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Collecting Shakespeare: Crowd funding and rediscovered plays

Updated Tuesday, 7th April 2015

A benefit gig, a rediscovered lost play and a beef with Alexander Pope: Lewis Theobald's 18th Century edition of Shakespeare plays could have fitted comfortable in the social media age.

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In effect, Lewis Theobald's work on Shakespeare was like a piece of 18th Century crowd-funding, as a theatre company put on a benefit show...

Original article from the London Journal, May 20th, 1727:

Frontispiece of Double Falsehood Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain We have received [information] of a very obliging favour which the Company at Drury Lane have lately offered to a very learned and ingenious gentleman, well known to the town by his writings in various kinds of polite learning, and which he has accepted of.

Those gentlemen, it seems, have so much honour for the writings of their great predecessor Shakespeare, that they thought it becoming them to set apart one night for the benefit of Mr Theobald, who is now labouring, with great ability, and equal success, to restore the text, and give us an edition (so extremely wanted) of that admirable author.

A specimen of this work, under the title of Shakespeare Restor'd, has already been received by the town with so true a relish, that he may well consider as the earnest of his encouragement; and reasonably expect that the public will concur with the intentions of the company, and not make frustrated the labour of a night designed for his benefit.

Mr Theobald seems particularly desirous, on this occasion, that the public may be informed of this handsome circumstance in the courtesy intended him by the Old Company, which is, that it is at a time when he happens to be under some private difficulties, and has the mortification to see himself neglected at that theatre, whose interests, from its first opening, he has so warmly espoused, and in whose service he has so long and cheerfully laboured.

… and Theobald himself was offering a special feature: a 'lost' Shakespeare play...

The Journal continues:

There needs very little more to be added upon this head, after having informed all our readers who are capable of relishing the delicate and exquisite charms of Shakespeare's poetry, that, if they have generosity enough to think themselves obliged by Mr Theobald's late essay to restore that poet, they will next winter be doubly indebted to him; since through his hands they may expect to receive an undoubted original play written by Shakespeare, some time between his retirement and death.

The time when this play was written, the place, where (Stratford Upon Avon) and the hands is must necessarily have fallen into are circumstances, that on their first mention do in great measure obviate the Objection that arises from the Improbability that such a treasure should be lost for a whole century; but though a great number of other proofs might be added to remove this matter-out of all questions, Mr Theobald chooses rather to make his appeal to work itself when it shall first appear, and is desirous to have it tried by an audience of impartial judges, who bears the likeness, and speaks in the dialect of, his father.


What happened next?

In 1726 Theobald had published Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published. As the name suggests, Theobald believed he was fixing shoddy work of his predecessors, in particular Alexander Pope's 1725 Complete works, and wasn't shy about saying so. Amongst Pope's revisions had been to remove all the puns from the plays; he felt these were too low humour to form part of the work.

Pope didn't take this attack well, and struck back by making Theobald the "King of the dunces" in his Dunciad; the man who would allow the goddess Dulness to control the stage.

Theobald's final seven volume Shakespeare was published in 1734.

And the lost play? In 1727, Theobald's Double Falsehood; or, The Distressed Lovers was presented at the same Drury Lane theatre which held his benefit ; he claimed this was based on The History of Cardenio. Many believed this was the work of Shakespeare. The Kings Men, the acting troupe of which Shakespeare was a part, presented a play under this name in 1613, and a 1653 Stationer's Register attributed it to Shakespeare and John Fletcher. However, the evidence remains sketchy and controversial. Pope happily chipped in with his thinly-veiled claims that the work was a total forgery.

Nevertheless, in 2010 the Arden Shakespeare series elevated Double Falsehood to its version of the canon. In 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented the play, carefully billed as Cardenio, Shakespeare's 'lost play' re-imagined.

Although Theobald was the first editor to treat Shakespeare with the type of reverence reserved for the Classics, his work would eventually be eclipsed by others and he has become almost as obscure as Cardenio itself.




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