September 30, 1808—It was bad enough that during the morning, the Covent Garden Theatre in London was completely consumed by fire, or that 23 firemen lost their lives in the collapse of the building. But the blaze also destroyed an organ left by Handel, a stock of wine belonging to the Beefsteak Club—and, most important, in the library, a possible manuscript of William Shakespeare.
Yes, you read that last clause correctly. Like much else about Shakespeare’s life, the documentary trail about Cardenio is slim and tantalizing:
* John Heminges, a longtime friend of Shakespeare’s, in charge of the King’s Men troupe, presented six plays at court, including Cardenno (Shakespeare’s age were creative about spelling!) in May 1613.
* That same year, Heminges presented Cardenna (there they go again with the spelling!) before the Duke of Savoy’s ambassador.
* “The History of Cardenio, by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare,” was entered onto the Stationers’ Register by the London publisher Humphrey Moseley. No copies survive.
* Lewis Theobald, a subsequent Shakespeare editor, published a tragicomedy called Double Falsehood, or, the Distrest Lovers. This, he told his audience, he had, “with great labour and pains, revised and adapted the same for the Stage.” How did this wondrous play end up in his hands? Let’s listen: “One of the MS. copies was above sixty years standing in the handwriting of Mr. Downes the famous old Prompter, and was early in the possession of Mr. Betterton, who designed to have ushered it into the world.” Do you believe that? A lot of people haven’t over the years. I mean, if he had a play by Shakespeare, of all people, why the need to “revise and adapt” it in the first place?
We already know about the terrible Covent Garden fire. But there’s an unusual postscript to all this. In the 1990s, the internationally famous handwriting expert Charles Hamilton came upon an untitled, anonymous manuscript in the British Museum Library and subsequently wrote a book claiming that it was the lost Cardenio and that it was, in fact, in Shakespeare’s handwriting.
Now, here’s the interesting thing (to me, anyway) about this play. I always thought it was one of those fascinating coincidences that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date (April 23, 1616, if you want to know), but it seems that they had something else in common. Most people know that Shakespeare borrowed (or, to use Mr. Theobald’s word, “adapted”) much older plays for his own purposes.
But Cardenio came from an episode in Don Quixote involving two characters named Cardenio and Lucinda. Now this was quite a feat, because Don Quixote had only just been translated into English. Ol’ Bill was wasting no time jumping on a good story!
A little more about Cardenio: How much of it was attributed to Shakespeare is very much up for grabs. The last play generally believed to be entirely written by Shakespeare was The Tempest, in 1611. After that, the man from Stratford scaled back his association with London’s theater world.
Following The Tempest, Shakespeare’s name was paired up with John Fletcher on three other plays: Cardenio, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Henry VIII. Some scholars believe that Fletcher patched these together from some loose scenarios concocted by Shakespeare.
How appropriate that Cardenio should meet its fate by fire. Even during his lifetime, The Bard almost saw his legacy destroyed in a conflagration that utterly destroyed the Globe Theatre in July 1613. Fortunately, some of the proudest possessions of the theater—including costumes and its playscripts for Shakespeare—were salvaged. Would that Cardenio had met a similar fate.
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