Is Bard's finest work yet to be discovered?

On the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's sonnets, and as the Yorkshire outdoor play season begins, Martin Hickes asks why the Bard's lost works are taking centre stage.

St George's Day is not only Shakespeare's birth (and death) day, but also marks the tentative start of the cycle of the outdoor play season in Yorkshire among devotees of the Bard.

In this 400th anniversary year of the Shakespearean sonnet, amateur and professional thespians will be donning traditional garb in preparation for their al fresco Much Ados and other various struts and frets upon some Yorkshire stage this spring.

And the haunted west wing of Shakespeare's work is proving an unexpected attraction this year.

Shakespeare wrote 37 canonical plays and numerous sonnets and is acknowledged as the master of stage and verse, being also an actor-manager and a theatrical entrepreneur.

Of his major canon, his great tragedies, comedies, darker comedies, tragi-comedies, and histories are very familiar to Yorkshire theatre-goers.

King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet, to name the Big Five tragedies, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night; Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Tempest, The Winter's Tale; and Richard II, Henry V, Richard III and the various parts of Henry IV and VI are all favourites on the Yorkshire stage.

Beyond these regulars exists the celebrity B list of

plays: those which are acknowledged but are lesser-spotted by the theatrical devotee. King John, Cymbeline, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Henry VIII and others are often only staged by the more resolute directors, more out of a concern towards financial expediency than any lack of love for their art.

But beyond even this fringe lie the plays which are positively skeletal by comparison – but which perhaps are increasingly forming the basis of scholarly treasure hunts this year.

Love's Labour's Won, as opposed to Love's Labours Lost is, like its famous counterpart, genuinely "lost".

But scholars and directors say another play, Cardenio, is known to have existed and, indeed, was performed from the 1600s onwards.

And it's speculation about the whereabouts of such a play which is currently enjoying a James Bond-style redux. The search for the lost play has even spawned an international blockbuster novel in the vein of The Da Vinci Code.

Novelists and Shakespeare enthusiasts acknowledge while the chances of finding such works generally are less than slim, entrepreneurs reckon such a miracle find would fetch millions on the open market.

A play called The History of Cardenio is known to have been performed in Jacobean London in 1613, by Shakespeare and his then collaborator, John Fletcher, right at the tail-end of the Bard's career.

While no text survives, many reckon the plot of Cardenio has percolated into a much later play called Double Falshood by a playwright called Theobald in 1727. Theobald himself claimed that his version was based on three lost manuscripts of Shakespeare's original, and it is the hunt for these manuscripts which is exciting scholars, novelists and impresarios today.

US author Jennifer L Carrell, English PhD and writer of the best-seller The Shakespeare Secret, which revolves around the search for Shakespeare's missing play, has no doubts as to the importance of the Bard.

She says: "Cardenio is important because Shakespeare is important – in fact, more relevant now than ever. The seed for my novel sprang to life the moment I discovered that there are lost plays by Shakespeare.

"I was on my knees in a library, looking through some old books on a low shelf, and I remember sitting back and thinking, what would it be like to find such a thing?

"What would it look like, where would it be, what would it feel like to be the first person to run through those lines in centuries?

"The answers to such questions fairly beg to be put together in a thriller. Not because such a manuscript would command the kind of astronomical sum at auction that makes it easy to imagine people willing to kill for it, though, of course, that's part of the genre. But Shakespeare is precious in a more profound sense. His words still shape the imaginations of people around the globe."

Prof Francis O'Gorman, head of the school of English at the University of Leeds, is philosophical about Cardenio.

He says: "We have no hard evidence as to Cardenio's actual quality. Shakespeare was a great collaborator and he may well have had a hand in the play, but this would mean that it was not a lost play in the sense of a lost single-authored work."

Wherever the play might be hiding, business experts agree Shakespeare plc is worth millions. In 2007 alone, one source estimated all employment fields relating to the Bard – teaching, printing, academia – kept more people in work than General Motors.

Whether Cardenio was Shakespeare's final swan song and potentially his greatest but alas unknown work remains to be seen.

Whatever the solution, even after 400 years, it seems the play is still the thing.

Shakespeare fact file

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died on April 23, 1616.

More than a thousand performances or nights of his plays are expected to be performed in Yorkshire alone in the coming season.

The History of Cardenio is a lost play known to have been performed in London in 1613. It was attributed to Shakespeare and his later collaborator John Fletcher in 1653 in a Stationers' Registry. The content of the play is not known, but it is likely based on incidents involving the character Cardenio in Don Quixote by Cervantes which describe how a heroine dressed as shepherd boy heads for the Spanish hills in search of her distressed lover.

Cervantes, the great Spanish writer, also died on April 23, 1616 – the same day as Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Secret by JL Carrell is published by Sphere, priced at 6.99. Her new novel will be published in 2010.