Single Error, Double Falsehood, Triple Bluff?

It was a pleasure to be able to write about Scotland and Shakespeare for the paper yesterday, in the wake of the Arden Shakespeare’s decision to republish “Double Falsehood” as a genuine work by Shakespeare. I couldn’t go into more detail about that aspect of the story, and that’s what this space is for: to complement the published reviews with greater analysis.

In a nutshell: in 1727 Lewis Theobald produced a play called “Double Falsehood, or the Distrest Lovers” which he claimed was based on the manuscript of a prompter’s copy of a lost play by Shakespeare, Cardenio. We know Cardenio was a real play by Shakespeare, since it was performed for the court in 1613. There is also a mention of it in the Stationer’s Register for 1653, registered for publication by a bookseller called Humphrey Moseley. That’s problem #1: Moseley also registered three other plays, The History of King Stephen, Duke Humphrey A Tragedy, and Iphis and Iantha: Or Marriage Without a Man and attributed them all to Shakespeare. No printed copy of Cardenio has ever surfaced. Theobald, notably, did not claim to have a printed version, but a manuscript.

You don't cross Mr Pope...

Theobald was a contradictory individual. He came to fame by publicly attacking the edition of Shakespeare put together by Alexander Pope, the leading poet of the day, with the grandiloquent titles Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published.  Pope was not a great Shakespeare editor – he placed asterisks next to particularly “good” lines and relegated parts he didn’t like to footnotes (including Lady Macbeth’s “the multitudinous seas incarnadine”). Theobald made one famous emendation to a crux in Mistress Quickly’s account of Falstaff’s death in Henry V. The Folio of Shakespeare was not proofed or subedited, and runs “For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was but one way, for his nose was as sharp as a pen on a table of green fields”. Bate and Rasmussen keep this reading for the RSC Shakespeare, glossing the “table” as “perhaps alluding to the fields on a green gaming (backgammon) table”. Pope thought it was a piece of incorporated marginalia, asking for a “table from Greenfield’s”, presumably a theatrical outfitter of the day. Theobald’s reading was “a [meaning he] babbled of green fields”, which seems to fit with the “play with flowers”. Most modern editions keeps Theobald’s emendation. Theobald compiled his own edition of Shakespeare, which, though not as brilliant as that of Edmond Malone at the end of the century, was a significant step in the right direction for Shakespeare editing.

Pope’s nose was put so far out of joint by the upstart Theobald that he made him the Messiah of Dullness in his scabrous, brilliant mock-epic, The Dunciad. It also meant a fair amount of muck-raking into Theobald’s past: his weak translations of Sophocles and Aeschylus and the persistent rumour that he had been given a play called The Perfidious Brother by Henry Meystayer to review which he subsequently passed off as his own work.

 Then, in 1727, Double Falsehood was staged and printed, with the subtitle “Written Originally by W Shakespeare; and now revised and adapted to the stage by Mr Theobald, the author of Shakespeare Restor’d”. A bill of sale exists that shows Theobald bought the manuscript – although such a document is easily forged – and a newspaper advertisement stated the manuscript was gifted to the library of Covent Garden Theatre which burned to the ground in 1808. Why did Theobald not publish the original, given his editorial skills? Why did no-one between Theobald’s death in 1744 and 1808 chose to publish it – editors such as William Warburton, Samuel Johnson and Edmond Malone would all have had access to it. Even if they were sceptical about the play’s association with Theobald, no other prompter’s copies of plays even tangentially Shakespearean exist – for that reason alone it would have piqued interest.

As for the play itself: well, it doesn’t have a character called Cardenio for one thing. Once I get the new edition of Double Falsehood, I’ll post my thoughts: in the interim – do these speeches sound like Shakespeare to you?

O, Wretched and betray’d!  Lost Violante!

Heart-wounded with a thousand perjur’d Vows,

Poison’d with studied Language, and bequeath’d

To Desperation.  I am now become

The Tomb of my own Honour:  a dark Mansion,

For Death alone to dwell in.  I invite thee,

Consuming Desolation, to this Temple,

Now fit to be thy Spoil:  the ruin’d Fabrick,

Which cannot be repair’d, at once o’er-throw.

What must I do? — But That’s not worth my Thought:

I will commend to Hazard all the Time

That I shall spend hereafter:  Farewel, my Father,

Whom I’ll no more offend:  and Men, adieu,

Whom I’ll no more believe:  and Maids, adieu,

Whom I’ll no longer shame.  The Way I go,

As yet I know not. —  Sorrow be my Guide.

Where were the Eyes, the Voice, the various Charms,

Each beauteous Particle, each nameless Grace,

Parents of glowing Love?  All These in Her,

It seems, were not:  but a Disease in Me,

That fancied Graces in her. —  Who ne’er beheld

More than a Hawthorne, shall have Cause to say

The Cedar’s a tall Tree; and scorn the Shade,

The lov’d Bush once had lent him.  Soft! mine Honour

Begins to sicken in this black Reflection.

How can it be, that with my Honour safe

I should pursue Leonora for my Wife?

That were accumulating Injuries,

To Violante first, and now to Julio;

To her a perjur’d Wretch, to him perfidious;

And to myself in strongest Terms accus’d

Of murth’ring Honour wilfully, without which

My Dog’s the Creature of the nobler Kind. —

But Pleasure is too strong for Reason’s Curb;

And Conscience sinks o’er-power’d with Beauty’s Sweets.

Come, Leonora, Authress of my Crime,

Appear, and vindicate thy Empire here;

Aid me to drive this ling’ring Honour hence,

And I am wholly thine.

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One response to “Single Error, Double Falsehood, Triple Bluff?

  1. Pingback: But soft, yinz guyz « Shakespeare Oxford Society

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