Double Falsehood • It’s not Shakespeare

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“Double Falsehood”, said to be the remnants of a long lost collaboration between Fletcher & Shakespeare, is in the news again.

Arden's New Edition

The different write-ups, including by the New York Times, give the impression that this is a recent discovery, but it’s not. Double Falsehood has been considered and reconsidered again, again and again. The latest academic to throw his eggs into the Double Falsehood basket is Brean Hammond of Nottingham University. None of the articles go into any detail and many of them quote the same statement from Hammond:

In a statement, Mr. Hammond said “the early consensus” on “Double Falsehood” was “that Theobald had either forged it or passed it off as written by Shakespeare,” but more recently “a gradual trickle of belief” has “developed into an irresistible flood.”

It’s probably a flood of evidence eerily similar to another flood of circumstantial evidence that surrounded The Funeral Elegy. Donald Foster was the academic who claimed The Funeral Elegy as Shakespeare’s. Just like Arden, the publishers of the Norton Shakespeare decided to include the Funeral Elegy in their complete edition (fully annotated). Since then, Foster has slunk off to ignominy while his various fair-weather friends have been sadly afflicted with amnesia. Norton has quietly removed the Funeral Elegy. Expect the Arden editors to do the same with Double Falsehood.

By the way, way back when the Funeral Elegy was first claimed for Shakespeare, I might have been the very first to identify John Ford as the writer. Yes. Me. Somewhere, buried in Shaksper (I think), is proof. But that’s been a along time ago and my ambition has never been to be a Shakespeare scholar. I was kicked off Shaksper. Why? Because of my sense of humor. I enjoy the granular linguistic and stylistic analyses that prove and disprove authorship and that makes me a good counterfeiter. Back when I was still an upstanding member of Shaksper, I typed in a play called Dr. Dodypoll. No one had a copy of it (and it’s hard to find) but I found it at an obscure Boston library. There was much speculation that Shakespeare had had a hand in writing it (discovering new works of Shakespeare is a past-time for many in the field).

While typing it in, I guessed that the real author was likely Robert Greene (who famously insulted Shakespeare as a plagiarist) or George Peele (I can’t remember now). I remember that the image clusters, if nothing else, were a dead giveaway. But I thought I’d have some fun, so I forged some Shakespeare. Can you find it? Here it is, for the first time in 15 or 20 years:

Leander. My Lord, he fears that you will be angry with him.
Alphonso. You play the villain: wherefore should he fear?
I only proved her virtues for his sake,
And now you talk of anger. Aye me wretch,
That ever I should live to be thus shamed!

Alberdure. Madame, I swear the Lady is my love;
Therefore your highness cannot charge my father
With any wrong to your high worth of her.
Constantine. Sister, you see we utterly mistake
The kind and princely dealing of the Duke:
Therefore without more ceremonious doubts
Lets reconfirm the contract and his love.

Katherine. I warrant you my Lord – the Duke – dissembles.
It is not love doth speak, for such strong terms
Hath ever love. Dear Sister, do but note
The fruit tree giveth not that is not pruned
For nature teacheth us th’extravagance
Of outward show doth sap the inward stock
In substance and of worth. It is love
That like the gentle drop of rain speaks not
Its name unto the earth yet calls from forth
The ground the weary seed. (Nor yet the voice
Of angels can amaze the knotted bud
As doth a single drop of rain from heaven.)
And so true love should do, for that speaks not
That does in deeds what words may never do.

Alphonso. Here on my knees, at the alter of those feet,
I offer up in pure and sacred breath
The true speech of my heart and heart itself.
Require no more if thou be princely born.
And not of rocks or ruthless tigers bred.

Katherine. My Lord, I kindly cry you mercy now,
Ashamed that you should injure your estate
To kneel to me; and vow before these Lords
To make you all amends you can desire.

Flores. Madame, in admiration of your grace
And princely wisdom, and to gratify
The long wished joy done to my Lord the Duke,
I here present your highness with this cup,
Wrought admirably by th’art of spirits,
Of substance fair, more rich than earthly gems,
Whose value no man’s judgment can esteem.

Alphonso. Flores, I’ll interrupt the Duchess thanks
And for the present thou hast given to her
To strengthen her consent to my desires,
I recompense thee with a free release
Of all offenses twixt thyself and me.

Flores. I humbly thank your excellence.
Katherine. But where is now unkind Earl Lassinbergh,
That injures his fair love and makes her wear
This worthless garland? Come, Sir, make amends,
Or we will here award you worthy penance.

Lassinbergh. Madame, since her departure I have done
More hearty penance than heart could wish,
And vow hereafter to live ever hers.

Katherine. Then let us cast aside these forlorn wreaths,
And with our better fortunes change our habits.

Sure enough, there were other academics on the mailing list who spotted the passage right away – only they thought it was by Shakespeare. The excitement was palpable. Because I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone (I was just having fun) I told everyone about my forgery within the day – unprompted. They were not amused and I was blackballed. End of story.

The point is not that they were dupes (they had no reason to suspect a practical joke and I didn’t give them much time to consider) but that  Shakespeare can be faked and that we’re all guilty of seeing what we want to see. The right Shakespearean scholar would have quickly recognized my little passage as a forgery – if only because the grammar is anachronistic. And who are the right Shakespearean scholars? First and foremost is Brian Vickers, author of ‘Counterfeiting’ Shakespeare. He was among the first scholars who persuasively identified John Ford as the author of the Funeral Elegy. If Brian Vickers comes out in favor of Double Falsehood, then that is the time to sit up and take notice. However, I expect that Vickers is sharpening his pencil to a scalpel’s edge (as I write). Expect blood. Other scholars to look for: MM Mahood, author of Shakespeare’s Wordplay, Edward A. Armstrong, author of Shakespeare’s Imagination, and Marina Tarlinskaja, author of Shakespeare’s Verse: Iambic Pentameter and the Poet’s Idiosyncrasies, Ward Elliot (a Professor of Government) and Robert Valenza (a mathematician and statistician), along with MacDonald Jackson and David Lake. These latter scholars were part of the Shakespeare Authorship Clinic who studied the Funeral Elegy and were detailed in Vickers’ aforementioned book.

When any of these scholars come out in favor, then we’ll have something. As it is, the game is only just afoot.

  • One  thing to know: With the exception of the scholars I’ve provided above, Shakespeare Scholars aren’t necessarily good at recognizing Shakespeare! It takes a certain kind of talent and knowledge to recognize Shakespeare – some of it having nothing to do with a degree in literature. It’s 9 parts science and 1 part intuition. Here’s a beautiful example – Oxford by the Numbers (which includes a rejection of Double Falsehood). That’s why you will find a mathematician and statistician among the scholars who can sort out genuine Shakespeare from the Fletchers or the Theobalds.

Just last night, I found an online copy of Double Falsehood and reread it. I’ll format it and reprint it here for those who are curious (within the week). And having read it, I see lots of imitation, but no Shakespeare.  I may go into more detail with another post (because I really, really enjoy this kind of murder mystery) but for now, I’ll be brief. First, just because a play had Shakespeare’s name attached to it  (as with Cardenio – from which Double Falsehood is supposedly drawn) doesn’t mean Shakespeare actually had anything to do with it (let alone Fletcher). For example:

  • The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle, 1600, appeared in two editions bearing the words ‘Written by William Shakespeare.’
  • The Troublesome Reign of King John. The title-page of the edition of 1611 says: “Written by W. Sh.”
  • The First Part of the Contention betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of Yorke. These plays were reprinted in 1619. The title page claimed they were “written by William Shakespeare, Gent.”
  • The Merry Devil of Edmonton Printed as being by Shakespeare in 1653
  • The History of Cardenio ‘A Play by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare;’ entered Sept. 9. 1653. It has been suggested that this play is identical with Double Falsehood.
  • The Second Maiden’s Tragedy was attributed to Shakespeare by Warburton in the 19th Century (I think). Interestingly, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy was recently argued, by Charles Hamilton, to be the actual lost Cardenio. Hamilton’s assertion that the play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher has been discounted, but the play may well have been the lost Cardenio  and is now generally thought to be a collaboration between Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher (or Middleton’s in its entirety).

This list, by the way, (which is only partial) along with some of the description, comes from The Shakespeare Apocrypha (lest I be accused of plagiarism!). The commentary on The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, properly called The Lady’s Tragedy, is my own. And notice that Cardenio (three manuscripts of which were reputedly in Theobald’s possession) wasn’t identified as Shakespeare’s until almost 4 decades after his death. Given the sheer number of plays whose authors were inadvertently (and deliberately) misidentified during these decades, there’s no reason to believe Cardenio was an exception. (And it wouldn’t be the first time Middleton’s verse was identified as Shakespeare’s or Fletcher’s.)

Shakespeare's Imagination by Edward A. Armstrong

Though Lewis Theobald claimed to have based Double Falsehood on manuscripts, within a week of having produced Double Falsehood, his play was called a hoax and poets like Pope challenged him to produce the manuscripts. Theobald never did. The obvious inference is that Theobald, who was known to have imitated Shakespeare, either never had the manuscripts or knew that the manuscripts would undercut his claim. What man would let his career go down in flames, would let his reputation be destroyed, if all he had to do was produce manuscripts reputedly in his possession? That hasn’t stopped scholars from rationalizing his behavior.

If Theobald did have manuscripts, but didn’t produce them, then it’s probably because he recognized that Fletcher’s collaborator (if we accept that the original was a collaboration and that Fletcher had a hand in the play) was not Shakespeare. Was it better to conceal the manuscripts (thus giving him plausible deniability – no proof of anything) or to reveal that he had forged Shakespeare? He probably decided the former was the lesser of two evils. It’s obvious to anyone that Theobald meddled with the text (imitating Shakespeare), and claiming that he did so to suit contemporary tastes is the charitable interpretation. It’s more likely, given his behavior, that the original manuscripts weren’t Shakespearean enough, that Theobald knew it, and altered the texts accordingly.

Who was the other collaborator  (or author of the entire play) if not Shakespeare? Assuming the manuscripts were real, I put my money on Middleton (Thomas Dekker, see my latest post). There are mannerisms in Double Falshood that could be construed as Fletcher’s (Acts III-V), mannerisms that Theobald probably wouldn’t have recognized (but they’re also similar to Middleton’s); and those mannerisms, interestingly, remain (an argument that Theobald really did have manuscripts). For instance, both Middleton and Fletcher used feminine endings (and heavy feminine endings) to a degree that Shakespeare did not. A small example comes from the start of Act III, Scene i.

Jul. Poor Leonora!  Treacherous, damn’d |Henriquez!
She bids me fill my Memory with her Danger;
I do, my Leonora; yes, I fill
The Region of my Thought with nothing else;
Lower, she tells me here, that this Affair
Shall yield a Testimony of her Love:
And prays, her Letter may come safe and sudden.
This Pray’r the Heav’ns have heard, and I beseech ’em,
To hear all Pray’rs she makes.

The formulation ’em for them (and as a feminine ending) is one that you will frequently find in Fletcher’s verse (and Middleton’s, though less so). Curiously, the passages which one might ascribe to Fletcher (if the play was a collaboration and if one grants that Theobald was working from manuscripts) remain relatively unmolested by Theobald. Either that or Theobald was better at forging Fletcher (or Middleton) than Shakespeare (though it’s unlikely that he would have been capable of such fine grained forgery). Also, the congenial metrical flow more nearly matches a Fletcher or Middleton than anything Shakespeare would have written so late in his career (the period when he was collaborating with Fletcher).

The part of the play, however, that is thought to be originally by Shakespeare, strikes me as having Middleton’s genetics with a heavy dose of pseudo-Shakespearean meddling (in Italics) by Theobald – from Act I Scene ii:

Jul. I do not see that Fervour in the Maid,
Which Youth and Love should kindle.  She consents,
As ’twere to feed without an Appetite;
Tells me, She is content; and plays the Coy one,
Like Those that subtly make their Words their Ward,
Keeping Address at Distance
.  This Affection
Is such a feign’d One, as will break untouch’d;
Dye frosty, e’er it can be thaw’d; while mine,
Like to a Clime beneath Hyperion’s Eye,
Burns with one constant Heat.  I’ll strait go to her;
Pray her to regard my Honour:  but She greets me.–

Enter Leonora, and Maid.

See, how her Beauty doth inrich the Place!
O, add the Musick of thy charming Tongue,
Sweet as the Lark that wakens up the Morn
And make me think it Paradise indeed.
I was about to seek thee, Leonora,
And chide thy Coldness, Love.

First of all, notice the repetition of Coy one and feigned One as if the poet were short of imaginative faculties (hung up on one aspect of Shakespeare’s style). In fact, similar “Shakespearean” formulations will show up again and again [Act 1 Scene iii]:

Th’ Obscureness of her Birth
Cannot eclipse the Lustre of her Eyes,
Which make her all One Light

The phrase Charming Tongue is not one that Shakespeare would have used so late in his career. This formulation only appears once in his entire output (in Titus Andronicus), “charming eyes”, and might well have been Robert Greene’s George Peele’s rather than Shakespeare’s.  However, the

Shakespeare's Verse by Marlina Tarlinskaja

phrase is all too typical of the kind of fluff that was being produced by poets in Theobald’s day. The phrase “wakens up the Morn” gives away Theobald’s hand. Why? The phrase never appears in Shakespeare because the formulation wake up is anachronistic. In short, the reputedly Shakespearean passages smack of 18th Century revisionism – what an 18th century poetaster would have thought that Shakespeare sounded like. The claim that some words are unique to Shakespeare is bogus. After all, what else(!) would one expect form an 18th century forger trying to imitate Shakespeare?

The real test is in the meter. That’s something Theobald did not have the wit to imitate. Granted, if Theobald was working from manuscripts, he’s altered the meter, but even so, it smacks of Middleton. Shakespeare’s late metrical and syntactic style is very different from Theobald’s passages (I’ll save that comparison for a later post). Bare in mind, too, that Middleton was himself a natural forger of Shakespeare! Middleton, when he made the effort, could write top-notch poetry in the Shakespearean vein. Middleton, who worked and collaborated with Shakespeare, was heavily influenced by and admired the elder poet – another reason for Shakespearean echoes. [Note: March 25, 2010: While my opinions concerning Middleton remain unchanged, I find that the evidence argues for his authorship of Acts III-V, and Thomas Dekker’s authorship of Acts I & 2]

Here is a passage of Middleton (The Widdow: Act 3 Scene 2):


I ha’ got myself unbound yet. Merciless villains!
I never felt such hardness since life dwelt in me.
‘Tis for my sins. That light in yonder window —
That was my only comfort in the woods,
Which oft the trembling of a leaf would lose me–
Has brought me thus far; yet I cannot hope
For succour in this plight: the world’s so pitiless,
And everyone will fear or doubt me now.
To knock will be too bold; I’ll to the gate
And listen if I can hear any stirring.

Enter Francisco [aloof]

Was ever man so crossed? — No, ’tis but sweat, sure,
Or the dew dropping from the leaves above me;
I thought ‘t’ad bled again. These wenching businesses
Are strange unlucky things and fatal fooleries;
No mar’l so many gallants die ere thirty.
‘Tis able to vex out a man’s heart in five year,
The crosses that belong to’t: first, arrested –
That set me back two mangy hours at least;
Yet that’s a thing my heat could have forgiv’n,
Because arresting, in what kind soever,
Is a most gentleman-like affliction.
But here, within a mile o’th’town, forsooth,
And two mile off this place, where a man’s oath
Might ha’ been taken for his own security,
And his thoughts brisk and set upon the business,
To light upon a roguy flight of thieves —
Pox on ’em! Here’s the length of one of their whittles.
But one of my dear rascals I pursued so
The jail has him, and he shall bring out’s fellows.
Had ever young man’s love such crooked fortune?

Did you notice Middleton’s echo of Romeo and Juliet – “That light in yonder window“? Compare “Dye frosty“, in Double Falsehood, with Middleton’s “roguy flight”. The trick of coining adjectives (and adverbs) by attaching the -y ending wasn’t a neologistic device that Shakespeare favored. That device grew in favor shortly after his death (adopted by the likes of Middleton). It later ruined scads and scads of 18th century poems and finally died a climactic and ugly death during the start of the 19th century. One should fully expect to see such language if Theobald were to revise Middleton (or Fletcher).

Here’s another interesting comparison (both passages that close scenes) [Double Falsehood: Act 1 Scene ii]:

What must I do? — But That’s not worth my Thought:
I will commend to Hazard all the Time
That I shall spend hereafter:  Farewel, my Father,
Whom I’ll no more offend:  and Men, adieu,
Whom I’ll no more believe:  and Maids, adieu,
Whom I’ll no longer shame.  The Way I go,
As yet I know not. —  Sorrow be my Guide.

Now compare this habit of thought to the following [The Life of Tymon of Athens: Scene 2]:

We make ourselves fools to disport ourselves,
Upon whose age we void it up again
With poisonous spite and envy.
Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves?
Who dies that bears not one spurn to their graves
Of their friend’s gift?
I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me. ‘T’as been done.
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.

Timon is by Shakespeare, says you? No, it was a collaboration between Middleton and Shakespeare. The passage above is generally agreed to be by Middleton and can be found in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works.

But, it’s just one comparison and if the case is going to be made for Middleton, it has to be one among many.

Anyway, these few examples don’t add up to an argument, but they give you an idea of the way Double Falsehood might be examined. If, in the long run, the conjecture is that the play was written by Fletcher and Middleton (a first for these two playwrights who were not known to have collaborated), you heard it here first (by gad). That said, it’s also possible that the entirety of the play was written by Fletcher alone, by Middleton alone [Edit: or, as the evidence now suggests, by Dekker and Middleton]. Other plays identified as being by Beaumont & Fletcher, for example, have since been attributed to Middleton. Along with Shakespeare, Fletcher might have had nothing to do with the play. [Edit: Also interesting to note, Dekker’s work has been misidentified as Shakespeare’s in other plays.]

In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from Brian Vickers.

Addendum: After posting this, I googled Dr. Dodypoll. Only to discover that my poetry was published eight years ago! (I wrote a note to the webmaster. I hope he keeps my forgery with an updated explanation, but if not, below is how it appeared – and may still.)

And to think, all this time I’ve been telling people that I’ve never been published. Turns out… I was published in 1600!

22 responses

  1. I remember hearing about these “long, forgotten works.” I thought it had been buried for good. I guess this is what you call beating a dead horse?


    • Clearly, Monty, the horse was never dead and needs to be soundly beaten, strung and then quartered. Of course that’s never worked for the Oxfordians – their horses are the living dead.


  2. Vickers weighs in very briefly on “Double Falsehood” in his “Shakespeare: Co-Author”: he thinks there’s no Shakespeare or Fletcher in it, though in a footnote he says that MacDonald Jackson seems to disagree. Google both titles and the relevant bit comes up at the only hit.


    • Hi Jim, I have the book. I just scoured its index and read all the references to Cardenio and Theobald, but could find no reference to Double Falsehood. I think you’re right. Vickers must have commented at some point, but I don’t see it in Shakespeare, Co-Author. He also doesn’t discuss it in Counterfeiting Shakespeare. I suspect he saw no reason to give it serious consideration. Now that Arden has published Double Falsehood with Shakespeare’s banner (no hint that it might be apocryphal) I expect Vickers is getting warmed up. I love reading his work – but I’m weird. (And thank god I bought his books when I did. By the time I’m ready to sell them, I’ll be able to retire on the proceeds – some are already selling for over $200 apiece.)


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  4. That’s strange–the index seems to be wanting. The reference per Google Books (I don’t own the book, alas, and it is indeed freaking expensive) is at the top of p. 10–with luck this link will take you there:

    I also hope he weighs in in more detail. Why is there no Arden Third “Measure for Measure,” “Macbeth,” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (actually I know why in that case), but they bring out “Double Falsehood”?


    • Try here (Abe books). Alibris has some here. But they all seem overpriced to me (though not so outrageous as Amazon’s resellers). I looked at Powells, but they were also off the scale. I looked to see what the original price was – but I think it was around $35.00.

      [Edit Thanks! I found the the reference (p. 10), Vickers writes: “There is the doubtful tradition that Lewis Theobald acquired the manuscript, adapting it for his own Double Falsehood (1727), but the arguments claiming that Theobald’s text preserves something of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s original seem to me unconvincing.”

      He adds in a footnote: For a recent discussion see Jonathan Hope. The Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays: A Socio Linquistic Study (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 89-100. MacDonald Jackson believes that ‘the case for supposing The Double Falsehood to preserve something of the Shakespeare-Fletcher Cardenio is quite strong’ (personal communication ).]

      [Further Edit: I also own Hope’s book (to which Vickers refers) and just finished reading his examination. Hope finds strong evidence that Theobald’s play is based on Elizabethan manuscripts and also finds evidence for a co-authored play. He finds the probability that Fletcher was one of the authors to be strong – Shakespeare less so but not outside the realm of possibility.

      Ward Elliot and Robert Vaenza (their study is linked in my post)pegs Double Falsehood with 11 Discrete Rejections, which puts it far outside the realm of Shakespearean authorship (on another planet they would say). However, it appears that they did not examine the play on the basis of co-authorship. In other words, they didn’t separate out the part that is said to be Shakespeare’s (examine that), then examine the part that is said to Fletcher’s.

      I’m going to have to re-read Hope’s book. I’m not sure that his study puts Middleton outside the realm of possibility, but if it does, it does. :-) I don’t lead the evidence, the evidence leads me.

      As it is, I side with Vickers.


  5. I’ve followed this story with interest (other channels such as NPR and the NYT also covered the story).

    I set out to find an ebook version of the play; having found none of good quality, I spent the last few days putting one together. It is now available in the Drama & Poetry section at


    • Do you have a direct link to the e-book? I clicked and didn’t see anything related to Double Falsehood. Also, did you read my update? Double Falsehood: Thomas Dekker & Thomas Middleton? I’ll be interested to see if I get any reaction. My hunch as that the relevant community, at this point, is way too invested (every sense of the word) in a Shakespeare & Fletcher attribution to rationally consider an alternative.


    • Yes, Luke. Provide a link to my site for the opposing opinion. I’ve been in contact with some of the scholars mentioned above and they haven’t faulted my assertions. Let folks hear both sides.


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  8. Really sad I’m too tablet illiterate to link this on Twitter. (Can’t manage tablet cut and paste, either. Got it right ONCE.) When I saw the Double Falsehood news scroll on MSNBC, I did get excited but you have properly disillusioned me.

    P.S. I didn’t know people got tombstoned on Shaksper. Assaulted by verbal sticks and bricks, sure, but never a mention of exile. Did I miss a good fight?


    • Thanks, Aquart. I did have to come around on my opinion somewhat, but I also hold that the parallels with Dekker’s work can’t be altogether discounted. I’m a fan of Dekker. Can’t help it.


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