The terrible decision to include a bogus play, Double Falsehood,in the Arden Shakespeare.

Scrutinizing culture.
May 13 2010 4:43 PM

The Double Falsehood of Double Falsehood

A respected edition of Shakespeare self-destructively tries to "extend the brand."

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During that time, the Shakespeare cop—it's a half-serious moniker, although I am a member of the Royal Shakespeare company's editorial advisory board—also busted the New York Times' designated "Shakespeare expert" for smuggling into his Shakespeare reportage a hidden agenda that favored the silly, time-wasting "authorship" question of whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. (I feel bad I had to hobble his hobby horse, but it was no small matter: He was feeding his audience subtly disguised disinformation about one of the most important writers in the langauge.)

Generally, though, debunking "authorship" obsessives isn't even worth the Shakespeare cop's time. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel. The question is also almost entirely irrelevant. The point is not who wrote Shakespeare (though I'm entirely convinced Shakespeare did) but what Shakespeare wrote, and what is falsely passed off as Shakespearean. The "someone else wrote Shakespeare" types (and those who waste time arguing with them) are sad and pathetic because, frankly, life is short and if one has to choose between rereading King Lear or Othello and arguing about who wrote them, then one's priorities are profoundly misaligned. Any amount of time spent on the latter is subtracted from the former, alas.

But the Shakespeare cop has not been an entirely negative, traditionalist bardolator. In fact, I have been an advocate of certain daring Shakespeare publishing innovations undertaken by Arden itself. After investigating Arden's earlier decision to publish not one, not two, but three versions of Hamlet, I devoted a good portion of my book to praising the editors (in particular Arden general editor Ann Thompson, who co-edited the Hamlet) for their bold and unorthodox decision to publish a three-fold Hamlet. I find merit in the Arden argument that the three versions of the play (1603 Quarto, 1604 Quarto, and 1623 Folio) represented three distinct performance states of Hamlet, with differences worthy of the notice of anyone who cares about the work (although I'm still a bit dubious of the inclusion of the 1603 "Bad Quarto").

No, the Shakespeare cop has nothing against Arden, and nothing against solidly grounded scholarship, either. Indeed, it is my affection for seriousness of the famously footnote-laden Arden editions of Shakespeare that makes their Double Falsehood decision so shocking.

The Double Falsehood scandal can be traced back to a 1727 claim by the hack dramatist Lewis Theobald that he'd come into possession of not one, not two, but three manuscripts of a lost play written by Shakespeare—and, as he initially claimed, anyway—Shakespeare alone. A play based on a tale from Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Now there is evidence (though not much) that in 1613 or so Shakespeare co-wrote a play called The History of Cardenio with his sometimes collaborator John Fletcher. This Cardenio play has disappeared from view and was not included in the Folio of Shakespeare's complete works compiled after his death by those who knew him best. It's not impossible that such a play existed and that Shakespeare had a hand in it, since Don Quixote was translated into English a year or so before a play by the name Cardenio was registered for performance with the authorities.

But what relation, if any, did that Cardenio have to the dramatized version of the Cardenio play in Theobald's "discovered" manuscripts?

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When Theobald put on his "Shakespearean" adaptation in 1727, there was no one named Cardenio in it. (No Don Q. or Sancho P., either.) Weirdly, the play followed the Cervantes episodes but changed almost all the names and many of the plot details. Theobald claimed he had "improved upon" the Shakespeare play that had come down to him in the manuscripts and modernized them somewhat.

And what of those three supposed Shakespeare-era manuscripts he based his play on? Well, wouldn't you know. All three of them ended up being burned by different "accidents" (although there is evidence that one was exhibited for a time before flames eventually consumed it). Still, one is tempted to call this the greatest Dog Ate My Homework story in literature. (Indeed, Theobald's attempt to promote himself and his play was one of the reasons Alexander Pope made Theobald into the almighty king of all dunces in The Dunciad, his brilliant literary satire.)

For nearly three centuries, serious scholars have debated whether Theobald ever saw any version of Shakespeare's Cardenio, argued about how much of Cardenio Shakespeare actually wrote, and wondered whether any Shakespeare survives in the play Theobald concocted from the alleged manuscripts or whether Theobald made it all up out of whole cloth.