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Shakespeare in Spanish

Katey Workman, Learning intern, explores the reception of Shakespeare in Spain.

Katey Workman
Spanish translations group
A selection of Spanish translations

Shakespeare’s entrance onto the Spanish stage was comparatively late and not altogether that warmly received. Though there are stories of a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio being brought to Spain in 1623 by the Spanish Ambassador to the English court, the reports aren’t entirely credible so we don’t know if it really happened. That, mingled with the fact that only the most highbrow Spanish people had any exposure to the English language at all, makes it safe for us to assume that this 'perhaps folio' didn’t make much of an impact on the Spanish literary scene. More certainly, Shakespeare’s works arrived in the luggage of the French, when the Bourbon dynasty assumed the Spanish throne at the start of the century. They brought with them French translations of English plays, including, of course, those of the Bard himself. While we thank the French for that, we do it less warmly, considering the first Shakespearian translation in Spanish (done by Jean-Francois Ducis in 1742 who didn’t know English) was adapted from a previous French adaptation, which was an adaptation from another French translation of the original English. Phew! It’s no wonder the plays didn’t take off all that well at first go - they were likely very different from the originals themselves! And indeed they were. For example, one version of Othello not only changed the names (Desdemona=Edelmira, Iago=Pésaro, etc., an understandable inter-lingual editing choice) but changed the ending to include Othello reconciling with Desdemona and the pardoning of Iago, and productions of Hamlet often avoided his death entirely. Basically, Shakespeare in the 18th Century wasn’t a good flavour to the Spanish taste of the time. So much so that one translator, Moratín, criticized the Bard’s works, calling them "capable of provoking laughter in a wine-sodden, rude populace." Sounds just like the Elizabethan theatres, doesn’t it?

Spanish Hamlet (1798) Title page
Hamlet in Spanish (1798)

Luckily, and in spite of puzzling previous translation attempts, the value of Shakespeare’s stories was able to shine through the haze of time and mistranslation. After about a 30 year gap from the time Shakespeare was first introduced in Spain, he made a comeback in 1802 with Othello being staged 18 times in Madrid alone. In 1810 for Napoleon’s birthday, the play Shakespeare Amoureux (Shakespeare in Love. Same name, but different from the movie!) was performed in French to public delight. The play was so popular that it was later translated into a Spanish one act show some 18 years later, which solidified the intrigue of Shakespeare the man and his place in the Spanish canon. The love play helped to popularize his works by connecting him to them. It always helps to put a name to a face!

Spanish Hamlet (1879) letter
Donor letter pasted inside a Spanish Hamlet

It still wasn’t all rosy after that, however. There were more than a fair share of unsuccessful adaptations even after Shakespeare had proved successful (Macbeth, 1838 and Hamlet, 1866). In spite of this, Shakespeare’s plays continued to slowly but surely grow in popularity. It helped that they were also being attempted in many various formats—including Italian acting companies staging successful productions. Such was their success that a small but recurring repertoire was developed, including OthelloRomeo and JulietRichard IIITaming of the ShrewAntony & CleopatraKing Lear, and The Merchant of Venice. The most popular play in this latter half of the century was reportedly Taming of the Shrew, as it fit the ‘battle of the sexes’ trope classically beloved by Spaniards. As the century entered its final quarter, Hamlet was finally revived (1872) under the title ‘el Principe Hamlet’ and was, at last, a success. So much so that by the end of the 19th century there began to be performances also in English, Galician, Catalan, and even Basque languages.

Spanish Hamlet (1879) letter double page
Donor letter pasted inside a Spanish Hamlet

The 1900s brought with them the appearance of printed editions of the plays. In 1916, the 300 year anniversary of the death of both Shakespeare and Cervantes (the beloved Spanish writer) provided an excellent excuse to commemorate both authors by publishing and republishing their works. It wasn’t until 1920 that Sr. Astrana Martín compiled the first Complete Works in Spanish: Obras Completas de William Shakespeare. It was the first complete works directly translated from the original English and the only complete edition in Spanish. This was a milestone in Shakespearian residence in Spain. And as a testament to the solidifying popularity of Shakespeare, even the siege of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which meant to temporary cessation of many theatrical productions, couldn’t stop the performance of his plays.

As the 20th Century progressed we see many of the same advancements with the staging of Shakespeare in Spain that we see in other countries: modern dress used as costuming in the plays instead of replica Elizabethan, and women playing the roles traditionally assigned to men, for example. By the 1980s performing Hamlet was seen, as it is in most English speaking countries presently, as necessary step for any aspiring young actor looking to go into drama seriously.

Spanish Hamlet (1982) Title page
Hamlet in Spanish (1982)

As we are now starting the 21st century, Hamlet and Othello as well as all the other works of Shakespeare continue to be performed and printed across Spain and the entire Spanish speaking world is increasing numbers. It was thought at first, that Shakespeare didn’t jive with the artistic tastes of Spain but the ceaseless translations and adaptations across time show that Spaniards are fixed on keeping Shakespeare ever present and relevant in their artistic culture.  And it is likely that the work will continue because, as one scholar put it, "the taste and literary habits of each age demand different qualities in poetry." In other words, as we continue to change, so will the works of William Shakespeare.  

Spanish Comedy of errors (2008) wrapper cover open
Comedy of Errors in Spanish (2008)
Spanish Comedy of errors (2008) wrapper cover
Comedy of Errors in Spanish (2008)

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