To Be Shakespeare, Or Not To Be Shakespeare

3D front cover of Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers edited by Lewis TheobaldAdding to, or subtracting from, the established canon of a great genius, in whatever field, is rarely uncontroversial.  The Rembrandt Research Project has regularly caused dismay in museums and art galleries worldwide as it downgraded painting or drawings previously thought to be by the master to ‘School of’, though it has also occasionally gone in the other direction and authenticated an obscure picture previously thought to be by an obscure artist, raising it to the giddy heights of a genuine Rembrandt.

A TV series on the BBC (second season starting this week) called ‘Fake or Fortune’ (thus neatly hinting where it assumes the main interest of the viewers will lie – i.e. not whether a work is genuine but what it’s worth if it is) takes attribution as its theme, examining a disregarded painting and attempting to establish its authenticity (or not).

We tend to think of controversy over the Shakespearean canon as a relatively recent phenomenon – think of Professor Gary Taylor and the poem ‘Shall I die?’ (now apparently almost unanimously rejected), or the scholarly analysis that brought King Edward III into the New Cambridge Shakespeare in 1998, or Double Falsehood into the Arden edition in 2010.

But in fact, when Double Falshood [sic] was first staged in 1727 and then published in 1728 by the theatrical impresario Lewis Theobald, he had no qualms in boldly stating on the title-page, ‘Written originally by W. Shakespeare’. He was clearly so confident that the work would be a money-spinner that he obtained royal consent to a fourteen-year copyright. The document is reproduced in the front of the book, and describes how ‘our Trusty, and Well-beloved Lewis Theobald … having, at a considerable Expense, Purchased the Manuscript Copy of an Original Play of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, called, Double Falshood; Or, the Distrest Lovers; and, with great Labour and Pains, Revised, and adapted the same to the Stage; has humbly besought us, to grant him Our Royal Privilege…’.  It is not clear whether in fact he made much money by it: there was a second edition in London in the same year (and another in Dublin, hopefully licensed by Theobald!) but the so-called ‘third edition’ was published in London in 1767 (and in Dublin in 1769), well after the lapse of the copyright, and twenty-three years after Theobald’s death in 1744.  Since then the work seems to have fallen into obscurity, though the Cornmarket Press issued a facsimile in 1970.

Both in his fulsome ‘Dedication’, to George Dodington  (a minor and rather buffoonish politician, according to the ODNB) and in his preface, Theobald vigorously defends his claim that the work is by Shakespeare, with much circumstantial detail about the history of the manuscript. He had apparently acquired three copies, one of which he claimed was in the handwriting of ‘Mr Downes, the famous Old Prompter’, and previously owned by ‘the celebrated Mr Betterton’.

John Downes is known to have been in the acting company of Sir William Davenant (1606–68) in 1664, and died in 1712, having written Roscius Anglicanus, a famous source of information on Stuart theatre. Davenant, of course, was much later rumoured to have been Shakespeare’s natural son, though he seems not to have claimed this himself, except in a purely inspirational sense. His parents however would very likely have known Shakespeare, and the Bard may even have been his godfather. Thomas Betterton (1635–1710), the ‘greatest English actor between Burbage and Garrick’, was apparently planning to stage the play. ‘What Accident prevented This Purpose of his, I do not pretend to know: Or thro’ what hands it had successively pass’d before that Period of Time’. However, Theobald also relates the story, ‘which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies’, that Shakespeare presented the manuscript ‘to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it’. (Theobald was apparently reluctant to let anyone see the manuscripts, and it is not known what later became of them – search your attic now! – all of which tended to make contemporary and later scholars believe that both the play and the back-story were a hoax, intended to fill seats at Drury Lane.)

So much for the alleged provenance – what about the text? The Arden editor, Professor Brean Hammond, argues that Shakespeare’s hand can be discerned in Act One, Act Two and probably the first two scenes in Act Three of the play, and points out that collaborative play-writing was normal at the period, citing Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen (the former in the traditional canon, the latter not) as examples of Shakespeare working with Fletcher.

The play appears to be a version of Cardenio, believed to be another Shakespeare–Fletcher collaboration and known to have been performed in 1612 or 1613. The story of Cardenio comes from the first volume of Don Quixote, the masterpiece of Shakespeare’s almost exact contemporary, Cervantes, which was first translated into English around 1608, and may have circulated in manuscript form before it was published in 1612. Theobald is aware that the plot is from Cervantes, and points out that Don Quixote was first published in English in 1611 [sic]: he argues that since Shakespeare did not die until 1616, he would have had time to read Don Quixote and write this play ‘in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage’, which suggests that Theobald was not aware of the record of the performance(s) of Cardenio. (For an interesting account of the historical-political background to the first performance, visit the blog by director Greg Doran on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website,

This week, we reissue the 1728 version of Double Falshood in the Cambridge Library Collection, using a clear and clean original, and one of the famous Don Quixote engravings by Gustave Doré – a melodramatic scene from the Cardenio episode – as the cover image. The plot is indeed melodramatic: two virtuous girls, a villainous aristocrat who reforms in the final scene and is forgiven, an innocent, much put-upon youth, a not completely convincing happy ending (think Helena and Bertram in All’s Well…). Does it deserve to be in the Shakespearean canon? See what you think!


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8 Responses to To Be Shakespeare, Or Not To Be Shakespeare

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