Re-imagining Cardenio

My own quarto!

January 13, 2011

A couple of years ago, I decided to check on the online second hand bookshop Abe-books, (to which I am hopelessly addicted), to see if there were any copies of Double Falshood available. I was astonished to discover that there was one, a third edition from 1763, for £65 (it cost one shilling and sixpence originally). I leapt at it. To have an original edition of Theobald's play is about as close to owning a Shakespeare quarto as I am ever likely to get.

I noticed the script was on offer from a shop in Bloomsbury. Jarndyce are an antiquarian booksellers who specialise in London-published books and pamphlets, from the eighteenth and particularly (as their Dickensian name might prompt you to suppose) from the nineteenth century. They are based in Great Russell Street.

Now by a bizarre coincidence, Lewis Theobald lived in Wyan Court off Great Russell Street. So I went to find Jarndyce Booksellers and discovered it was a shop I knew well. Often, if I am walking in to the RSC offices in Earlham Street, I will pause to browse in their window. Jarndyce is situated in a Georgian house that must have been built while Theobald was still alive. The British Museum rose up opposite the building in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and now its neighbours sell ancient Egyptian tzazkas and roman coins. Later in the century, the children's book illustrator Randolph Caldecott had lodgings in that house, and by 1890 it had become a bookshop.

I have that copy with me now. In Theobald's editor's preface, he writes: 'It has been alledg'd as incredible, that such a Curiosity should be stifled and lost to the world for above a Century. To this my answer is short; that though it never till now made its appearance on the stage, yet one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Hand-writing of Mr Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and I am credibly inform'd, was early in the possession of the celebrated Mr Betterton, and by Him design'd to have been usher'd into the World'. Lewis Theobald goes on to say that he has two more copies, of which more later...

We don't know how the manuscript copy in John Downes' hand-writing got into Theobald's hands. He would have only been eighteen when Downes retired and twenty four when we think Downes died and was buried in St Paul's, Covent Garden. But if somehow Theobald knew Downes directly it would seem odd that he would entrust a young man with such a document. Theobald was writing plays by the age of nineteen, albeit he was meant to be training to be an attorney like his father then. The year Downes published Roscius Anglicanus, (1708) Theobald's juvenile tragedy The Persian Princess; or The Royal Villain flopped after two performances at Drury Lane. And we hear nothing more from him until the year after Downes' death when he published a translation of the Life of Cato, hoping to ride on the back of the success of a play about Cato by Addison at Drury Lane.

It is possible that Downes himself gave Theobald - a young budding writer - such a manuscript, though to what end isn't clear, nor why Theobald would then keep it under his hat for the best part of two decades. The Double Falshood Preface does imply that the play had been intended to be staged during the Restoration, and that Betterton himself meant to usher it into the world. This isn't unlikely. His company had performed the two other plays we suppose Fletcher and Shakespeare to have collaborated on, The Two Noble Kinsmen (as Davenant's adaptation The Rivals) and Henry VIII.

Why would John Downes have written out a complete fair copy of Cardenio? If he had an original manuscript copy he would not have needed to do so; unless of course he was writing out a copy of an adaptation of the play for production. So perhaps what Theobald got his hands on was not an original manuscript of Cardenio, but a version, perhaps by Davenant himself, which Betterton intended to mount?

But there is another character in the story who might shed some light on where Theobald got Cardenio, and who gave it him...

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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