Re-imagining Cardenio

Horsemanship 2

March 9, 2011

After our trip to Knightsbridge, to the barracks of the Household Cavalry, we are alert to every reference to horses and horsemanship in the play. In an early scene in the play Camillo, Cardenio's father, muses about his son's hidden skill:

'Horsemanship! What horsemanship has Cardenio? I think he can no more but gallop a hackney, unless he practised riding in France. It may be he did so; for he was there a good continuance.'

France in Shakespeare's day was highly regarded for its horsemanship. As Claudius reminds Laertes in Hamlet, of a gentleman from Normandy, recently arrived at Elsinore:

'Here was a gentleman of Normandy.
I have seen myself, and serv'd against, the French,
And they can well on horseback; but this gallant
Had witchcraft in't.'

And of course it is the French in Henry V who make extravagant claims for their horses. This is the Dauphin (in Act 3 scene 7):

'I will not change my horse with any that treads but on four pasterns. Ca, ha! He bounds from the earth, as if his entrails were hairs; le cheval volant, the Pegasus, chez les narines de feu! When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes'.

The prolific writer, Gervase Markham produced his delightful book The Compleat Horseman in 1614. He was a horse breeder himself, and is said to have imported the first Arabian horse to England. It is a great source book of detail about how to breed and break in horses. One of his many book on horses, called Cavelarice included the trade secrets of William Banks, the owner of a remarkable horse called Marocco, the 'dancing horse' referred to by Moth in Love's Labours Lost. In 1601 Banks even took his wonder horse up the thousand steps to the roof of Old St Paul's. Banks would get Marocco to count or to urinate on command, or pick out a virgin from the crowd. He would get the horse to bow for Queen Elizabeth, but when ordered to bow for King Philip of Spain, the horse would bear its teeth and whinny and chase Banks off. A trick referred to by John Donne:

'But to a grave man, he doth move no more
Then the wise politic horse would heretofore,
Or thou, O Elephant, or Ape, wilt do,
When any names the king of Spain to you.'

But when relations between Spain and England improved, horses were often given as presents between the royal houses. When the Earl of Nottingham travelled to Valladolid in 1605 to ratify the peace with Spain, he presented to their Spanish majesties 'six stately horses and saddle cloths, very richly and curiously embroidered'. There were three for the king and three for the queen. And in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot a year later, the Spanish Ambassador delivered 'six jennets of Andalusia' to King James. One of them was snow white, with a mane so long it reached the ground.

And of course today Spain is still renowned for its love of horses and for its horsemanship. We all know of the Spanish riding school in Vienna, said to be the oldest riding school in the world, and so named for the Spanish Lipizzan horses which is the breed exclusively used by the school.

King James' son Prince Henry was a great fan of horses, and built himself a riding school at Court to promote the skills of horse riding. One young courtier was so impressed he nearly bankrupted his estate by building his own riding school in imitation. The building still stands today.

The afternoon following the wedding of Elizabeth and Frederick, we learn that the sixteen-year-old Elector Palatine (or Palsgrave as he is here called) was a good horseman:

'That afternoon the King, Prince, Count Palatine, with diverse others, ran at the ring, (a tournament game) and when that was ended and the king and Prince gone, the Palsgrave mounted upon a high-bounding horse which he managed so like a horseman that he was exceedingly commended and had many shouts and acclamations of the beholders, and indeed I never saw any of his age come near him in that exercise.' (From a letter from John Chamberlain to Alice Carleton February 18th 1613)

Is it possible that the references to Cardenio's horsemanship in the play were inserted to flatter the new member of the royal family?Cardenio travels with his new 'friend' the Duke's son, Don Fernando to his home town, Almodovar del Campo, which Cervantes' describes as: 'the best in all Andalucía for horses'. And having picked out several horses, Fernando uses the pretext of sending Cardenio back to Court to fetch money to pay for them, to attempt to seduce his girl friend Luscinda.

Our trip to the barracks of the Household Cavalry is already suggesting ideas about how to convey this love of horsemanship on stage.

by Greg Doran  |  5 comments

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Mar 10, 11:41am
Nicholas Sherry

A fascinatiing read especially as I once worked on a horse farm.
Thanks to the writer.
Nicholas Sherry.

Mar 12, 4:00pm
christine fell

I'm so looking forward to the play, will there be a text available to buy please, not just the Arden? Have just re-watched the Michael Wood where he says that all the music to Cardenio exists, will that be in the new production and obtainable please? Can't wait until April !

Mar 12, 8:05pm

I've enjoyed catching up on all your blogs, Greg, and will tune in to more, even though I won't be able to travel to Stratford to see Cardenio.

You've done a tremendous amount of research, and I'm sure it will all come together at some point during the rehersal process.

Thanks to John Wyver, of Illuminations, for linking your story to his own daily blog, and for giving his readership an open-door into your world.

Mar 24, 4:03pm
RSC Staff Fiona

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Christine, you can buy Greg's play text in the shop at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from the first performance (14th April) or online ( from the same date.

The composer Paul Englishby will be writing new music for this production of Cardenio, which will be performed by live by four musicians.

Jul 15, 6:10am

I loved the music for Cardenio, especiallu Javier Macias' singing- even though the group behind me chatted through it - is there any way to hear it again? can the music be bought from anywhere?

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