Did Cardenio go up in flames?
January 7, 2011
On June 8th The King's Men performed Cardenio for Gabaleone, the Ambassador to the Duke of Savoy, at Greenwich. Three weeks later, on St Peter's Day June 29th 1613, they were presenting one of the other plays in which Shakespeare had collaborated with John Fletcher, All is True at their home, the Globe theatre on Bankside when a fire broke out.
It's the party scene in All is True. Cardinal Wolsey is having a banquet, suddenly the young king turns up in disguise among a group of masquers. He's going to have his first fatal encounter with Anne Boleyn. Canons are discharged. Unfortunately some of the wadding lands on the roof, and catches the thatch, setting it alight. In an hour the whole building burns down.
'I will entertain you... with what happened this week at the Bank's side. The King's Players had a new play, called All is True, representing some principal pieces in the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting on the stage: the knights of the order with their Georges and garters, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like - sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey's house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff wherewith one of them was stopped did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive on the show, it kindled inwardly and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw and a few foresaken cloaks. Only one man had his breeches set on fire that would perhaps have broiled him if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.' (Letter from Sir Henry Wooton to Sir Edmund Bacon 2nd July 1613)
John Heminge rushes about trying to save things. Do they keep their playscripts at the Theatre? If so, the ones that haven't already been published in quarto editions are vulnerable. Are perhaps the parts or the foul papers of the Spanish play they were doing at court three weeks ago lying around on a shelf somewhere. And is that what happens? Shakespeare and Fletcher's play goes up in smoke? Well, it would seem not.
But we hear no more of Cardenio for forty years.
by Greg Doran
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