Plaster the name ‘William Shakespeare’ on your theatre posters, and you’re sure to get bums on seats – even if Shakespeare didn’t quite write the play in question.
That’s the rationale behind the slew of productions of the mysterious Cardenio, or Double Falsehood, the latest of which has opened at the Union Theatre. This latest production is fresh and pacy – and buoyed by energetic performances by Emily
Plumtree, Emily Plumtree and Adam Redmore – but it’s hard to watch without a gnawing sense of astonishment at the chutzpah of the company’s claim to place this flimsy curio
alongside masterpieces like Macbeth or Measure for Measure.
There are few global brands as successful as William Shakespeare. Setting aside that the man himself left for us the subtlest, richest traces of the human imagination ever to stamp their imprint on
our shared consciousness, the name represents a powerful set of marketable values. The Shakespeare brand is, today, both aspirational and universal – sticking his face on your fridge marks you as learned enough to know your 16th century vocabulary,
but sensitive enough of soul to understand everything from ‘the milk of human kindness’ to ‘a mind diseased’. His penetrating gaze is the perfect logo for our touchy-feely
age, which may not be a coincidence, since our modern interest in human interiority was almost invented by the power of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. And the sheer range of characters means
there’s something to sell to everyone.
Ever since Ben Jonson’s eulogy lauded his rival as ‘not of an age, but for all time’, Shakespeare has been celebrated for his ability to express the universal range of human
emotions. Hamlet imagines that the theatre should ‘hold a mirror up to nature’ and, in a hugely influential passage, Samuel Johnson advertised Shakespeare as the poet who fulfilled his
own challenge: ‘the poet who holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life… not modified by the customs of particular places’. So you can send your romantic
Indonesian aunt a coffee mug with a quotation from Romeo and Juliet, and next to it in the shop find a King Lear version to buy for your Emo teenage niece in Moscow. Perfect.
With images of the Bard’s face sold on coasters from Tokyo to Torquay, what matter if no expert can agree on what he actually looked like? Give him the right mutton chops and stringy
mustache, stick a pen in his hand – or better, a skull – and the average consumer will recognize what Shakespeare ought to look like better than any university don. The Shakespeare
industry has been up to this trick for hundreds of years, producing spurious portraits supposedly of the man himself. According to one curator, ‘there are between 50 and 100 images in the National Portrait Gallery stacks that were at one time considered to be
So it’s no surprise that the publishing industry, the beating heart of Shakespeare Inc. with 4 billion copies of his work sold, has occasionally pulled off a similar trick. What makes
Double Falsehood stand out amongst the many doubtful texts that have through history claimed Shakespeare as an author is the level of scholarship that’s gone into verifying the
claim, first by Lewis Theobald, the 18th Century ‘discoverer’ of the text, and now by Brean Hammond, whose painstaking scholarship convinced Arden Shakespeare to publish his work as the
first edition of Double Falsehood in their canonical series.
But nowhere does Hammond make the grandiose claim pushed by the marketing team behind MokitaGrit’s new production of the play. ‘Discover a Lost Shakespeare’, blazon the posters.
Well, maybe. ‘Discover a lost scene or speech inserted in by Shakespeare into a play largely written by someone else’ doesn’t sound quite so snappy. Or as Hammond puts it, in
perfect academese: ‘I am relatively sure that some part of this play is
Shakespeare’s work’. The strong likelihood is that Double Falsehood is Theobald’s 18th Century adaptation of collaboration between Shakespeare and his
successor as playwright for the King’s Men, John Fletcher. Theobald claimed to base his adaptation on discovered manuscripts of a play called Cardenio, a Jacobean play heavily inspired by
It’s undeniably exciting to think of a play evolving from two of the greatest writers in European history, Cervantes and Shakespeare. And, unlike Theobald, we have proof that
Cardenio actually existed: a record appears of it being performed in the reign of James I. But there’s much less evidence that Shakespeare deserves a spot on the title page: the
primary evidence comes from a notoriously unscrupulous publisher called Humphrey Moseley, who publicized an edition in 1647 of ‘The History of Cardenio. By Mr Fletcher. &
Moseley has quite a reputation for sticking the name ‘Shakespeare’ on plays to flog them (when did you last watch Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Iphis and Iantha, or A
Marriage Without a Man, a Comedy?), but even he only affixed Shakespeare as an afterthought to the more formally titled ‘Mr Fletcher’. ‘Shakespeare’ – no
‘Mr.’ needed – is already a brand at this stage. And taking Moseley’s publication as evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship is a bit like picking up a copy of Harry Potter and the Leopard Walk-Up-To Dragon and assuming it’s part of the canon of J. K. Rowling.
There’s no suggestion, however, that Double Falsehood was an out and out forgery. Lewis Theobald, who first worked on the text, was devoted to dispassionate criticism of
Shakespeare’s textual history. He invented more or less modern textual criticism. His reputation was temporarily trashed by his great rival, Alexander Pope, who considered scholarship
dull. (The number of journalists who have recently described Theobald as ‘a writer of pantomimes’ probably has something to do with the prevalence on university syllabuses of
Pope’s comic Dunciad, in which Theobald appears as King of Dunces.) But, dull though he may have been, Theobald was no hoaxer.
There have been plenty of Shakespeare forgeries in the past – anyone looking for a laugh should dig up a copy of the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries, which include a series of manuscript poems
and letters supposedly written by Shakespeare, along with Shakespeare’s ‘own’ print editions of his own plays. Shakespeare’s signatures were so valuable by the 1790s that
William Henry Ireland decided to scrawl ‘William Shakespeare’ all over the margins in grossly varying imitations of an original signature. Does any real writer randomly scribble his
signature across his own library?
Ireland also filled out some of the great mysteries of Shakespeare’s life through convenient correspondence: to counter Shakespeare’s silence on religion, a letter appeared professing
fierce Protestantism, alongside a love poem sent to his wife, inheritrix of the famous ‘second best bed.’ Ireland even introduced a letter from Elizabeth I confirming a close
relationship between the two icons, a mythic element of the Shakespeare brand brilliantly explored by Helen Hackett in a recent book, Shakespeare and Elizabeth. But all of this paled into insignificance compared to the
deliciously execrable Vortigen, Ireland’s forgery of a Shakespeare play so unwatchable it makes Double Falsehood feel like Twelfth Night.
So if Double Falsehood has a little bit of Shakespeare, why complain? Does it matter if a play is solely the work of a master artist, or a collaboration? To many of us, the answer is yes.
It’s true that most 16th Century play texts we now have are the result of collaboration – if nothing else, between the publisher and playwright, or the actors who sold on their partial
scripts, poorly reconstructed. Oxford Professor Tiffany Stern has demonstrated convincingly that prologues and epilogues were routinely shuffled between plays, or rewritten by jobbing hacks. But
there’s something different at work when the whole body of play is pulled in different directions by different writers. And there’s something special that happens when we buy a ticket
for a play by a single canonical author called William Shakespeare.
Despite centuries of disagreement about what makes Shakespeare objectively ‘good’, it’s worth highlighting a rather unfashionable value, ambiguity. The reason one can sit
through a hundred different productions of The Merchant of Venice is that Shakespeare raises tough questions without ever resolving them. Is Shylock an anti-Semitic stereotype or a
sympathetic victim? Critics can fight for centuries, but they won’t agree. To maintain this level of complexity, though, each play needs an overarching sense of unity. Shylock’s
contradictions need to be convincing, or else the character is an inconsistent mess. ‘Shakespeare’ plays with more than one author often suffer from such problems of consistency.
But something much worse happens when they’re billed as the work of Shakespeare alone. Introducing a new play into a pre-existing canon changes the way we feel about the author as a whole. To
use the jargon, it interferes with what Foucault called ‘the author-function’: the relationship the public has with the idea of an author’s body of work. So, if we call Double
Falsehood a Shakespeare play, it dilutes the Shakespeare Brand as a whole.
This may seem like it should only matter to the Chamber of Commerce of Stratford on Avon. In fact, it should matter to everyone who thinks that Romeo and Juliet has the power to change
lives. Because if a teenager is dragged to Double Falsehood and leaves with a lifelong conviction that ‘Shakespeare’ is pallid and dull, they may never get a chance to engage
with the real thing. And that’s a loss to all of us.