A speculation on the most valuable book lost to humanity

Much of the knowledge which the world had at one time has been lost to us now.  Natural disasters, wars, fires, have destroyed books and the knowledge in them.  We know they existed once, but they no longer exist now.Suppose you could protect and save ONE of the things we’ve read this semester so people of future generations could read it and think about it, which one would it be and why?

There are several contenders for the title of the most valuable book lost to humanity.  Homer’s Margites is a strong candidate due to its philosophical richness.  Likewise, the Lost Books of the Bible leaves Christians wondering at possibilities.  Jane Austen’s Sanditon would have enhanced the author’s already formidable reputation.   But from several such worthy contenders, my choice for the most valuable book would be William Shakespeare’s Cardenio. If I am endowed with the power to save the book through magical powers I would choose to protect this book over others.  The rest of this essay elaborates and explicates my choice.

William Shakespeare is a towering figure in English Literature.  Beyond his uncontested stature in the world of letters, Shakespeare is on par with JS Bach in terms of contributions made to Western Civilization.  Shakespeare’s works thus have a significance that is difficult to contain within simple classifications.  The Bard’s art is a combination of poetry, philosophy and story-telling.  His works stand the scrutiny of excellence in each of these disciplines.  But the real singularity of Shakespeare’s works lie in the synergy of his art.  The sum of merit in his great plays is more than an addition of the parts.  It is in this context that the value of The History of Cardenio has to be evaluated.

What makes the loss of Cardenio difficult to digest is the tantalizing evidence for its theatrical performance.  Historical records from early 17th century indicate that the play was performed by The King’s Men in London in 1613. The Stationers’ Register attributes the play to William Shakespeare as co-author of John Fletcher. Although it is difficult to ascertain the extent of Shakespeare’s contribution to the finished work, his influence is speculated to be quite pronounced.  The other key circumstantial evidence of the plays’ existence comes from two related plays from a later date.  The lyrics of the popular song ‘Woods, Rocks and Mountains’ by Robert Johnson is fairly certain to have featured in Cardenio.  Hence, there are enough markers and traces of the play’s existence and performance.  This makes it a case of so-near-yet-so-far. Modern scholarly analysis and revisionist research has given a glimpse of hope for those brooding over the lost work.  It has come to light that the Cardenio could have remained in existence in some of its variant forms with different titles.  On the eighteenth century wrapper of the text most widely known as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, a critic of an earlier age – possibly the third owner of the manuscript, John Warbuton “crossed out other contenders for possible authors or collaborators to leave only the words: ‘By Will Shakespear/ A Tragedy indeed’.” (Fox & Walter, 2004)

Though such consolations remain, I regret the loss of this play for the great entertainment value its original version suggested.  The play’s plot is said to have been inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  The character of the protagonist in Cardenio is said to have been inspired by his namesake appearing in Cervantes’ iconic work. In the novel, the young Cardenio is driven to madness and lives in the Spanish town of Sierra Morena.  Madness is a constant theme in Shakespeare’s plays – Hamlet, King Lear and Othello come to mind readily.  It would be fascinating to discover the interpretation and portrayal of a maddened youth in Cardenio.  But madness in the context of Don Quixote could not have been tragic or serious.  Hence by deduction it is fair to assume that comedy was at the core of the theme of madness noted in Cardenio. Features such as comedy of errors, malapropisms and fools interludes are highly probable in the play.  This makes the loss of Cardenio a little difficult to accept.

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