Thomas Shelton and Hamet Benengeli



Francis Carr

If Don Quixote was not written by Miguel de Cervantes, who was the real author?

There is no evidence that it came from the pen of any of Cervantes' contemporaries in Spain. None of his private letters have come down to us; there is no evidence that another Spanish author is involved.

It is in Don Quixote, in the work itself, that we may find an answer to the question of authorship. If someone wrote this novel using the name of Cervantes, it is possible that some clues have been deliberately placed in the text.

The author, whoever he was, speaks to us, his readers, in his Preface. In the very first page he takes the trouble to point out that there is some problem of authorship, or fatherhood. Of course, this may be merely a device, a pose but it may not be.

Though in shew a Father, yet in truth but a stepfather to Don Quixote.

If this were the only reference to another man as the author, the real father, this mention of stepfatherhood could be ignored. But another name is mentioned over and over again. In Chapter 1 of Book 2 of the First Part in Shelton's translation(Chapter 9 of the modern Penguin translation by J. M. Cohen, P77) we read:

The historie of Don Quixote of the Mancha, written by Cyd Hamet Benengeli, an Arabicall Historiographer.

Whenever this name is mentioned in Don Quixote , we are told that this man is the real author. No-one has discovered any Arab by this name, so it has been assumed that this is another device, another odd joke, by Cervantes, to distance himself , for some unstated reason, from the story of Quixote. Again this may be a device , but once again perhaps we are offered another clue. If the same name, the same clue, is repeated thirty-three times, we are perhaps being invited t examine it more closely.

Before following up this possibility, we should see if there is anything more to be learnt about Thomas Shelton.

A Thomas Shelton was employed by Thomas Howard, the Earl of Walden, later the Earl of Suffolk, to whom the translation of Don Quixote was dedicated. His wife, Catherine, Lady Suffolk received a payment of £1,000 a year from the King of Spain for her work on his behalf in this country. What this consisted of has remained a secret. Shelton may have worked for her and have undertaken missions in Spain, and on these visits to Madrid, Shelton may have met and conferred with Cervantes. From 1603 to 1614, Suffolk, the builder of Audley End, near Saffron Walden in Essex, was Lord Chamberlain to the royal household. However, it must be stressed that there is no evidence that the Thomas Shelton who worked for Lady Suffolk was the Thomas Shelton who translated Don Quixote. We have no further information about either man, if indeed two men by this name are involved.

We have information about three other Sheltons, but there is no evidence that any of them were related to Thomas Shelton. Mary Shelton, one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies of the Privy Chamber, married a Mr. Scudamore; Audrey Shelton married Sir Thomas Walsingham; and Humphrey Shelton, a Catholic expatriate, lived for thirty years in Rouen. In return for information sent to the King of Spain, he was paid 30 escudos a year.

There is no contemporary reference to Thomas Shelton, apart from his name, in the printed editions of the First Part of Don Quixote. Although it has always been assumed that Shelton also translated the Second Part, published eight years later in 1620, no translator's name appears in it. One would have expected such a brilliant reader of Spanish would have left some record of his education and his life, but he has left not a trace, and there is no record of anyone having met him.

If Thomas Shelton, or a man using this name, was the author, another question still remains unsolved. Who translated his work into Spanish? There is no evidence that Cervantes was capable of such a task, or that he was interested in any way in England or in the English language. However, if Cervantes merely lent his name to Don Quixote, having done no work on the translation, then that would account for the absence of any payment after its publication. We have no record of Shelton's acquaintance with the Spanish language; we have no record of Cervantes' acquaintance with the English language.

As the work was going to appear for the first time in Madrid under a Spaniard's name, it is possible that, if the original text was written in English, the translation was carried out in Spain. In Chapter 9, Part I of Don Quixote, we find just such an operation mentioned in some detail.

If Heaven, Chance and Fortune had not assisted me, the world had bin deprived of the delight and pastime, that he may take for almost two hours together, who shall with attention read it. The manner of finding it (a written account of Don Quixote) was this:

Being one day walking on the Exchange of Toledo, a certain boy by chance would have sold divers old quires and scroules of bookes to a Squire that walked up and down in that place, and I, being addicted to reade such scroules, though I found them torne in the streets, borne away by this my natural inclination, tooke one of the quiers in my hand and perceived it to be written in Arabicall characters... I looked about to view whether I could perceive any Moore that could read them...

In fine my good fortune presented one to me . . . I departed with the Moore, to the Cloyster of the great church, and I requested him to turn all the sheetes that treated of Don-Quixote into Spanish. I would pay him what he listed (wanted) for his paines. He demanded fifty pounds of Reasons and three bushels of Wheate, and promised to translate them speedily, well, and faithfully. But I, to hasten the matter more, lest I should lose such an unexpected and welcome treasure, brought him to my house, where he translated all the worke in lesse than a month and a halfe.

When it is impossible to link the name of a translator, with any real person, one has to accept the possibility of a pseudonym being used. To help us in finding the man behind the pen-name, we can at last narrow the field. Only those who can write well need be considered, for no translator has ever received more praise than Thomas Shelton.

In the opinion of Fitzmaurice-Kelly, Shelton was ''a man of letters". He brought to the execution of his enterprise an endowment and a temperament such as no late arrival could pretend to boast. He owned an alert intelligence, a perfect sympathy for his author's theme, and a vocabulary of exceeding wealth and rarity. His language is ever fitted to the incident. He is always at his ease and, in the most trying case, he remains neutral, unspotted from affectation. Safe from the pitfalls of anachronism and the possibilities of Wardour-Street English, Shelton despatches his phrase with address and vigour. The atmosphere of the book is his own. Cervantes' manner is more nearly attained by Shelton than by any successor. In narrative, as in description, the Englishman vies with the Spaniard in dignity, grace and fleetness. With inimitable felicity of phrase and setting, with sustained sonority and splendour, in passages of uncommon majesty, he continues his deliverance of a classic masterpiece. Cervantes would have been "the foremost to applaud the breadth and gusto of a performance still unrivalled for simplicity, force and beauty".

In his introduction to the Second Part of Don Quixote, Fitzmaurice-Kelly states that of all the translators, Cervantes owes "Most to Shelton, Lord of the golden Elizabethan speech, an exquisite in the noble style."

Shelton is also praised by Roger de Manvel. The carelessness he found in Cervantes' text is eliminated in the English version, which has "a direct ruggedness which some better equipped translators have failed to achieve".

Cervantes was indeed fortunate in having such a brilliant translator. If his identity were known, he would have his rightful place as one more distinguished figure in that golden age of English literature. As it is, few people even know his name.

In the Dictionary of National Biography we learn that Thomas Shelton 'may be the fourth son of William Sheldon of Broadway, Worcester". This may be correct, but we have no information about this particular Sheldon. There is no doubt, however, in the DNB about the excellence of his translation. It "often seizes with curious effect the English word that is nearest the sound of the Spanish in defiance of its literal meaning" . Shelton "realises Cervantes' manner more nearly than any successor".

As the search for Thomas Shelton has proved so unsuccessful, we are obliged to look elsewhere. A pen-name may have been adopted. In Don Quixote there is no information about Shelton, apart from his dedicatory letter to Lord Walden. He is surprisingly candid about his shortcomings. He cast the work aside, "where it lay a long time neglected in a corner, and so little regarded by me as I never once set hand to review or correct the same. He was too busy with other matters to revise or correct the same. He was too busy with other matters to revise the translation, hoping that "some one or other would peruse and amend the errors escaped". The air of casualness is maintained. His manuscript, his printer tells him, has in fact been printed and a copy has been delivered to Lord Walden. The work is, he admits "farre unworthy" and "abortive". An ill-favour'd thing, but mine own, as Touchstone described his wife, Audrey, in As You Like it.

Here is Shelton's letter in full:

Mine Honourable Lord; having Translated some five or six years ago, The Historie of Don Quixote, out of the Spanish Tongue, into the English, in the space of forty days: Being therunto more than halfe enforced, through the importunity of a very dear friend, that was desirous to understand the subject: After I had given hime once a view thereof, I cast it aside, where it lay long time neglected in a corner, and so little regarded by me as I never once set hand to review or correct the same.

Since when, at the entreatie of others of my friends, I was content to let it come to light, conditionally, that some one or other would peruse and amend the errors escaped; my many affairs hindering me from undergoing that labour. Now I understand by the Printer, that the Copy was presented to your Honour: which did at the first somewhat disgust me, because as it must pass, I fear much, it will prove far unworthy, either of your Noble view or protection.

Your Honours most affectionate servitor, Thomas Shelton.

The wording of Shelton's concluding sentence is perhaps significant. The usual word in this context is 'servant'. Shelton has chosen instead another word which, apart from one letter, is the Spanish word for servant, 'servidor'. It is also unusual for the 'servant' to describe himself as affectionate, unless he is a member of the same class as the dedicatee.

There is little to learn, therefore, in our attempt to discover the identity of Thomas Shelton, if that was indeed the real name of the translator of Don Quixote. If that was his real name, we can be certain that, with the instant success of the book, he would have become, if not famous, at least well-known among academics, writers and the growing number of readers As it was, he was as unknown in the seventeenth century as he is today.

Thus we are left with the other name that the author of Don Quixote gives us, as the man who really was the father, the creator, of this work Ð Cid Hamet Benengeli. No one by this name appears in any history of Arab literature. When the name is mentioned, all we are given is a brief statement that he is the supposed author of Cervantes' Don Quixote. If there was no doubt that Miguel de Cervantes was the author, there would be no point in pursuing the matter any further. We could justifiably accept that Cid Hamet Benengeli is just another whimsical invention.

Even if this is an invented name, one can still wonder why the author tells us thirty-three times that Hamet is the real creator, and why he has chosen this name, not another. To make quite certain that the reader reads this name correctly, we have Sancho Panza, Quixote's patient servant, pronouncing it wrongly: "Cid Hamet Beregena". His master tells him that the name is Benengeli. In the Shelton text this correction is repeated in a marginal note: "It should be Benengeli, but Sancho simply mistakes.'' The only explanation of this odd name offered by Spanish scholars is that it might mean 'aubergine', the Spanish word for which is 'berenjena'.

Carlos Fuentes, in The Buried Mirror (1992), admits that Cervantes "proposes uncertainty of authorship . "Who is the author of Don Quixote ?" we are constantly asked. Cervantes? An Arab author?'' That is all he has to say on this subject.

In Don Quixote we are given a little information about this mysterious man:

C id Hamet was a very exact historiographer . . . Cid Hamet Benengeli, an Arabical and Manchegan author, recounts in this most grave, lofty, divine, sweet, conceited history . . . Well fare Cid Hamet Benegeli, that left the stories of your greatness to posterity, and more than well may that curious author fare that had the care to cause them to be translated out of the Arabic into our vulgar Castilian to the general entertainment of all men . . . The translator of this famous history out of its original, written by Cid Hamet Benengeli . . . Certainly, all they that delight in such Histories as these must be thankful to Cid Hamet, the author of the original . . . Cid Hamet, flower of historians . . .

In Part 2 of Don Quixote the author himself invites us to look a little closer at this Arab name.

Cide in the Arabicke signifieth Lord.-Part 2, ch. 2.

Ben means son. Engeli could be 'of England', as the Arabic word for England is 'anglia ' or 'ingelterra '. The name, then, could be translated as Lord Hamet, son of England.

It is natural to doubt whether one is justified in looking for the real author in a foreign country, that is, not in Spain, the country of Cervantes. It is at this point that the title page of the first Spanish edition of Don Quixote can shed some light. An examination of this page confirms to us that a foreign hand is indeed at work.


E L I N G E N I O S O HIDALGO DON QVI- XOTE DE LA MANCHA, CompueÝo por Miguel de Ceruantes Saauedra. DIRIGIDO AL DVQVE DE BEIAR Marques de Gibraleon, Conde de Benalcaqar, y Bana- res, Vizconde de la Puebla de Alcozer, Señor de las villas, de Capilla, Curiel, y Burguillos.




Title page of the first edition of Don Quixote, published in Madrid in 1605.




This illustration is not just unusual. It is unique. It obviously contains a message; the component parts of this picture lie there, waiting to be read.

We see a hooded falcon resting on the gloved hand of a man who is hidden from view. Swirling shapes, possibly mist, on one side only, stress the fact that the falconer is hidden, just out of sight. Around the arm

and the bird is the inscription: POST TENEBRAS SPERO LUCEMÐ after darkness I hope for light. Beneath the falcon a lion is keeping his eye on the bird. It could be said that both the lion and the falcon hope for light after the darkness, for the clear light of day after the dark night, or a time of impaired vision. The lion could symbolise England; the falcon could be Cervantes. Who is the falconer?

The inscription takes us to Chapter 68 of the Second Part of Don Quixote, in which the knight tells Sancho Panza that he too hopes for light:

O hard heart! oh ungodly Squire! oh ill given bread, and favours ill placed which I bestowed, and thought to have more and more conferred upon thee . . . for I post tenebras spero lucem. I understand not that, said Sancho, only I know that whitest I am sleeping, I neither feare nor hope, have neither paine nor pleasure.

In Cervantes' text, Quixote follows the words in Latin with a translation into the vernacular: "after darkness I expect light". Sancho, however, still says "I don't understand that".

Shelton's version makes sense. It seems that Cervantes' explanation has been added to help the reader, but it is a mistake, as it makes Sancho's reply incomprehensible. Was Cervantes' text, in fact, a translation of Shelton?

At this point Sancho surprises Quixote by launching, uncharacteristically, into a lyrical tribute to sleep.

Well fare him that invented sleepe, a cloke that covers all human thoughts; the foode that slakes hunger; the water that quencheth thirst; and the fire that warmeth cold; the cold that tempers heate; and finally a currant coine, with which all things are bought, a ballance and weight that equals the King to the Shepheard; the fool to the wiseman; onely one thing (as I have heard) sleepe hath ill, which is, that it is like death, in that betweene a man asleepe and a dead man, there is little difference.

This eloquent prose-poem on sleep certainly reminds one of that speech in a play written in England a few years before the publication of Don Quixote, in which Macbeth discourses on the same subject:

Sleep that knits up the ravened Leave of care, The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast.

In Sonnet 87 of Shakespeare, the poem ends with this couplet:

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter In sleepe a King, but waking no such matter.

And in Macbeth, Macuff exclaims

Malcolm awake! Shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit . . .

Had Shelton read Macbeth when he worked on Don Quixote?

The reference to Darkness and Light in the Latin motto on the title page takes us to one of the central themes of the Rosicrucian doctrines, which date from the early seventeenth century. One of the six articles in the Fama Fraternitatis , the Rosicrucian manifesto of 1614, is that "the Fraternity should remain secret for one hundred years."

In Part 2, ch. 52, Quixote tells an author that "there is need of infinite light for so many are in the dark.''

A further pointer is to be found in the title page of the first English edition of Don Quixote, published in 1612, the first appearance of this work in a foreign language. The name of the publisher, Ed Blounte, appears at the bottom of the page - but no author's name is given. Blounte and William Haggard were the printers and publishers of the 1623 First Folio of the Shakespeare plays.


Source material

Encyclopedia Britannica 1989. Neville Williams,
The Buried Mirror Carlos Fuentes, (1992)
All The Queen's Men, Weidenfeld 1972. Albert Loomie,
The Spanish Elizabethans, Fordham University, USA 1963.
The Historic of Don Quixote, publ. David Nutt, London 1896.
Cervantes and the Magicians, Paris 1934 Roger de Manvel.

see the text from Thomas Shelton's 1605 Don Quixote translation