The Double Falsehood of Double Falsehood
A respected edition of Shakespeare self-destructively tries to "extend the brand."
You know the famous line from Hamlet,"Get thee to a nunnery?" Of course you do. But what about this line, from an allegedly "Shakespearean" play that has been slouching toward the Shakespeare canon, a play called Double Falsehood:
"Tell me the way to the next nunnery."
Please. Is Shakespeare going to diminish his original wrathful "Get thee to a nunnery" with this clunker? And consider the context: The fellow who speaks the line is in the middle of a barren sheepherder landscape where nunneries are hardly thick on the ground. "Next nunnery" indeed—as though you find them as frequently as Burger Kings. For me, reading "Tell me the way to the next nunnery"—with its irresistible link in my mind to the Doors' "Show me the way to the next whiskey bar"—dealt a final blow to the Shakespearean pretentions of Double Falsehood. It sounds suspiciously like an inept attempt to give a "Shakespearean touch" to a profoundly worthless, virtually incoherent play which now, alas, is gaining new respectability.
Yes, in a decision not widely noted outside the inner circle of Shakespearean scholars, Arden, the publisher of legendary, erudite, footnote-laden editions of Shakespeare's works, has decided to include Double Falsehood in the latest edition of the Arden Shakespeare. This move is "brand extension" that demonstrates yet another triumph of marketing over art. And one that will have lasting—and unfortunate—consequences for the reputations of both Arden and, alas, Shakespeare as well.
Indeed, even the person who wrote the introduction to this edition sounds, after 160 labored pages, a bit embarrassed about the decision to include the play, pointedly giving the last word to a prominent doubter of the whole enterprise. It seems that the poor editor, Brean Hammond, attended a recent colloquium on Double Falsehood and heard an extremely "skeptical presentation" by the highly regarded Shakespeare scholar Tiffany Stern. * And so, Hammond concludes, obviously fearful of embarrassment: "Stern built up a case [against Shakespearean authorship] convincing enough to render any editor of the play cautious and cautious is what I hope this edition has been." Cautious Hammond may have been, but cautious Arden has not been: There on the top banner of the front cover of the Double Falsehood we read The Arden Shakespeare. Not The Arden May-Have-Some-Shakespeare-in-It Shakespeare.
The stakes are high: By peddling this old carcass as meaningfully "Shakespearean," Arden does a disservice not just to Shakespeare but to all future innocents who come to the Shakespeare section of Barnes & Noble, say, and have the misfortune to pick up this piece of … fraudulence first. And having read it, never return for the real thing.
But such are the economics of "scholarly" publishing. I'm sure some marketing genius realized Arden could "monetize" the rags and tatters at the fringe of the Bard's canon—the "dubia" as the scholars call such doubtfully, partially, even fraudulently "Shakespearean" works—and capitalize on the controversy. By publishing Double Falsehood, Arden stands to gain attention and cash, with lucrative course assignments for the "long lost Shakespeare"—and more lucre from credulous Bardolator completists.
As I recount in my book The Shakespeare Wars, something similar, and disastrous, happened back in 1997 in a shameful episode when not one, not two, but three American scholarly editions of Shakespeare's "complete works" hastily found excuses to include a "new," supposedly Shakespearean discovery—the wretched 578-line "Funeral Elegy," whose Shakespearean provenance is now discredited. At the time, the poem was being hawked as authentic Shakespeare by Vassar professor Donald Foster. Although the three publishers found different ways of distancing themselves from full endorsement of the "Funeral Elegy" canonization, commerce beat out art: None of them wanted to be left out when their salesmen hit the road with the new editions. It was five years before the awful poem's Shakespearean provenance was decisively discredited. Five years in which hapless students were forced to read fraudulent Shakespeare. It should have been a crime to make anyone read that poem under any name.
Sad that Arden didn't learn anything from that over-hasty attempt to cash in on a false canonization. But all hope is not lost. The shameless usurpation of literature by marketing that this Arden Double Falsehood edition represents has roused the sleeping ire of the Shakespeare Cop. It's time to step in and bust another Shakespeare fraud.
The Shakespeare Cop? That would be me, a role I have reluctantly assumed, thanks in part to the theory-addled indolence of (most) American academics in the face of egregious Shakespearean fraud. (One gets the feeling many of them they don't really like or understand what makes Shakespeare exceptional, so they don't bother to take exception to—or even recognize—fake Shakespeare.) For those who have not read the full saga of my relentless crusade against the abominable "Funeral Elegy": I was virtually alone in America, in crying foul against Foster's supposedly "computer database"-backed attribution. It was a lonely five years before the professor was forced to apologize when a French academic and a British academic riddled the attribution with enough gaping holes to force the "Funeral Elegy" professor to give it up for dead. (The Shakespeare cop depended on his exquisitely honed sensitivity to language alone to contravene the supposed "computerized" proof of authenticity. Sort of like John Henry vs. the steam engine.)
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.