Impressionism; Don Quixote on top of his horse
Image Caption
Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore Daumier (Public domain)
Book Chapter
Peer Review
Shakespeare and Cervantes: The Cardenio Debate

Thomas Pavel examines the question of authorship for two plays, one from the 17th and the other from the 18th century, which directly relate to Cervantes' Don Quixote. Pavel's examination offers reflections on the connections between novellas and plays, as well as the possibilities of authors from the same historical period to demonstrate divergent ideas on shared subjects. This chapter has been slightly revised from its original publication by the author.

Book Title
"Los cielos se agotaron de prodigios:" Essays in Honor of Frederick A. de Armas
Book Editor(s)
Christopher B. Weimer
Kerry K. Wilks,
Benjamin J. Nelson,
Julio Vélez Sainz
Press and Year
Juan de La Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2018
Medium of Publication
Place of Publication

Newark, DE

Number of Pages


Thanks to Fred de Armas, with whom I had the wonderful experience of team-teaching several times a course on the first part of Don Quixote, I was able to gain new, important insights into Cervantes’s artistic projects. I hope that in the following discussion of Shakespeare and Cervantes Fred would recognize how much I owe him.

Shakespeare and Cervantes left this world in April 1616. Given our cult for past geniuses, the idea of a link between the two greatest writers of the late 16th and early 17th century preyed on people’s mind. The two writers lived in a period when Spanish, the language of the most powerful empire on the planet, was spoken all over the world, while English was the tongue of a small, not very wealthy, nation. Cervantes could hardly have heard of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, in contrast, who belonged to a milieu in which Spanish literature was widely read and Spanish pastoral novels and novellas were often adapted for stage, could have certainly heard of and even read Cervantes’ Galatea or Don Quixote. Did he? And, supposing that he did, would he have used Cervantes’ stories in his own plays?

As individuals and as writers, the two had very different career paths. During his adventurous life, narrated so well by the French authority on Cervantes, Jean Canavaggio[1] the future author of Don Quixote was earlier in his life a butler in the service of a priest in Rome—during which time he became acquainted with the Italian art he deeply admired—, then a soldier, first on the Italian soil, next in the navy that fought at Lepanto—a battle during which Cervantes lost the use of his left arm—, then a captive at Algiers, where, after several attempts to escape he was finally ransomed, then back in Spain as supplies commissioner—temporarily arrested for misappropriation of Church funds—, then tax collector, and, finally, writer: a genuinely picaresque life. Shakespeare, in contrast, born at Stratford-upon-Avon, spent his adult life in one place, London, always close to the world of theater as actor, playwright, and co-owner of a theatrical company. When he reached a certain age and retired from theater, he went back to his native Stratford.  Romantic recent movies notwithstanding, Shakespeare led the stable existence of a good professional.

As for the fate of these two writers’ literary works, virtually all Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies, and historical plays are nowadays performed, read, commented on, and revered on all continents. His sonnets still delight innumerable readers. Even less effective plays like Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens enjoy high respect and are staged reasonably often. Cervantes’ case is different. A vast public reads Don Quixote (as the incessant new translations prove) and many cultured people appreciate the Exemplary Novellas, but, outside Spain, his other works—the tragedy Numancia about which Frederick de Armas wrote a definitive book[2], the comedies, the poems, the pastoral Galatea and the idealist novel Persiles and Sigismunda—are known only to specialists and to a tiny minority of lovers of literature.  When speaking of Shakespeare, one thinks of him as the author of the tragedy Hamlet, but also of the historical dramas Richard II and Julius Cesar and of the comedies and romances As You Like It and Winter Tale. Cervantes remains, for most of his readers, the creator of Don Quixote.

The English translation of Don Quixote’s first part (Spanish first edition: 1605) was published only in 1612, but it is quite likely that, during a period when literary novelties were not so frequent and circulated in manuscript before being printed, Shakespeare might have known it earlier. Did it inspire him? The Tempest, the last play entirely written by him, was finished in 1611. After this date, the only work signed by Shakespeare is Henry VIII, a play performed in 1613. Later analyses showed that it was partly due to John Fletcher, a prolific playwright and a specialist of artistic collaborations, who wrote at least nine plays with his friend Francis Beaumont. It is perhaps the death of Beaumont in 1613 that led Fletcher to offer Shakespeare help in writing Henry VIII.  The play handles a difficult subject, the English Reformation, but, compared with the brilliance and the wide range of feelings found in Shakespeare’s earlier Henry IV (first and second part) as well as in his Henry V, Henry VIII disappoints. The genius who, from 1611 on, refrained from writing plays on his own must have certainly felt that his force was spent, yet he might have found it difficult to say no to a friend whose specialty was working as part of a team. Once finished, Henry VIII was attributed only to Shakespeare, most probably as a way to guarantee its success. This success was, however, not attained, among other things because the cannon shooting used for special effects set fire to the thatched roof of the Globe Theater, which ended up by being destroyed.

Another play, now lost, but about which we know from contemporary payment statements that it has been staged in 1613, had Cardenno or Cardenna as its title, probably representing the name of the main character. No author is mentioned. A work entitled The History of Cardenio was listed in 1653 in the Stationers’ Register by publisher Humphrey Moseley within a list of plays that he acquired and hoped to publish soon. The texts are listed in the alphabetical order of their author’s name and The History of Cardenio figures under F, for Fletcher. As Tiffany Stern observes in an important recent article,[3] Moseley’s list gives as authors “Mr. Fletcher. & Shakespeare,” which, given the full stop after the name of Fletcher, might suggest that the addition of Shakespeare was an afterthought. As Tiffany Stern explains, Moseley later attributed several other obscure plays to Shakespeare and, also, was mocked by his contemporaries for mixing up the names of the authors he published.

Cardenio being the protagonist of an interlaced story in the first part of Don Quixote, it is likely that the play was based on Cervantes’ work, especially since John Fletcher used Spanish sources for ten of his plays. Also, as Stern points out, Fletcher’s friend and often co-author Francis Beaumont is the author of Don Quixote, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Pounder), a parody of Cervantes’ novel, performed in 1607, just two years after the novel’s publication and five years before the English translation became available in print. But no definite information has reached us about The History of Cardenio. This is probably why a 20th-century graphologist felt authorized to claim that The History of Cardenio is in fact The Maiden’s Tragedy, a play written and staged in 1611 but attributed by the majority of specialists to Thomas Middleton, another second-tier playwright of the time.[4] The problem is that The Maiden’s Tragedy, while having something to do with the first part of Don Quixote, does not stage Cervantes’ story of Cardenio, but adapts another embedded tale: “The Ill-advised Curiosity.”  

Much later, in 1727, the London public could see a play entitled The Double Falsehood or the Distressed Lovers, whose plot was visibly inspired by the story of Cardenio, Luscinda, Fernando, and Dorotea, as narrated in the first volume of Don Quixote, beginning with chapter 23. The published version of the play (1728), announced on the first page that the original author was Shakespeare and that the present version had been prepared by Lewis Theobald (1688-1744), a playwright who was soon to edit Shakespeare’s works. This time, a meeting between Shakespeare and Cervantes seemed to have indeed taken place. Unfortunately, it did not benefit from the best possible conditions, given that Theobald’s reputation among English literati was not quite up to the mark. 

A good philologist but a mediocre author, Theobald had severely criticized the edition of Shakespeare’s works published in 1723-25 by Alexander Pope. Pope took a rather nasty revenge on Theobald by granting him the main role under the name of Tibbald the King of Dunces in the satirical poem The Dunciad (1728), dedicated to the Goddess of Dullness. A “dunce” being “an idiot,” Theobald was certainly not shown much consideration. Pope knew, like everyone else in the small world of literary London, that Theobald was not a respectable writer: his plays failed to please the public, he was known as a plagiarizer, and his translations were considered terrible. Theobald’s own edition of Shakespeare’s theater (published a few years later, in 1733) revealed, however, genuine editorial talent. But, significantly, Theobald did not include The Double Falsehood in his Shakespeare edition.

What should we conclude? Can we rely on Theobald’s tacit admission that the play does not deserve to be included in a serious edition of Shakespeare’s works (an edition that he aimed at making much more reliable that Pope’s), or should we rather trust Theobald’s statement, made in 1727, that he possessed three manuscripts of The Double Falsehood’s original version by Shakespeare? The fact is, however, that no one else seems to have ever seen these manuscripts. Does this mean that Theobald wrote The Double Falsehood himself? Yet the play often sounds like an early 17th-century English drama. Did Theobald have access to copies of the lost, mysterious, The History of Cardenio, the play mentioned in 1653 and perhaps staged in 1613? Did he adapt it to the taste of early 18th-century England?

These questions, which at first sight seem fit to interest only specialized scholars and antiquarians, are nevertheless relevant, given that after having been forgotten for almost three centuries, Theobald’s Double Falsehood again attracts the attention of scholars and the public. In 2010, the respectable series The Arden Shakespeare published Theobald’s play edited by Brean Hammond, who, in a long introduction that is a model of learning, discernment, and common sense, argues that although the play is certainly not Shakespeare’s in its entirety, there are moments when the presence of the bard of Stratford can be felt.[5] A certain number of theater companies staged the play in Great Britain and in North America, and several well-known specialists of Shakespeare, among whom Steven Greenblatt and Gary Taylor, as well as Gregory Doran, director at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, tried to reinvent, based on Theobald’s play, the text that Shakespeare himself might have perhaps written in 1613.

Before taking a closer look at The Double Falsehood, let us examine the place of Cardenio’s story in Cervantes’ novel and the impact it had on the 17th and 18th century theater. In a recent monograph on the topic, Roger Chartier, one of the best contemporary specialists in the history of printed books, reminds us that Don Quixote enjoyed an immediate, huge success.[6] I would add that far from seeing in Quixote the “first modern novel”, as 19th-century Romantics did, early readers first and foremost took Quixote for what it certainly was, namely the funny parody of a fashionable genre, the late chivalric novels. For more than a century and a half after his death, Cervantes was acclaimed as a great comic writer.

Don Quixote is built, like all long novels of that time, be they chivalric, heroic, or picaresque, as a long series of similar, almost repetitive, episodes, whose protagonist’s proper name is mentioned in the work’s title: Amadis de Gaula, Lazarillo de Tormes, Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus. (Titles referring to the moral issues raised by the novel, e. g. Elective Affinites, Lost Illusions, Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment became popular only much later). The literary customs of the Renaissance and early modern prose required that, for the sake of variety, now and then the novels’ sequence of similar episodes be interrupted by shorter tales inserted as a separate, independent narrative, embedded as an episodic development, or interlaced within the main plot. Novels that over-idealize the main characters and their actions would contain embedded tales of perfidy and deception, as it happens in Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story, while picaresque novels (Don Guzman Alfarache by Mateo Aleman, for instance) whose protagonists are adventurous rascals and crooks, would insert stories about true love and praiseworthy valor. In Don Quixote, the main line of action is Quixote’s comic failure (repeated failure) to enforce the errant knights’ rules of behavior on a resistant world. During the first thirty chapters of the first part of the novel the reader witnesses over and over again Quixote’s inability to realize that the actual world in which he lives has nothing to do with the fictional world of the chivalric novels he tries to emulate. To provide a much needed variety and relief, a pastoral episode is inserted in chapter 14 and a tragic novella “The Ill-advised Curiosity”, is read aloud in front of Quixote and his friends in chapters 33, 34 and 35. In the embedded story of the Captive, its protagonist narrates his adventures without interruption in chapters 39, 40, and 41. Neither the pastoral episode, nor the “Ill-Advised Curiosity”, nor the narrative of the Captive has genuine links with Quixote’s plot. The interlaced narrative of Cardenio, Lucinda, Dorotea, and Fernando, by contrast, keeps closer company to the main plot, crosses it, wanders away, and comes back to it. 

During their retreat to Sierra Morena, Don Quixote and Sancho meet Cardenio, a half-mad loner who tells them his life and sufferings. Cardenio soon meets Dorotea, disguised as a page, who doesn’t take long to reveal her own secrets, unexpectedly linked to Cardenio’s. The reader soon realizes that their story is built as a novella. In contrast with the long, episodic novels, novellas avoid putting undue pressure on the listener or reader’s memory and concentrate on a single event or on a turn of closely related events.[7] They focus upon a facet of human strength or imperfection, grasping it in the heat of the action. Unity of action is therefore an essential aspect of the subgenre.  Many novellas consist of just a couple of narrative moves: desire and fulfillment, offense and revenge, crime and punishment, test and success. When the action involves more than two or three moves, its unity comes from the tight causal links between the episodes. The fulfillment of desire, for instance, can either create hostility, or meet with a sudden challenge. It can also be favored or hindered by an unexpected change of circumstances. Or, as is the case in Cardenio’s story, it may require a longer, gradual, approach. But novellas always emphasize the main goal pursued by the actors and the limited number of steps they take to achieve them.

The unity of action favors an inductive approach to the representation of human behavior. A single uncommon situation or turn of events triggers an unexpected response from the actors and depict the variety of human behavior. The conflict is depicted as unusual, astounding, even scandalous, such that the ordeals of virtuous characters, as well as the transgressions of the imperfect ones, are conspicuously at odds with society’s usual ways. And because characters are portrayed in an intimate relation with their concrete social and familial environment, what counts is the unusual movements of the heart rather than the general disposition of the soul.  Insights into the moral psychology of the characters thus have a better chance to develop.

These features of the novellas: unity of action, the inductive approach, the setting assumed to be real, the plausible moral psychology, and the emphasis on actions that are highly unexpected, yet not entirely unbelievable, they all converged with the needs of a good Elizabethan play.  And we know that Shakespeare had a predilection for Italian novellas as sources of his dramatic plots: a story by Bandello for Romeo and Juliet, one by Cinzio’s for Othello, another story by Cinzio for Measure for Measure. Cervantes’ novellas are more intricate than Bandello and Cinzio’s: they involve more than one line of action, and their solution is often quite convoluted. In Cardenio’s story, don Fernando, the younger son of a powerful lord falls in love with Dorotea, the beautiful daughter of a farmer. Fernando courts her and, after promising to marry her, becomes her lover. Growing weary of Dorotea quite soon, Fernando finds out that his friend Cardenio is in love with the beautiful, virtuous Lucinda, who shares his feelings. Fernando manages to send Cardenio to another town, asks Lucinda’s father for the hand of his daughter, and obtains it despite Lucinda’s opposition. Cardenio, warned by a letter from Lucinda, comes back and secretly witnesses the wedding ceremony. When Lucinda utters the fatal “yes,” Cardenio leaves the Church, thus missing Lucinda’s attempted suicide. Cardenio and Dorotea each seek refuge in the Sierra Morena, Lucinda runs away from home and hides in a monastery, Fernando manages to kidnap her. Their adventures end when the will of Heavens (as Cervantes points out) brings all of them together. Moved by Dorotea’s faithfulness, Fernando takes her back, leaving Lucinda to Cardenio.

As Roger Cartier shows, the story was soon adapted for stage in Spain. A play by Guillen de Castro performed in 1605 or 1606 and published in 1618, focuses on the four lovers’ ordeals, but in a comic scene also introduces Don Quixote and Sancho. Two later French adaptations, Cardenio’s Lunacies (Les Folies de Cardenio) of a certain Pichou (1628) and Don Quixote of La Mancha by Guérin de Bouscal (1638) also mix the story of the four lovers with Quixote’s extravagances, Pichou emphasizing Cardenio and his friends, while Guérin de Bouscal giving a more significant place to the Knight of the Sad Countenance. In both plays, the characters speak in sonorous alexandrines. In Pichou’s play Cardenio declaims:

Tous les astres cachaient leurs visages ternis,
Et les quatre éléments paraissaient désunis…
Lorsqu’un astre amoureux forçant ces lieux funèbres,
A fait sortir le jour du milieu des ténèbres.

(All stars were then hiding their tarnished light / And the four elements seemed caught in a fight / When, an amorous star pushing darkness away / From the midst of the gloom gave birth to the day). 

In Guérin de Bouscal’s, don Fernando declares, not unlike a character from a tragedy by Corneille:

Ma résolution ne se pouvait changer
Je devais vous avoir, mourir, ou me venger 

(My decision, my love, could not possibly change / I needed to have you, to die, or take revenge).

Cardenio und Celinde oder Unglücklich Verliebte (1657) by the German Andreas Gryphius is also based on this novella, while in England, in addition to the already mentioned comedy by Beaumont, Middleton’s The Maiden’s Tragedy as well as The Coxcomb by Beaumont and Fletcher (around 1610) use the conflict of the “Ill-advised curiosity”, and the story of the Captive is present in The Renegade by Philip Massinger (1624). Later in the 17th century, Aphra Behn’s The Amorous Prince (1671), Thomas Southerne’s The Disappointment (1684), John Crowne’s The Married Beau (1694), and The Comical Story of Don Quixote by Thomas d’Urfey (1694) are all based on elements of Cervantes’ novel: the first three being adaptations of “The Ill-advised Curiosity”, while the last one includes Cardenio’s episode. 

This brings us closer to 1727, the year when Theobald’s play was performed. Cervantes, whose popularity was continuously growing, and who was soon to become, in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), the only past novelist whose example was considered worthy of being emulated, was also one of Theobald’s favorite writers. Theobald might well be the author of The Adventures on the Black Mountains, an adapted version of Cervantes’ Cardenio’s story, published in 1729, two years after The Double Falsehood.  Later, in 1741, Theobald wrote The Happy Captive, inspired by the story of the Captive and, as Tiffany Stern remarks, Theobald mentions Don Quixote twice in his notes to the Shakespeare edition, both times in contexts which have little to do with Cervantes’ novel.

Let’s now have a look at The Double Falsehood, which fully reorganizes Cervantes’ plot. Quixote and Sancho disappear and instead of the pastoral beginning (forlorn Cardenio confessing his misfortunes to Quixote in the mountains’ wilderness), the first scene takes place at the palace of the young nobleman’s father, who in the play embodies order and legality. (Theobald changes the names of the characters: Cardenio becomes Julio, Fernando – Henriquez, Lucinda – Leonora, and Dorotea – Violante.) The older, good, son of the duke deplores, together with his father, the younger son Henriquez’s lack of virtue. Then the older son lets the father know that Julio, Henriquez’s friend, will soon arrive at court at the latter’s request. 

A rather serious structural problem ensues. The author of this play is fully justified in starting it at the duke’s palace, the most stable, trustworthy spot in the plot’s fictional universe. The announcement of Julio’s imminent arrival signals, however, that Henriquez already plans to marry Leonora in Julio’s absence. While in Cervantes’s novel, this happens only after Fernando seduces and abandons Dorotea, the first act of The Double Falsehood presents in great detail Julio’s departure at Henriquez’s request. The seduction of Violante begins only afterwards, at the very end of the first act, and is achieved in the second act. When in the first act Henriquez plays a serenade at Violante’s window, his aside is designed to express deep admiration and desire:

This maid
For whom my sighs ride on the night’s chill vapour
Is born most humbly, though she be as fair
As nature’s richest mould and skill can make her […]
But what of that? Th’obscureness of her birth
Cannot eclipse the lustre of her eye
Which make her all one light (Act 1, scene 3, v. 3-6 & 7-9)

“Birth and empty rank” he continues, are nothing compared with her beauty, virtue, and simplicity. The young woman appears at the window and dismisses him. Alone, the young nobleman considers marriage. He firsts impersonates someone who scolds him:

Why, your great birth forbids you to descend
To a low alliance.  

And then answers in his own voice:

Hers is the self-same stuff
Whereof dukes are made, but clay more pure (Act 1, scene 3, v. 65-67).

This language is not that of a cynical seducer: Henriquez appears to be genuinely in love with Violante. In the second act, he sleeps with her (a scene to which I will soon return) and, without any transition, goes back to pursuing Leonora. His explanation—Leonora was always my true love, my affair with Violante is just an intermezzo—sounds like an afterthought of the author who needed to explain a fault in the play’s unfolding:

Fair Leonora reigns confessed the tyrant queen of my revolted heart and Violante seems a short usurper here. (2.1, 48-50)

It is true that decorum prevented the author from beginning the play with the seduction and quasi-rape of Violante. But by giving Violante’s seduction the role of a mere diversion within the longer-term, more serious pursuit of Leonore, the author, first, undermines the credibility of the denouement: for why would Henriquez in the end marry Violante if she was just a passing flame? Second, this change in Cervantes’ plot distorts the gender issues raised by Cardenio’s story, as by other Cervantes’ novellas. The way gender is portrayed in The Double Falsehood makes it quite unlikely that the author of the play was Shakespeare.

Thematically, Cervantes’ story is about fidelity in love, intimacy before marriage, and, especially, male sexual impulsiveness and inconstancy. Just like Fernando in Cardenio’s episode, the young Rodolpho in The Force of Blood—one of the Exemplary Novellas published in 1613—kidnaps and rapes the young Leocadia. Before being brought back home, Leocadia takes a silver cross from Rodolpho’s room. Pregnant, she gives birth to a boy that she raises with the help of her parents.  Many years later, she meets by chance the parents of Rodolpho, who recognize their son’s silver cross and arrange a meeting between Rodolpho and Leocadia. The two fall in love with each other again and marry. In The Two Young Women, Theodosia is seduced by the young Marco Antonio, who soon runs away. Disguised as a man, she starts looking for him. On the road, she meets another young woman who expects to marry the same Marco Antonio. Faced with the two witnesses of his frivolity, Marco regrets his behavior. He marries Theodosia, while the other young woman becomes the wife of his brother. Like Fernando in Cardenio’s story, Rodolpho and Marco end up by marrying the woman they had seduced. These thoughtless males, however, are not truly duplicitous.  Precisely because their infatuations are strong enough to make them act irresponsibly, they do not experience a new passion before the previous one has been physically satisfied. Their frivolity being successive, if one may say so, they do not pursue more than one woman at a time. By changing this aspect of don Fernando (Herniquez), the author of The Double Falsehood betrays a serious lack of understanding of one of the central points in Cervantes’ story. It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare would have drawn such a male character. Virtually all male lovers in his plays pursue only one woman—although some could have earlier been in love with another woman: thus, Romeo. On rare occasions, as we shall soon see, sheer lust can be a motive for action in Shakespeare; he never depicts, however, a character who is passionately courts two women at the same time.

An even stronger argument against Shakespeare’s being the author of The Double Falsehood is provided by Violante’s behavior in the play.  In Spain, until the Council of Trent (1563) a solemn promise of marriage meant a marriage before God, and for this reason Dorotea’s yielding to don Fernando after he vowed to marry her is a plausible, if historically obsolete, action. The older ways of doing things might well have survived after the Council of Trent’s legislation, thus favoring inconstancy and betrayal, as Cervantes’ novellas emphasize.  Sexual violence, moreover, in forms much more severe that those portrayed by Cervantes, is frequently represented in 17th-century Spanish novellas, e.g. in Gonzalo de Céspedes y Meneses (1623), Juan Pérez de Montalbán (1624), and most strikingly in the terrifying novellas of Maria de Zayas (1637 and 1647), who indicts amoral male behavior and institutional sexual injustice in more severe terms than anyone before her. As for England, a country that in the meantime turned Anglican and did not implement the Council of Trent’s innovations, the promise to marry still made the union valid, without, however, making it perfect, i.e. also recognized by the Church. Regarding promises, the legal terminology in force until the end of the 17th century defined the marriage de future as the promise to marry in the future and the marriage de praesenti as an agreement to enter the married state immediately.[8]

In spite of the similarities between English law and pre-Trent Spain, in Shakespeare’s plays young women never give themselves to a man following a simple promise to marry, as Dorotea and Theodosia do in Cervantes’ stories. The plot of Measure for Measure (1603-1604) seems to be an exception, but the way Shakespeare reworked a borrowed subject is quite revealing. In the Italian novella by Giraldi Cinzio (Gli Ecatommiti, VIII, 5, 1565) that provided the play’s topic, the judge Iuriste sentences to death a young man who had committed a rape. To save him, his sister sleeps with the judge after he promises to marry her. However, during the night when she shares his bed, the judge orders the young man to be executed and his head to be sent to his sister. The young woman lodges a complaint at the Holy Roman Imperial Court and the Emperor, after forcing Iuriste to marry her, orders the execution of the judge. His young wife, however, asks for his pardon and obtains it.

Notice that already in Cinzio’s story it is not some kind of amorous urge that pushes the sister into the judge’s arms, but a calculated desire to save her brother’s life. In the English version of the story, found in George Whetstone’s Heptameron (1582), which is Shakespeare’s direct source, the sister’s reasons remain the same, but the events are less terrifying: the judge, having slept with the young woman still requires that the brother be put to death, but the executioner, out of friendship for the young man, sends the sister the head of another criminal who had just been decapitated. At the end of the novella, the brother will be pardoned. Shakespeare further changes Whetstone’s version: in Measure for Measure the young sister remains virtuous, because the virgin who spends the night with the judge is, without him knowing it, his former fiancée. Thanks to this night of love she wins back the man who had earlier turned away from her.  As for the sister of the young convict, the monarch—here the duke of Vienna—, deeply touched by her beauty and virtue, asks for her hand.  An anecdote that initially was about the sacrifice of virginity (for a reason which, by the way, had nothing to do with love’s weakness) becomes, in Shakespeare’s play, a genuine triumph of virtue. The difference is striking between, on the one hand, the strength of women protagonists in Measure for Measure as well as in Shakespeare’s other plays (the exception being Troilus and Cressida, whose topic is an apocryphal episode of the Trojan War) and, on the other hand, the story of Cardenio, Lucinda, Fernando, and Dorotea, not to speak of the version found in Theobald’s play.

This is not to say that the respect Shakespeare persistently showed for female strength was shared by all English playwrights of his time and even less by those who wrote during the Restoration and, in some cases, after it. The Double Falsehood, for instance, far from softening the clash between Fernando and Dorotea, i.e. Henriquez and Violante (as Measure for Measure did for the conflict opposing the young woman to the Judge), makes it worse. In chapter 28 of Don Quixote, I, Fernando persuades Dorotea to sleep with him by promising to marry her. In The Double Falsehood, when Henriquez leaves the house where he had just taken advantage of Violante he specifies that what took place was a rape:

Not love
But brutal violence prevail’d  (Act 2, scene 1, 27-28)
although, in fact, the young woman did not seem to object vigorously:
True, she did not consent (Henriquez continues), as true, she did resist; but still, in silence all.
‘Twas but the coyness of a modest bride,
Not the resentment of a ravish’d maid. (Act 2, scene 1, 37-4)

I have strong doubts that this mixture of sexual violence and consent could appear in a play by Shakespeare.

Was The Double Falsehood written by Theobald? Did he adapt an older play, perhaps written by Fletcher? We do not know. One thing, however, is clear: the Cardenio debate helps us realize that authors who belong to the same historical period do not necessarily share the same ideas on a given subject. They often adopt a wide range of points of view and normative ideals, which may help us figure out who is the genuine author of a disputed text. At the end of the 16th- and the beginning of the 17th-century, certain writers, among whom Sir Philip Sidney, Honoré d’Urfé, and Shakespeare, closely followed the neo-Platonic precepts concerning love and sexuality; other writers, Quevedo, for instance, embraced a picaresque version of cynicism, others sympathized with the Epicureans, yet others, among whom Cervantes and Fletcher, felt comfortable with more than one option.  Fletcher might have staged a love-plot taken from Cervantes and increased its violence (as might have done Theobald a century later), but it is difficult to believe that Shakespeare would have adopted Cardenio’s plot for one of his plays. It is still safe to believe that he stopped writing in 1611 or soon after.

To conclude: the Zeitgeist (sometimes called the episteme) does not look like a regiment whose members all display the same uniform. It rather resembles a big fair full of people who not only wear the most surprising dresses and hats, but also arrive and leave whenever they feel like. In this fair, Shakespeare might have perhaps caught a glimpse of Cervantes and waved to him from a distance, but it is rather unlikely that a genuine meeting took place.  

Thomas Pavel, Emeritus professor,
University of Chicago


[1] Jean Canavaggio, Cervantes, New York: Norton, 1990.

[2] Frederick De Armas, Cervantes, Raphael, and the Classics, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[3] Tiffany Stern. “’The forgery of some modern author?’: Theobald's Shakespeare and Cardenio's Double Falsehood.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 62.4 (2011), p. 555-93.

[4] Julia Briggs, the editor of Thomas Middleton’s Collected Works (Oxford University Press, 2007), gave the play a new title: The Lady’s Tragedy.

[5] The Double Falsehood, Brean Hammond (ed.), London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

[6] Roger Chartier, Cardenio entre Cervantes et Shakespeare, Paris : Gallimard, 2011.

[7] As I tried to show in my book The Lives of the Novel: A History, Princeton University Press, 2013, chapter 3.

[8] Bradin Cormack, The Power to Do Justice. Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, is an excellent study of the links between English literature and the legal thought of the seventeenth century.




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Shakespeare and Cervantes Then and Now

An early modern transatlantic world in which information moved slowly could hardly have noticed the date, but 407 years later it registers for us: on April 23, 1616 in the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, about eleven natural days apart, something ended. And perhaps something else began.


Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, ages 68 and 52 respectively, died on this date. One of them covered the peninsular and Mediterranean world of his time as a chamberlain and soldier, while the other moved between his native town and the capital, only a hundred miles apart. One tried most of the avenues open to a young man of precarious social status (and perhaps converso lineage), while the other settled into a routine and increasingly prosperous existence in a new industry.  

While Cervantes was older, they belonged to a single generation of thinkers and writers born in the years around 1550: this was a group (including Félix Lope de Vega in Spain and Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney in England) for whom the religious divisions of the early Renaissance were a settled fact, who accepted the power of their vernacular languages, and who saw literary genres without classical precedents arise to represent their world. By the mid-century moment in which Cervantes and Shakespeare were born, the Renaissance is a conscious period with several phases in its past, generational differences, and at least one major episode yet to be written in the seventeenth century, to which both writers will contribute in the late phase of their careers.

What ended on April 23, 1616, and what began? This Colloquy gathers current work, formal and informal, on both figures, together and apart. Recent books by Jeffrey Masten and Zachary Lesser, excerpted here, represent the turn in Shakespeare studies toward a discursive philology grounded in textual particulars. A post by our longstanding blogger William Egginton, drawn from his book of 2016 titled The Man Who Invented Fiction, addresses the durable topic of how Cervantes built characters. Alexander Samson's article on James Mabbe's translation of the Exemplary Novels, which first appeared in Republics of Letters in 2015, revisits the question of what seventeenth-century English adaptations took from Cervantes and redirects our attention to Mabbe's work as an "intercultural agent." Several of Arcade's contributing bloggers of past years—Timothy Hampton, Ruth Kaplan, and Ricardo Padrón—are represented by their observations out of reading and teaching. And my lecture to the audience of Humanities West, a San Francisco institution that promotes the public humanities, is intended to introduce the relation between Shakespeare and Cervantes in a somewhat provocative spirit. Consider this Colloquy an invitation to think at once about these two figures, and perhaps to contribute your own work or comment.  

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