Tuesday, June 01, 2010
One of the thrilling elements of my amateur scholarship of Shakespeare is the ever present sense of discovery, which might have its nucleus in Hamlet stagecraft but reaches much, much further. The controversy surrounding the lost play, Cardenio stands large in literature academia but my eye opening first experience of it was during Michael Wood’s superlative 2003 documentary In Search of Shakespeare, in which he tasked the Royal Shakespeare Company to recreate a fragment surrounding one of the extant songs.
Two actors portraying the title character and a friend stood in a spotlight at the edge of the stage listening to Woods, Rocks & Mountaynes and at the close they looked on in fear as it magically seemed as though their tiny pocket universe had reached a premature implosion. The mystique of that moment was enough that when I later read about the “discovery” of a text for Cardenio, I was eager to find out more.
I was disappointed to discover that the heralding of this new play into the canon wasn’t cut and dry. This wasn't some new text, but the refurbished provenance of a known play, Double Falsehood. As Brian Hammond, editor of this handsomely put together printing of the play explains in his thorough introduction, scholars have argued about this old play's authorship for centuries, as to whether it's purely Shakespeare, a collaboration with John Fletcher, Fletcher with Middleton and someone else, or if indeed as has been the main assumption, due to the absence of a source text it was a forgery perpetrated by Lewis Theobald, its eighteenth-century editor.
Given these odds, there has been some criticism of Double Falsehood appearing The Arden Shakespeare range alongside Hamlet and Macbeth because of the legitimacy that confers. But with a clear awareness of that Hammond meticulously unpicks each of the arguments against this having any of Shakespeare’s verse within and though he’s careful to add a few qualifications, largely convinces us that after uncovering some new documentary evidence, Double Falsehood is indeed the Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration that was premiered at court in 1613 via a restoration adaptation through to the Theobald text we have in our hands now. Hammond himself outlines the guts of this argument in this University of Nottingham vodcast:
He offers a strong argument that Shakespeare has to have written a large proportion of the first half of the play, in which case it has as much right to be canonised, venerated as a lost text now found and given the Arden treatment as Henry VIII or Two Noble Kinsmen -- and Edward III or Sir Thomas More, both of which are to be published next year. Some academics, like the rebuttal witness Hammond's appearance on the Today programme, seem very reticent about inducting new plays into the canon which is understandable considering the addition baggage they may have in terms of rewriting and disproving existing theories about his life.
But for this layperson, the idea of a whole new play to enjoy is breathtaking even if, as Hammond is keen to stress, he’s not resurrecting gold. An adaptation of a sub-plot from Don Quixote created as reaction to the massive contemporary popularity of Cervantes and all things Spanish, even in its original form, Double Falsehood/Cardenio would have seen both authors falling back on some of their more familiar tropes of chivalry and revenge, transvestism and masquerade, though of course their inclusion is one of the reasons "we" have been able to crystallise its authorship.
As it stands, Double Falsehood is interesting but has clearly had some of the complexity knocked out of it across the years to fit the taste in later century more linear, less thematically complex storytelling. An initially grim tale of a domineering prince taking sexually violent advantage of the girl his brother is romantically interested in which spins of into a more pastoral adventure in the style of The Winter’s Tale, there are more logic breaks and inconsistencies in characterisation than an episode of Flash Forward. Plot strands begin, never to be tied up.
I’m cautious about reviewing it too closely as a piece of drama. Without an actor's interpretation and despite the staging plan in the appendixes it's near impossible to get a sense of such things as pacing and emotion. But in the current absence of that (bar fractions), simply on a poetic level there is much beauty here. Some of the descriptions of Leonora, the object of both brother’s desire, rank alongside those connected with Juliet and Rosalind and it's impossible not to take the view, confirmed by the footnotes, that a brain as complex as that behind Hamlet (which is alluded to throughout) has to have had some hand in these passages.
With that in mind, I can't help feeling some sense of melancholy that due to the egotistical rivalry between Theobald and Alexander Pope over who had best rights to Shakespeare’s legacy (described in gossipy detail throughout this volume), general snobbery to Elizabethan and Jacobean work which hasn’t previously been verified as Shakespearean and the fact that it's not until recently that textual analysis has gained the scientific rigour such that it can offer authorship suggestions based on the syntax of a line, that the play has been outside of the repertory for long enough that its mostly only been treated to amateur productions in the past half century.
Hammond’s extensive production history mentions shows based on the text as it stands, on supposed recreations of the original Cardenio scholarly and otherwise and even how a completely different play, Hamiton/Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy has erroneously been produced under that name due to the misunderstanding of an influential academic paper. Though that’s due to be rectified by its appearance as the premiere production at the newly refurbished Royal Shakespeare Company, there now seems to be a hole in the BBC’s 80s canon series where this play should be. Perhaps if Arden's valuable perhaps even miraculous volume had been published earlier, we'd now be able to enjoy a Jonathan Miller studio production starring Graham Crowdon as the old Duke and Mary Tamm as Leonora.
Double Falsehood (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by Brean Hammond is published by Methuen Drama. £65.00 hardback, £16.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1903436776.