Re-imagining Cardenio

The closure of the theatres

January 12, 2011

There is no record of a revival performance of Cardenio after the Globe burned down in 1613. Records for any performances are scarce. But I suspect any revival in the plays fortunes would have been directly linked with England's political relations with Spain.

Ten years after the Globe fire the prospective marriage of the Prince of Wales (now James' second son Charles) was again the occasion of a play by the King's Men. Thomas Middleton characterized the tricky diplomatic negotiations for Prince Charles to marry the Infanta Maria, the daughter of the King of Spain as a chess game. King James appears inevitably as the White King, King Philip IV as the Black King. The play centres on the visit of Prince Charles (the White Knight) to Madrid with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (the White Duke or Rook) in 1623.

The Spanish Ambassador, the Count Gondomar, was satirized as the Machiavellian Black Knight, and he didn't like it. He recognised himself in the role and complained to the King, who had the play banned. It had a run of nine performances during which it had become the greatest get-penny (or box office hit) of the age.

John Chamberlain wrote to his friend Dudley Carleton: 'I doubt not but you have heard of our famous play of Gondomar, which hath been followed with extraordinary concourse, and frequented, by all sorts of people old and young, rich and poor, masters and servants, papists and puritans, wise men etc... They counterfeited his person to the life, with all his graces and faces, and had gotten they say a cast suit of his apparel for the purpose, and his litter wherein in the world says, lacked nothing but a couple of asses to carry it... But the worst is, in playing him they played somebody else, for which they are forbidden to play that or any other play till the King's pleasure be further known; and they may be glad if they can so scape scot free. The wonder lasted but nine days, for so long they played it.' The Globe was shut down and the King's Men fined, and Middleton never wrote another play.

TheGame atChess catches a strong sense of anti-Spanish feeling, and may have been designed to foster the sentiments of a faction that called for war against Spain. It is unlikely that any play with a Spanish subject, like Cardenio, would have found favour with the Globe audiences at this period.

Fletcher himself died two years later in 1625. Unlike Ben Jonson, his fellow Friday Street Club member at the Mermaid Tavern, Fletcher did not publish his complete works in his lifetime; although John Hemmings and Henry Condell had followed Ben Jonson's example and published Shakespeare's plays together in 1616. So if the play of Cardenio was not revived, nor was published what happened to the manuscript then?

By 1642, the Puritans were in control. Plays were banned, and the theatres were closed. On Monday 15th April 1644 (according to some manuscript additions to a copy of Stowe's Annales): '... the Globe was pulled down to the ground, by Sir Mathew Brand... to make tenements in the room of it.'

The same fate awaited the Blackfriars Theatre. Davenant wrote of its broken shell:

Poor House, that in days of our grandsires
Belongst unto the mendicant friars
And where so often in our fathers days
We have seen so many of Shakespeare's plays,
So many of Jonson's, Beaumont's or Fletcher's
Until I know not what puritan teachers
Have made with their rantings the players as poor
As were the friars and poets before.

The Red Bull in Clerkenwell lasted until just after the Restoration staging rope dancing and prize fights, and the occasional illegal play, but finally it too was closed, as Davenant wrote:

Tell 'em the Red Bull stands empty of fencers
There are no tenants in it but old spiders.

The Fortune was pulled down by soldiers in 1649, but the saddest fate awaited the bears that were baited at the Hope Theatre on Bankside in Southwark: 'Seven of Mr Godfrey's bears by the command of Thomas Pride the High Sheriff of Surrey were then shot to death on Saturday the 9th day of February 1655 by a company of soldiers.'

However, a couple of years before Mr Godfrey's bears were put down, there is a surprising twist in the story of our lost play. It was registered for publication.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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