The Spectator

The Double Falsehood of Double Falsehood

A respected edition of Shakespeare self-destructively tries to “extend the brand.’

You know the famous line from Hamlet,”Get thee to a nunnery?” Of course you do. But what about this line, from an allegedly “Shakespearean” play that has been slouching toward the Shakespeare canon, a play called Double Falsehood:

“Tell me the way to the next nunnery.”

Please. Is Shakespeare going to diminish his original wrathful “Get thee to a nunnery” with this clunker? And consider the context: The fellow who speaks the line is in the middle of a barren sheepherder landscape where nunneries are hardly thick on the ground. “Next nunnery” indeed—as though you find them as frequently as Burger Kings. For me, reading “Tell me the way to the next nunnery”—with its irresistible link in my mind to the Doors’ “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar”—dealt a final blow to the Shakespearean pretentions of Double Falsehood. It sounds suspiciously like an inept attempt to give a “Shakespearean touch” to a profoundly worthless, virtually incoherent play which now, alas, is gaining new respectability.

Yes, in a decision not widely noted outside the inner circle of Shakespearean scholars, Arden, the publisher of legendary, erudite, footnote-laden editions of Shakespeare’s works, has decided to include Double Falsehood in the latest edition of the Arden Shakespeare. This move is “brand extension” that demonstrates yet another triumph of marketing over art. And one that will have lasting—and unfortunate—consequences for the reputations of both Arden and, alas, Shakespeare as well.

Indeed, even the person who wrote the introduction to this edition sounds, after 160 labored pages, a bit embarrassed about the decision to include the play, pointedly giving the last word to a prominent doubter of the whole enterprise. It seems that the poor editor, Brean Hammond, attended a recent colloquium on Double Falsehood and heard an extremely “skeptical presentation” by the highly regarded Shakespeare scholar Tiffany Stern. * And so, Hammond concludes, obviously fearful of embarrassment: “Stern built up a case [against Shakespearean authorship] convincing enough to render any editor of the play cautious and cautious is what I hope this edition has been.” Cautious Hammond may have been, but cautious Arden has not been: There on the top banner of the front cover of the Double Falsehood we read The Arden Shakespeare. Not The Arden May-Have-Some-Shakespeare-in-It Shakespeare.

The stakes are high: By peddling this old carcass as meaningfully “Shakespearean,” Arden does a disservice not just to Shakespeare but to all future innocents who come to the Shakespeare section of Barnes & Noble, say, and have the misfortune to pick up this piece of … fraudulence first. And having read it, never return for the real thing.

But such are the economics of “scholarly” publishing. I’m sure some marketing genius realized Arden could “monetize” the rags and tatters at the fringe of the Bard’s canon—the “dubia” as the scholars call such doubtfully, partially, even fraudulently “Shakespearean” works—and capitalize on the controversy. By publishing Double Falsehood, Arden stands to gain attention and cash, with lucrative course assignments for the “long lost Shakespeare”—and more lucre from credulous Bardolator completists.

As I recount in my book The Shakespeare Wars, something similar, and disastrous, happened back in 1997 in a shameful episode when not one, not two, but three American scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s “complete works” hastily found excuses to include a “new,” supposedly Shakespearean discovery—the wretched 578-line “Funeral Elegy,” whose Shakespearean provenance is now discredited. At the time, the poem was being hawked as authentic Shakespeare by Vassar professor Donald Foster. Although the three publishers found different ways of distancing themselves from full endorsement of the “Funeral Elegy” canonization, commerce beat out art: None of them wanted to be left out when their salesmen hit the road with the new editions. It was five years before the awful poem’s Shakespearean provenance was decisively discredited. Five years in which hapless students were forced to read fraudulent Shakespeare. It should have been a crime to make anyone read that poem under any name.

Sad that Arden didn’t learn anything from that over-hasty attempt to cash in on a false canonization. But all hope is not lost. The shameless usurpation of literature by marketing that this Arden Double Falsehood edition represents has roused the sleeping ire of the Shakespeare Cop. It’s time to step in and bust another Shakespeare fraud.

The Shakespeare Cop? That would be me, a role I have reluctantly assumed, thanks in part to the theory-addled indolence of (most) American academics in the face of egregious Shakespearean fraud. (One gets the feeling many of them they don’t really like or understand what makes Shakespeare exceptional, so they don’t bother to take exception to—or even recognize—fake Shakespeare.) For those who have not read the full saga of my relentless crusade against the abominable “Funeral Elegy”: I was virtually alone in America, in crying foul against Foster’s supposedly “computer database”-backed attribution. It was a lonely five years before the professor was forced to apologize when a French academic and a British academic riddled the attribution with enough gaping holes to force the “Funeral Elegy” professor to give it up for dead. (The Shakespeare cop depended on his exquisitely honed sensitivity to language alone to contravene the supposed “computerized” proof of authenticity. Sort of like John Henry vs. the steam engine.)

During that time, the Shakespeare cop—it’s a half-serious moniker, although I am a member of the Royal Shakespeare company’s editorial advisory board—also busted the New York Times’ designated “Shakespeare expert” for smuggling into his Shakespeare reportage a hidden agenda that favored the silly, time-wasting “authorship” question of whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. (I feel bad I had to hobble his hobby horse, but it was no small matter: He was feeding his audience subtly disguised disinformation about one of the most important writers in the langauge.)

Generally, though, debunking “authorship” obsessives isn’t even worth the Shakespeare cop’s time. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel. The question is also almost entirely irrelevant. The point is not who wrote Shakespeare (though I’m entirely convinced Shakespeare did) but what Shakespeare wrote, and what is falsely passed off as Shakespearean. The “someone else wrote Shakespeare” types (and those who waste time arguing with them) are sad and pathetic because, frankly, life is short and if one has to choose between rereading King Lear or Othello and arguing about who wrote them, then one’s priorities are profoundly misaligned. Any amount of time spent on the latter is subtracted from the former, alas.

But the Shakespeare cop has not been an entirely negative, traditionalist bardolator. In fact, I have been an advocate of certain daring Shakespeare publishing innovations undertaken by Arden itself. After investigating Arden’s earlier decision to publish not one, not two, but three versions of Hamlet, I devoted a good portion of my book to praising the editors (in particular Arden general editor Ann Thompson, who co-edited the Hamlet) for their bold and unorthodox decision to publish a three-fold Hamlet. I find merit in the Arden argument that the three versions of the play (1603 Quarto, 1604 Quarto, and 1623 Folio) represented three distinct performance states of Hamlet, with differences worthy of the notice of anyone who cares about the work (although I’m still a bit dubious of the inclusion of the 1603 “Bad Quarto”).

No, the Shakespeare cop has nothing against Arden, and nothing against solidly grounded scholarship, either. Indeed, it is my affection for seriousness of the famously footnote-laden Arden editions of Shakespeare that makes their Double Falsehood decision so shocking.

The Double Falsehood scandal can be traced back to a 1727 claim by the hack dramatist Lewis Theobald that he’d come into possession of not one, not two, but three manuscripts of a lost play written by Shakespeare—and, as he initially claimed, anyway—Shakespeare alone. A play based on a tale from Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Now there is evidence (though not much) that in 1613 or so Shakespeare co-wrote a play called The History of Cardenio with his sometimes collaborator John Fletcher. This Cardenio play has disappeared from view and was not included in the Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works compiled after his death by those who knew him best. It’s not impossible that such a play existed and that Shakespeare had a hand in it, since Don Quixote was translated into English a year or so before a play by the name Cardenio was registered for performance with the authorities.

But what relation, if any, did that Cardenio have to the dramatized version of the Cardenio play in Theobald’s “discovered” manuscripts?

When Theobald put on his “Shakespearean” adaptation in 1727, there was no one named Cardenio in it. (No Don Q. or Sancho P., either.) Weirdly, the play followed the Cervantes episodes but changed almost all the names and many of the plot details. Theobald claimed he had “improved upon” the Shakespeare play that had come down to him in the manuscripts and modernized them somewhat.

And what of those three supposed Shakespeare-era manuscripts he based his play on? Well, wouldn’t you know. All three of them ended up being burned by different “accidents” (although there is evidence that one was exhibited for a time before flames eventually consumed it). Still, one is tempted to call this the greatest Dog Ate My Homework story in literature. (Indeed, Theobald’s attempt to promote himself and his play was one of the reasons Alexander Pope made Theobald into the almighty king of all dunces in The Dunciad, his brilliant literary satire.)

For nearly three centuries, serious scholars have debated whether Theobald ever saw any version of Shakespeare’s Cardenio, argued about how much of Cardenio Shakespeare actually wrote, and wondered whether any Shakespeare survives in the play Theobald concocted from the alleged manuscripts or whether Theobald made it all up out of whole cloth.

Still the Shakespeare cop was not ready to make an arrest until he undertook a second reading of this travesty. I’ve always believed that one of the reasons I continue to read and reread Shakespeare is that each rereading takes me ever deeper into the mysteries that don’t disclose themselves on first reading. One mystery being the mystery of what, exactly, we mean when we say something is “Shakespearean.” What is the signature of his vision or the keynote of his ear? Close reading—and rereading—is the Shakespeare cop’s CSI.

And by that method, that standard, after two readings of the Arden “Shakespeare” Double Falsehood the cop has this to say: Busted! I charge Arden with misrepresenting Shakespeare, selling a subprime imitation.

You have to read the whole play to understand how truly, madly, deeply bad it is, but let me exhibit some snippets of evidence. The play’s flaws lie not just in the language but in the laughable plotting. Consider the moment in Act 4 when one of the two brothers at the center of the play, Roderick, comes up with a crazy plan—so crazy it just might work! It involves their attempt to find Roderick’s brother Henriquez’s intended bride, Leonora, who loathes him so much she’s fled to a nunnery. (Thus the fabulous line “Tell me the way to the next nunnery.”)

Of course, there’s the problem of how to get into the no-males-allowed nunnery once they find it. Hey, what if we pretended we were monks carrying a corpse to a funeral? Roderick asks his brother. Then they’d let us into the nunnery! And what do you know!? As soon Roderick comes up with the idea, his brother, Henriquez, sights a vacant hearse passing by! Who woulda thunk it? A stroke of luck like that. Or as Theobald has one of them exclaim about this stroke of good luck: “And, opportune, a vacant Hearse pass’d by from Rites but new perform’d.”

Don’t you love “And, opportune,” a hearse passed by? Opportune, indeed. Has anything more clumsy been done in the name of Shakespeare, who was so masterful at masking the fluidity of plot manipulation? It’s less like Shakespeare than Shakespeare’s poor befuddled Mechanicals, trying to put on a play with comic ineptitude in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Proponents of Shakespearean involvement in Double Falsehood are always quoting passages in which Theobald uses phrases that Shakespeare used. Voila! Must be Shakespeare’s work! Really, that’s the quality of most of the argument.

But the fact the same words and phrases in both Shakespeare and Theobald doesn’t meant that Shakespeare wrote Theobald’s play; all it means is that Theobald read Shakespeare. (Lucky Shakespeare, not having to read Theobald!) The author of Double Falsehood may have deliberately used Shakespearean words and phrases in order to make his “discovery” a more credible facsimile.

Editor Hammond brings forth all sorts of quantitative stylemetric analysis—unconvincing to me—in support of his shaky (self-doubting) case for Double Falsehood. What I’d like to do is make use of a slim volume defending the Shakespearean attribution, written by one Henry Salerno, a former professor of English and exhibits the fallacy of Shakespearean allusions by giving us some one hundred instances of a word appearing in both authors work.

Consider one of my favorite felicitous Theobald phrases: “Fair snouted skittish woman” Salerno finds Shakespeare using “skittish” but ignores Theobald’s yucky “fair-snouted” which is not to be found in Shakespeare. A phrase which no emendation by Salerno (“fair-snouted” can mean “fair-faced” according to the OED, he tells us) can remedy. I’m sorry, try calling your girlfriend “fair snouted” and then tell her, if she’s ever speaking to you again, that it’s Shakespearean compliment.

Or, since we’re speaking of snouts, how about “broken your complexion” from Theobald, which Salerno points out shares the word “broken” with a line in Troilus and Cressida, that brilliant, dark, and savagely comic play that uses the phrase “broken music.” Theobald’s use, by contrast, suggests acne or broken wind.

Oh, here’s another good one: The Theobald line is “soul-spotted hind”; the line from Shakespeare, “shallow cowardly hind.” QED! Slam dunk! Game over!

(Except, um, what could “soul-spotted” mean?)

And how about this brilliant Theobald line: “hurt my brain.” Yes Lear contains the line “cut to the brains,” but Theobald’s line—and not just this one, all of them—hurts my brain.

But hark! Another goody from Theobald the Dunce’s Double Falsehood, allegedly by Shakespeare: “aught of humane in you or a soul that’s gentle.” Which causes Salerno to point to Shakespeare’s line, “But touched with humane gentleness and love.” Simple and beautiful (from Merchant of Venice) while “aught of humane in you” argues that Theobald suffered from a language learning deficit.

OK, one more:

“Sounds the depths of falsehood” is from Double Falsehood. Here Salerno refers us to Hamlet’s “You would sound from me my lowest note …”

But Salerno may have missed a clue. “Depths of falsehood” within a Double Falsehood: Could Theobald be winking at us? I hope so.

But I doubt it. This play really is the botched comic gift that keeps on giving. Consider this lame joke from Act 4:

Roderick: Good even my friend. I thought you all had been asleep in this country.
Master [of the shepherds]: You had lied then, for you were awaking when you thought so.

Get it? Roderick says he thought everyone was asleep, but he himself wasn’t asleep! Which would make sense if he had not said: I thought you people were asleep. It’s a witless example of an attempt at Shakespearean wit. But, hey, Arden wants you to believe this is somehow worthy of the Arden Shakepeare of seal of approval.

Of course this is not to say Shakespeare can’t write boring or even bad lines. I recently moderated a panel at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featuring the cast of Sam Mendes’ production of The Tempest. Because I was hosting the panel, I saw it twice, and it was interesting to see how even good actors couldn’t make some of the leaden comedy and words work. It left me thinking again about what made Shakespeare Shakespeare. But then we’d come to one of those great passages in The Tempest: “Full fathom five thy father lies/ and of his bones are coral made” and “like the baseless fabric of this vision/ the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ the solemn temples, the great globe itself./ Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve/ and like this insubstantial pageant faded/ leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff/ as dreams are made of/ and our little life rounded with a sleep.”

Lines like this send jolts of lightning through you.

There’s no shadow of lightning in Double Falsehood. It’s a baseless fabric. Which makes its publication as Shakespeare a double shame.

Correction, June 1, 2010: This article originally misspelled the name of Shakespeare scholar Tiffany Stern. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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