The History of Cardenio
Also Called The Second Maiden's Tragedy
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Table of Contents
Authorship Question
Plot Summary
Dates and Sources
Type of Play
Complete Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008
Did Shakespeare Really Write The History of Cardenio?

Existing evidence from old documents and handwriting analysis strongly suggests, but does not prove, that William Shakespeare and John Fletcher wrote The History of Cardenio. However, the quality of the writing in the play–good but not up to the standard of Shakespeare's better plays–suggests that if Shakespeare did have a hand in its writing, he played a minimal part. For example, there is a sparsity of lines that startle and dumbfound with the brilliance of typical Shakespearean imagery. And the formidable Shakespeare vocabulary seems somewhat reduced.
Of course, it is possible that Shakespeare, like a used-up athlete trying to relive past glory, had lost his magic. Over the centuries, Elizabethan playwrights Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and Cyril Tourneur (1575-1626) have also been credited with writing Cardenio (not as a joint project). Oddly, a play entitled The Revenger's Tragedie (1607) was first ascribed to Tourneur but later to Middleton.
Evidence linking Shakespeare with The History of Cardenio (also identified under a half-dozen other names, including The Second Maiden's Tragedy), includes the following information.

Play Performed in 1613

In 1613, John Heminges, one of the owners of the Globe Theatre (along with David and Cuthbert Burbage, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, and Will Kempe), accepted payment for a play referred to as Cardenno and also as Cardenna. The King's Men (the acting company of which Shakespeare was a member) performed the play under the title of Cardenno in 1612 at the court of King James I and later, under the title of Cardenna, for an ambassador of the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emmanuel I (1562-1630). The Norton Shakespeare says documents from Shakespeare's time "suggest that the King's Men owned a play [on the subject of Cardenio] at the time that Shakespeare was collaborating with John Fletcher. . . . On 20 May 1613 the Privy Council authorized payment of [20 pounds] to John Heminges, as leader of the King's Men, for the presentation at court of six plays, one listed as 'Cardenno.' " (Greenblatt, Stephen, General Editor. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, page 3109.)
The play was also performed at the Blackfriars Theatre in London, according to the BBC TV production In Search of Shakespeare.

Play Registered in 1653

In 1653, Humphrey Moseley officially recorded in the Stationers' Register a play entitled The History of Cardenio, identifying its authors as John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Mosely was a well known stationer who registered plays written by the team of John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. A copy of an original document prepared by Moseley is posted at the Twilight Pictures Internet site devoted to Fletcher and Beaumont.

Play Included in Third Folio

In 1664, Cardenio was included in the second printing of the Third Folio of Shakespeare's plays, according to the Encylopaedia Britannica. ("First Folio." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Standard Edition on CD-ROM. 2001.)
Shakespeare Identified as Source

In 1727, Lewis Theobald (1688-1744) wrote a tragicomedy entitled The Double Falsehood, or Distrest Lovers, which he said was based on an old Shakespeare script of a play about Cardenio, a character in Part I of Miguel Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote. (Greenblatt, Stephen, General Editor. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, page 3109.)
Part I of Don Quixote was first published in Spanish in 1605 and in English (Thomas Shelton translation) in 1612, the same year that the King's Players performed Cardenno
Theobald was a writer and dramatist who also edited a Shakespeare edition published in seven volumes in 1733-1734 for the Jacob Tonson publishing company, which published works of John Dryden, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser.

Manuscript Lost, Then Reportedly Found

The original handwritten manuscript of the play entitled The History of Cardenio (or Cardenno or Cardenna) disappeared after it was performed. Between 1807 and 1808, the British Museum acquired a handwritten script of a play entitled The Second Mayden's ["Maiden's"] Tragedy and subsequently filed it in the British Library as "MS Landowne 807." In the 1990's, Charles Hamilton, an American expert in paleography and handwriting analysis (and author of In Search of Shakespeare: A Reconnaissance Into the Poet's Life and Handwriting), examined the play in the British Library and concluded that the British Library script was the 1612 Shakespeare play about Cardenio, maintaining that the handwriting in the script matched the handwriting in Shakespeare's will and other documents he had written. The title of the play–the fourth (after Cardenno, Cardenna, and The History of Cardenio)–appears to support the view that it was the work of Fletcher and Shakespeare. Here's why: Before the King's Players could perform the drama at the court of King James I, the royal censor had to approve it as suitable. When it was submitted to him without a title, he thought it was a sequel to another play written by Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Because the earlier play was called The Maid's Tragedy, the censor gave the new play the working title The Second Mayden's [Maiden's] Tragedy

Play Contains Shakespearean Motifs

The text of Cardenio, or The Second Maiden's Tragedy, contains many Shakespearean motifs, as the plot summary below points out. 

Govianus (Cardenio): Deposed king who loves The Lady
The Tyrant: Usurper of Govianus's Throne
The Lady: Woman who loves Govianus
Helvetius: Father of The Lady
Memphonius: Noble at court
Sophonirus: Noble at court
Bellarius: Noble at court and lover of Leonella
Three Soldiers
Anselmus: Brother of Govianus
The Wife: Wife of Anselmus
Leonella: The Wife's waiting woman
Votarius: Friend of Anselmus
Other Characters: Attendants, Servants, Nobles

A royal palace; homes of nobles; a tomb in a cathedral. 

Dates and Sources 
Date Written: Probably 1611 or 1612. 
First Published: Unknown. Only the questionable handwritten copy survived into modern times.
Probable Main Source:.Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes.

Type of Play

Tragedy of revenge.


Cardenio is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). The text is relatively easy to understand. Although the writing quality is good, it is generally inferior to that in Shakespeare's better plays. 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2003

After a man named "The Tyrant" enters the royal palace with friends of the noble class–Memphonius, Sophonirus, and Helvetius–the audience learns that The Tyrant has usurped the throne of King Govianus, who represents the Cardenio character from the Cervantes novel, Don Quixote. (See "Shakespeare Identified as Source," above.) Govianus compares The Tyrant to a snake (a figure of speech reminiscent of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in which King Claudius is compared to a serpent). Govianus says: 
So much 
Can the adulterate friendship of mankind, 
False fortune's sister, bring to pass on kings, 
And lay usurpers sunning in their glories 
Like adders in warm beams. (1.1.7-10) 
The Tyrant also attempts to woo away the sweetheart of Govianus, a beautiful young woman known as "The Lady." However, she vows loyalty only to Govianus. Even under pressure from her father, Helvetius, to accept the Tyrant, she remains true to the rightful king. (In this respect, she is like Imogen, the defiant daughter in Shakespeare's play Cymbeline.) Angry and frustrated, The Tyrant then imprisons her with Govianus and attempts to force her to love him. (Imprisonment and love are also themes in The Two Noble Kinsmen.) But rather than give in and lie in The Tyrant's bed, she implores Govianus to kill her. (Death as a solution to thwarted love is also a theme in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet.) When he cannot because of his love for her, she kills herself. The Tyrant, however, means to have her, even if she is stone cold dead, So, in a motif new to Shakespeare's plays, necrophilia, he removes her from her sepulcher to reign as his queen. (However, gruesome themes occur again and again in Shakespeare–in Titus Andronicus, for example, and Macbeth and Richard III.
Meantime, Anselmus, the brother-in-law of Govianus–wonders whether his wife really loves him. To test her fidelity, he asks his best friend, Votarius, to attempt to woo her away. (The "suspicious husband" theme also occurs in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. In this play, Leontes, the King of Sicily, thinks his wife, the beautiful Hermione, has paired up with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia.) Votarius then does Anselmus's bidding. But when he trysts with The Wife, as the dramatis personae calls her, love smites both of them.
Worried that Anselmus will discover their affair, they plan a ruse: While Anselmus is within earshot, she will pretend to rebuff the advances of Votarius. For the sake of realism, she will wave a sword and maybe even graze the skin of Votarius. When the moment for their stratagem to unfold arrives, she wields the sword to rebuff Votarius. Unfortunately for the Wife and Votarius, a servant has poisoned the tip of the sword. (Here again is a plot device that previously occurred in Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Laertes wields a poison-tipped sword against Hamlet.) After the sword breaks skin, Votarius dies. 
And what of Govianus, The Tyrant, and The Lady? Govianus has a vision of the ghost of The Lady. The apparition, dressed in white, informs him of The Tyrant's morbid preoccupation with her dead body. 
I am now at court 
In his own private chamber. There he woos me 
And plies his suit to me with as serious pains 
As if the short flame of mortality 
Were lighted up again in my cold breast, 
Folds me within his arms and often sets 
A sinful kiss upon my senseless lip, 
Weeps when he sees the paleness of my cheek, 
And will send privately for a hand of art 
That may dissemble life upon my face 
To please his lustful eye. (4.4.58-68)
After Govianus is released from prison, he concocts a plan to avenge the death of his beloved. First, he paints her face to make her seem alive and thus invite the embrace of The Tyrant. Next, he applies a deadly poison to her lips. When The Tyrant sees her, he says, "O, she lives again!"  He then kisses her and immediately suffers the effects of the poison. Just before he dies, the nobles proclaim Govianus the rightful king. Govianus gives The Lady a decent burial as the "Queen of Silence."