, historical satire, and human folly.
What Shakespeare read inspired him so much that he—along with his frequent collaborator John Fletcher—picked up his quill and got to work on a new play. He would call this one Cardenio after the character by the same name in Cervantes’ masterpiece.
"They were two of the greatest imaginative artists of this world, at that point. They were living in [a] divided world, but it’s at this moment those wires crossed,” Stephen Greenblatt, professor of English at Harvard University told the BBC in 2012.
Those wires may have crossed in 1612, but they quickly unravelled in the face of history. What we know today is that the play was written, that it was based on Don Quixote, and that it is believed to have been performed twice in the theater season of 1612 to 1613.
But beyond that, all traces of Shakespeare’s original Cardenio most likely have been lost and this chapter of the playwright’s legacy has been condemned to scholarly debate.
While he was alive, Shakespeare was one of the reigning playwrights in London.
He was attached to the King’s Players, one of the top two companies of actors in the city, and he churned out a steady stream of theatrical hits. But his popularity in no way reached the heights that it enjoys today. It would take nearly two centuries after his death for his reputation to develop as a genius of language and human behavior.
In the meantime, Shakespeare did what writers have always done—he turned to his surroundings for inspiration and wrote the stories he knew.
“If I were to describe what I think is really distinctive about Shakespeare, it would be his extraordinary ability to find fresh ways of saying something that perhaps somebody else had started to say but had never found the unimprovable way of saying it,” Gordon McMullin, Professor of English at King’s College said in a video produced by Oxford University Press. “He was superbly good at seeing what worked for other writers, other poets, other playwrights and absorbing that mode into his own writing, just like Hollywood studios.”
Don Quixote is considered one of the first—and greatest—novels ever written. So it’s no wonder that Shakespeare would have found it to be a particularly rich source of material for his latest play.
“Shakespeare is writing for an audience that likes romances and tragic comedies, and these are plays that have extraordinary twists of fate, unusual circumstances,” Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, tells The Daily Beast. “The idea of a madman driven crazy by love is part of this romance tradition…and he had access to that through [the] translation of Don Quixote.”
Traces of the play are sprinkled like breadcrumbs through the historical records of Shakespeare’s life. In 1613, the office of the Treasurer of the King’s Chamber listed two payments to the King’s Men, one for Cardenna and one for Cardenno. Both are believed to refer to the play we know now as Cardenio.
Then, in 1653, a publisher named Humphrey Moseley made an entry in the Stationer’s Register listing 42 plays for which he owned the rights. Listed among those is “The History of Cardenio, by Mr. Fletcher & Shakespeare.”
The Stationer’s Register was run by the Guild of Stationer’s and it controlled who owned the publishing rights to which works, so the fact that Cardenio is noted and is attributed to Shakespeare in this legal register is significant.
But beyond these two sources, no other concrete evidence of Cardenio exists. While the publishing rights were owned by Moseley, the play was never actually printed, as far as anyone knows. And, partly because it was never published, all written copies of the comedic drama have been lost.
But, as with any good Shakespearean drama, here, the plot thickens.
In 1727, a playwright and editor named Lewis Theobald came forward and published a script he called Double Falsehood. He claimed that this play was derived from three—yes, three—original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s Cardenio. In effect, he claimed to have the only known published version of the play.
And with that act, he has set off a centuries-long scholarly debate about the fate of what would be considered Shakespeare’s thirty-ninth play (there are 38 known plays written).
The two camps of this debate are divided along the lines of who believes that Double Falsehood is a reliable text and who believes that its merely an interpretation of a lost original.
In a 2011 piece in The Guardian, Renaissance scholar Gary Taylor discusses his investigation of Double Falsehood, also published in a book co-authored with David Carnegie called The Quest for Cardenio.
He concludes that the play is not wholly Shakespeare and Fletcher's original language, but that it contains fragments of text that can be attributed directly to the two authors, as well as those that are clearly Theobald’s own.
Part of his research was done using computer-aided stylometric research that examined the plays that we know are by Shakespeare against the text of Double Falsehood.
But Witmore is not so quick to proclaim discovery. While he thinks that Double Falsehood is an important document, he doesn’t believe that it is in any way a Shakespeare original. He is quick to qualify that he is only “speak[ing] for myself as a Shakespeare scholar,” but the connection between the two is driven by speculation.
“There’s no way to know …what was the manuscript behind [Double Falsehood] that [Theobald] was working with,” Witmore says. “I think the text is lost. I think it’s likely that Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote it, and I think our access to that text exists only through secondary reports.”
Tiffany Stern, a professor at Oxford University, put it another way to the BBC: ”You find what you look for…If you look for Shakespeare in the work of a famous imitator, you will find Shakespeare whether he's there or not.”
While the idea of a lost Shakespeare play is devastating to many, it’s not the only play believed to have existed by the Bard that we no longer have access to, and the two “known” lost plays may not be the only ones out there.
This is partly to do with the way playwrights worked back in the early 17th century. The act of writing for the theater was often a collaborative one, so several hands could have been passing around the manuscript at a time.
Then, once it was finished, the final draft was sent to the professional acting companies, who would have a scribe copy it usually in parts for each character. The actors would then use those copies to rehearse throughout the run of the show.
“it’s not surprising that those transcriptions or manuscripts for plays do not survive because they would have been used, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, they were pretty valuable property so they wouldn’t have been copied many times,” Witmore says.
In fact, no manuscripts written in Shakespeare’s own hand exist today. The 38 plays that we do have exist because they were published, a fate Cardenio did not also enjoy.
But despite the lack of an original text, all is not entirely lost. Several modern companies have put on productions of Cardenio that can be seen as adaptations or revisions of the play.
One of these was the Royal Shakespeare Company who put on a production of the reconstructed play in 2011 under director Gregory Doran.
“We are not trying to create the play that might have seen in 1612 and 1613, because that is impossible. What I am trying to do is the best version of Cardenio's story that I can,” Dunn wrote.
In the end, the saga of Cardenio is one that the Bard himself surely would have appreciated.
“You think about the end of the Tempest where Prospero says ‘I’m going to drown my book.’” Witmore says. “Here’s a playwright who thinks a lot about oblivion and books that are lost at sea and then 400 years later, we think of some of his plays as having existed but been lost. So, I think it’s a really kind of Shakespearean problem.”