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Posted on Fri, Mar 26, 2010 : 10:12 p.m.

Royal Shakespeare Company artists present reading of Bard's "lost" play "Cardenio"

By Jenn McKee

As part of the ongoing 10-day collaboration between the University of Michigan and the Royal Shakespeare Company to develop 3 plays, RSC director Greg Doran presented, along with 9 actors, a staged reading of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s play “Cardenio” — for which there’s no known text — on Friday afternoon in East Quad’s Keene Theatre.

But how does one present a play with no text? By offering 18th century playwright Lewis Theobald’s take on the play, which reportedly used 3 versions of the original manuscript as a basis, plus a few additions, thus getting us as close to Shakespeare and Fletcher’s first version as we’re likely to get.

Or, Doran summed it up, “Maybe we should call it ‘Cardenio,’ question mark.”

“Effectively, (Theobald) says he has a manuscript of a play that was done by the King’s Men (a troupe of actors that Shakespeare belonged to), and that was then in the ownership of John Downes, who was a prompter in the theater, after the theaters re-opened in 1660,” said Doran in his opening remarks Friday afternoon. “That during the 40 years that (Downes) was working as a prompter and a bookkeeper in the theater, they were about to do it. … It never happened, however, and Theobald claims that he was given the manuscript and has now adapted it for the stage.”

The play was based on an episode in Miguel de Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote.” Specifically, Cardenio is a young man in love with Luscinda, but they cannot wed until Cardenio’s father, Don Camillo, approaches Luscinda’s father, Don Bernardo; but Don Camillo wishes Cardenio to explore his opportunities at court before settling into a match, and Don Camillo is skeptical of the courtship.

Meanwhile, a dastardly duke’s son, Fernando, woos and unofficially marries a simple farm girl, Dorothea, only to drop her and then woo Luscinda. Dorothea, shamed, assumes the guise of a boy and works among shepherds; and Cardenio — presuming Luscinda’s unfaithfulness to him — also retreats to the countryside. He meets up with Dorothea, seeing through her disguise immediately; and though Luscinda fears that Cardenio’s is dead, he and Dorothea (still dressed as a boy) eventually re-appear to their family and loved ones.

“I have been intrigued by this (play) for many years,” said Doran. “We know, in fact, from the court records that Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated on a play that was performed at the court. It had, we know, 2 appearances at court, and therefore, we know the play did exist at some point. We know also that in 1654, it was registered for publication by Humphrey Moseley. … Moseley is the one who introduces the fact that Fletcher may have written it with Shakespeare.

“A Shakespeare-Fletcher play is particularly intriguing to me, as the first Shakespeare I ever directed for the RSC was the ‘Henry VIII’ play, ‘All is True,’” said Doran. “Shakespeare and Fletcher also collaborated on ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen.’ So this may well be a relic of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s third collaboration, ‘Cardenio.’ I’ve done a couple of readings of this with actors, … and each time realized that there are scenes missing. There are bits missing out of the plot, which may be (a result of) Lewis Theobald getting rid of (them) because of the sensibilities of the 18th century. So we’ve gone back to the Cervantes, and to the first English translation by Thomas Shelton, which came out in 1812, and we’ve replaced those scenes. And I think, as is the idea with collaboration of people working on the same project together, you shouldn’t really be able to see the jointures. I’m hoping that you don’t.”

Nine actors, seated in a row of chairs on the Keene stage, spent just over 2 hours reading the “doctored” Theobald manuscript on Friday afternoon — to a crowd of a few dozen people — and so there wasn’t time for the audience to comment or answer questions after the reading. But you can see a few moments from the reading, captured on video, below.

First, a scene in which Cardenio (Raul Castillo) let’s Dorothea (Pippa Nixon) know that he can see through her disguise, and she tells him why she is in her current circumstances:

Second, a scene in which Luscinda (Emily Best), engaged by her father to Fernando against her will, lingers over Cardenio’s pained, angry letter to her:

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.


John W. Kennedy

Sat, Mar 27, 2010 : 12:33 p.m.

What Theobald actually said was that he had obtained three manuscripts of an unknown play by Shakespeare, and that the oldest of the three was in Downes' handwriting. The fact that there was a missing play named "Cardenio" by Shakespeare and Fletcher was not discovered until many years later.


Sat, Mar 27, 2010 : 6:21 a.m.

A pretty flat and tedious time in the theatre I'm afraid.