First Shakespeare play to reach Spain found

A researcher has discovered the first Shakespeare play to reach Spain in the library of the Royal Scots College of Salamanca. Universitat de Barcelona Philology and Communication professor John Stone was researching 18th century philosophy at the  Royal Scots College of Salamanca when he came across a previously unknown volume of 11 English plays printed in the 1630s. It is untitled and has no markings on the cover or endpages that might identify its owner or publisher. The first play in the book is a 1634 edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a tragicomedy that is believed to be William Shakespeare’s final play, written in collaboration with King’s Men playwright John Fletcher.

All of the plays are London editions published between 1630 and 1635. Stone believes the volume belonged to a student at the Royal Scots College, or was perhaps brought to the college at the request of its rector Hugh Semple who owned numerous published plays in his library.

Collections of English books in Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries were rare, and English plays were exceptional. In fact, the Spanish union catalogue of pre-1900 imprints (Catálogo colectivo del patrimonio bibliográfico español) does not list any copy of an English play printed before 1720. The only volume that could compete with Stone’s finding as the first work by Shakespeare in Spain is a volume first found in the Royal English College of Saint Alban in Valladolid, which is now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. However, several scholars date the arrival of this copy in Valladolid, Spain, between 1641 and 1651. Therefore, if the work found by Stone arrived in Spain before 1640, it would clearly be the first Shakespearean work to have circulated in this country.

Apart from the volume containing The Two Noble Kinsmen, Stone found in Salamanca another volume of English plays from the same period. If we put these volumes together, there is a total of nineteen plays that would have reached the first historical premises of the Royal Scots College, in Madrid, before 1654. “By the 1630s English plays were increasingly associated with elite culture, and Rector Semple, due to his political ambitions, wanted to stay in touch with the cultural life of London”, notes Stone to provide the finding with some context.

The two volumes of English plays first arrived in Spain in Madrid, not Salamanca. In 1767, they moved to the Irish College in Alcalá de Henares, and in 1770 moved again to the Royal Scots College in Valladolid. In 1985, they moved to the Salamanca library where they were placed in the philosophy section. That’s where Jones found them entirely by accident while he was looking for Spanish reviews of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

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