Scholarly editions of Shakespeare's works always discuss real or potential sources for the plots and other aspects of a play or poem. Shakespeare invented very few plots and used sources such as Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Matteo Bandello's stories and Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. For Italian sources, it is not always clear whether Shakespeare used the original Italian text, a French translation or an English translation that was later lost (e.g. in the case of Cinthio as a source for Othello).

The most frequent settings of Shakespeare's plays are England, Rome (or the Roman Empire) and contemporary Italy. Spain or Spanish literature does not appear to have a great appeal for Shakespeare. Only one play, Love's Labour's Lost in set in Spain, and after reading scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays, I can't remember a single Spanish source with the exception of lost Cardenio, which was likely based on an episode from Cervantes's Don Quijote. In a lecture published in 1922 (Shakespeare and Spain), Henry Thomas said,

Of late years Shakespeare's possible Spanish sources have been diligently investigated, with but little result; indeed, many of the 'discoveries' dealt with above may seem hardly worthy of serious treatment.

This book is almost a hundred years old now and a lot of additional research has been done since 1922, including research on sources. Hence my question: is there any evidence that Shakespeare ever used a Spanish source for any of his plays? I am specifically looking for evidence that Shakespeare would have read Spanish source in Spanish rather than a translation.

This question was inspired by two comments by Peter Shor. The first comment read,

The simplest explanation is that he read Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian fluently. I expect the idea that he didn't comes from the Anti-Stratfordians, who didn't want to believe that a commoner could have produced the greatest works in the English language, as well as Johnson's quote "small Latin and less Greek", which I would say was a metonym for having had no formal schooling beyond grammar school.

The second comment:

I think it is pretty well established that Shakespeare could read Italian, French, and Latin. (He put French bilingual puns in his plays — how could he have done that without knowing French well?) Knowing these Romance languages, it would have been fairly easy for him to learn Spanish.

I don't subscribe to any of the anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories that Peter Shor mentions in his first comment, but the fact that Shakespeare knew Latin, French and (probably) Italian does not imply that he actually learnt Spanish. Evidence for Shakespeare's knowledge of Spanish would need to be provided by finding Spanish sources that were not available in translation when Shakespeare wrote the plays that were inspired by them.

1 Answer 1


Some people believe Shakespeare used a Spanish source for The Tempest, but the authorities have also found other possible (earlier) sources which were available in languages Shakespeare knew (namely English, French, or Italian).

The paper The Narrative Sources of The Tempest, by J. M. Nosworthy, (1948) says

The only tolerably close parallel to Shakespeare's effectual plot is found in the fourth chapter of Antonio de Eslava's Noches de Invierno, published at Pamplona in 1609 and reprinted the same year at Barcelona.

Our best guess for when The Tempest was written is 1610 or 1611, so this would have come out just before.

The author goes on to say that this probably isn't Shakespeare's source, in part because people don't think Shakespeare could read Spanish.

It can scarcely be denied that Noches de Invierno and The Tempest tell the same tale, but it is very doubtful that Shakespeare's source stands here revealed. We may well question whether Shakespeare commanded sufficient Spanish to read Eslava's book ...

Note that this is a 1948 paper; since then other possible sources have been found (which may be ones that de Eslava drew on). So this evidence is inconclusive.

The most noteworthy of these other sources seems to be Primaleon, Prince of Greece, which was published in Spanish in 1516, and translated to Italian in 1559 and to French in 1572. It was also translated to English, but while the second part of it appeared in 1595, the third part did not appear until 1619, which means that Shakespeare presumably read at least the third part in a foreign language (but maybe not Spanish). See The Tempest and Primaleon, a New Source, by Gary Schmidgal (1986).

However, given the fact that if you know French, Latin, and Italian, you are probably able to understand Spanish fairly well1, there is no definitive reason to exclude sources on the grounds that Shakespeare couldn't speak Spanish.

1In college, some of us ran into a visitor from Italy who couldn't speak English and thought she was having a heart attack (as it turned out, luckily, she wasn't). A student who had grown up bilingual in French and Spanish could understand her perfectly, but she couldn't understand anything he said.

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