But understand these acts are no mere jests…

You may or may not know the story of Cardenio, or Double Falsehood. Briefly, and avoiding the repetition of claims of forgery, mis-attribution etc, it runs that late in his career William Shakespeare may have collaborated with the younger playwright John Fletcher on several plays, one of which was the lost Cardenio.

These late collaborative plays pose a problem to the romantic, shapely arc often assigned to Shakespeare’s writing career. This suggests that, having written the theatre’s greatest histories, comedies and tragedies, Shakespeare’s art rarefied to romance, a second childhood of shipwrecks, fathers and daughters reunited, evil queens and gods descending from the heavens to untangle confusion. This theory crests with The Tempest, where Prospero – virtually Shakespeare himself striding onstage to put everyone straight about a thing or two – rounds off two miraculous decades in art by ‘drowning’ his book and renouncing magic (for which read writing plays). Prospero/Shakespeare then retreats to Stratford to a dignified retirement of grain hoarding and minor litigation.

Except he doesn’t. Instead, he writes one, possibly two, possibly three plays with John Fletcher.

I’ve written about Henry VIII before on this blog. The Two Noble Kinsmen is also extremely strange. The passages usually assigned to Shakespeare are far from The Tempest’s elegiac elegance. Clearly, we can take Prospero/Shakespeare’s final grumble that ‘every third thought will be my grave,’ as sincere. In a speech on the seductive powers of the goddess Venus, he focuses on the vitalising power of sex by imagining an 80-year-old old man to whom

                                       The aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round;
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres that what was life
In him seemed torture. (V.i)

Nice stuff, particularly when we’re told this man fathered a child with his fourteen-year-old bride.

The Two Noble Kinsmen has a tragic-comic sub-plot centring on a girl driven mad by love, a possible burlesque of Ophelia’s behaviour in Hamlet. The play breaks for a pastoral episode featuring comic characters. This is a quality it shares with The Winter’s Tale and, I am happy to fantasise, the original Cardenio.

The after-history of Cardenio depends upon a possible rewritten version by Lewis Theobald, Double Falsehood. Theobald’s play includes no comic sub-plot. However, in Don Quixote, the source of the Cardenio story, the tale’s protagonists encounter and interact with the one character notably absent from Double Falsehood: Don Quixote.

Cardenio has been cheated of the woman he loves and this has driven him mad. He retreats to the wilderness, raves and grieves and eventually encounters Quixote and Sancho Panza. Quixote has decided to imitate the heroes of chivalry by living mad and naked in the wilderness, beating his head against rocks to show his love for Dulcinea of Tobosa. Sancho, concerned for his master’s wellbeing, suggests that Quixote should instead bash his head against some wool, or some water, to prevent hurting himself. The madness is, he says, feigned after all. They argue the point of feigned madness, Quixote stressing his sincerity.

I am convinced that this episode would have kindled instant recognition in Shakespeare. It contains some of his favourite themes  – as well as a deranged old man stripping naked in the wilderness as in King Lear. The scene is intensely theatrical;  it debates the performance, or playing, of emotion; Quixote’s madness-within-madness satirises the more serious love-madness of Cardenio in what would be the play’s main plot. The comic possibilities of the simple-yet-pedantic Sancho trying to persuade a half-naked Quixote to bash his head against some wool surely must also have appealed.

I have written a play, Forgiving Shakespeare. It is a comedy freely imagining the composition of Cardenio. Having examined the chapters Fletcher and Shakespeare must have read for their play, I am completely seduced by the possibility that – in this lost play – Shakespeare would have recognised then seized the opportunity to animate two of the few characters in world literature to match his own creations in scale, soul and universality.

Cardenio had a comic sub-plot. And in that sub-plot Shakespeare brought Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to life on the Globe stage. It’s a wonderful thought.

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