Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shelton, Thomas (fl.1612)
SHELTON, THOMAS (fl. 1612), first translator of ‘Don Quixote’ into English, may possibly be identical with the Thomas Sheldon who was fourth son of William Sheldon of Broadway, Worcestershire (a kinsman of Edward Sheldon [q. v.] of Beoley (cf. Nash, Worcestershire, i. 145). One Thomas Sheldon, described as a gentleman of Worcestershire, matriculated from Oriel College, Oxford, at the age of fifteen, on 23 Nov. 1581, and was refused the degree of B.A. when he supplicated for it on 10 Feb. 1584–5 (Oxf. Univ. Reg. Oxf. Hist. Soc. ii. i. 227, ii. 105). Shelton seems to have entered the service of Theophilus Howard, lord Howard of Walden, afterwards second earl of Suffolk [q. v.] Acquiring a knowledge of Spanish, he during 1607, at the request ‘of a very deere friend that was desirous to understand the subject,’ translated ‘[the first part of] the Historie of Don-Quixote, out of the Spanish tongue, into the English.’ The task only occupied him forty days. The first part of Cervantes's novel originally appeared at Madrid early in 1605. Shelton used a reprint of the original Spanish, which was issued at Brussels by Roger Velpius in 1607. But after his friend had glanced at his rendering Sheldon cast it aside, where it lay ‘long time neglected in a corner.’ At the end of four or five years, ‘at the entreaty of friends, he was content to let it come to light,’ on condition that ‘some one or other would peruse and amend the errors escaped, his many affairs hindering him from undergoing that labour.’ On 19 Jan. 1611–12 the work, whether with or without another's revision, was licensed for publication to Edward Blount and William Barret, under the title of ‘The delightfull history of the wittie knight, Don Quishote.’ Shelton signed the dedication to Lord Howard of Walden, describing himself as ‘his honour's most affectionate servitor.’
The book at once achieved the popularity that Cervantes's work has always retained in this country. References to episodes in Don Quixote's story were soon frequent in English literature. As early as 1613 Robert Anton concluded his ‘Moriomachia’ with an allusion to the ‘little dangerous Combate’ between ‘Don Quishotte and the Barber, about Mambrinoes inchaunted Helmet.’ Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle,’ which burlesqued in Cervantes's spirit the extravagances of heroic romance, was also published in 1613, but the publisher asserted that it was written a year before Shelton's translation appeared. That Dulcinea appealed to public taste is proved by the publication of a ballad on her history in 1615. A lost play, entitled ‘Cardenio,’ which was acted at court on 8 June 1613, was, as its title proves, a dramatised version of an episode in Cervantes's novel. Humphrey Moseley entered the piece on the ‘Stationers' Register’ in 1653 as the work of Fletcher and Shakespeare, but no copy is extant to prove or disprove the allegation. There is no other evidence that Shakespeare was acquainted with Shelton's achievement.
Very few copies of the original edition of Shelton's translation of the first part survive. A perfect copy, constructed from two less perfect copies, belongs to Mr. Henry Yates Thompson; other good copies are at the British Museum, in the libraries of Clare College, Cambridge, of Wadham College, Oxford, and of Mr. Leonard Courtney (cf. Times, November 1896), and one was formerly in Lord Ashburnham's collection.
In the summer of 1614 Felipe Roberto of Tarragona published a volume impudently purporting to be a second part of Cervantes's novel. The author gave himself the burlesque pseudonym of the ‘Licenciado Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda, natural de la villa de Tordesillas.’ The deceit prospered; ‘Avellaneda’ was generally identified with Cervantes himself, and Edward Blount, one of the publishers of Shelton's translation of the first part of Cervantes's genuine work, obtained a license on 5 Dec. 1615 from the Stationers' Company to publish an English rendering of the spurious sequel. But this scheme went no further. Already, on 5 Nov. of the same year, Cervantes had obtained at Madrid authority to publish his own continuation of ‘Don Quixote,’ and this was in the hands of readers in the closing days of the year. Early in 1616 the Spanish text was reprinted at Brussels, and an English translation of that version was soon projected by Blount. This was published in 1620 with a dedication addressed by the publisher to George Villiers, then Marquis of Buckingham. No mention of Shelton's name is made in any part of the volume, but internal evidence places it to the credit of the translator of the first part. With the second part was published a new edition of the first, and the two were often bound up together. The second edition of the first has little of the bibliographical value that attaches to the first edition. The chief marks of distinction between the two are that while the first has 549 pages of text, the second has 572, and each page of the first is enclosed in black lines, which are absent from the second.
Shelton's complete translation was reissued in a folio volume in 1652 and in 1675, and in four 12mo volumes in 1725 and 1731. In 1654 Edmund Gayton [q. v.] based upon Shelton's text his entertaining ‘Pleasant Notes on Don Quixote.’ A luxurious reprint, with admirable introductions by Mr. James Fitzmaurice Kelly, appeared in 1896 in the series of Tudor translations edited by Mr. W. E. Henley.
Though Shelton's version bears many traces of haste, and he often seizes with curious effect the English word that is nearest the sound of the Spanish in defiance of its literal meaning, he reproduces in robust phraseology the spirit of his original, and realises Cervantes's manner more nearly than any successor. Subsequent English versions of ‘Don Quixote,’ all of which owed something to Shelton's effort, were published by John Phillips (1631–1706) [q. v.] in 1687; by Peter Anthony Motteux [q. v.] in 1712; in 1742 by Charles Jervas, who unjustly charged Shelton with translating from the Italian version of Lorenzo Franciosini (Venice, 1622); by Tobias Smollett in 1755; by A. J. Duffield in 1881; by John Ormsby in 1885; and by H. E. Watts in 1888.[Fitzmaurice Kelly's Introductions to his reprint of Shelton's translation, 1896, vols. i. and iii.; the English version of Don Quixote, translated respectively by A. J. Duffield, John Ormsby, and H. E. Watts. Care must be taken to distinguish the translator of Don Quixote from Thomas Shelton [q. v.], the puritan stenographer, some of whose publications have been wrongly assigned to the translator.]