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Shakesmarleton Lives! UK Premiere of Shakespeare Comes to Twickenham

by on 2 March 2017

UK Premiere of Shakespeare Comes to Twickenham

History of Cardenio , Cutpurse and RSS

Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 18th to 25th March.

Preview by Mark Aspen 


Who was this chap Shakespeare?   And who were his mates? Was one of them Spanish? And what’s all this to do with one of Twickenham’s most ardent Shakespeare experts?

Modern scholarly research (that is serious work, not those of us who just dip our toes in these ever flowing waters) shows that Elizabethan and Jacobean playwriting was much more of a team sport than we had hitherto thought.

Shakespeare’s inkpot, it seems, was a bit more communal than we had believed.  But then again we should have suspected. How otherwise could he have found time for all that acting, and moving bits of theatres from one side of the Thames to the other, and wooing Anne Hathaway, and having Lost Years in Italy or somewhere?

After all, we have known for some time (actually since 1634 when the First Quarto was published) that Two Noble Kinsmen was written by two kindred souls, William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

However, our Will seems to have been drawn to mates called Tom: Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Thomas Kyd on various works, but especially with Thomas Middleton.   For a long time Middleton has been credited with writing chunks of Timon of Athens, and probably revised Macbeth and Measure for Measure after Shakespeare’s death. But now some scholars are confidently declaring that Middleton wrote large bits of All’s Well that Ends Well too.

Now that Thomas Kyd, he wrote The Spanish Tragedy, didn’t he? Well, er, maybe he started writing the first bit of it, but then he probably needed some help. “Hand D” comes in here. A three page revision to an unpublished Elizabethan play by Anon, Sir Thomas Moore, a dramatised biography of Henry VIII’s hapless Lord Chancellor, was written by a Hand D. In 1916 a team of authoritative Shakespearian scholars, including palaeographer Sir Edward Thompson who had painstakingly compared Hand D with Shakespeare’s writing on extant legal documents that he had signed, came to the conclusion that Hand D belonged to none other than our Will. It seems than Hand D also wrote part of the manuscript for The Spanish Tragedy and in 2013 scholar Douglas Bruster confidently declared that Shakespeare wrote some scenes in this play too.

Arden of Faversham, a 1592 play by the ubiquitous Anon, has long attracted the curiosity of scholars looking for a possible author.   The very busy Thomas Kyd had long been their prime suspect, but it now seems that our Will may have written that too! Interestingly, two of the characters in Arden of Faversham are incompetent hit-men called Shakebag and Black Will. The plot thickens!

These ever flowing waters of scholarly research into which we are dipping our toes are, however, tidal. They are not solely a Teddington Weir deluge of scholarship favouring Shakespeare in authorship claims: there is a strongly recurrent ebb tide. In 2012, Oxford professor, Laurie Maguire claimed that much of the spelling and vocabulary in All’s Well that Ends Well was that of Thomas Middleton, and since then much research has been undertaken on this sort of pattern-matching to try to answer the perennial question of who wrote Shakespeare.

All this probably shows that Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were not lone figures scratching their quills in garrets and alehouses, but had more of an all-hands-to-deck approach when the pressures of influential patrons demanded drama by deadline.

So what about Shakespeare’s Spanish workmate? Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died the very same day as Shakespeare, 23rd April 1616. So they were in every sense contemporaries. Cervantes is of course the “Shakespeare of Spain”, and his well-known Don Quixote is lauded as the very first novel. Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615 it represents the epitome of the Spanish Golden Age of literature. So, did Shakespeare in his Lost Years go to Spain and share a porron or two with Cervantes? Sorry to disappoint, but probably not. However, without a doubt Shakespeare would have known about Don Quixote. Now, as Will would say: here is the rub. A sub-plot of Don Quixote about Cardenio, a recluse spurned in love, formed the basis of a Shakespeare play, The History of Cardenio, written in collaboration with John Fletcher.


US Premiere of The History of Cardenio, Indianapolis, 2012.  Photograph by Emily Schwank


“I’ve never heard of Shakespeare writing The History of Cardenio”, many will say, but there is no doubt he did. The King’s Men were paid for two performances of the play in the winter of 1612-13 and in 1653 publisher Humphrey Moseley made known that he was going to print and sell a previously unpublished play, The History of Cardenio, by Messrs Fletcher and Shakespeare.

In the 1740s, actor David Garrick, our doyen of Hampton, acted for (and with) Colley Cibber (whom he was soon to eclipse in the eyes of the London audiences). In 1727, Colley Cibber produced a play by the Shakespeare scholar Lewis Theobald, called Double Falsehood. This was in fact an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio. In 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company had a crack at Double Falsehood, at a time when academy interest was being re-ignited in universities worldwide from Nottingham to Texas. Textual and linguistic analyses showed Double Falsehood to indeed be a re-incarnation of at least some of William Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio.

For over twenty years the person who has really had the bit between his teeth in researching the connection between Double Falsehood and The History of Cardenio has been Gary Taylor, Distinguished Research Professor of English at Florida State University.  He has “retro-engineered” the Theobald adaptation using his technique of, wait for it … History of Text Technologies.  This is an interdisciplinary approach which has successfully reconstructed the likely text for the jointly-authored The History of Cardenio as it would have been in 1612.

Prof Taylor is a bit like a forensic archaeologist, piecing together shards of an Etruscan urn to create, not a reproduction, but the real thing assembled with a little clay for the missing bits.   In the same way, Taylor has brought together Theobald’s script and some other fragments to make Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio live again.

In May 2012, the Indiana University and Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), working with professional actors and using Prof Taylor’s restored text, staged the first production in over 400 years of The History of Cardenio.

Present at that American premiere at IUPUI, was Gerald Baker, long-time resident of Twickenham, who is well known locally as a director and actor.   Gerald Baker was a commentator in the BBC news coverage of the event, and has offered advice to Professor Taylor on the development of the script.

Taylor is the senior General Editor of New Oxford Shakespeare where some of Baker’s work on The History of Cardenio is mentioned.   In the way that changes in intellectual direction usually do, the New Oxford Shakespeare is a tome that has raised hackles in academia and in the theatre world.

Nevertheless Taylor is himself a theatre-savvy scholar and has entrusted the UK premiere of The History of Cardenio to Gerald Baker.  Baker’s project has been long in the gestation, and has been met locally with cynicism and support in equal measure.

However, Baker now has a bun in the oven, and what a tasty bun it will be.  A co-production by the Richmond Shakespeare Society and Cutpurse, the UK premiere of The History of Cardenio will take place at the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham between 18th and 25th March.

It will be an historic occasion, but you will not have to stand with the Southwark groundlings, ankle-deep in rotting hazelnut shells and worse. Nevertheless, Gerald Baker reminds us that “this will be as close to a Shakespeare first night as you’re ever likely to get”.

Mark Aspen

March 2017

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