All this recent talk of Double Falshood / Cardenio as Shakespeare’s legendary “lost” play brings up a very different question. Not whether it is or not, but what if it is? How would that change our opinion of Shakespeare’s canon of work if we really and truly knew, for sure, that there was a new play to add to the mix? One that, by most accounts, isn’t very good?
I wanted to put it in terms that the modern reader can understand. It’s so easy to speak of Shakespeare as perfect, Shakespeare as god, that it’s easy to escape Shakespeare as working man.
So instead I want you to think about Robert DeNiro. Know the name? You probably do, at least if you’re in the US. Now, can you quote something from the Godfather II? I’m willing to bet that you can. Or how about Goodfellas? Casino? Maybe Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, for the purists. You like his comedy better? How about Midnight Run, or Meet the Parents?
Now what about Analyze That? Or how about The Good Shepherd? Oh, didn’t see them? Maybe something from his earlier work, could you tell me a little bit about Bloody Mama, or Jennifer on my Mind? What about Stardust? Surely I have to mention Stardust, I mean come on, the man played a character named Captain Shakespeare.
(There may indeed be some DeNiro Geeks in the crowd who can, indeed, speak at length on all the movies I mentioned. But bear with me here, people, I’m trying to make a point!)
Any large body of work will naturally fray at the edges. It takes time to hone one’s craft, and then eventually time dulls the edge of even the sharpest talent. Robert DeNiro is quite arguably one of the best actors of modern times. He’s certainly been a part of some of the best movies. But does that mean that all of his work was genius? Not hardly.
I think people often forget that with Shakespeare. We’ve likened the name Shakespeare to the work as a whole when really it’s probably more like a bell curve – we’ll all put Hamlet and Lear and Dream and such up at the top, surround them with Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar and so on…until down at the edges we have the Measure for Measures and Pericleseses….however you say it.
So, would a proven Cardenio jump to the top of that pile? Almost certainly not. Masterpieces don’t tend to disappear. Junk is what tends to be forgotten. Maybe Shakespeare was phoning it in during his elder years. Maybe he collaborated loosely just to pick up the pay check. Who knows, maybe he never wanted the burden we place upon him, and his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. People tend to forget this. People think we’re going to find the next Hamlet. We’re not.