Shakespeare’s Cardenio

Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, performed the play Cardenio for King James I in May 1613. It was written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, his collaborator for Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen, but the play itself is nowhere to be found.

From the title, scholars infer that the plot had something to do with a story in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote involving a young man who has apparently been driven mad and is living wild in the mountains. A translation of Don Quixote by Thomas Shelton was published in 1612 and might have been known to Shakespeare. If Cardenio were discovered, it would be a link between the founder of the modern novel and the greatest playwright of all time, a connection between the Spanish and English literary traditions at their sources.

In 1635 a play called “The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare” was registered for publication, but apparently not printed. In 1728 Lewis Theobald, whose edition of Shakespeare’s complete works was to appear five years later, published a play based on the story of Cardenio called “Double Falsehood, or The Distrest Lovers”, claiming to have revised and adapted it from one originally written by Shakespeare. According to the English scholar Stanley Wells in his book Shakespeare For All Time (2002):

“There is no good reason to doubt that Theobald really did have before him as he wrote a genuine manuscript of a play written by Shakespeare and Fletcher in collaboration, and it is exciting to speculate that such a manuscript may lurk undiscovered on a library shelf or in a chest of old papers. But in 1770 a newspaper reported that ‘the original manuscript’ on which Theobald based his play was ‘treasured up in the Museum of Covent Garden playhouse’. The theatre and its library burned to the ground in 1808.”

The Cardenio story is convoluted and takes place across several chapters. Shakespeare – if indeed he read it – would have admired its pairing of characters and intrigues. Cardenio is a wealthy nobleman from Andalusia in southern Spain. From childhood he has been madly in love with the beautiful Lucinda. The two are to be married, but Cardenio receives a letter requesting his service as a companion to Ferdinand, the son of a duke. Cardenio and Fernando become great friends. Ferdinand is in love with a young farmer’s daughter, but he has wooed her duplicitously and does not want to tell his father. Ferdinand decides to escape and asks to go to Cardenio’s parents’ home, on the pretext of buying some horses. There, he meets Lucinda, whom he praises as one of the great beauties of the world and decides to win for himself…

The Cardenio episode contrasts the betrayal of friendship with steadfastness. In his Introduction to Edith Grossman’s English translation of Don Quixote (2004), the controversial and much maligned critic Harold Bloom comments, “Cervantes or Shakespeare: they are rival teachers of how we change and why. Friendship in Shakespeare is ironic at best, treacherous more commonly. The friendship between Sancho Panza and his Knight surpasses any other in literary representation.”

Shakespeare was also interested in the cathartic effect of living in the wilderness. In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of refuge and solace for the banished duke; in King Lear the blasted heath is a metaphor of the king’s psychological trauma and healing; and in The Tempest, Prospero lives 12 years on a remote island inhabited by spirits, where he conceives his great plan to regain his dukedom. All three plays were written before the first publication in English of Don Quixote (1612) – and The Tempest (1610-11) was long thought to be Shakespeare’s last play.

If Shakespeare had a copy of Don Quixote, apart from delighting in the Spanish master’s story-telling skill, his interest might well have been piqued by the story of Cardenio and his self-imposed exile with all its potential for theatrical drama. And there is just a chance that a copy of his Cardenio lies concealed in the pages of some unassuming ledger in a 17th century house somewhere near the Forest of Arden.


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