Shakespeare’s Lost Play Published, Or: Some Other Guy’s Play Published

Tragedy, comedy, cross dressing, tangled relationships, it’s easy for the casual observer to draw all sorts of parallels between Double Falsehood (or Distressed Lovers) and many of Shakespeare’s plays. However, like the historical Shakespeare himself, controversy over the veracity of the claims that Double Falsehood is one of his lost plays continues to be debated by scholars.

When eighteenth century scholar Lewis Theobald first produced the play in 1727, he claimed that it was a version of a lost original by William Shakespeare. Critics of the time dismissed the play as a clever copy cat, accusing Theobald of trying to cash in on Shakespeare’s notoriety.

So why, for the first time, is the highly contested play being included in a collection of Shakespeare’s works? I’ll let the article from the Daily Mail explain:

“The publication of the play, in fully annotated form, comes after a 10-year mission to crack a literary mystery by Professor Brean Hammond, of the University of Nottingham.

He is now convinced that the play originates from a collaboration between Britain’s best-known playwright and Jacobean dramatist John Fletcher.

Fletcher went on to become of the most prolific and influential dramatists of his day. By the time of the early Restoration period in the late 1600s, his fame rivaled Shakespeare’s.

The Double Falsehood mystery actually dates back to 1613 – a year when scholars know that a play called The History of Cardenio was performed by Shakespeare’s own company.

Cardenio was a character in the Spanish novel Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, which had been translated into English just a year earlier.

The play, however, did not appear in the crucial First Folio of Shakespeare’s work, and, save for a few mentions in the history books, disappeared.

Then on Wednesday, December 13, 1727 Theobald, a known scholar of Shakespeare, mounted his play at Drury Lane Theatre, in London, claiming that it was a re-working of an original by the Bard and that he had three original texts.

‘In the eighteenth century people were by and large very sceptical about the text,’ said Prof Hammond. ‘Various people rubbished Theobald, one of them the poet Alexander Pope, who had a great deal of clout.

‘The early consensus was that Theobald had either forged it or passed it off as written by Shakespeare when it clearly was not Shakespeare’s work.’

Prof Hammond said that it was in the second half of the 20th century that there was a growing consensus that Theobald’s claims had not been investigated enough.

‘That is what I’ve done,’ he said. ‘And I’ve persuaded Arden Shakespeare, who publish the flagship series, that they should include the play in their livery.

‘It certainly has Shakespeare’s hand in it.’

He said there was a ‘convincing case; that Shakespeare’s hand was at work in the first, second and part of the third act.

He said the versification was very similar to other works by Shakespeare and another clue was in the appearance of words, never seen before and not previously used by Theobald.

‘Shakespeare was known for coining words,’ said Prof Hammond.

He does not believe the play is as Shakespeare wrote, instead thinking that Theobald cut and altered the work to suit his 18th century audience.

‘There are holes in it,’ he said. ‘But I think it’s a very interesting play, it’s got lots of highly dramatic scenes even though it probably has got material missing.’

Arden’s General Editor, Professor Richard Proudfoot, recognised that the decision to include the text in a new publication was ‘controversial’.

‘The Arden Shakespeare Third Series has chosen to include collaborative plays from outside the 1623 canon and the inclusion of Double Falsehood is our most controversial decision.

‘That it represents in some form the otherwise lost play of Cardenio is a sufficiently sustainable position to recommend publication of Lewis Theobald’s avowedly thorough 18th-century adaptation, thus making it accessible for the first time in 250 years.

‘Here is a true Shakespeare mystery for an age addicted to fictional mysteries attached to him.’

Unfortunately the truth of the mystery may never be known.

Newspaper accounts from 1770 refer to Theobald’s manuscripts being ‘treasured up’ at Covent Garden Museum. But the museum burned down in 1808.”

So is Double Falsehood a lost play of William Shakespeare? Without the original manuscripts no one can conclusively say one way or another. Speculation can certainly be made on direction or another, and while there are traditional hallmarks of Shakespearian writing, since the play was reworked by Theobald, there is no definitive answer to the mystery. Barring the discovery of an original manuscript, this story falls under “speculation” instead of “fucking awesome.”

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~ by K. Ritcheson on March 22, 2010.

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