In anticipation of the performance of The History of Cardenio on Sunday, I attended a talk at the performance venue, the Mary Wallace Theatre, by Professor Gary Taylor, the co-author of this version. Professor Taylor has spent years studying Shakespeare and brings that knowledge to bear in his adaptation.
Cardenio was first performed at the court of James I by the King’s Men in early 1613. The name Cardenio is very rare, and there is only one mention of the name in literature prior to this, in Don Quixote, a bestseller at the time by the Spanish author Miguel De Cervantes. This suggests that the play was an adaptation of an episode in the novel. An English translation of the first part of the novel (the second was not published until several years afterwards) had been published in 1612. The History of Cardenio title is important as it is a mistranslation of the Spanish featuring only in the 1612 edition, and not subsequent editions.
The next mention of the play is in 1653, when the Stationers’ Company of London registered the right to print a play, The History of Cardenio, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. The attributions in the Stationers’ Register aren’t always correct, so this does not constitute absolute proof that the play was by Fletcher and Shakespeare, but it was definitely based on Don Quixote.
The next reference to the play occurs in 1727, when the Drury Lane Theatre performed Double Falsehood, or The Distrest Lovers. The person responsible, Lewis Theobald, said it was by Shakespeare and based on Don Quixote. He claimed in a preface that he was told that Shakespeare wrote it for his ‘natural daughter’. The provenance of Double Falsehood is still being questioned today. It has been suggested that it was forged, he wrote it himself and passed it off as Shakespeare’s. However, he may well have had an original manuscript which he rewrote and edited. Even Alexander Pope, Theobald’s harshest critic, believed that he had the manuscript. Cardenio is not Double Falsehood. The latter contains a lot of material which is very like Shakespeare and Fletcher, but it also contains a lot of what Taylor frankly terms ‘crap’.
Does Cardenio matter? Taylor argues that it does not matter to Shakespeare’s reputation, or to the reputations of Fletcher and Cervantes. However, it is the only play written by a great playwright which was inspired by Don Quixote. It was also the first time Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher, a fruitful partnership that also led to Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. It also acts as a timely reminder that Shakespeare was a European writer, not just an English one. In addition, studying the surviving fragments of Cardenio forces scholars to examine the text word by word, analysing it and thinking about how it might work on stage.
I really enjoyed the talk, and I can’t wait to see The History of Cardenio on Sunday.