A speculation on the most valuable book lost to humanity

Length: 1195 words

Much of the knowledge which the world had at one time has been lost to us now. Natural disasters, wars, fires, have destroyed books and the knowledge in them. We know they existed once, but they no longer exist now.Suppose you could protect and save ONE of the things we’ve read this semester so people of future generations could read it and think about it, which one would it be and why?

There are several contenders for the title of the most valuable book lost to humanity. Homer’s Margites is a strong candidate due to its philosophical richness. Likewise, the Lost Books of the Bible leaves Christians wondering at possibilities. Jane Austen’s Sanditon would have enhanced the author’s already formidable reputation. But from several such worthy contenders, my choice for the most valuable book would be William Shakespeare’s Cardenio. If I am endowed with the power to save the book through magical powers I would choose to protect this book over others. The rest of this essay elaborates and explicates my choice.

William Shakespeare is a towering figure in English Literature. Beyond his uncontested stature in the world of letters, Shakespeare is on par

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with JS Bach in terms of contributions made to Western Civilization. Shakespeare’s works thus have a significance that is difficult to contain within simple classifications. The Bard’s art is a combination of poetry, philosophy and story-telling. His works stand the scrutiny of excellence in each of these disciplines. But the real singularity of Shakespeare’s works lie in the synergy of his art. The sum of merit in his great plays is more than an addition of the parts. It is in this context that the value of The History of Cardenio has to be evaluated.

What makes the loss of Cardenio difficult to digest is the tantalizing evidence for its theatrical performance. Historical records from early 17th century indicate that the play was performed by The King’s Men in London in 1613. The Stationers’ Register attributes the play to William Shakespeare as co-author of John Fletcher. Although it is difficult to ascertain the extent of Shakespeare’s contribution to the finished work, his influence is speculated to be quite pronounced. The other key circumstantial evidence of the plays’ existence comes from two related plays from a later date. The lyrics of the popular song ‘Woods, Rocks and Mountains’ by Robert Johnson is fairly certain to have featured in Cardenio. Hence, there are enough markers and traces of the play’s existence and performance. This makes it a case of so-near-yet-so-far. Modern scholarly analysis and revisionist research has given a glimpse of hope for those brooding over the lost work. It has come to light that the Cardenio could have remained in existence in some of its variant forms with different titles. On the eighteenth century wrapper of the text most widely known as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, a critic of an earlier age – possibly the third owner of the manuscript, John Warbuton “crossed out other contenders for possible authors or collaborators to leave only the words: ‘By Will Shakespear/ A Tragedy indeed’.” (Fox & Walter, 2004)

Though such consolations remain, I regret the loss of this play for the great entertainment value its original version suggested. The play’s plot is said to have been inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The character of the protagonist in Cardenio is said to have been inspired by his namesake appearing in Cervantes’ iconic work. In the novel, the young Cardenio is driven to madness and lives in the Spanish town of Sierra Morena. Madness is a constant theme in Shakespeare’s plays – Hamlet, King Lear and Othello come to mind readily. It would be fascinating to discover the interpretation and portrayal of a maddened youth in Cardenio. But madness in the context of Don Quixote could not have been tragic or serious. Hence by deduction it is fair to assume that comedy was at the core of the theme of madness noted in Cardenio. Features such as comedy of errors, malapropisms and fools interludes are highly probable in the play. This makes the loss of Cardenio a little difficult to accept.

If Cardenio had somewhat survived, it would have been an early example of the adaptation of a novel into a play. During Shakespeare’s time, the play was the dominant art form and the novel was taking its early tentative steps as a serious literary medium. Don Quixote was a grand success across Europe. It incorporated a lot of features of folklore and classic epic narratives. It would have been highly instructive to learn how this expansive genre and the particular work were adapted to the theatre. Given the colorful plot and fluctuating fortunes of the hero in Don Quixote, it would be interesting to find out how these elements of adventure and danger were captured by Shakespeare. If Cardenio had existed, it would have offered key insights into literary theory. It would have opened up knowledge about technical craftsmanship demanded by the two literary art forms. In other words, Cardenio would have offered us the first great case study into Comparative Literature. It is these endless possibilities of its utility and relevance that make the loss very real.

Shakespeare enthusiasts still harbor the hope of somehow recovering the play from its long standing obscurity. The phenomenon is called Cardenio fever, which recently gained in intensity with the appearance in 2010 of Brean Hammond’s edition of Lewis Theobald’s play Double Falsehood in the Arden Shakespeare series. It is acknowledged therein that Humphrey Moseley held registered ownership of a manuscript play called The History of Cardenio by Fletcher & Shakespeare in 1653. Theobald declared repeatedly that his play, performed in 1727 and published in 1728, “was based on a Shakespeare manuscript inherited from a Restoration theater; and the plot of Double Falsehood does indeed follow the narrative strand in Don Quixote that involves a character called Cardenio.” (Craig, 2013) The Cardenio fever has caught on such fervour that there are

“twenty-one contributors, and twenty-six essays, dealing with the ghostly 1613 play and its slightly more corporeal performance then, the intervening life of Moseley’s listing, the alleged Restoration survival of the manuscript, Theobald’s work, and the modern editions, revisions, and performances, as well as the internal evidence in word use and metrics that can be used to try to detect Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s hands in Double Falsehood.” (Craig, 2013)

Shakespeare lovers can also rejoice from the fact that many contemporary theatre directors are reimagining many of Shakespeare’s plays, both extant and lost. Gregory Doran, now artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), had directed his re-imagining of the Cardenio early in 2011. (Cape Times, 2013) In this context, the story of the appearance and disappearance of the mystery play Cardenio continues to intrigue and fascinate Shakespeare lovers like me.


Craig, H. (2013). David Carnegie and Gary Taylor, Eds.: The Quest for “Cardenio”: Shakespeare, Fletcher, Cervantes, and the Lost Play. Comparative Drama,47(2), 266+.
Fox, C., & Walter, M. (2004). Cardenio (the Second Maiden’s Tragedy). Shakespeare Bulletin,22(3), 81+.
You’ll Love the Bard’s Lost Labour. (2013, January 7). Cape Times (South Africa), p. 9.

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