During the Reformation, Catholic Spain was a long-standing enemy of England and during the reign of Elizabeth I a series of attempted invasions prolonged the enmity between the two countries. The uneasy and short-lived alliance between England and Spain during the reign of Mary I was replaced by hostilities exacerbated by the Spanish Armada’s attacks on England and the privateering of English sailors who appropriated ship-loads of Spanish treasure. By the time James I came to the throne in 1603, an end to the conflict was embraced by both sides. The Treaty of London was negotiated in Somerset House in 1604 England withdrew its support of Spain’s opponents in the Dutch Revolt and the English Channel was opened to Spanish shipping, while Spain acknowledged the Protestant monarchy in England and renounced all plans to impose Catholic toleration or restore Catholicism.
Shakespeare, along with the rest of the King’s Men, attended the Spanish embassy while the treaty was negotiated and finalised. They served as Grooms of the Chamber at Somerset House during the eighteen-day visit of the Spanish embassy. They may have also attended the numerous conference sessions held between 20 May and 16 July 1604. The treaty and peace with Spain lasted until 1625, and during this time England and France also helped mediate a peace treaty between Spain and the Netherlands. With peace between England and Spain, there was a new exchange of political and cultural ideas.
Shakespeare may have also written a play with a plot drawn from a popular Spanish novel. It is thought that Shakespeare and Fletcher were inspired by an episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) as they wrote The History of Cardenio. In Cervantes’ novel, the errant knight and his ‘squire’, Sancho Panza, encounter Cardenio, a lover who had been wronged by his friend and gone mad. When his friend, Duke Fernando, betrayed him and pursued his lover, Luscinda, Cardenio was overcome by madness. He retreated to the mountains and lived alone, consumed by melancholy. Cardenio was caught up in Don Quixote’s adventures and eventually is reconciled with his lover, Luscinda, and his friend, the duke. Such a plot sounds like other plays by Shakespeare, and there is obviously a strong possibility Cervante’s tale could have inspired Fletcher and Shakespeare.
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