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Shakespeare’s last play discovered hidden in archives in Spain

It was hidden away for centuries in the archives of a seminary in Spain, a rare edition of a Shakespeare play experts believe may be the earliest copy of his work to reach the country.

Shakespeare's last play discovered hidden in archives in Spain
A scholar has discovered what is thought to be the oldest copy of Shakespeare in Spain. Photo: AFP

Published in 1634, “The Two Noble Kinsmen” is a tragicomedy about love, enmity and madness written by Shakespeare in collaboration with Jacobean playwright John Fletcher.

“It's likely the play reached Spain between 1635 and 1640,” said John Stone, a lecturer in English studies at Barcelona University who discovered it at the Royal Scots College, a seminary in the northwestern town of Salamanca founded after the Catholic Church was outlawed in Scotland.


The importance of the rare edition was immedately recognised by scholar John Stone. Photo: J Stone

 

Collections of English works were rare in Spain and plays were exceptional in the 17th and 18th centuries, with all books subjected to inspection at the frontier by the Spanish Inquisition, particularly those from a heretical Protestant state like England.   

The tragicomedy was part of a single volume of eight English plays printed from 1630 to 1635 that was likely brought over by a traveller and managed to scape falling into the hands of the Inquisition.

“I was going through the section on political economy and on the last shelf, I saw a book that was distinct in its binding from pretty-well anything else,” Stone told AFP.

Having written his dissertation on Shakespeare in Spain, he realised its importance immediately.

“I knew the moment I saw it that it was the oldest copy of Shakespeare in Spain,” said the Canadian researcher. 

“The question was whether it had been the first Shakespearean text to reach Spain.”


Photo: John Stone

Under nose of Inquisition

Until now, the earliest known work of Shakespeare in Spain was a compilation of plays found at the Jesuit English College in Valladolid that likely arrived in the late 1640s or early 1650s.

It was sold in the 1920s to Henry Clay Folger, a wealthy American industrialist who went on to found the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.

Clues as to when “The Two Noble Kinsmen” arrived lay in the margin notes made by Hugh Semple, a politically-ambitious Scottish Jesuit who was rector of the Royal Scots College.

“The handwriting tells us it arrived in Semple's lifetime and he died in the early 1650s,” Stone said of this “highly-networked individual” who was friends with Spanish playwright Lope de Vega and known for being able to bring
in English books.   

His international ties were “very active” in the mid-1630s when he “would have had a great opportunity to import the book,” Stone said, suggesting it may have been brought over by a London-based Scottish aristocrat who was liaising between the English and Spanish monarchs.

Although the Royal Scots College was located in central Madrid at the time, right under the nose of the Inquisition, there was no sign its “eclectic mix of English books” was ever noticed by the Holy Office.

It is unclear whether the Shakespeare play was ever performed or used as part of the college's curriculum although Stone said theatre was often used as part of Jesuit teaching.

Stone is now working with a book historian to see if the binding or stitching of the volume could offer further definitive clues as to when it arrived.

By AFP's Hazel Ward

READ ALSO: Nine reasons why Cervantes is better than Shakespeare

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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