In 1727, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane presented a production of Lewis Theobald’s Double Falsehood; or, The Distrest Lovers. Theobald claimed he had adapted a play by William Shakespeare from manuscripts now lost. Scholars since have been divided over whether Theobald’s play is really an adaptation of a lost play called Cardenio by Shakespeare and Fletcher or if Theobald is the mastermind behind one of the world’s great forgeries.
Double Falsehood follows the machinations of Henriquez, the younger son of the Duke. Henriquez woos the lower-born Violante, rapes her, then leaves her to pursue another woman, Leonora. Henriquez knows his friend Julio is planning to become engaged to Leonora, so he lures Julio away to court so he can force Leonora into a marriage with him in Julio’s absence. The Duke’s older son Roderick, worried about his brother’s behavior, follows him and tries to right his wrongs.
The introduction to the Arden edition edited by Brean Hammond (2010) notes that this play, based on an episode in Don Quixote, is rather short and uneven–both indications that it could very well be an adaptation of an earlier work. Hammond also points out that some irregularities in the text could have resulted from its pruning–two lowerclass characters appear in a scence, announce they will follow Henriquez, then disappear; Violante and Julio know each other but audiences don’t know how; the plot promises a scene in which the one of the characters will pretend to be a corpse, but never stages it. This is all very interesting if you want to speculate on whether Theobald forged the play or not. It does not, however, make for smooth reading.
I enjoyed Double Falsehood because it is the type of crazy and convoluted plot that I would expect from a late Shakespeare. However, it is, first of all, more disturbing than many of Shakespeare’s plays. His plays are noted for problematic endings, but here we have an ending in which the “happy” part comes from Henriquez marrying the wronged Violante. He raped her. I guess he’s saving her reputation by marrying her afterwards, but I felt sick when I read it. Secondly, the play is, quite simply, choppy. It feels like a series of scenes thrown together without ample time for full character development or any space left for the reader to breathe. I know shortening Shakespeare’s plays to make them easier for audiences to comprehend was a thing back in the day, but that doesn’t mean the explanatory bits have to be cut.
I really think this could be a great play if only we could have had the Shakespeare/Fletcher original. (Yes, I’m choosing a side in the debate. It seems like a play that they would have written and the version we have now seems definitely like something someone hacked apart while trying to “adapt” it.) As it is now, it’s still a compelling story. Just really rough around the edges.