Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Double Falsehood

Lewis Theobald- an 18th century man of letters- was in possession of no fewer than three manuscripts of an unpublished play that he believed to be the work of William Shakespeare. So what did he do? Rush it into print? Unfortunately not. Instead he sat down and rewrote it according to the dictates of 18th century taste- and published the result under the unShakespearian title of The Double Falsehood. Subsequently the three manuscripts disappeared, without anyone else ever having perused them.

It screams "hoax", doesn't it?  That's what a lot of Theobald's contemporaries thought. But there are good reasons for believing he was telling the truth. Theobald's play is based on a story by Cervantes that features a character called Cardenio. What Theobald didn't know- because the relevant records weren't discovered until after his death- is that a play called Cardenio- or something very similar- attributed to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher- was indeed presented at Court in 1613. The Double Falsehood is highly Fletcherian- more Fletcherian than Shakespearian. If the play were an out and out forgery- one wouldn't expect it to reek so highly of an author whom the forger had no intention of imitating.

Anyway, scholars these days are increasingly willing to take Theobald's story on trust-  and this has led to The Double Falsehood appearing as a volume- edited by Brean Hammond- in the prestigious Arden Shakespeare. This news was all over the papers yesterday. Lost Shakespearian Masterpiece Found. Well, yeah, maybe...

I read it yesterday. The text can be found online- in an edition first published in 1920- with a sound scholarly introduction weighing the claims of authorship. The first thing to say is it's not very good. What we have here is not only an adaption but- obviously- an abridgement- with a number of jarring jump cuts in the action; the characters are undeveloped, stereotypical- the lover, the rakehell, the wronged woman-- and there's not much to detain us in the verse. It's easy to find parallels with various canonical plays- including Shakespeare's existing collaboration with Fletcher- The Two Noble Kinsmen-  but they're superficial. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a weird, dark, tremendous play- and The Double Falsehood isn't. If the original Cardenio was a masterpiece it's now so deeply buried under repaint and varnish as to be largely unrecoverable.

And yet... Theobald has smoothed out the verse, but there remain odd little knots in the grain which hint at Shakespeare's late style. Here's a noun- "heirs"- used as a verb, here's a coinage- "absonant" meaning unmusical- and here and there- every so often- there's a lively, far-fetched image more Jacobean than Georgian: this line, for instance- addressed to a wooer who won't take no for an answer; "men of your Temper/ make every thing their bramble".   These brief, sunset touches occur mainly in the first half of the play- making it likely that Shakespeare began what Fletcher finished. And- not to scorn Fletcher- there are some things in the second half of the play too- a mad scene for instance- which- while not particularly Shakespearian-  suggest that a better writer than Theobald conceived them.

I'm glad that the Double Falsehood has been put back into circulation. There's even a rumour that the RSC might stage an experimental production- which would be excellent. It's not Shakespeare- and never can be Shakespeare- but the ghost of Shakespeare haunts it.  There's a well-established myth that Shakespeare retired to the country after writing the Tempest. But of course he didn't; he only semi-retired- and in the following year entered into a brief partnership with John Fletcher which produced three plays- Henry VIII (which is now considered canonical) the Two Noble Kinsmen (which deserves more attention than it gets) and the "lost" Cardenio. Anything that throws light- however faint and spluttering- on this final phase of his career is well worth having.

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