The Friday Fact

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Did you know that there’s a lost Shakespeare play? The play was The History of Cardenio, or Cardenio for short. We know it was definitely performed in London in 1613 by a group of players called the King’s Men (so named because King James I was their patron). Shakespeare was associated with the King’s Men (originally the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) for most of his career. There are, at least, records of performances of Cardenio.

Scholars think that Shakespeare wrote the play based on a 1653 Register entry listing Shakespeare and the writer John Fletcher as co-authors. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Shakespeare was involved in the writing of the play at all, as other writers sometimes used his name to boost their own reputations. But it’s likely that Shakespeare and Fletcher did collaborate on Cardenio, since they had worked on a number of previous plays together.

In any case, we have no idea what has become of the play. There is no text or manuscript – not even a scrap of one – and no records of what the play was even about. Based on the title, scholars have guessed that the plot of the play is taken from Cervantes’ novel Don Quioxte, as there is an episode in that novel involving a character named Cardenio. But beyond that we can only guess.

This is actually not that unusual. As Bill Bryson tells us in his great biography of Shakespeare, record-keeping was not the best back then. Shakespeare actually wasn’t very popular for years after his death (in terms of performances of his plays), so people got him mixed up with other playwrights all the time, and sometimes gave him credit for things he didn’t even write! Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays would have been lost as well, if his friends and collaborators Heminges and Condell hadn’t published them in the First Folio in 1623.

Just imagine – maybe someday, someone will turn up the lost manuscript of Cardenio! People have claimed to do so before, but they’ve all been outed as scam artists.

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