Shakespeare May Have Actually Plagiarized One Of The World’s Best Classics

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Did you know the best English writer ever and the best Spanish writer ever died on the same date? I’m talking of course about William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Amazing right? But coincidences don’t end there.

If Shakespeare was good at something (and he was good at many things), it was at spotting a great story when he saw one. Is it any wonder Shakespeare chose to base one of his plays on Cervantes’s celebrated novel Don Quixote? Of course not. If this is news to you, then I assume you haven’t heard of Shakespeare’s mysterious play: The History of Cardenio.

Like some of his previous plays, Cardenio was a Shakespeare collaboration (much like how screenwriters often write scripts together, or how Jay-Z and Beyoncé paired up to form The Carters). Shakespeare wrote this particular play along with John Fletcher, a dramatist buddy of his with whom he had already writtenTwo Noble Kingsmen.
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Shakespeare’s play is based on the chapters of Don Quixote’s first volume. They tell a story within a story: while Sancho and Don Quixote wander through the Sierra Morena, they meet with Cardenio, an Andalusian man who is lovesick after seeing his beloved Luscinda marry his friend Fernando, son of a duke. Fernando had actually fallen in love with a farmer, Dorotea, whom he left after having consummated their relationship. Later, the protagonists of the novel meet with Dorotea, disguised as a shepherd, who tells her side of the story. In the end, all four lovers meet and work things out as the novel ties its knots.

You can tell why this story would be appealing to English Renaissance dramatists: a double love triangle, transvestism, entanglements and misunderstandings that extend to a meeting point, and, to conclude, forgiveness. All this takes place in Andalusia, a location as exotic as it gets.

Could Shakespeare or Fletcher even read Spanish, though? Well, there is no proof that they spoke Spanish, but, hey, there isn’t any proof that they didn’t speak it, either. It’s most likely, however, that they simply read Thomas Shelton’s 1612 translation of Don Quixote. The original story of Cardenio is such an irresistible plot that in 1727, more than a century later, a dramatist called Lewis Theobald made an “adaptation” of it called Double Falshood; or The Distrest Lovers (as was the spelling at the time).

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To many, Cardenio is a work that unites the two greatest writers of our time, a contact between the Spanish and English literary heroes, a missing link that unites both traditions, a kind of literary twilight shared by two rival nations and religions, a bond between two contrasting cultures, at last! Except Cardenio doesn’t actually exist. In fact, no printed text of Cardenio survives, let alone its manuscript, which means much of what we can say about Cardenio is a mystery.

We do, however, know of its alleged existence thanks to two seventeenth century documents. First, a record from the Privy Council of England that registers two stagings of a work called “Cardenno”, in 1612, and “Cardenna” in 1613 (which probably refer to the same play). Then, the 1653 inventory of publisher Humphrey Mosely that indicates the possession of the manuscript of “The History of Cardenio by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare.” We cannot assure that this is the same work as the “Cardenno” and “Cardenna,” so skeptics tend to think it takes a guy like Theobald to make an “adaptation” of a work that doesn’t really exist.

Theobald’s explanation? Oh, he totally had three manuscripts, which served as basis for his play while he, of course, made certain “adjustments and improvements.” No one knows anything of the whereabouts of these alleged manuscripts, either.

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We could go way back and even question whether Mosely’s manuscripts were in fact co-written by Shakespeare. It could, after all, have been a false attribution in order to inflate its price (Shakespeare was a big deal by then). However, Shakespeare did have a previous collaboration with Fletcher, which makes this whole thing a bit more plausible. If so, however, why didn’t Mosely publish Cardenio as a single work (like other publishers did with King Lear, Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet)? Moreover, why wasn’t this play included in the 1623 first Folio which contained the “complete” works of William Shakespeare?

All we have is Theobald’s Double Falsehood and you can either choose to believe is was written, at least in part, by Shakespeare or just discredit the thing altogether. Those who have chosen to study it have focused on deciphering if and how much was really written by the bard. And some even agree that evidence of Fletcher’s style would ironically help prove Shakespeare’s hand (given their history of working together). Recently, there have been attempts to stage Cardenio, by either “reconstructing” or “reimagining” the “original” text from Theobald, Shelton’s translation, or Cervantes himself.

Fun fact: by 1615, many of Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues had already written plays inspired by Don Quixote, other Cervantes novels, or something that takes place in Spain. Which means that, whatever your own conclusion, one thing is for sure: when Cervantes burst into the English bookstage it was for better and for good.

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