The History of Cardenio

by nike, May 2, 2016

DITFP_CoverIn Dying in the First Person, Samuel is a translator of his brother’s works, which are written in the language of Nahum. Nahum doesn’t exist in the real world: at least, not outside the boundary of my imagination. It is a language that the two brothers created when they were young. Or, depending on how you see these things, it is a language that I created, and which found its way into the background of the novel. It is a constructed language.

The novel includes references to some of the texts that Morgan wrote in Nahum, and which Samuel translated into English. These are (in the order that Samuel receives and translates them):

  • The History of Cardenio
  • There May Be Owls
  • The Box of Beautiful Things
  • Motet

As part of the process of creating Dying in the First Person, I wrote draft versions of each of these stories, in Nahum, and partially translated each into English. This blog post series includes some details of each of those tales.

First up Double-Falshoodis The History of Cardenio. 

The History of Cardenio, as you may already know, is the title of a play that may, or may not, have been written by William Shakespeare (with John Fletcher), and performed by the King’s Men in 1613. If it was performed, and was a Shakespearean play, it would have been one of the last of his works, along with Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen (also co-authored with John Fletcher).

The History of Cardenio was not included in the First Folio of 1623 (‘stol’n and surreptitious copies’ of Shakespeare’s works published by two of Shakespeare’s friends from the King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell). In fact, the only copy we have of this play is a possibly forged script, penned/resurrected by Lewis Theobald from (he said) three manuscripts that had fallen into his care. He called his ‘revised and adapted’ play: Double Falshood, or the Distrest Lovers. 

The story of the hero Cardenio is lifted/adapted from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the first part of which was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612 and published as The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha. Shelton, as well as being a translator, was most likely a rebel and a spy. Rebels, spies, forgers, playwrights and plagiarists. What fabulous material.

Theobald is at the end of his life, and adrift. He is 68 years old, and the best of his work–thefts, poems, and plagiarisms–are behind him. At night, he lies in his bed dreaming of me. And I dream of him. We dream of each other. We sing each other’s names, and drown.
[translated from Nahum, unpublished mss The History of Cardenio]

In Morgan’s tale with the same name as the lost Shakespearean play, The History of Cardenio takes quite a different turn. I have to warn you that this is not a beautifully told or elegant tale. I won’t be posting the full story (which is about 20,000 words in English): what follows is a summary of the main elements of the plot. The bones, as it were. [Edit: I forgot to mention that the narrator of this tale, although viewpoint is … iffy in Nahum — composer/arranger might be more accurate — is the Darwinian bear as great as a whale, who swims in the waters of Nahum. It dreams the dreams of the mad: plucking their wishes/thoughts/phantasies from their imaginations whenever any part of their body touches the waters of Nahum or, as it turns out later in the Nahum tales, any body of water.]

The History of Cardenio is the story of the later months of the life of the plagiarist and playwright Lewis Theobald who, having set sail to see what there is left of the world, and suffering from writer’s (forger’s) block, is shipwrecked. This, it seems to Theobald, is fitting. His beautiful friendship with Alexander Pope is ruined. His career is in tatters. He is friendless, alone. And now he will die an unremarked death on a nameless ship in a nameless sea and nobody, not even his old friend Mr Stede, will know that he is gone. As it turns out, all aboard the ship are lost, save Theobald, who washes ashore on a deserted island in the archipelago of Nahum.

In the winter of 1745, the waters between the islands freeze over, and Theobald is visited by an old man who tells him an extraordinary story. Between sessions of storytelling, fishing, and hard drinking, Theobald begins to write his final play. A work he intends to pass off as the final in Shakespeare’s quartet of shipwreck works (the first three being The Comedy of ErrorsTwelfth Night and The Tempest), and as the playwright’s final work. His masterpiece.

The play concerns the story told to Theobald by his ice-fishing and drinking companion, Cardenio, who is now an old man, a widower. He arrived in the archipelago of Nahum, he tells Theobald, almost sixty years ago. He had set sail for Denmark with his wife, Lucinda, and their daughter. But, he tells Theobald, in Nahum, women are nameless.

They were set upon by pirates; their ship set alight, liquid tar lay like a blanket, burning, over the waves. His wife and daughter were placed in a small lifeboat and lowered onto an unburning ribbon of sea. Cardenio went back to their cabin to try and save his daughter’s hautboy. She played poorly, but loved her instrument and was determined to improve. He retrieved the instrument and leapt from the ship in its final moments, intending to swim to the lifeboat and join his wife and daughter, but in the wild confusion of the burning sea, he was lost.

Nattlig marin med brinnande fartyg by Marcus Larson (1825-1864).

Nattlig marin med brinnande fartyg by Marcus Larson (1825-1864).

He found a chest afloat, miraculously sound and buoyant, and sailed in it for seven days and seven nights. The chest had belonged to the ship’s doctor, and was the repository of a great supply of small blue bottles with the name WYETH imprinted on them. This is why, when Cardenio made landfall on an uninhabited island the size of a poor man’s estate, he named it the Island of Wyeth.

Except that, when Cardenio made landfall on Wyeth, it was not deserted. There was an old man there, tall and strange. His hair a tangle of shells and bones and dreadlocks that hung to his waist, his teeth dark and sharp, his feet webbed like a seal’s. Cardenio tethered his strange boat to the shore, and waited, and watched. Each morning the old man came down to the shore at the same spot, and fossicked among the stones, and wept. He spoke a strange language: sounds emerged from him that sounded like storms, like gulls, like waves crashing on a pebbled shore. He picked up stones and cradled them in his arms, one by one, then laid them back in the water and turned away.

Finally, Cardenio decided to make himself known to this man. This monster. One morning, he cleaned himself as best he could and waited for the old man to appear. When the old man came to the shore, Cardenio, then a young man–barely thirty–stood to greet him.

Here, Cardenio leaves off his tale, takes a slug of whiskey, and looks back over the ice to his island. He falls into that state that overcomes old men sometimes: something of nostalgia is in him, something of dementia. ‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘that I was two men once?’

Theobald, stunned and confused, quill mentally poised above his brilliant but incomplete quarto, his/Shakespeare’s last great work, shakes his head.

And this is when, with the moon dark above them, with the ice beginning to creak and soften, Cardenio leaves off his tale and packs away his fishing gear. ‘Spring is coming,’ he says.

‘But wait,’ says Theobald. ‘Who was the man on the island? What was he seeking in the rocks of the shore? Where is he now?’

Cardenio shakes his head. ‘A tale for another winter,’ he says. And then, relenting, quotes the lines of a play he once saw performed by a drunk and his daughter in Sierra Morena. And which, to his aged and addled mind, have become words of his own commission:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

Cardenio picks up his fishing stool and folds it flat, tucks it under his arm. ‘Farewell,’ he says, and turns away.

Theobald, desperate, seeing his/Shakespeare’s glory fade along with his dreams of friendship, grasps at Cardenio’s arms and begs him, once again, for information about the stranger on the island.

Cardenio’s shoulders sag beneath his seal-fur coat. His eyes are large and dark and wet. He shakes his great head. ‘It was me,’ he says. ‘It was my brother.’

After he is alone, Theobald packs up what little provisions he has brought to the fishing hole: his creel and rod and stool. He sets out for his island, but before he can reach it the ice cracks under his feet and he is plunged into the cold, into darkness.

Beneath the ice, he sees a thousand visions. But these are the ones he remembers: a creature like a mermaid, but with a shorn head and scales black as ink. It takes his hand and leads him to the bottom of the sea. To a cradle–a dip in the ocean floor–where its siblings wait. Each has a stone shaped like an egg, but the size of a small dog, to which they minister. The creature who has brought him here sits him by the edge of the pit. It feeds him strange food and sweet wine, and strokes his hair. When he grows tired it draws him close and he lays his head in its lap. He lies on his back and the creature and its siblings untangle his hair. Above him float the creatures of the sea.

Finally, a bear as great as a whale floats overhead. Its shadow obliterates all the light in the underwater world. It is singing in the same language as the old man of Cardenio’s island. A song of mourning. A song of the moon.

The bear’s dreams mesh with those of the drowned playwright (there is little doubt that he has drowned). The bear’s dreams are without language, without form. They are the dreams of madness, plucked from the living. Trains and dolls and handkerchiefs and feet. Trolls and tarns and breasts with mouths. A man on a donkey, devouring moons and shitting stars. The bear plucks the madness from Theobald as he sleeps, and carries him far from the archipelago of Nahum.

When Theobald wakes on the shore of Ullswater he is sane but mute. Dead, but filled with strange longing. A wordless, insubstantial ghost. He has forgotten his name and been cast out of time. There are daffodils blooming on the shore; he lies down among them and listens to them sing, and weeps.

Some notes, not altogether helpful

In 1612, Miguel de Cervantes’s rambunctious and excellent novel Don Quixote was translated into English by Thomas Shelton. The fourth book of part one of Quixote includes a meeting between the novel’s main characters, Don Quixote and Sancho, and the madman Cardenio. The heroic fools of Don are passing through Sierra Morena when they first encounter Cardenio (they find his saddle pack, and raid the contents–gold and papers). Cardenio leaps barefoot among the rocks of the hillside. His clothes are rags, and while he leaps like a goat he sings a song that begins: Who doth my weal diminish thus and stain? / Disdain. / And say by whom my woes augmented be? / By jealousy. / And who my patience doth by trial wrong? / An Absence long. / If that be so, then for my grievous wrong, / No remedy at all I may obtain, / Since my best hopes I cruelly find slain / By disdain, jealousy, and absence long …

On 20 May 1613 The Privy Council records a payment of £20 to John Heminges of the King’s Men for court performances of six plays, including Cardenno.

On 9 July 1613 John Heminges was paid another £6 13s 4d for the King’s Men’s performance of the play Cardenna, which was staged for the pleasure of the visiting ambassador of the Duke of Savoy.

In 1653, a play titled The History of Cardenio was entered in the Stationer’s Register (records of publications and rights of production kept by a trade guild called the Stationers’ Company of London). The record indicated that the authors of the play were William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

In 1727, Lewis Theobald produced a play called Double Falshood, or the Distrest Lovers, which he claimed was ‘revised and adapted’ from a previously lost Shakespearean play. The plot of Double Falshood bears a strong resemblance to the story of Cardenio as related in Cervantes’s Don QuixoteIn the preface to the published version of the play (1728), Theobald writes:

One of the manuscript copies which I have is of above sixty years standing, in the handwriting of Mr Downes, the famous old prompter; and as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the possession of the celebrated Mr Betterton, and by him design’d to have been usher’d into the world. What accident prevented this purpose of his, I do not pretend to know; or thro’ what hands it had successively passed before that period of time … Two other copies I have (one of which I was glad to purchase at a very good rate), which may not, perhaps, be quite so old as the former, but one of them is much more perfect, and has fewer flaws and interruptions in the sense. 

In 1728, Alexander Pope, formerly a friend of Lewis Theobald, published a scathing response to his production, Double Falshood. Pope’s first direct attack on Theobald and his work appeared in Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (published in March, 1728, in Pope & Swift’s Miscellanies in Prose and Verse). In criticising Theobald and his work, Pope introduces the term ‘bathos’ to English literary criticism. A year later, Theobald was immortalised by Pope as the titular character in his The Dunciad. The 1729 edition of The Dunciad accused Theobald of forging the documents on which Falshood was based, and attempting to pass off his own work as that of Shakespeare. The mud stuck.

[Pope and Theobald’s sustained public argument descended almost entirely from the publication of Pope’s 1725 six-volume publication, The Works of Shakespear, and Theobald’s subsequent, 1726, quarto publication, Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr. Pope in his late edition of this poet: designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published {Yes, it is rather a long title, but then, the title–as they say–says it all}.

In 1744, Lewis Theobald and Alexander Pope both passed away, thus ending their argument. Pope went first, on May 30; his physician had told him, on the morning of his death, that he was doing quite well. Was, in fact, much better, to which Pope is said to have quipped, ‘Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms’.

Theobald saw one more British summer than his nemesis, passing away at the end of September. His funeral was attended by just one person (his ‘ancient friend of near thirty years’, Mr Stede of Covent Garden). He left behind a substantial personal library, including two hundred and ninety-five old English plays in quarto; they were sold at auction on October 20, less than a month after his passing.

Theobald’s Double Falshood was the basis of a 2012 production of The History of Cardenio – billed as the first performance of a ‘lost’ Shakespearean play. The 2012 production was based on the textual resurrection work of Gary Taylor, and was staged by the Indiana University and Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) theatre department.

The lines that Cardenio quotes above are from The Comedy of Errors, one of the three Shakespearean plays that features a shipwreck, and one of many that features twins or siblings separated at or shortly after birth. The lines are delivered by Antipholus of Syracuse, the twin brother of Antipholus of Ephesus.

John Wyeth (1834-1907) was a pharmacist. He and his brother, Frank, opened a drugstore in Philadelphia in 1862. Two years later, they began to apply the principles of mass production to common medicines. By 1864, they were supplying the Union army with medicines and beef extract. By the time he passed away, in 1907, John Wyeth’s drugstore had been burned down, but the company had become a major produce of mass produced medicines, including vaccines. Many of the Wyeth brothers’ medications were sold in cobalt blue glass bottles embossed with their name.


  • Nike, you are incredible. Not only did you write a novel, you wrote the novels referred to in the novel, in a language which you created, and then translated them into English. And you're not publishing them. They're just reference material. You're amazing.

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      • May 2, 2016

      'amazing' is so not the word for what I did. I think maybe 'crazy', 'obsessive', or 'weird' might be more accurate. I think there's a Nahum word for it, but it's hard to translate: bear-wyrd is the closest I can get ;)

  • I think it's brilliant!

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      • May 2, 2016

      Well, I will be gracious, then, and just say thank you :)

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