A.C.T. Explores Shakespeare's Lost Play

By Cecilia Padilla

As a part of the 2016 Spring Performances, A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program actors present what scholars believe is Shakespeare’s lost play. Cardenio, a romantic farce about star-crossed lovers who find each other in a play-within-a-play, has a unique creation story. Literary scholars have traced the play’s existence back to 1613, when The History of Cardenio was performed by Shakespeare’s theater company, the King’s Men. Later evidence found in 1653 indicates that the play was about to be published, and this time it was attributed specifically to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, one of Shakespeare’s known collaborators. 

Then, in 1728, Shakespeare scholar, editor, and playwright Lewis Theobald published a play called Double Falsehood. He claimed that this play was based on three different manuscripts of The History of Cardenio. Double Falsehood, Theobald said, was a mixture of Shakespeare’s, Fletcher’s, and his own writing. Theobald’s is the version of Cardenio read most widely today. Despite these mentions throughout history of a manuscript by Shakespeare himself, a copy of the original script has never been found.

The actual storyline of Cardenio comes from Miguel de Cervantes’s epic novel Don Quixote (1605). In the novel, Don Quixote comes across a man named Cardenio who has lost his betrothed to his best friend. As a result, Cardenio goes mad and runs away to the mountains. But in the end, all the misunderstandings are cleared up and the lovers reunite. Theobald loosely bases the plot of Double Falsehood on Cervantes’s character of Cardenio. We don’t know for sure if Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version follows this plot, because the original script has not been discovered. However, if Theobald claimed that he based his play on the one by Shakespeare and Fletcher, we can assume that the 1613 and 1653 versions followed similar storylines.

Inspired by these ever-evolving interpretations, playwright Charles Mee and English professor Stephen Greenblatt created the Cardenio Project  in 2008. This project encourages theater companies around the world to adapt Mee and Greenblatt’s contemporary version of the play to fit their own cultural circumstances. Their reasoning, Greenblatt explained, was their mutual interest in “what happened when a story generated within one set of assumptions, preoccupations, constraints, and conventions was transmuted for performance in a very different world.” The project invites a wide range of adaptations: from using Shakespearean English; performing in other languages; changing characters; or setting the play in a different country. A.C.T.’s M.F.A. Program actors, for example, will perform the piece in modern English and set the comedy in San Francisco.  

Running May 6–14 at the Strand Theater, Shakespeare’s lost play gets its Bay Area debut, directed by Delia MacDougall. Get your tickets here!

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