Comedy of Horrors

The Bard’s Uncomfortable New Rape Play

Shakespeare’s newly authenticated play, Double Falsehood, starts with a sexual assault. Did we mention it’s supposed to be a comedy?

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Women disguised as men, brothers in conflict with each other, a nunnery, an arras (to hide behind), shepherds, grumpy fathers who don’t understand their children—if that doesn’t sound like the raw material for a Shakespeare play, nothing does.

Unfortunately, raw material is about all you get in Double Falsehood, the heretofore orphaned play that new research has all but conclusively proven was co-written by Shakespeare with his sometime collaborator John Fletcher.

Some of the material is very raw: There’s a rape at the beginning of the play, and nearly another one later on.

Oh, did I mention that this is a comedy?

The critical establishment has been on the fence about the play’s authorship for years but lately leaning toward the idea that Shakespeare probably had something to do with it. So, like The Two Noble Kinsmen, another probable, Double Falsehood has lately found its way into more and more complete Shakespeare collections—it’s even on the free Shakespeare app on my phone (so sue me, but there’s something wonkily cool about walking around with all of Shakespeare in your pocket).

If you’re curious, you can read the play here. It won’t take long, as the play’s five acts nearly all have only two or three scenes, and the pace is swift. Things move so fast, in fact, that you suspect after a while that this was never a completely finished play. The dialogue, certainly by Shakespeare’s standards, is rarely more than flat and functional and the characters are more types than fully rounded people.

It is, therefore, the perfect Shakespeare play for high school students.

High school is where most of us encounter Shakespeare for the first time, and more than a few of us come away with a lifelong hatred of this Elizabethan twit. And we feel guilty about that.

Shakespeare is great, we’re told so often by teachers that we come to believe it’s true even if we don’t believe it’s true. That is, we knuckle under to the judgments of others—who presumably do know better.

Moreover, Shakespeare’s language is so strange, so thickety, that a lot of younger readers never get past that barrier.

Double Falsehood’s script may be sub-par Bard, but that makes it perfect for newcomers—not modern English but not impenetrable.

The plot, meanwhile, is uninspired but fast-paced enough that you never lose interest. Its skit-like pace is never slowed by comic subplots or tedious clowns and fools. It’s over before you know it.

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In short, a mediocre play, at least by Shakespeare’s standards, and in this instance, mediocre is perfect: It’s hard to understand how good Shakespeare could be until you’ve seen him at his worst (and Shakespeare at his worst is still better than most). So imagine how much more some 11th-grader might appreciate Much Ado About Nothing after reading Double Falsehood.

For that matter, more high schools and colleges should teach more so-so books. After all, how in the world are you supposed to learn to discriminate between what’s good and what’s bad if all you ever read in school is what’s been deemed the greatest literature of all time?

But Double Falsehood is not just an indifferent play. The rape question makes it truly problematical. And problematical in an unavoidable way—again, a good thing. How often did you sit and listen to a teacher making not very believable excuses for Shakespeare, talking all around the fact that The Taming of the Shrew is a sexist play, that Shylock is a stereotypical Jew, that the cruelty in the Malvolio subplot of Twelth Night throws that otherwise wonderful play horribly out of whack.

In Double Falsehood, there’s no talking around anything. A man rapes a woman and more or less gets away with it (OK, he says sorry, they make up and marry, all is well). And this is not just a 21st-century mentality talking: I don’t imagine that Elizabethan audiences, however un-PC they may have been, were entirely easy with the occurrence of rape in a purported comedy, either.

So Shakespeare wasn’t perfect. That’s a lesson high school students—all right, all of us—need to learn at some point. To see him stumble is to see him being human, and it makes his successes all the more remarkable.

If I had to construct a Shakespeare reading course for young readers, Double Falsehood would lead my list.