How many of Shakespeare’s plays can you name? Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are amongst the most well-known. But you may not be so familiar with one: The History of Cardenio – or simply Cardenio, as it’s more commonly known – is all but lost to us. Only a few facts about it are known. It’s usually believed to have been written in 1612 because it was performed by the King’s Men – the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged for most of his career – in 1612-1613.
In the 1653 Stationers’ Register (a record book documenting published works, and an invaluable source of information on the works of Shakespeare) there’s an entry which lists ‘The History of Cardenio, by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare’. ‘Fletcher’ is John Fletcher, who followed Shakespeare as the house playwright for the King’s Men and collaborated with him on the writing of the plays Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Most scholars think that this lost play is a dramatisation of the ‘Cardenio’ scenes in Don Quixote, an early seventeenth-century epic novel by the renowned Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. In Cervantes’ novel, Cardenio meets the wandering knight Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza during their journey through Spain, and tells them his story. Cardenio, having been betrayed by his friend Don Fernando, who stole the woman he loved, has resorted to living alone in the mountains, and is believed to have become mad. Cervantes’ wild Cardenio may well have attracted the interest of Fletcher and Shakespeare. However, not all scholars are convinced that Cervantes was their inspiration. Other contemporary documents list the play’s title as ‘Cardenno’ and ‘Cardenna’, which may in fact refer to Cardena, an area in Andalusia, Spain, instead of Cervantes’ Cardenio.
Lewis Theobald’s play Double Falsehood, a sentimental romance thought to be adapted from Fletcher and Shakespeare’s Cardenio, was first performed in 1727. It presents a simplified version of the Cardenio plot, though the characters are given different names: Cardenio becomes Julio. Scholars are still trying to find out whether Double Falsehood is in reality an adaptation of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s lost play, an adaptation of a different work, or a forgery. Whatever the case, Double Falsehood probably wasn’t very good: in 1728 the author Alexander Pope ridiculed Theobald (describing him as a ‘Dunce’, who tries to convert the world to stupidity), making direct references to Double Falsehood.
There have been various re-imaginings of the play in recent years, including one attempt by Gregory Doran in 2011 for the Royal Shakespeare Company ; Doran drew on Cervantes and Theobald to create a work full of echoes of Shakespeare. Perhaps we’ll never know any more about Fletcher and Shakespeare’s Cardenio, but we can keep studying the tantalising scraps of evidence, and try to imagine it…
To find out more about Cardenio, try the Folger Shakespeare Library.