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Friday, 16 July 2010

Double Falsehood

(No, don't worry - not another verbal assault on certain politicians; not this time, at any rate.)

A couple of weeks ago, a school-age daughter of very good friends phoned me out of the blue to ask how many plays Shakespeare wrote. Now, I'm often accused of never giving a straight answer, but on this occasion I was happy to reply -

"Nobody knows. It's true. We just don't know. If the school tells you it's 37, who are we to argue? But it's wrong. The real answer is, we don't know. Next question?"

I was in Stratford today - lovely old Stratford - for a talk about the publication of a new Shakespeare play. This is the latest in the Arden Shakespeare series. It's called Double Falsehood. And it's by Lewis Theobald (pronounced: "Tibbalt"). And by John Fletcher. And by William Shakespeare.

It's actually an early eighteenth-century version of an earlier play by Shakespeare. Quite possibly the last play Shakespeare wrote. Then, it went by the name of Cardenio, and was based on a story from Don Quixote (a bit of useless information - Shakespeare and Cervantes died on exactly the same day).

What makes this play enormously interesting for me is that the Lord Chamberlain, who probably commissioned it for performance at the court of King James, was Robert Carr, onetime favourite of the King. By the time the play was performed, Carr was married to the dazzling Frances Howard and King James was in love with another young man, George Villiers. And while Carr was happily embedded with the crypto-Catholic faction at court, Villiers was quickly adopted by the Puritan hardliners who were determined to see Carr and his Howard in-laws crushed.

Carr. Cardenio. Get it?

Anyway, Carr's fall from grace came shortly afterwards. In order to marry him, Lady Frances had been forced to divorce her hopeless husband, after which Carr's bosom pal turned against her. Evidently, this chap must have known something because he was suddenly imprisoned in the Tower of London. Where, after a short while, he died. The assumption at the time was that he'd been poisoned.

Carr and his wife eventually stood trial for the supposed murder of his friend, Sir Thomas Overbury. They were effectively pardoned (four lesser mortals had already been executed for their roles in what probably wasn't a murder anyway). But Carr and the crypto-Catholic faction were ruined. And by then, Shakespeare himself was dead. In fact, he died the day before the jurors received their summonses to attend the hearings.

It was only typical of Shakespeare that he would have been batting for the Catholic faction - just as it was typical of his great rival, Ben Jonson, to be the pet poet of the Puritan bunch. But given the way Shakespeare died, and given that he died rather suddenly in the midst of the greatest scandal to engulf the notoriously scandalous reign of King James I, and given that Ben Jonson was with him, or not far away, when he died, the role of Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio in all this courtly intrigue is ... well, intriguing. Because it was Shakespeare's contribution to a bitter factional war at the heart of the English government, one that involved the two leading poet-playwrights of the day, the leading lords and ladies, the king's two favourites, the country's foreign and domestic policies and the greatest issue of the age (religion), not to mention claims of murder, witchcraft, treason and sexual perversion ...

Frankly, I'm looking forward to getting hold of my own copy of Double Falsehood. It won't be quite what Shakespeare wrote, but it can only help to advance our knowledge and our understanding of the man and his times. It might even offer a clue or two as to why Shakespeare had to die when he did. The whole Carr thing had got way too embarrassing for the King, and Carr's enemies (including Ben Jonson) were not prepared to let that master of eloquence William Shakespeare speak out. And so, there was a 'merry meeting', and Shakespeare died.

Yep - plenty of interest in Double Falsehood, the closest thing we have to Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio.

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