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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: June ::
Greenblatt-Mee's "Cardenio"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0342  Sunday, 8 June 2008

From:       John W Kennedy <
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Date:       Saturday, 7 Jun 2008 20:13:16 -0400
Subject:    Greenblatt-Mee's "Cardenio"

I hate being a theatre critic. I don't know how professionals do it without 
going mad. I feel the same way about driving in Boston. But, Wednesday, I drove 
up from NJ to Cambridge's Loeb Drama Center to see the American Repertory 
Theater's premiere of Stephen Greenblatt and Charles L. Mee's "Cardenio", the 
third play calling itself "Cardenio" I've seen in two years.

There is no doubt that Greenblatt and Mee know their Shakespearean  devices. 
"Cardenio" is full of them, and the AMREP website gleefully  offers a commentary 
page where audience members can list the ones they  spotted. Unfortunately, some 
of these devices are (at least in my opinion) abused. For example, when 
Shakespeare ends a play with a song, as in "Twelfth Night", it is, so to speak, 
finishing off the package with a pretty bow; when "Cardenio" ends both acts with 
a song, it seems more to have been done because the playwrights cannot think of 
an ending. Similarly, the play demonstrates all too clearly the truth of C. S. 
Lewis's observation that Shakespeare's technique of metaphorical variation, in 
the wrong hands, quickly degenerates into a mere stylistic tic of cataloging.

There is also a problem at the heart of the play, which is that it has very 
little to do with the "Cardenio" story. Instead, it is (rather slightly) based 
on the episode of "The One Who Was Too Curious for His Own Good", a tale that is 
found and read by the "Cardenio" characters as an episode within their story, 
itself an episode within the story of "Don Quixote." Lewis Theobald's 1727 
redaction, "Double Falshood; or the Distrest Lovers", the only direct evidence 
we possess of the text of Shakespeare and Fletcher's "Cardenio", has none of 
this. (One  hopes that they have not been led astray by the late Charles 
Hamilton's mad identification of Middleton's "The Second Maiden's Tragedy" as 
the lost "Cardenio", for, while its B plot is obviously taken from "The One Who 
Was Too Curious", it has no narrative DNA from  the "Cardenio" story at all.)

But Greenblatt and Mee instead make "Cardenio" a fictional episode within their 
version of the "Too Curious" tale. Here things become difficult for someone who 
has done his homework, for the characters  cite no other source for their text 
than "Double Falshood" (though they never name it, although it is named in the 
program -- incorrectly, as "The Double Falsehood"), and they never express 
anything but contempt and suspicion toward Theobald (whom they also never name), 
though their text is clearly based on Theobald's, although the  characters' 
names are changed back to Cervantes' names, and there is  further dialog in 
obvious imitation of Shakespeare, though it is never explained where these 
additional lines are supposed to have come from. In addition, the cast of the 
play within a play (we never see more than a few odd lines of it) is wildly 
inappropriate to do "Double Falshood" with. (There are far too many women, and 
yet we are told that the second ingenue must be played by a man for lack of an 
actress.) On the whole, this entire aspect made me feel like Norris Lacy 
watching "The DaVinci Code".

No doubt part of the problem is that Professor Greenblatt, at least, did not set 
out to write a play -- not even a closet drama -- but rather a  piece of 
laboratory equipment for his new discipline, "[cultural] mobility studies." It 
would be easy here to say that he has succeeded, but I wonder whether he 
actually has. When tracing how stories run from culture to culture, is it wise 
to use a story that has laid a goose egg (the reviews of "Cardenio" in 
performance were generally damning) in what is, whether we like it or not, the 
dominant culture of the planet? (I waive the further problem of it being also 
the culture of the experimenter.) I do believe that what he is attempting is a 
worthy extension to scholarship, and no doubt I, as a scholar, albeit an amateur 
one, specializing in "Double Falshood", am ill-chosen to address the question.

I hate being a theater critic.

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