--Character du jour--
Papal legate KUNO

Find out more about Kuno and the other characters here...



--Who said it?--
"When roads are full of mud and rain
Abroad go only honest men!"

--Odd man out--
Which of the following is not based on an actual historical character?

a) Simon
b) William of Compiegne 
c) Astrolabius

Trivia Answers


In the spring of 1606, three years after he ascended the throne, James I of England dispatched a diplomatic mission to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. The mission was led by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (who was also to journey to Madrid with James's son Charles two years later), and, since Philip was known to be a great patron of the arts, it was accompanied by a small contingent of 'cultural ambassadors'. Included in this assortment of musicians, singers, and other entertainers, there were several players from the acting company known as The King's Men. And at the head of these actors was the most celebrated playwright of the age: William Shakespeare.

The great dramatist was then at the height of his creative powers, and in the next few years he would write some of his greatest historical tragedies, including Antony and Cleopatra (1606) Coriolanus (1607-8) and Timon of Athens (1607-8). Meanwhile, never one to be idle, Shakespeare found time between rehearsals and performances (and for a very fine non-scholarly account of Shakespeare's brief sojourn in Spain, the reader is referred to Anthony Burgess's short story, 'A Meeting in Vallidolid') to begin work on another historically-based play: 'Abelard and Elois, a Tragedie'.

The MS of the play is dated June 23, 1606. This date appears to have been written in Shakespeare's own hand and is presumably 'Old Style', ie equivalent to July 3 in the modern Gregorian Calendar. While generally accepted as authentic, it is nonetheless slightly puzzling. Shakespeare was not in the habit of dating his plays (much to the endless consternation of modern scholars!) and if he had been, the convention would be, as today, to affix the date of the work's completion. In this case, however, the play never was completed. For some unknown reason then, it seems that Shakespeare must have dated the MS while putting his papers in order before returning to England (in July of that year). Unfortunately, despite the care and interest that this unusual attention implies, the MS (and possibly other unrecovered MSS too) failed to make the return journey with its creator. And once back on his native soil, it is perhaps all too understandable that the Bard would have chosen to break new creative ground rather than wrestle with the frustrations of revisiting a lost work.

Subsequent events suggest that the MS was in fact lost -- or possibly stolen -- before Shakespeare left Spain. At any rate, by 1640, it had found its way into the possession of a Spanish hidalgo, one Jesus Cartagena di Angostura. Lieutenant Cartagena was a literary man, a skilled linguist, and something of a bibliophile, and as an officer in the Spanish navy, he had travelled widely, both in the New World and also in the Far East. To while away the long hours at sea, it was his custom to bring with him selected works from his library, and in this way, the Shakespeare MS was brought to Fort Santo Domingo (also known as 'Hong Mao Cheng', 'the Fort of the Red-Haired People', or simply the 'Red Fort'), a Spanish military enclave established in 1626 near the present-day town of Tam Shui on the north-east coast of 'Ilha Formosa' (Taiwan).

These were heady expansionist times, and several other western powers were vying for trade and military supremacy in the region. When the Spanish first arrived in Taiwan in 1624, they had expelled the Dutch from the north of the island, but Dutch forces continued to occupy the fortress-port of 'Zeelandia' near the southern city of Tainan, and from here they periodically harassed the Spanish interlopers. These skirmishes with the Dutch and a succession of failed attempts to break the Portuguese trading monopoly with Japan had already (in 1638) led the demoralized Spaniards to substantially reduce their garrisons at Santo Domingo and Santiago ('San Diao Jiao'), and in 1642, the order was given to abandon Taiwan completely and withdraw to Manila. The retreat was conducted in good order, and the Spanish found time to demolish many of their fortifications before leaving, but in the general haste to be gone, much was left behind -- including most of Lt Cartagena's traveling library.

There is some evidence that during his two-year tour of duty at the Red Fort, Lt. Cartagena translated the Shakespeare MS into Castillian Spanish, but regrettably this translation has never been recovered. Possibly it was taken to Manila, and it may even have found its way to Spain, but at some point it must have been either lost or destroyed. The original Shakespeare MS on the other hand languished in perfect safety amidst a pile of other books and papers in a brass-bound camphorwood chest in a cave-like room that had previously been used to store munitions. And there it remained, undisturbed, for the next three and a half centuries.

During this time, Santo Domingo itself passed through many hands: after the Spanish and the Dutch came Koxinga and the Ming Chinese, and then the armies of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, which controlled most of the island from 1683 onward. In a crowning irony, the British Consulate, which was established in Tam Shui in 1861, relocated to the Santo Domingo site in 1868, but plans to renovate the partly demolished buildings of the old fort were never realized and a new, purpose-built consulate was erected instead. The British remained in possession of the site though the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945) and the subsequent takeover of the island by the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang, finally leaving Taiwan only in March 1972 when London switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

From March to December 1972, the site was administered by the Australian government, and it was toward the end of this brief interim period that the Shakespeare MS was at last discovered. Australia too, however, was also about to switch recognition to Beijing, and being concerned for the fate of this literary treasure in such uncertain times (although as things turned out, the US assumed control of Santo Domingo after the Australians left, handing it back formally to the ROC government on Jan 30, 1980), the MS was discreetly removed and placed in the care of a respected local family, where it remains to this day.

Bai Pei-Li
Taipei, 1998


Email: Szabo@Abelard-and-Heloise.com
  © 2001 Norman Szabo