In May, 1613, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, was paid to perform six plays at court; on the list, alongside such familiar titles as Much Ado About Nothing and 1 Henry IV, was a play called Cardenio. That same year the company received a substantial sum for a command performance of this play before the ambassador of the Duke of Savoy. And later in the century a London printer registered Cardenio for publication and listed the play’s authors as William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. John Fletcher was the young playwright whom Shakespeare, late his career, had chosen as his principal collaborator. Together they wrote the history play Henry VIII and the tragicomic Two Noble Kinsmen, but Cardenio – the Holy Grail of Shakespeare-lovers worldwide -- disappeared.
Not, however, without a trace. The source Shakespeare and Fletcher used – a powerful story of sexual intrigue and betrayal told in Cervantes’ Don Quixote – has long been known. And in the eighteenth century the distinguished Shakespeare editor and playwright, Lewis Theobald, claimed to have discovered the missing manuscript of Cardenio. Following the custom of his age, Theobald “improved” what he had found and produced the highly successful play The Double Falsehood. Unfortunately, the manuscript Theobald had found – assuming he was not lying -- was deposited in London’s Covent Garden Playhouse which burned down to the ground in 1808. The very existence of this manuscript was called into question until recent scholarship has concluded, on the basis of sophisticated computer studies, that Theobald may have been telling the truth.
We have taken the traces of the lost Shakespeare play and used them as the inspiration for our Cardenio. The parts of The Double Falsehood likeliest to bear Shakespeare’s own imprint appear in the play-within-the-play that the characters perform, and the main plot is based on the story of the “Curious Impertinent” recounted in the Cardenio section of Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s source. In fact Shakespeare’s fingerprints are all over our play. But, as with one of Shakespeare’s own comedies, the audience does not need to know anything about the sources to enjoy the play.
Reproduced here are the relevant chapters from the play's two sources, Don Quixote and Double Falsehood.
Stephen Greenblatt is John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.
Charles Mee is an American playwright. Learn more about his work by visiting his website, The (Re)Making Project.
The Cardenio project was made possible through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2002, the foundation presented Stephen Greenblatt with one of three Distinguished Achievement Awards for scholars in the humanities. Intended to underscore the decisive contributions the humanities make to the nation’s intellectual life, the awards, amounting to as much as $1.5 million each, honor scholars who have made significant contributions to humanistic inquiry.
Thanks to Suparna Roychoudhury, Emily Peterson, Christine Barrett, Harriet Zuckerman, Joseph Meisel, Michi Barall, and Ramie Targoff.