Sunday, 27 March 2011

This Year 'Don Quixote'?

I'm still working my way slowly though Susan Hill's book of reading delights, Howards End is on the Landing, and this morning, curled up in one of my favourite coffee shops, I came across her piece about the books with which we form a special relationship despite the fact that they have been standing unread on our shelves for decades at the very least.

They become known in a strange way, perhaps because we have read a lot about them, or they are books that are part of our overall heritage. I think I know a lot about 'Don Quixote'. I do know a lot about 'Don Quixote'. I have just never read it. I doubt if I ever will. But I know what people mean when they talk about tilting at windmills; I recognise a drawing of Quixote and Sancha Panza. I believe Cervantes to be a great European writer. Why do I believe that? What possible grounds do I have for believing it? Other people's opinions, the fact that it has an honourable and permanent place in the canon? So, 'Don Quixote' has an honourable, permanent place on my shelves. It would be wrong to get rid of it.

I feel exactly the same about Don Quixote. I too have a copy and, like Susan Hill, I have never read it. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop me from being convinced that I know what the novel is about. After all, I did once, long ago, see a stage version at the National starring Paul Scofield. That has to count for something, surely?

Well, two people who we know did read the book were William Shakespeare and the up and coming star of the King's Men, John Fletcher. I don't know about you, but I always find it astounding that Shakespeare and Cervantes lived at the same time, however, that is, in fact, the case. Indeed, they died on the very same day, April 23rd 1616.

Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 and the first English translation, by Thomas Shelton, hit the book stalls outside St Pauls in the early Summer of 1612, just in time for Shakespeare to pick up a copy and decide that one of the stories it contained would be ideal fodder for his Christmas production for the company he had been part of since its foundation in 1594. By this time most of his work was being done in collaboration with the young Fletcher and this was no exception. The play, Cardenio, was written, the music composed by Robert Johnson, who also worked with them on The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, and the whole entertainment presented at court over the Christmas period 1612.

What, you've never heard of a Shakespeare play called Cardenio? Ah, well there's the rub. We've lost it. Careless, I know, but nevertheless, a fact. What we do have is a bowdlerised version from the eighteenth century by one Lewis Theobald called Double Falsehood which he claimed was based on the Shakespeare and Fletcher original, but if he had the three copies he said he did they almost certainly went up in flames in the Drury Lane fire of 1809. Please, don't ask me to say any more, it's just too painful. If it's any sort of consolation, what does still exist is the music for that first production and you can see it, I believe, in the Bodleian Library.

Recently, however, there has been considerable interest in both the Theobald play and in attempts to use it as a basis from which to reconstruct the original Cardenio. There was an Arden edition of Double Falsehood published last year and there have been two university attempts, one here in the UK and one in New Zealand, to stage a version of what scholars have thought might be something like the original of 1612. Now, we have the first professional production opening at the Swan Theatre in Stratford next month. As you can imagine, this has caused considerable interest, not to say controversy, and I can't wait to see how Greg Doran (a director, for whom I have the greatest respect) has set about rebuilding a script from very little original material. Fortunately, there are going to be several opportunities during the coming months to talk with him about the process, including an afternoon workshop in June that I've managed to wangle myself a place on.

There is no way that what we are going to see on stage this summer can possibly be thought of as a reliable reconstruction of the performance King James and his court saw during those seventeenth century Christmas festivities. Theobald must have completely gutted the original. For instance, there is no subplot in Double Falsehood and I am reliably informed, by someone who definitely knows, that there is only one play from that period which doesn't have at least one subplot and often more. Shakespeare certainly always liked an extra line of plot development knocking around. Nevertheless, if even just a few lines are reliably by Shakespeare that has to be worth something.

And now, I have to decide whether I am going to celebrate this event by making this the year in which I change my relationship to the Don. Is this going to be the year when I finally take my copy down from the shelf and actually read it? Maybe, we'll see.



  1. I also have an unread copy of Don Quixote. I like it being there, and did try to read it a long time ago but gave up.
    I am a huge fan of Susan Hill, particularly her non-fiction stuff. Reading your extract from her book, I can hear her voice coming back to me.
    Thanks Annie.

  2. The reading of DQ is a whole other ball of wax to the knowing about DQ. If you read it, it will change your relationship forever, but not necessarily in a bad way. I read the Lydia Davis translation several years ago and really enjoyed it.

  3. I started to read Don Quixote a few years ago and gave up. I thought maybe it was the translation and I'd try to find a different one. Now I've got one on my Kindle - maybe I'll read it sometime, but like you I think I know the story, so why bother when there are so many other books to read?

    You may spur me on to have another go if you do read it this year ... maybe.

  4. Leah, Susan Hill's is a great favourite of mine as well. It's interesting how some writers have a very strong voice and she is one of them, I think.

    Stefanie, the tip on the translation is useful. I'm always wary about reading books in translation because I've had some terrible experiences. Thanks.

    Margaret, we'll have to check in with each other at the end of the year and see if we've made any progress. Like you, I think it's a maybe!

  5. Wow, I didn't know Cervantes & Shakespeare died on the same day! Crazy! Nor had I heard about this reconstructed Cardenio project, which is quite intriguing. Lucky you to get an inside scoop on the process behind the forthcoming production.

    I haven't read Don Quixote either, but I just bought a sale copy of the new Edith Grossman translation (which I'm betting is what Stefanie meant - as far as I know Davis only translates from French. Grossman is kind of the Spanish-language translation superstar to Davis's French-language one, and I've heard good things about her Cervantes translation). From what I've heard I'm betting I'll love it - lots of playful self-referential narrative tricks, but with a soulful core.

  6. Emily, believe me, I do know how lucky I am to have access to so many of the world's greatest Shakespeare professionals, bit academic and theatrical. This year and next are going to be particularly exciting because not only do we have the 'Cardenio' project to look forward to, but next year there is going to be a cultural Olympiad to coincide with the sporting Olympics and Stratford is going to be heavily involved.

    Thanks for the tip about the translation. I'd looked for the other and not been able to find it, but this came up straight away.

  7. Hello Annie,

    I hadn't given much thought to the scenario, until you raised it, but looking through my bookshelves now, I can see several classics, that I have never read and am possibly never going to read, but are there because at some point, I thought they 'should' be.

    Several of them have been taken down and dusted off periodically, but have only been browsed, then returned to their place, with me now thinking that I am an expert about the book!!

    How we delude ourselves!!!


  8. Yvonne, my own particular bete noir are some of the plays of Marlowe and Jonson, which I 'know' because I've been to so many lectures on them, but have neither seen nor read. Whenever they come up in discussion I nod my head sagely and hope that no one will actually pin me down over them.

  9. I actually knew that little fact about Shakespeare and Cervantes--very cool actually, though I suspect I probably can't tell you a whole lot more about either of them (shame on me really). I also read DQ one summer (and it took ALL summer), but I very much enjoyed it. I have lots of books that I feel like I know, however, in the sense that Hill talks about-even though I'm not sure I'll ever read them.

  10. Don Quixote is a book that I am always intending to read at some unspecified time in the future. Howard's End is on the Landing however, I intend to read very soon.

  11. Danielle, I am humbled by your reading prowess. This really ought to be the year I read DQ. I will never have better motivation.

    Joanne, you will get tremendous pleasure from the Hill. I'm sure it's our sort of book.

  12. I read Don Quixote a few years ago with a blogging group, and it was great to do it that way. Before that, it was a book I'd always intended to read but never got around to. Thank goodness for blogs and blogging groups! I really loved the book and hope to read it again one day.

  13. Dorothy, I think that would be a good way to approach something like Don Quixote and I had wondered about suggesting it to Bookworms, but as the last book I inflicted on them was 'Daniel Deronda' (which they loved but which is also very long) I've thought better of that.