King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Perceval's Spanish grammar

Opening showing a conversation between five gentlemen at a banquetOpening showing a conversation between five gentlemen at a banquetThe long conflict with Spain and the size and wealth of the Spanish empire fostered a considerable interest in the Spanish language in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Spies, soldiers, sailors, merchants, explorers and diplomats all had a need to acquire some knowledge of Spanish.

An unprecedented number of words derived from Spanish now entered the English language, many of them connected with warfare or the New World: alligator, barricade (employed initially in its Spanish form of barricado, as in Leontes’ ‘No barricado for a belly’ in The winter’s tale), cocoa, embargo, galleon and tobacco are all examples.

Richard Perceval (1558?-1620) was a politician and public administrator, who spent much of his career in the service of Elizabeth’s powerful secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil. In the preparation of his textbook of Spanish grammar, Bibliotheca Hispanica, compiled in the years following the Armada and first published in 1591, he drew upon the guidance of Spanish prisoners of war.

This revised and expanded posthumous edition of 1623 includes a dedication to the ‘gentlemen students of Grayes Inne’ and a new section of ‘Pleasant and delightfull dialogues’ to help learners, added by the reviser, lexicographer John Minsheu.  Their presence suggests that by this time proficiency in Spanish was a desirable social accomplishment in England. The opening reproduced here shows part of a conversation between five gentlemen friends who are attending a banquet together. 

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