“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
William Shakespeare hasn’t had a new play since 1612. But last month in the UK and this month in the US, Arden—one of the most respected publishers of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays—published a “new” play by Shakespeare, edited by Brean Hammond: Double Falsehood, a play that has been lost and found and lost again.
Two of Shakespeare’s plays are lost, never printed or else destroyed by either fire or time: Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio. Almost nothing is known about Love’s Labor’s Won, though presumably it was a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost. But there are records of payments to Shakespeare and his fellow actors for two performances of Cardenio during the summer of 1613 for the court of James I. 1613 was at the end of Shakespeare’s career; he would soon retire to Stratford-upon-Avon, then a two-day journey by horseback from London, where he would die three years later in April 1616. In 1613 he was writing his last plays, including Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, in collaboration with John Fletcher, who was being groomed to replace Shakespeare as the main dramatist for the King’s Men.
Cardenio is the name of a character from an inset novella in Don Quixote by Cervantes, the first part of which was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612. The story was possibly familiar to Londoners as early as 1605, when Spanish culture and literature came into vogue following James’s Treaty of London, which ended Elizabeth I’s Spanish wars. Cardenio is in love with Luscinda, but before he can get her father’s permission to marry her, the nobleman Don Fernando orders him away to court as a ruse so he can marry Luscinda himself. Luscinda writes to Cardenio about the scheme, but Cardenio arrives, he thinks, too late. He goes mad and runs into the Sierra Morena, where he meets Dorotea, a woman who had been raped by Don Fernando after a fraudulent marriage ceremony. The two of them travel to an inn, where they find Luscinda and Don Fernando and each couple is paired up correctly.
This is likely the story Shakespeare used for the 1613 play written in collaboration with Fletcher, but it was never printed. The manuscript still existed in 1653, when the printer Humphrey Moseley recorded his ownership of the copyright. But Moseley did not publish it either, and Cardenio disappeared.
Then in 1727, the lawyer and playwright Lewis Theobald announced that he had found not just one, but three manuscript copies of a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, which he promised to adapt for the stage. His play is remarkably similar to the Cardenio story in Don Quixote. The names are different, but Julio is recognizable as Cardenio, Leonora as Luscinda, Henriquez as Don Fernando, and Violante as Dorotea.
But Theobald’s reputation was not pristine. In 1716 he had been accused of plagiarism by a watchmaker named Henry Meysteyer, who had given Theobald an early draft of a play, looking for advice. After four months of work rewriting the play, Theobald considered it to be entirely his own work. The practice of adapting old plays and claiming sole credit for the result was not unusual at the time, though other playwrights sensibly chose dead dramatists to steal from.
Theobald’s adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play, which he called Double Falsehood, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 13, 1727. To ensure its success, Theobald persuaded the age’s great actor, Barton Booth, then in failing health, to come out of retirement to play the lead. It was Booth’s last role before his health was permanently ruined, and Theobald was blamed for hastening Booth’s death. But it worked: the play was a huge success.
Theobald published his adaptation the next year, with a preface in which he explained the provenance of one of his three manuscripts:
one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Handwriting of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and, as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the Possession of the celebrated Mr. Betterton, and by Him design’d to have been usher’d into the World… There is a Tradition (which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies) that this Play was given by our Author, as a Present of Value, to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it, in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage.
For the past two centuries Theobald’s play, along with the provenance he gave it, has largely been considered a hoax. Was it a coincidence, then, that Theobald picked the same plot as a lost Shakespeare play for a clever attempt at forgery, or could it be possible that a manuscript of Cardenio lies behind Double Falsehood?
Parliamentary edict forbade the performance of plays from 1642, on the eve of the Civil Wars, until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. By then the outdoor playhouses had been pulled down and most actors from before the edict were aging or had died. Two new theatre companies formed, each under the management of a Royalist courtier-playwright: the King’s Men, under Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Men under Sir William Davenant. Killigrew’s King’s Men recruited most of the experienced actors and claimed ownership of all the old plays that Shakespeare’s company, the former King’s Men, had owned, leaving Davenant with no plays and no actors.
Davenant trained a group of recruits—including the Thomas Betterton Theobald’s preface mentions, who would be compared with Shakespeare’s own star actor, Richard Burbage—and, for the first time, actresses, but he had to beg Killigrew for a few plays. Killigrew gave him the worthless ones, by a playwright who was already considered old-fashioned: Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s younger contemporaries, Beaumont and Fletcher, the Gilbert and Sullivan of the Jacobean stage, were widely considered to be more modern, more fashionable, and more gentlemanly. Killigrew didn’t expect he could make much money by performing Shakespeare. Among the second-string plays Davenant was given were Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet,and Henry VIII.
William Davenant was the son of a wine tavern owner in Oxford, John Davenant, who was a lover of plays and a friend of Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare stayed with the Davenants as their guest whenever he passed through Oxford on his way between London and Stratford. William was Shakespeare’s godson. In his later years, Davenant was happy to let others think he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. Though the rumor was probably nothing more than a marketing ploy, Davenant did successfully make himself and his company into Shakespeare’s theatrical heirs, adapting and updating many of Shakespeare’s plays for the changed tastes of the Restoration audience.
Theobald’s claim that one of his manuscripts, “above sixty years standing” and in the handwriting of Davenant’s prompter, John Downes, puts the creation of this manuscript squarely in a period when Davenant might indeed have been interested in adapting an old play of Shakespeare’s to add to his thin repertoire. Davenant never produced Cardenio, but his adaptation would have stayed in his theatre’s library. Thus Theobald’s odd story that Shakespeare wrote the play for his “Natural Daughter” might have some truth behind it—in Theobald’s time Davenant’s claim to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son was still generally believed, so Davenant’s third wife Henrietta Maria, who succeeded him as theatre manager, might by association—however strange this sounds today—have been called Shakespeare’s “Natural Daughter.” Thomas Betterton, Davenant’s star actor, whom Theobald says later owned the manuscript, succeeded Henrietta Maria as theatre manager. Manuscripts from Betterton’s library were purchased from his estate sale by Charles Gildon, who in 1710 used them to publish a Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton and in 1719, published The Post-Man Robb’d of his Mail, which contained a letter written to The Tatler magazine complaining about ignorant theatre managers who rejected good plays, using as example a play written by Beaumont, Fletcher, and Shakespeare a few years before the latter died and never printed. It sounds suspiciously like Cardenio. Gildon and Theobald both were patronized by Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery, and both knew that family well, making it possible that Gildon’s Shakespeare manuscript, purchased from Betterton’s estate, made it to Theobald by way of Boyle, the “Noble Person” he mentions in his preface.
Brean Hammond relates this history in the new Arden edition, with more research than has ever been afforded to a play previously considered merely an “agreeable cheat.” But the real worth of his research lies in accounting for the afterlife of Theobald’s adaptation, why it was labeled a forgery and forgotten so soon after publication. To do this, Hammond takes care to situate the play in the literary climate of the time, especially in the battle between Pope and Theobald over the right to edit Shakespeare.
In the early eighteenth century the copyright—and thus monopoly—of Shakespeare’s plays belonged to the printer Jacob Tonson. In 1709 a copyright act was passed by Parliament to end eternal copyrights; all new copyrights would expire after fourteen years. To protect their monopoly, the Tonson family issued a continuous succession of editions prepared by new editors, claiming that the new editorial apparatus of each—the introductions and commentary—conferred a fourteen-year copyright not just on the new material but to the original plays as well. The Tonson family were responsible for all the great eighteenth century editions of Shakespeare’s plays: Rowe’s, Pope’s, Theobald’s, Warburton’s, Johnson’s, and Capell’s. They held onto their Shakespeare monopoly until 1772, when their direct line died out.
In 1727, Theobald was in the midst of a bid to be the Tonsons’ next Shakespeare editor, a lucrative job to have. Alexander Pope, the famous poet, satirist, and translator, had published his Shakespeare edition in 1725, one of a line of poets who claimed the authority and privilege to interpret Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s edition is famous for demoting lines he didn’t like to small print at the bottom of the page. In 1726, Theobald had earned Pope’s eternal enmity by publishing Shakespeare Restor’d, exposing the many errors in Pope’s Hamlet. Theobald, with access to early editions of the plays and knowledge of secretary hand, the style of handwriting used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was the first to bring standards of classical and biblical scholarship to the study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare Restor’d was Theobald’s application for his own chance to edit Shakespeare’s plays. Hammond considers Theobald’s adaptation of Double Falsehood in 1727 to be part of this campaign. It worked: Theobald’s own edition—which did not include Double Falsehood, since the Tonsons controlled the table of contents to preserve their copyright—appeared in 1733.
But in the meantime Pope had censured Theobald as the mock-hero of The Dunciad—Pope’s famous satire celebrating Dullness, published in 1728—and had suggested that Double Falsehood might be a forgery. In the end, though Theobald replaced him as editor, Pope emerged as the real winner: later generations remembered the “piddling Tibbald” of The Dunciad and not the accomplished editor of Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s claim that Double Falsehood was little more than an interesting forgery has been long unchallenged.
Theobald’s three Cardenio manuscripts disappeared. They were rumored to be held by the Covent Garden Theatre—perhaps purchased for the revival of Double Falsehood by David Garrick in 1770—but that theater burned down in 1808. Or they might have been purchased from Theobald’s estate sale by the critic William Warburton, who left a pile of manuscripts sitting on his kitchen table. His cook assumed they were garbage and used the paper to line pie tins. But Theobald’s adaptation went through three editions in quick order, and many copies of Double Falsehood have survived to the present day.
Finding Cardenio has been something of a cottage industry among Shakespeare scholars recently, with both Stephen Greenblatt and Gary Taylor “writing” Cardenio again, Taylor attempting something like facilitated communication to do so. But unless a manuscript of Cardenio—not baked into a pie after all—is found, Hammond’s edition is the closest we can get to a new Shakespeare play. If Double Falsehood is Cardenio—and Hammond shows almost beyond doubt that it is—it is Cardenio as adapted by Davenant as adapted by Theobald, a play lost and yet, tantalizingly, not.
Bonus Link: Ron Rosenbaum dissents at Slate.