The History of Cardenio, dir. Gerald Baker @ The Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 2017Adaptation

  • Kim Gilchrist

The History of Cardenio. By Gary Taylor, John Fletcher, William Shakespeare, and Miguel de Cervantes; Directed by Gerald Baker for Richmond Shakespeare Society in association with Cutpurse; at The Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham; 19th March 2017.

Reviewed by Kim Gilchrist, University of Roehampton




This performance of Professor Gary Taylor’s adapted text The History of Cardenio was given by the Richmond Shakespeare Society, a company of amateur players, at the intimate and suitably dark-beamed Mary Wallace Theatre. The text’s provenance is complex, and thus some background is in order.

Cardenio is a lost play now almost universally believed to have been written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher in or around 1612-13. Records show payments to the King’s Men for performances in 1613 of a play referred to as “Cardenna,” or “Cardenno” (Chartier 7-8). This would perplex scholars in its own right, but in 1727 the lawyer and dramatist Lewis Theobald caused a sensation by claiming to have discovered the manuscript of a lost Shakespeare play. He adapted the play to conform to current sensibilities and it was performed and published as Double Falsehood, which broadly follows the tale of Cardenio, a novella inserted into Cervantes’s Don Quixote. However, Theobald’s critics argued that play seemed far more like Fletcher than Shakespeare. Interest in the play waned, and the manuscript ended up in the Covent Garden Playhouse, which burned down in 1808. We now know that Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher in precisely the years that “Cardenna” was performed at court, and that Don Quixote was first published in English in 1612 – meaning that Fletcherian elements in the text might actually support rather than undermine a part-Shakespearian attribution. Cardenio, then, hovers tantalisingly within and behind Theobald’s eighteenth-century adaptation, which has since been sifted and analysed for traces of the original. For The History of Cardenio, Taylor has attempted what he calls an “unadaptation” of Double Falsehood (238). The project combines scholarship and creative writing in an attempt to remove those aspects of the text Taylor is persuaded are Theobaldian and to construct a text approximating that which the famous co-dramatists presented to the Jacobean court.

The project is interesting from different angles; as an act of creative research-in-practice, or as a multi-layered exercise in attribution studies: the authorial field might now be said to include Taylor, Theobald, Fletcher, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, each looking back to and through the last, altering, adapting, eliding and inserting material according to the needs and values of their moment. However, one of the twelve rules that Taylor set himself when working on the play, was that “the unadaptation must be theatrically rewarding: it must be a play that actors want to perform and audiences want to watch” (238). As this is a theatrical review of a specific performance, rather than a textual analysis, Taylor’s rule will be the guide. I cannot speak for the actors’ desire to perform, so I will confine myself to the first point. Is The History of Cardenio theatrically rewarding?

The play’s plot will be broadly familiar to anyone conversant with early modern, or indeed modern, romantic comedy. Two friends, Cardenio (Matthew Tyrrell) and the aristocratic Fernando (Hugh Cox), pursue different love interests, Lucinda (Emma Lambie) and Violenta (Shana de Casignac). The dissolute Fernando secretly marries Violenta in order to sleep with her, falls in love with Lucinda, rejects Violenta and uses his aristocratic status to force Lucinda into marriage, with the support of Lucinda’s father Don Bernard (John Kirchner). At the wedding, Cardenio confronts Fernando and Lucinda, having fainted, is discovered to have planned suicide. Cardenio runs mad to the mountains; Lucinda – believed dead – hides in a convent; Violenta disguises herself as a shepherd. In a subplot, the old schoolmaster Quesada (Christopher Yates), a lover of chivalric romances, becomes convinced he is a knight errant and embarks on comically delusional adventures accompanied by his worldly-yet-credulous servant Sancho (Iona Twiston-Davies). The play’s threads are resolved by Fernando’s commendably level-headed elder brother, Roderick (Simon Bartlett), who manipulates the lovers into a scene of multiple unmaskings, culminating in Fernando’s shaming and abrupt repentance.

In common with other early Jacobean plays such as Philaster and The Two Noble Kinsmen, The History of Cardenio has violence, misogynist disgust, and a preoccupation with physical decay flowing just below its tragicomic, pastoral surface. In the opening tableau, Duke Ricardo (Al Freeman) contemplates his own coffin, carried as a memento mori of “dust’s dark vast and thousand-gated castle”. Sancho describes a dead donkey, worms working “in the mines of his entrails”.  A sweet, moving encounter between the lunatic Cardenio and Quesada explodes in an argument over whether or not “good Queen Guinevere had gonnorhea”. Also resonant of the early modern are the two male protagonists, whom the text indicates are worthy of an audience’s affection and forgiveness yet who repel admiration. The same is true, of course, for Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, the egotistically fragile Philaster, and – to pick a modern example – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s passive-aggressive protagonist in 2009’s 500 Days of Summer. Cardenio is blandly gentle until betrayal flips him into violent madness, neither state providing the opportunity to demonstrate likeability. Hugh Cox’s Fernando is boyishly impetuous, announcing “I am all future”. But this characterisation suppresses a far more unpleasant interpretation that the production did not foreground. When asked by a resisting Violenta if he intends to rape her, Fernando replies that he “had not dreamed that rape would be necessary,” indicting a blithe acceptance of rape amongst the tactics available to him. It’s a shocking moment ‒ particularly given Violenta’s happy acceptance of his subsequent marriage proposal. The primacy of male rivalry over romantic love is visually asserted in a striking moment when Cardenio confronts Fernando over his betrayal, claiming Lucinda as “my piece,” his back turned to the despairing woman who is shunted to the edge of the stage by the violent interaction of two men claiming to love her. Upon discovering that she preferred to kill herself rather than marry him, Fernando stabs Lucinda’s unconscious body with a knife she had concealed in her wedding dress.

Most early modern plays are never performed, in part because their aesthetics and obsessions appear archaic and obscure to us now. However, anything associated with Shakespeare invites performance for both commercial and wider cultural reasons, yet certain plays – particularly Two Noble Kinsmen, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, with its stomach-turning near-rape followed by the brotherly bestowal of the victim, by her beloved, upon her attacker ‒ are rarely performed. This may be in part because these plays’ portrayal of petulant male friendship and rivalry and the concomitant callous, often violent treatment of women is less acceptable (though not as unacceptable as it should be) as entertainment for twenty-first century theatregoers. Taylor’s unsettling text suggests that even were the original manuscript of Cardenio to be rediscovered, it might repel our affection in the same ways and for the same reasons.

There is also, however, light. Lucinda is given some sparkling lines. Her desire to bed Cardenio is “this long longed-for star-time”. A personality struggles to emerge, however, despite Emma Lambie’s grounded performance. This seems appropriate for a character first controlled by an unforgiving patriarch, then by a faked death, then hidden behind the walls of the convent into which she disappears for much of the play. Violenta presents more opportunities for personation, taking the initiative and escaping the social stigma of spousal abandonment by living amongst shepherds and, disguised as the “Princess of Mycomicon,”  taking the lead in a scheme to disabuse Quesada of his delusional knight errantry. A comic highlight of the performance was her at-first faltering then increasingly imperious turn as the imaginary princess.

A key digression from Double Falsehood is Taylor’s insertion of the Quesada subplot, which offers brief but rich micro-sketches of Don Quixote’s deathless double act. Quesada promises Sancho both an island and eternal fellowship, Sancho guilelessly responds “setting forever aside, how soon shall I have my island?” The scheme to bring Quesada to his senses, in which he is set up to fail on a quest for which the cost of failure is to relinquish his claim to knight errantry, is cruel. Bewildered, he wails “I have dreamed away my greatness” and is bound and led away. It’s a brutal moment that either diminishes the play or is evidence of unsentimental discipline. I can’t decide.

Shaming Quesada for his errantry, Roderick tells him that “your books have failed you; you have failed your books”. Bibliographic imagery runs through the play in ways that resonate with this unusual project. The danger of delusion brought on by over-immersion in an archaic, unreliable text is emphasised. Sancho observes of Quesada that “I have known him chase scraps of paper blown in the street … as if it were Scripture,” prompting one to wonder if Taylor may sometimes have felt that chasing the scraps of Cardenio placed him at similar risk of a creeping Quixotism. Fortunately, the project has produced a dissonant and verbally memorable text that, if its darker undercurrents could be explored more fully, would make for thought-provoking, and conversation-starting, theatre.



Chartier, Roger. Cardenio Between Cervantes and Shakespeare: The Story of a Lost Play. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Hammond, Brean. Ed. Double Falsehood. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

Taylor, Gary. “A Posthumous Collaborator’s Preface.” The Creation and Re-Creation of Cardenio: Performing Shakespeare, Transforming Cervantes. Ed. Terri Bourus and Gary Taylor. Palgrave, 2013.



The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
Reviewing Shakespeare is produced by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the University of Warwick to provide a searchable archive of independent reviews of worldwide Shakespearian performance.

Author: Kim Gilchrist

Kim is a third-year funded PhD student at the University of Roehampton, investigating the performance of mythic British history in early modern drama. He holds a BA is in Drama and Theatre Arts from Goldsmiths College and an MA in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London. Whilst completing his MA, Kim undertook a research internship at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. His theatrical reviews have appeared regularly in the Globe’s Around the Globe magazine. A director/dramaturg, Kim has worked on productions of Macbeth, Othello, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet. He writes fiction, plays, and poetry; his poems have been published by the Guardian, and his short stories in Smoke magazine. In 2016 Kim’s pseudo-Jacobean verse play, Forgiving Shakespeare, a comic imagining of the writing and performance of Cardenio (and an enraged Cervantes’s quest to stop it) received a rehearsed reading as part of KCL’s Arts & Humanities festival event Cervantes at Play.