LONDON (Reuters) - The discounted claims of an 18th century author to have re-shaped the words of Shakespeare into a play are finally being taken seriously by a respected publisher of the Bard’s works nearly 300 years on.
“Double Falsehood,” a play written by Lewis Theobald and first performed in 1727, was based substantially on another work co-written by William Shakespeare more than a century earlier, a leading academic said on Tuesday.
Adding weight to the claim of Professor Brean Hammond of Nottingham University is the fact that the respected Arden Shakespeare publishers will release it in print on March 22.
Its appearance, and the attribution to Shakespeare, is likely to trigger another round of scholarly debate over what the English-speaking world’s most famous and influential playwright wrote and what was falsely attributed to him.
For Hammond, the publication of the play next week will be the culmination of years of research. “I started working on it in the 1980s and wrote a couple of articles on the play,” he told Reuters.
“At the time I was hoping to get the play brought out by Oxford University Press. It was revived in around 2002 when the Arden series general editor got in touch and said he would like to bring this out.
“He subjected it to very, very stringent scrutiny and of course all the way through we’ve tried to tread a cautious line. But you can’t really control what people say about it.”
Theobald always claimed his play was based on a lost version by Shakespeare that was in turn based on the story of Cardenio, taken from the novel “Don Quixote,” by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.
Hammond said modern scholarship had established that the early work, performed in 1613, was co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Theobald then substantially re-worked and cut it, meaning the presence of three hands in the present version.
“Shakespeare wrote most of the first half (of the original) and Fletcher wrote most of the second half — you could detect a new hand from the style of writing,” Hammond said.
Theobald’s work, a story of love and betrayal, was popular with 18th century audiences, but the playwright was widely dismissed as a fraudster for claiming he had used the words of Shakespeare.
“The play has been rubbished in the past,” Hammond said. “It did have a successful theatrical run when it came out, but soon after people began asking questions and thought that it was not a single author play by Shakespeare and we know that it’s not.”
That interpretation became widely accepted and the play has languished in relative obscurity until now, when the work will be widely accessible for the first time in more than 250 years.
“What’s left in it now for the modern reader is Shakespeare’s DNA,” Hammond concluded.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato