Published on 19 Apr 2011 Sections

Much ado over RSC’s lost ‘Shakespeare’ play

A re-working of a lost play by Shakespeare is being staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its 50th birthday season. But is the RSC right to attach the Bard’s name to the drama?

Cardenio, a drama of seduction, desire and betrayal set in 17th Century Spain, is described as “Shakespeare’s ‘lost play’ re-imagined”.

It is based on a play of the same name which is thought to have been co-written by William Shakespeare and fellow dramatist John Fletcher, and first performed at the court of King James 1 in 1612.

“(Cardenio) has more script-writers than a Hollywood blockbuster.” Greg Doran, Chief Associate Director, RSC

The Shakespeare-Fletcher version has never been found, but it is claimed The Double Falsehood, written by Lewis Theobald and given its premiere in London in 1727, contains elements of the Shakespeare original.

RSC Chief Associate Director Greg Doran, who reconstructed the play for performance in Stratford-Upon-Avon, combined The Double Falsehood with elements from Don Quixote, the early 17th century Spanish masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes, to produce a new Cardenio.

“It has more script-writers than a Hollywood blockbuster,” says Doran. “Everyone from Shakespeare, Thomas Shelton, Cervantes, Fletcher and Lewis Theobald, and just here and there, a little bit of me trying to join the dots.”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to witness a rehearsal for the RSC's new production of Cardenio, writes Matt Cain.

What I saw was brilliant. The design gives the production as a whole the look of a sumptuous painting by El Greco, while the thrilling story of seduction, dishonour and receit had me immediately gripped. But as I sat watching from the stalls of The Swan Theatre, one question kept spinning around in my mind: is it really Shakespeare?

Read more of We love Shakespeare because we know so little about him

The big question, though, is whether there is enough of the Bard in the new play to justify a Shakespeare connection. Doran has little doubt: “I think that there’s Shakespeare DNA in there,” he told Channel 4 News.

“The script that Lewis Theobald had does contain some of Shakespeare’s words – more, probably, of his collaborator John Fletcher than actually Shakespeare.

“We have taken all the available evidence, and we’ve re-imagined what the story and the play might best be in the 21st Century. All I can say is that the play works in actors’ mouths and works in the theatre.”

But others question the validity of attaching Shakespeare’s name to the drama. “It’s very unclear that there was ever a Shakespeare play called Cardenio,” says Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama at Oxford University.

“It’s very unclear that there was ever a Shakespeare play called Cardenio.” Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama, Oxford

“It’s certainly unclear that Theobald ever had such a play. And to call it a ‘re-imagining’ – which allows for there to be little or no Shakespeare in it – is the smartest thing they could do.”

Doubt over the original play’s authorship centres on the fact that there is no documentation attaching the name of Shakespeare to the work until 1653, where the playwright is also designated as author of such dramas as The Merry Devil of Edmonton.

What is more, Lewis Theobald, whose 18th Century work forms the backbone of the RSC production, is known to have been the greatest Shakespeare imitator of his day.

Tiffany Stern suggests that when Greg Doran and his RSC cast say Cardenio contains Shakespeare DNA, “what they’re probably feeling is a rather good Shakespeare imitation, plus rather good Cervantes”.

Cardenio is being performed at the RSC’s Swan Theatre until 6 October 2011.

The Bard or not the Bard?
Here are three extracts from the RSC's Cardenio. But are they the work of William Shakespeare?

DOROTEA
Home, my lord,
What you can say is most unseasonable; what sing
Most absonant and harsh, nay, your perfume,
Which I smell hither, cheers not my sense
Like our field violet's breath.
(Act One, Scene Five)

DON BERNARDO
When lovers swear true faith, the listening angels
Stand on the golden battlements of Heaven
And waft their vows to the eternal throne.
(Act Five, Scene Two)

From Cardenio, Shakespeare's 'Lost Play' Re-imagined, published by Nick Hern Books