A Note from Double Falsehood’s Artistic Director Brian Kulick

A Haunted Text

The great Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges, once wrote: “The number of themes, of words, of texts, is limited. Therefore nothing is lost. If a book is lost, then someone will write it again eventually. That should be enough immortality for anyone.” Perhaps this is the best way to begin thinking about the strange case of Lewis Theobald’s 18th Century adaptation of what is believed to be the long-lost CARDENIO by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. As fate would have it, the day after CSC decided to produce Theobald’s alleged adaptation, I ran into the Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro on the street. I told him what we were about to embark upon and asked him if he thought there were any truth to Theobald’s claim that his DOUBLE FALSEHOOD was indeed a version of the missing Shakespeare work that had become “the holy grail” for many Shakespeare aficionados. James smiled and pointed to the street beneath our feet. “See this street? Underneath this street is another street and underneath that street is cobblestone and underneath the cobblestone: Dirt. It’s the same thing with this play, DOUBLE FALSEHOOD. There’s Theobald’s adaptation, underneath that is probably Betterton’s prompter’s adaptation, and underneath that Davenant’s and underneath Davenant’s: Shakespeare.” And so, for many scholars, Shakespeare is buried beneath a bevy of busy Restoration adaptors whose work ultimately occluded that of Shakespeare to the extent that it is difficult to point to any line of the text and say, with any authority, that it came from Shakespeare’s pen. Yet many scholars still concede that “the ghost of Shakespeare” haunts this text.

There are many arguments as to why Shakespeare’s voice has been amended by a variety of Restoration adaptors. The most prevalent theory is that Shakespeare’s language at this point (post-TEMPEST) is so complex that the various adaptors were just trying to make this dense poetic language comprehensible to the ear of a Restoration audience. The result is a strange experience that might best be described as “translating Shakespeare into English,” or rather the English of the late 17th Century. Such a phenomenon begs the question, “I if that is the case; is it still Shakespeare?” Borges himself pondered this question toward the end of his life in an interview with Fernando Sorrentino.

At one point in this famous conversation he mused: “I think of Shakespeare, above all, as a craftsman of words … that’s the reason I am skeptical about translations of Shakespeare because what is most essential and most precious in him is this verbal aspect; I wonder to what extent the verbal can be translated. A short time ago, someone told me, ‘It’s impossible to translate Shakespeare into Spanish,’ and I answered him, “As impossible as it is to translate him into English.’ Because, if we were to translate him into English which is not the English of Shakespeare, a great deal would be lost. There are even sentences of Shakespeare’s that only exist if pronounced with those same words, in that same order and with that same melody.” This all sounds pretty persuasive and final; but then, suddenly, Borges stops, thinks, and right on the heels of this rather severe point of view concedes the following paradox: “I’m contradicting myself here. Because, by the way, I remember we saw a production of MACBETH in Spanish performed by terrible actors, with terrible stage sets, using an abominable translation, and yet we left the theatre very, very thrilled. So I believe I made a slip when I said what I said before.”

I was particularly intrigued by this Borgesian paradox, which opens up a rather profound ontological question that might be posed in the following fashion: “What exactly makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?”  If his language is, in Borges’ terms, “untranslatable,” then what exactly are French, German or Russian audiences experiencing when they see AND hear Shakespeare in their native languages? In other words, is there something beyond Shakespeare’s language that accounts for “the Shakespearean experience”?

Certainly one can perceive a micro- and macro-design in all of Shakespeare’s work; that the very dynamics he uses to create the variety of his verse are also deployed to create a sequence of scenes or a group of characters; and so, we can say that just as Shakespeare uses antithesis between images, he often uses a similar approach between scenes. So a storm scene in PERICLES is followed by a scene of absolute tranquility. One could make an argument that for every development in Shakespeare’s verse, one can find a parallel development in his structuring of acts or arcs of characters.  The threading of the micro and the macro is so finely wrought, that one can learn about each modality through the examination of the other. In this respect, the macro-dynamics of structure or character behave as a different kind of theatrical language. Because Shakespeare’s poetic diction is so dominant, it often overshadows these other “languages” that are deployed by Shakespeare with equal mastery.

Ultimately it is all of these languages working together that create the “soul” of the Shakespeare event. At the heart of each of these languages is an unerring sense of unfolding, where the thermodynamics of the plot, what it exacts from those on stage who are caught in the sequence of inevitable events, leads the audience to a nonverbal, almost metaphysical, apprehension of what is transpiring; a moment where one intuits the ineffable soul of the piece before it crystallizes into actual thought. This, in and of itself, can be so powerful that it is often felt even when watching a play in a language that one does not understand.

If this is true and the unfolding of plot and character over time also reveals this ineffable soul of a work, then the poetic degrading of CARDENIO may not completely undo the ultimate theatrical impact of DOUBLE FALSEHOOD. Clearly Theobald and the other adaptors also tinkered with the characters and plot of CARDENIO, but it would not seem, based on the evidence of other existing works of late Shakespeare, to be of the same radical nature as the reworking of the verse. As a result, we believe these other languages of the stage can reveal something of the essence of Shakespeare’s original play that might otherwise be missed in even the closest of textual readings. We suspect that when the work is embodied and enacted over time, another glimpse of “the ghost of Shakespeare” might appear and dwell with us for just a little longer. 

And what if it is nothing but a forgery as Alexander Pope and others throughout history have insisted? Then perhaps it is a strange precursor to Borges’ fantastical PIERRE MENARD, AUTHOR OF DON QUIXOTE. Menard, if you are familiar with Borges’ immortal tale, was a 20th Century scholar obsessed with recreating the entirety of Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE by only reading every book Cervantes ever read during the years he composed his masterpiece. Theobald’s project would seem more modest, only trying to recreate CARDENIO, which is a story told at the end of Part One of DON QUIXOTE. Perhaps we should admire Theobald’s anticipation of Borges. 

I would like to believe that regardless, Theobald’s intentions were pure, to bring back from oblivion a long lost work by any means possible, even if that meant utilizing dubious adaptations from a host of Restoration scribblers. I would like to believe that Theobald subscribed to Borges’ intuition “that the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process.”