The oddly named Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which protests that the works were not written by Shakespeare, sponsors the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, a document that has attracted signatures including those of Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi, both of whom appear in Roland Emmerich's ridiculous film Anonymous, which attributes Shakespeare's works to Edward De Vere. Two further signatories who have specialised in stage and screen Shakespeare (would they prefer their "Shakespeare" between scare quotes?) are Michael York and Jeremy Irons, the latter most recently playing a darkly brooding Henry IV in the BBC's Hollow Crown series.
Not only do these wholly misguided naysayers filch Shakespeare's plays from the play-wright but, as Roger Chartier's intriguing book suggests, they rely fundamentally upon a wholly anachronistic model of play-writing. Recent scholarship has advanced a case for a mode of early modern authorship that is collaborative, as is demonstrated beyond doubt by the various hands that jostle each other, for example, in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More.
Chartier's elegant analysis of "the story of a lost play" is predicated upon the disjunction between Renaissance literary production and post-Romantic ideas of authorship that obsess about the creative genius of the single author who breathes originality into a work that remains, recognisably and forever, his own creation. Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical composition was in fact the often chaotic product of many playwrights, deriving and adapting plots from previous and contemporary sources, and writing works that were signed over to a theatrical company.
Added to that, the story of Shakespeare's "lost play" is hardly straightforward. The facts: a document of 20 May 1613 ordered payment of £60 to John Heminges (as in Heminges and Condell, the compilers of Shakespeare's First Folio) for royal entertainments that included a play called Cardenno.
Cervantes' Don Quixote, containing the story of Cardenio, the lover-madman who is eventually reunited with his love, was published in 1605. Don Quixote's immediate popularity in England is attested by allusions to it in works by George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton and Ben Jonson even before its English translation by Thomas Shelton in 1612. John Fletcher and Shakespeare were collaborating on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen at about this time, so their joint authorship of a play dramatising Cervantes' story is entirely plausible.
In 1653, Cardenio was entered by the bookseller Humphrey Moseley in the Stationers' Register, where it was attributed to "Mr. Fletcher. & Shakespeare". This is the only document that links the title and Shakespeare in the 17th century, although that full stop after Fletcher, it has been argued, shows that Shakespeare's name was added as an afterthought.
However, Lewis Theobald claimed, in the preface to Double Falsehood or The Distressed Lovers (1728), that his was an adaptation of an earlier play by Shakespeare. Theobald appears to know nothing of the early court performances or Moseley's mention of Cardenio. The fact that the plot of Double Falsehood is that of the Cardenio story from Don Quixote implies that Theobald's source must be a descendant of the lost play by Fletcher and Shakespeare. The $64,000 question is: how closely related are Double Falsehood and the play that prompted Heminges' payment?
Cardenio was never published. No manuscript of it survives. Yet, as this fascinating and acute book contends, while theatre is ephemeral, "the desire for a heritage without lacunas prompted a quest for lost texts that had to be resuscitated".
Our longing for a uniform cultural history is compromised by uncertainty over attribution, addition, revision, adaptation and collaboration, an incompatibility that the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition would do well to acknowledge.
Cardenio between Cervantes and Shakespeare: The Story of a Lost Play
By Roger Chartier. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Polity, 256pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780745661841 and 1858. Published 12 October 2012