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Rare Edition of Shakespeare’s Last Play Found in Spanish Library

The dusty volume may be the first copy of the Bard’s dramatic works to circulate on Spanish soil

This book, printed in 1634, contains what may be the first Shakespeare play to reach Spain. (John Stone)
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A literary historian in Spain has found a rare 1634 edition of one of the last plays William Shakespeare ever put to paper, reports Reevel Alderson for BBC News.

John Stone, a scholar at the University of Barcelona, spotted the long-forgotten drama while combing through the library of the Royal Scots College in Salamanca. Per a statement, The Two Noble Kinsmen was tucked into the wizened pages of an unlabeled volume of English plays mistakenly shelved in the philosophy section.

The 386-year-old book was one of the earliest Shakespeare compositions to reach Spain—and it may even be the Bard’s oldest known work in the country, according to BBC News.

Authored in collaboration with playwright John Fletcher around 1613 or 1614 (but first published in 1634), The Two Noble Kinsmen is the last surviving play penned by Shakespeare before his retirement to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died in 1616 at age 52. Most scholars attribute all or most of Acts I and V to the Bard and the three middle acts mainly to Fletcher.

John Fletcher and William Shakespeare
John Fletcher (left) and William Shakespeare (right) wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen around 1613 or 1614. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Writing in the journal Notes and Queries, Stone suggests that an individual who’d traveled to England or Scotland brought the collection of 11 plays, all printed in London between 1630 and 1635, back to Spain.

The works likely “arrived as part of some student’s personal library or … at the request of the rector of the Royal Scots College, Hugh Semple, who was friends with [Spanish playwright] Lope de Vega and had more plays in his personal library,” says Stone in the statement.

Stone adds that at the time, 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.”

The Royal Scots College itself is something of a historical oddity. After Scotland’s Parliament outlawed Catholicism in 1560, the church tried to ensure a steady supply of priests by establishing seminaries in Tournai, Rome, Paris and Madrid, according to the college’s website.

Founded in Madrid in 1627, the college relocated to Valladolid in 1771 and to Salamanca in 1988. For a time, Stone tells BBC News, “This small community of Scots was briefly the most significant intellectual bridge between the Spanish and English-speaking worlds.”

Old book
The volume contained 11 English works, including Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen. (John Stone)

In 17th-century Spain, English books were exceptionally rare due to religious and political censorship. But the Royal Scots College had special authorization to import whatever books its staff wanted, notes BBC News.

Prior to Stone’s find, the first printed Shakespeare work to reach Spain was a volume discovered at the Royal College of San Albano in Valladolid. As Cristina Hodgson reports for the Olive Press, the book is thought to have arrived in the country between 1641 and 1651; in other words, the 1634 edition has a secure claim to the title if it arrived prior to 1640.

A five-act tragicomedy, The Two Noble Kinsmen is based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. It follows two friends who are taken prisoner by the Duke of Athens after suffering defeat in battle. While imprisoned, the close-knit pals fall in love with the same woman and end up competing for her hand in marriage, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which staged a production of the show in 2016.

Compared with better-known plays like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, The Two Noble Kinsmen is seldom performed. In fact, an analysis of nearly 1,600 Shakespeare productions undertaken between 2012 and 2017 found that the play was staged just nine times. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, meanwhile, topped the rankings with 118 productions.

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