The Alexandrian

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Hamilton may be clearly wrong in identifying the Second Maiden’s Tragedy as the lost Cardenio, but there remains an important and lingering question: If the handwriting in the Second Maiden’s Tragedy manuscript does belong to William Shakespeare, what does that mean?

Well, it could mean that this is, in fact, a lost play by Shakespeare. It’s almost too easy to conjure up a hypothetical scenario in which Shakespeare and Fletcher, fresh from their success with Cardenio (assuming they actually wrote it), decided to pluck a different story from the pages of the popular Don Quixote and use it as the B-plot in a new play.

Four Jacobean Sex TragediesOr perhaps Shakespeare somehow ended up scribing the fair copy for one of the scripts purchased by his company. (And perhaps cleaning it up a bit in the process?) In the modern world it’s perhaps too easy to imagine that a shareholder would hold themselves aloof from such a “common” duty, but theater has always seemed to engender a spirit in which everyone pitches in to make the magic happen.

Another possible explanation would be that Shakespeare asked the company’s scribe to write out the fair copy of his will. (This assumes that Hamilton is wrong in claiming that the will was both written and signed in the same hand, but right in claiming that Shakespeare’s will and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy were.)

Of course, even if Hamilton is wrong about the handwriting entirely, some of his other conclusions may have merit. For example, he hypothesized that the play shows clear stylistic signs of having been a collaboration. W.W. Greg, in the Malone Society Reprint edition of the play, similarly hypothesized the potential for two literary correctors working on the manuscript (although both of those correctors were in hands different from the scribe’s).

Hamilton is also likely right in believing that the play was never performed under the title The Second Maiden’s Tragedy. In Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies, for example, Martin Wiggins argues that even George Buc wasn’t referring to it as such. When he wrote “this second Maydens tragedy” he didn’t mean “this [play called] The Second Maiden’s Tragedy“; he meant “this second [play called] The Maiden’s Tragedy“ (in either case referring to the Beaumont/Fletcher play The Maid’s Tragedy written a few years earlier).

It’s certainly true that the script would have originally possessed a paper cover (now lost) which would have contained its proper title. In light of that, some have simply titled the play as they pleased. In Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, for example, Julia Briggs published it as The Lady’s Tragedy (after the unnamed protagonist).

And it is, in fact, Thomas Middleton to whom the play is most commonly ascribed in a scholastic consensus which has, if anything, only strengthened over the course of the past decade in response to Hamilton’s claims.

For myself? Middleton seems like the most plausible candidate. I am occasionally teased by the thought that the play might be Massinger’s lost tragedy The Tyrant, but in this I think it likely I’m being led astray by the same temptation I suspect plagued Hamilton: To recover something precious which has been lost.

After all, Massinger didn’t start writing plays until two years after Buc had approved The Second Maiden’s Tragedy for performance.

Originally posted August 2010.

In a thread on the RPGsite (see post #15), Barbatruc proposes an interesting method for tracking torches and lanterns. He later mentions being inspired by Intwischa’s method for tracking ammo. Talysman drops in a little later (post #26) to mention that he does something similar with wands. (Which, I’ll note, is very similar to Numenera‘s artifact depletion roll.)

For my own reference, I’m going to archive these methods here briefly:

LIGHT SOURCES: In OD&D, set aside a d6 for each lit torch and a d24 for each lit lantern. At the beginning of each turn roll all the dice set aside: Anything that comes up 1 goes out and gets marked off the character sheet. (This results in torches and lanterns having by-the-book durations on average, but introduces an element of uncertainty and variability. More importantly, it simplifies bookkeeping.)

INTWISCHA’S AMMO: The PC has an “ammo die” of a size determined by the amount of ammunition they’re carrying. They roll this die with each attack roll and if it comes up 1, their die type decreases by one size. If they purchase ammunition or find a stash of it during the adventure, they can increase the die size instead.

ALTERNATIVE AMMO: Have your PCs buy ammo in lots equal to the die size of the system you’re using. (d20 in 3.5, for example.) When you roll a 1 on your attack roll, mark off one lot of ammo. (Trail of Cthulhu uses a similar mechanic in pulp mode, but when you roll the 1 you’re actually clicking on an empty cylinder and automatically miss. I’m ditching the “critical failure” aspect of the mechanic and just using it to track ammo.)

WANDS: Roll percentile dice. On a roll of 1 or 2, the wand has run out of charges. (Note: This system doesn’t work if you want the PCs to have some method of determining exactly how many charges are left in a wand.)

What I’m seeing here is a cluster of techniques that I think can be trivially generalized to cover any form of consumable that are likely to be carried in large quantities for frequent use. I suspect it’s particularly useful if you can incorporate it into a general resolution mechanic (instead of rolling a separate die on every single check).

Go to Part 1


Because the 1653 entry in the Stationer’s Register assigns The History of Cardenio to both Fletcher and Shakespeare, Hamilton is forced to acknowledge Fletcher’s involvement in the play. But one rather gets the feeling that he’d rather not be bothered by it.

For example, the entire foundation of his argument rests on two principles: First, that he has identified the handwriting in the manuscript as belonging to Shakespeare. Second, that the script constitutes a rough draft in which the names of the characters had been replaced or removed (prior to the original names being restored).

But if the entire rough draft were written by Shakespeare, what happened to Fletcher’s contribution? Hamilton wants to assign the entirety of the sub-plot to Fletcher (the bit that was actually based on Don Quixote), but if Fletcher wrote it, why is it (according to Hamilton) in Shakespeare’s handwriting? If Shakespeare wrote half the play and Fletcher wrote the other half, then we would expect to find the original manuscript written in two different hands. (For example, the manuscript for Sir Thomas More shows how scenes written by multiple authors would be stitched together into a single, cohesive manuscript before, presumably, being copied out by a scribe.)


These constitute the major flaws in Hamilton’s argument. But Hamilton’s scholarship is also frequently incoherent in its specific details, as well. And many of these inconsistencies seem to be driven from his need to reach for the conclusion he desires.

For example, when Hamilton feels a need to explain why The Second Maiden’s Tragedy would so drastically deviate from the “source material” of the Cardenio story he starts by trying to expose the “serious flaws of Cervantes as a writer” and, thus, discredit the quality of Cervantes’ original tale. To that end, he writes:

Now, when a distraught maid, armed with a bare bodkin in her bodice, confronts the villain of the piece, the laws of drama require that she use the bodkin, either to stab herself or the villain, or to have the weapon wrested from her in a suspenseful struggle. To permit her to faint is a cheap trick. It is the same shabby device used by otherwise reputable writers of the last century (Thomas Hardy, for example) who, in a concession to Victorian prudery, would “draw the curtain of charity” over any scene that promised to be delectably prurient. (pg. 192)

But just three pages later, this “shabby device” and “cheap trick” has becomes a tour de force on the part of Shakespeare:

The dramatists deftly solved the problem and at the same time astonished and horrified their audience. Cardenio, with naked sword pointed at his beloved’s bosom, rushes at her, but the murderous task is too much for him and he falls in a dead faint at Luscinda’s feet. (pg. 195)

I suspect that a large part of Hamilton’s over-zealousness is born in his hero-worship of Shakespeare. In his Preface to the Play, for example, Hamilton writes:

I urge you to read at least scenes two, three, and four of Act IV, in which the necrophilic Tyrant steals the body of The Lady and the theft is disclosed to her lover, Govianus. Judge for yourself whether the chilling beauty of these nocturnal scenes in the cathedral does not evoke the magic touch of the Wizard of Stratford.

Hamilton’s love for the “Wizard of Stratford” is clear. But this is not scholarship. This is blind faith coupled to undying adulation.

Go to Part 6

Originally posted August 2010.

Go to Part 1

This is the primary plot of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy:

At the beginning of the play, the Tyrant has overthrown the rightful king Govianus in an effort to win the love of Govianus’ wife (the Lady). When the Lady rejects him in favor of Govianus despite his victory, the Tyrant is enraged and chooses to imprison both of them in the same house, but “divided into several rooms / where he may only have sight of her”.

When next we see them, Giovanus and the Lady have suborned the guards and have free reign in the house. The Lady’s father (Helvetius) comes to her in an effort to woo her on behalf of the Tyrant, but she manages to shame him back into ethical behavior. So the Tyrant dispatches another of his nobles, Sophonirus, to take the Lady by force.

When they learn of Sophonirus’ intention, however, the Lady asks Giovanus to kill her before the Tyrant can steal her virtue. Giovanus runs at her with a bared sword, but faints dead away before the deed is done. The Lady takes her sword and kills herself.

Giovanus buries the Lady in her family’s tomb. But the Tyrant, consumed by his lust, digs up her corpse. When Giovanus comes to the tomb to mourn her death, the Lady’s ghost appears before him and tells him that the Tyrant is doing unspeakable things to her body.

Meanwhile, the Tyrant has become concerned by how pale the Lady has become. He sends his lords to find a painter to give her a makeover. Giovanus, disguised as a painter, presents himself and paints the Lady’s face with poison. When the Tyrant kisses the poisoned lipstick, he dies. Giovanus is returned to the throne, the Lady is returned to her tomb, and everyone lives happily ever after (except the Lady and the Tyrant).

One can immediately note the most immediate problem with Hamilton’s thesis: If The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is to be properly called Cardenio, why does the play lack a character named Cardenio?

To explain this oversight, Hamilton concocts a truly amazing sequence of events:

(1) Shakespeare and/or Fletcher either read Don Quixote in the original Spanish or gained access to the translation of Don Quixote before it was published. (This seems plausible. As Hamilton points out, “We do not know whether Shakespeare or Fletcher could read Spanish, but we do know that Fletcher used Spanish sources frequently and that he likely was fluent in the language.”)

(2) They decided to write a play based on the story of Cardenio, but also decided not to use the original names of the character. (This is also plausible. There are many instances of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, including Shakespeare himself, choosing to change the names from their source material.)

(3) After stripping the old names off but before adding new names to the characters, they submitted the script to the censor. (This doesn’t make much sense: The censor needed to see the performance version of the text. He wouldn’t sign off on a rough draft. It becomes even less likely when one considers that Shakespeare is widely known for naming even his minor characters; often he even gives names to characters in the stage directions which are never mentioned in the dialogue itself. While it is not unknown for an unnamed Duke to put in an appearance, it seems utterly out of character for Shakespeare to leave his major love interest and the main villain of the play unnamed.)

(4) Before the play was actually performed, however, Don Quixote was translated, published, and proved to be extremely popular.

(5) So Shakespeare and Fletcher promptly put back the exact same names they had just removed.

But the manuscript we have wasn’t just the copy sent to the censor. It also served as the prompt-copy used in the theater to manage the performances of the play. Hamilton anticipates the obvious objection to his convoluted theory by writing, “You may well ask: If Shakespeare and Fletcher altered the names of their characters as I have indicated, why didn’t they make these changes in the manuscript? They made no changes because no changes were necessary. Shakespeare’s original manuscript served as the prompt copy, which, in Shakespeare’s day, was known as “˜the book’. The keeper of the book, or “˜book-keeper’, was a managerial factotum who, among other duties, copied out from the book the parts for each actor to memorize and acted as the stage prompter. … The book-keeper, of course, virtually knew the play by memory and was familiar with the roles of all the players. As stage prompter, he could easily change the names orally and no revisions were necessary in the manuscript.”

Hamilton is apparently using a definition of the phrase “of course” which means “it would be nonsense to claim that”. The entire point of maintaining a prompt-book was specifically to provide an authoritative reference for staging the production. (And it remains so to this day.) And specifically because it was the authoritative reference, the prompt-book would be changed whenever the production was changed. In fact, the reason we know the manuscript for the Second Maiden’s Tragedy was a prompt-book is because changes were made to it reflecting performance practice. If a change so drastic as the names of the major characters were to be made, there is simply no reasonable explanation for why such a change would not be reflected in the prompt-book.

Furthermore, to support his nonsensical assertion, Hamilton is forced to make a truly ludicrous claim about the mental faculties of the book-keeper. Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters were known to produce 40 different plays in a single year: So Hamilton is asserting that an Elizabethan book-keeper would, at any given time, “virtually know” 40 different plays “by memory” and was so “familiar with the roles of the players” that he would be able to keep track of every change to their lines without reference to a written copy of the play.

The fact that no one could be expected to do that is why prompt books were kept in the first place.

This nonsense aside, Hamilton’s theory of disappearing and reappearing names might bear some consideration if, in fact, the plot of Second Maiden’s Tragedy was actually based on the story of Cardenio.

But this is the plot of the story of Cardenio, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, as summarized by Charles Hamilton:

They discover … Cardenio, a strange individual who leaps from rock to rock and tuft to tuft in the Sierra Morena. … As he dissolves from one violent fit of madness to another, Cardenio screams his hatred of Don Fernando. … Cardenio then relates the tale of his ill-starred love for the rich and beautiful Luscinda. He had received from Luscinda a letter hinting that she would accept his proposal of marriage. … Cardenio asks his noble friend Don Fernando to arrange the wedding. The highborn, rich Don Fernando has but recently seduced a beautiful maiden named Dorotea, whom he promised to marry, but upon meeting Luscinda he falls for her charms and jilts Dorotea. …

Don Fernando dispatches Cardenio on a fool’s errand …. Several days later, upon receipt of a letter from Luscinda containing the news that Don Fernando has double-crossed him … Cardenio rushes back to his “own Citie” and seeks out Luscinda.

[Cardenio meets with Luscinda. She is "attired in my wedding garments" and "in the Hall do wait for me, the traitor Don Fernando, and my covetous father with other witnesses, which shall rather be such of my death, then of my espousal. ... If I cannot hinder by my persuasions and reasons, I carry hidden about me a poniard secretly, which may hinder more resolute forces by giving end to my life.']

Cardenio conceals himself behind a tapestry to watch the wedding. [But Luscinda, instead of killing herself, marries Don Fernando.] At this awful turn of events … Cardenio was filled with conflicting emotions. Finally he mounted his donkey and rode out of town. …

Cardenio, smoldering with hatred for Don Fernando, turns into a crag-bounding lunatic. Luscinda also runs away and Don Fernando pursues her. … Dorotea, who has also escaped from Don Fernando with the aid of a faithful servant whom she later shoves over a cliff because he makes improper advances, joins Cardenio, Don Fernando, and Luscinda, all the loose ends are gauchely tied by Cervantes. Instead of skewering Don Fernando, Cardenio meekly accepts his apology and is reunited with Luscinda. (Cervantes had obviously forgotten that Luscinda and Don Fernando were legally married.) The penitent Don Fernando finally ends up with Dorotea.

None of this is to be found in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy. In fact, the only thing the two stories have in common is that both involve a love triangle involving two men and one woman. But if that’s all it takes for a story to be based on Cardenio, then Cardenio is the basis for half of Western literature!

In fact, the story isn’t even a love triangle in Cardenio: The character of Dorotea provides a fourth love interest. That means, dates of composition aside, it would be more accurate to describe Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as being “based on Cardenio” than it would for The Second Maiden’s Tragedy to be so.

Even discounting the character of Dorotea, the two stories have nothing in common: The Tyrant and the Lady die in Second Maiden’s Tragedy; Don Fernando and Luscinda do not. Don Fernando steals the woman he is supposed to be wooing and marries her himself; but the Tyrant literally overthrows the government in order to claim a woman who has already been married. Cardenio flees the country; Giovanus is imprisoned. And nowhere in the story of Cardenio do we find necrophilia, ghosts, or any of the other elements which are the notable and distinguishing characteristics of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy.

In short, Hamilton wants us to accept that a play which doesn’t star a character named Cardenio and isn’t based on the story of Cardenio was, for some reason, called The History of Cardenio.

(It should be noted at this juncture that the sub-plot of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is, in fact, based on a story from Don Quixote: “The History of the Curious Impertinent”. Here we find a virtually identical plot, coupled with characters bearing identical or, at least, recognizable names. But this story is not, in fact, part of the Cardenio story. And its handling in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy only begs the question of why the names would have been expurgated from the main plot but left largely untouched in the sub-plot.)

Go to Part 5

Originally posted August 2010.

Nick Fury - Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

My general approach to handling “canon” when it comes to using fictional settings in an RPG generally follows the “World War II Doctrine”: Gaming in an established, fictional setting is no different than playing a game that’s set during World War II.

With that being said, there’s a broad spectrum of ways in which you can set a game in World War II at the gaming table:

A) The events of World War II as they happened historically can’t be changed, but primarily exist as a backdrop. You’ll hear about the events of the war, but you’ll never actually meet Hitler or change the outcome of the Battle of Midway.

B) You can meet Hitler, but you can’t shoot him. If you do shoot him, it will turn out you shot a double and history continues along unperturbed.

C) You can totally shoot Hitler.

There’s also the semi-tangential issue of the Alternative History Remix: This is the one where you decide that in your version of World War II, Germany is led by a guy name Hans Strauber and they’re fighting the White Alliance of Brittania and Charlegmania. (Or whatever.)

There’s also a second, rarer spectrum in which the PCs are actually canonical characters. Let’s call it the “Dragonlance Spectrum”:

A) You are playing the members of Hitler’s cabinet, but you’ll create an original character (replacing their historical analogs).

B) You are playing the actual, historical members of Hitler’s cabinet, but you’re free to take whatever actions you want (even if those contradict the historical reality of what the cabinet did).

C) You are playing the actual, historical members of Hitler’s cabinet and you’re going to be railroaded into experiencing World War II exactly the way that they did.

(Actually, this one is probably a little less of a clear spectrum. You could theoretically play non-canonical characters who are nonetheless being railroaded through the same events.)



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