Also Called The Second Maiden's Tragedy
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008
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
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
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
Tragedy of revenge.
Cardenio is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) that is relatively easy to understand. Although the writing quality is good, it is generally inferior to that in Shakespeare's better plays.
......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), saying:
............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.
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.
......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."