An occasional practice of ancient civilisations, the use of slaves or condemned criminals to man war galleys was revived by, and became increasingly common in, certain medieval societies. Even in times of peace many rulers saw the profit in diverting as many prisoners as possible into the lowest form of naval service, which for most was no more than a delayed death sentence anyway. Cervantes himself not only fought in naval battles during which both sides used prisoners of war as galley slaves, but went on to spend five years in the sort of 'bagnio' prison reserved for them (See note to page 359).
One of the many episodic stories within the story, this tale of love and betrayal was apparently the basis for a lost play which has often been attributed to Cervantes' contemporary William Shakespeare. The History of Cardenio has a controversial provenance - although it is listed as a collaboration between Shakespeare and his successor John Fletcher in a registry entry, it has been suggested that this was a false claim by publisher Humphrey Moseley to increase interest in the work. In 1727 Lewis Theobald presented his Double Falshood as an amalgamation of three previously undiscovered Shakespeare manuscripts - despite the central characters having different names, the play is a thinly veiled retelling of Cardenio's tale. Despite continuing scholarly uncertainty over the issue, for many the idea of the early-modern era's greatest novelist having been adapted by its greatest playwright is too good to not be true.
Online copy of Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers by Lewis Theobald (1728)