Miguel de Cervantes, born Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, September 29?, 1547, in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, is the novelist, playwright, and poet, the creator of Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and the most important and celebrated figure in Spanish literature. His novel Don Quixote has been translated, in full or in part, into more than 60 languages. Editions continue regularly to be printed, and critical discussion of the work has proceeded unabated since the 18th century. At the same time, owing to their widespread representation in art, drama, and film, the figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are probably familiar visually to more people than any other imaginary characters in world literature. Cervantes was a great experimenter. He tried his hand in all the major literary genres save the epic. He was a notable short-story writer, and a few of those in his collection of Novelas exemplares (1613; Exemplary Stories) attain a level close to that of Don Quixote, on a miniature scale.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
Don Quixote in Music
celebrating the life of
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
September 29 at 6pm EST
Cervantes was born some 20 miles (32 km) from Madrid, probably on September 29 (the day of San Miguel). He was certainly baptized on October 9. He was the fourth of seven children in a family whose origins were of the minor gentry but which had come down in the world. His father was a barber-surgeon who set bones, performed bloodlettings, and attended lesser medical needs. The family moved from town to town, and little is known of Cervantes’s early education. The supposition, based on a passage in one of the Exemplary Stories, that he studied for a time under the Jesuits, though not unlikely, remains conjectural. Unlike most Spanish writers of his time, including some of humble origin, he apparently did not go to a university. What is certain is that at some stage he became an avid reader of books. The head of a municipal school in Madrid, a man with Erasmist intellectual leanings named Juan López de Hoyos, refers to a Miguel de Cervantes as his “beloved pupil.” This was in 1569, when the future author was 21, so—if this was the same Cervantes—he must either have been a pupil-teacher at the school or have studied earlier under López de Hoyos. His first published poem, on the death of Philip II’s young queen, Elizabeth of Valois, appeared at this time.
Soldier and slave
That same year he left Spain for Italy. Whether this was because he was the “student” of the same name wanted by the law for involvement in a wounding incident is another mystery; the evidence is contradictory. In any event, in going to Italy Cervantes was doing what many young Spaniards of the time did to further their careers in one way or another. It seems that for a time he served as chamberlain in the household of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva in Rome. However, by 1570 he had enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service.
Relations with the Ottoman Empire under Selim II were reaching a crisis, and the Turks occupied Cyprus in 1570. A confrontation between the Turkish fleet and the naval forces of Venice, the papacy, and Spain was inevitable. In mid-September 1571 Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the large fleet under the command of Don Juan de Austria that engaged the enemy on October 7 in the Gulf of Lepanto near Corinth. The fierce battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Turks that was ultimately to break their control of the Mediterranean. There are independent accounts of Cervantes’s conduct in the action, and they concur in testifying to his personal courage. Though stricken with a fever, he refused to stay below and joined the thick of the fighting. He received two gunshot wounds in the chest, and a third rendered his left hand useless for the rest of his life. He always looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride. From 1572 to 1575, based mainly in Naples, he continued his soldier’s life; he was at Navarino and saw action in Tunis and La Goleta. He must also, when opportunity offered, have been familiarizing himself with Italian literature. Perhaps with a recommendation for promotion to the rank of captain, more likely just leaving the army, he set sail for Spain in September 1575 with letters of commendation to the king from the duque de Sessa and Don Juan himself.
On this voyage his ship was attacked and captured by Barbary pirates, and Cervantes, together with his brother Rodrigo, was sold into slavery in Algiers, the centre of the Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world. The letters he carried magnified his importance in the eyes of his captors. This had the effect of raising his ransom price, and thus prolonging his captivity, while also, it appears, protecting his person from punishment by death, mutilation, or torture when his four daring bids to escape were frustrated. His masters, the renegade Dali Mami and later Hasan Paşa, treated him with considerable leniency in the circumstances, whatever the reason. At least two contemporary records of the life led by Christian captives in Algiers at this time mention Cervantes. He clearly made a name for himself for courage and leadership among the captive community. At long last, in September 1580, three years after Rodrigo had earned his freedom, Miguel’s family, with the aid and intervention of the Trinitarian friars, raised the 500 gold escudos demanded for his release. It was only just in time, right before Hasan Paşa sailed for Constantinople (now Istanbul), taking his unsold slaves with him. Not surprisingly, this, the most adventurous period of Cervantes’s life, supplied subject matter for several of his literary works, notably the Captive’s tale in Don Quixote and the two Algiers plays, El trato de Argel (“The Traffic of Algiers”) and Los baños de Argel (“The Bagnios [an obsolete word for “prisons”] of Algiers”), as well as episodes in a number of other writings, although never in straight autobiographical form.
Back in Spain, Cervantes spent most of the rest of his life in a manner that contrasted entirely with his decade of action and danger. He would be constantly short of money and in tedious and exacting employment; it would be 25 years before he scored a major literary success with Don Quixote. On his return home he found that prices had risen and the standard of living for many, particularly those of the middle class, including his family, had fallen. The euphoria of Lepanto was a thing of the past. Cervantes’s war record did not now bring the recompense he expected. He applied unsuccessfully for several administrative posts in Spain’s American empire. The most he succeeded in acquiring was a brief appointment as royal messenger to Oran, Algeria, in 1581. In vain he followed Philip II and the court to Lisbon in newly annexed Portugal.
About this time he had an affair with a young married woman named Ana de Villafranca (or Ana Franca de Rojas), the fruit of which was a daughter. Isabel de Saavedra, Cervantes’s only child, was later brought up in her father’s household. Late in 1584 he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, 18 years his junior. She had a small property in the village of Esquivias in La Mancha. Little is known about their emotional relationship. There is no reason to suppose that the marriage did not settle down into an adequate companionableness, despite Cervantes’s enforced long absences from home. Neither is there any special reason to suppose that Catalina was an inspiration or a model for characters in the poetry Cervantes was now writing or in his first published fiction, La Galatea (1585; Galatea: A Pastoral Romance), in the newly fashionable genre of the pastoral romance. The publisher, Blas de Robles, paid him 1,336 reales for it, a good price for a first book. The dedication of the work to Ascanio Colonna, a friend of Acquaviva, was a bid for patronage that does not seem to have been productive. Doubtless helped by a small circle of literary friends, such as the poet Luis Gálvez de Montalvo, the book did bring Cervantes’s name before a sophisticated reading public. But the only later editions in Spanish to appear in the author’s lifetime were those of Lisbon, 1590, and Paris, 1611. La Galatea breaks off in mid-narrative; judging by his repeatedly expressed hopes of writing a sequel, Cervantes evidently maintained a lasting fondness for the work.
Cervantes also turned his hand to the writing of drama at this time, the early dawn of the Golden Age of the Spanish theatre. He contracted to write two plays for the theatrical manager Gaspar de Porras in 1585, one of which, La confusa (“Confusion”), he later described as the best he ever wrote. Many years afterward he claimed to have written 20 or 30 plays in this period, which, he noted, were received by the public without being booed off the stage or having the actors pelted with vegetables. The number is vague; only two certainly survive from this time, the historical tragedy of La Numancia (1580s; Numantia: A Tragedy) and El trato de Argel (1580s; “The Traffic of Algiers”). He names nine plays, the titles of a few of which sound like the originals of plays reworked and published years later in the collection Ocho comedias, y ocho entremeses nuevos (1615; “Eight Plays and Eight New Interludes”). Fixed theatre sites were just becoming established in the major cities of Spain, and there was an expanding market geared to satisfying the demands of a public ever more hungry for entertainment. Lope de Vega was about to respond to the call, stamping his personal imprint on the Spanish comedia and rendering all earlier drama, including that of Cervantes, old-fashioned or inadequate by comparison. Though destined to be a disappointed dramatist, Cervantes went on trying to get managers to accept his stage works. By 1587 it was clear that he was not going to make a living from literature, and he was obliged to turn in a very different direction.
Cervantes became a commissary of provisions for the great Armada. Requisitioning corn and oil from grudging rural communities was a thankless task, but it was at least a steady job, with a certain status. It took him traveling all over Andalusia, an experience he was to put to good use in his writing. He was responsible for finances of labyrinthine complexity, and the failure to balance his books landed him in prolonged and repeated trouble with his superiors. There also was constant argument with municipal and church authorities, the latter of which more than once excommunicated him. The surviving documentation of the accountancy and negotiations involved is considerable.
In 1594 Cervantes was in Madrid seeking a new post. He received an appointment that took him back to Andalusia to collect overdue taxes. Although it was in effect a promotion, the job was no more rewarding than the previous one and was similarly fraught with financial difficulties and confrontations. Cervantes was not by temperament a businessman. Probably by mutual agreement the appointment was terminated in 1596. The previous year he had won first prize (three silver spoons) in a poetry competition in Zaragoza. Back in Sevilla, he likely started seriously writing stories at about this time, not to mention a wickedly satirical sonnet on the conduct of the duque de Medina Sidonia, to be followed by one obliquely disrespectful of the recently deceased king himself. Again he met with financial troubles. In the summer of 1597 discrepancies in his accounts of three years previous landed him in the Crown Jail of Sevilla. He was confined until the end of April 1598 and perhaps conceived there the idea of Don Quixote, as a remark in the first prologue suggests:
And so, what was to be expected of a sterile and uncultivated wit such as that which I possess if not an offspring that was dried up, shriveled, and eccentric: a story filled with thoughts that never occurred to anyone else, of a sort that might be engendered in a prison where every annoyance has its home and every mournful sound its habitation?
Information about Cervantes’s life over the next four or five years is sparse. He had left Sevilla, and, perhaps for a while in Esquivias and Madrid, later for certain in Valladolid (where the royal court established itself from 1601 to 1606), he must have been writing the first part of Don Quixote. Early versions of two of his stories, Rinconete y Cortadillo (“Rinconete and Cortadillo”) and El celoso extremeño (“The Jealous Extremaduran”), found their way into a miscellaneous compilation, unpublished, made by one Francisco Porras de la Cámara.
In July or August 1604 Cervantes sold the rights of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha,” known as Don Quixote, Part I) to the publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles for an unknown sum. License to publish was granted in September and the book came out in January 1605. There is some evidence of its content’s being known or known about before publication—to, among others, Lope de Vega, the vicissitudes of whose relations with Cervantes were then at a low point. The compositors at Juan de la Cuesta’s press in Madrid are now known to have been responsible for a great many errors in the text, many of which were long attributed to the author.
The novel was an immediate success, though not as sensationally so as Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache, Part I, of 1599. By August 1605 there were two Madrid editions, two published in Lisbon, and one in Valencia. There followed those of Brussels, 1607; Madrid, 1608; Milan, 1610; and Brussels, 1611. Part II, Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (“Second Part of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha”), came out in 1615. Thomas Shelton’s English translation of the first part appeared in 1612. The name of Cervantes was soon to be as well known in England, France, and Italy as in Spain.
The sale of the publishing rights, however, meant that Cervantes made no more financial profit on Part I of his novel. He had to do the best he could with patronage. The dedication to the young duque de Béjar had been a mistake. He had better fortune with two much more influential persons: the conde de Lemos, to whom he would dedicate Part II and no less than three other works, and Don Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, archbishop of Toledo. This eased his financial circumstances somewhat. However, it is apparent that he would have liked a securer place in the pantheon of the nation’s writers than he ever achieved during his lifetime—he wanted a reputation comparable to that enjoyed by Lope de Vega or the poet Luis de Góngora, for example. His sense of his own marginal position may be deduced from his Viage del Parnaso (1614; Voyage to Parnassus), two or three of the later prefaces, and a few external sources. Nevertheless, relative success, still-unsatisfied ambition, and a tireless urge to experiment with the forms of fiction ensured that, at age 57, with less than a dozen years left to him, Cervantes was just entering the most productive period of his career.
No graciousness descended on Cervantes’s domestic life. A stabbing incident in the street outside the house in Valladolid, in June 1605, led ridiculously to the whole household’s arrest. When they later followed the court to Madrid, he continued to be plagued by litigation over money and now, too, by domestic difficulties. The family lodged in various streets over the next few years before finally settling in the Calle de León. Like a number of other writers of the day, Cervantes nursed hopes of a secretarial appointment with the conde de Lemos when, in 1610, the conde was made viceroy of Naples; once more Cervantes was disappointed. He had joined a fashionable religious order, the Slaves of the Most Blessed Sacrament, in 1609, and four years later he became a Franciscan tertiary, which was a more serious commitment. Students of Cervantes know, too, of some increased involvement in the literary life of the capital in the form of his attendance at the Academia Selvaje, a kind of writers’ salon, in 1612.
It is not certain when Cervantes began writing Part II of Don Quixote, but he had probably not gotten much more than halfway through by late July 1614. About September a spurious Part II was published in Tarragona by someone calling himself Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, an unidentified Aragonese who was an admirer of Lope de Vega. The book is not without merit, if crude in comparison with its model. In its prologue the author gratuitously insulted Cervantes, who not surprisingly took offense and responded, though with relative restraint if compared with the vituperation of some literary rivalries of the age. He also worked some criticism of Fernández de Avellaneda and his “pseudo” Quixote and Sancho into his own fiction from chapter 59 onward.
Don Quixote, Part II, emerged from the same press as its predecessor late in 1615. It was quickly reprinted in Brussels and Valencia, 1616, and Lisbon, 1617. Parts I and II first appeared in one edition in Barcelona, 1617. There was a French translation of Part II by 1618 and an English one by 1620. The second part capitalizes on the potential of the first, developing and diversifying without sacrificing familiarity. Most people agree that it is richer and more profound.
In the dedication, written three days before he died, Cervantes, “with a foot already in the stirrup,” movingly bade farewell to the world. Clear-headed to the end, he seems to have achieved a final serenity of spirit. He died in 1616, almost certainly on April 22, not on the 23rd as had been traditionally thought. The burial certificate indicates that the latter was the day he was buried, in the convent of the Discalced Trinitarians in the Calle de Cantarranas (now the Calle de Lope de Vega). The exact spot is not marked. No will is known to have survived.
Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote has been variously interpreted as a parody of chivalric romances, an epic of heroic idealism, a commentary on the author’s alienation, and a critique of Spanish imperialism. While the Romantic tradition downplayed the novel’s hilarity by transforming Don Quixote into a tragic hero, readers who view it as a parody accept at face value Cervantes’s intention to denounce the popular yet outdated romances of his time. Don Quixote certainly pokes fun at the adventures of literary knights-errant, but its plot also addresses the historical realities of 17th-century Spain. Although no proof has been found, it is likely that Cervantes was a converso (of Jewish descent), given his father’s ties to the medical profession, the family’s peripatetic existence, and the government’s denial of his two requests for posts in the Indies. However, the author’s nuanced irony, his humanistic outlook, and his comic genius contrast notably with the melancholy, didactic tone attributed to many other Spanish converso writers.
Cervantes’s strikingly modern narrative instead gives voice to a dazzling assortment of characters with diverse beliefs and perspectives. His inclusion of many differing opinions constitutes a provision called heteroglossia (“multiple voices”) by the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who deemed it essential to the development of the modern novel. Don Quixote’s comic edge illustrates another of Bakhtin’s concepts, carnivalization, which favours the playfully positive aspects of the body over an ascetic rejection of the carnal. Sancho Panza’s rotund shape—his name means “holy belly”—offsets Don Quixote’s elongated, emaciated frame, and together they recall the medieval folkloric figures of an expansive, materialist Carnival and a lean, self-denying Lent. Yet, far from depicting illusion and reality as equal opposites, their relationship undergoes constant change: if Don Quixote assumes the lead in Part I, Sancho overtakes his master and secures his own independence in Part II.
The differences between Part I and Part II demonstrate Cervantes’s awareness of the power of the printed word. Don Quixote’s history began with his obsessive reading of chivalric romances; in Part II, he realizes that his adventures are eagerly read and discussed by others. The knight’s visit in Part II to a Barcelona printing shop, where he finds a spurious Part II in press and denounces it as injurious to the innocent reader and to his own rightful authorship (since he stands to lose royalties from its sales), underscores the cultural and economic impact of books of fiction. Despite his own books’ popularity, Cervantes earned little from their sales. Nonetheless, his innovative reworkings of literary forms—from the pastoral novel La Galatea and exemplary short stories to the acclaimed novel Don Quixote and his one serious attempt at romance, the posthumously published Persiles y Sigismunda—show just how well Cervantes understood not only the 17th-century marketplace but the social effect of literature.
Cervantes’s influence resonates in the popular term “quixotic” and the immediately recognizable forms of his two major protagonists, whose adventures reappear continually across the cultural landscape in theatre, film, opera, ballet, and even comic books. No study of the novel can ignore the author or his most famous work: the Hungarian theorist Gyorgy Lukács considers Don Quixote “the first great novel of world literature,” while the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes calls Cervantes the “founding father” of Latin American literature. The novel form, according to some late 20th-century critics, has no one origin but began to exist in different countries at different times and for different reasons. Nonetheless, Cervantes’s novel, with its innovations to Spanish literature, is outstanding in its creation of a new worldview. It is not coincidental that the writers most influenced by Cervantes—Daniel Defoe, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, to name only British novelists—initiated radical changes in their own literary traditions.
By illuminating the many differences in and surrounding his world, Cervantes placed in doubt the previous ways of portraying that world, whether those were literary or historical. Indeed, one of Don Quixote’s main tenets is that fiction and historical truth are frequently indistinguishable, as both are dependent on the reader’s perception. Cervantes’s approach is frequently dubbed “dualistic” since he often opted to express diverse modes of thought through the pairing of opposites, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the talking dogs of “Colloquy of the Dogs,” or the image of the baciyelmo (“basinhelmet,” as the narrator describes the bright object worn on a distant rider’s head). Representing the opposites of reality and illusion, baciyelmo is Sancho’s brass basin but Don Quixote’s gold helmet.
The split depicted within Cervantes’s characters—Don Quixote’s “reasoned unreason” for example—has sometimes been attributed to the author’s intended contrast of reality and illusion (as well as of other opposites). The question of whether the self-proclaimed knight stands for an idealism never fully attainable or for a laughably meaningless madness continues to shadow interpretations of Don Quixote, as it has since its introduction by the German Romantics. Opposition between idealism and realism as a leading theme in Cervantes’s fiction, including the Exemplary Stories and his plays, remained influential as late as the mid-20th century.
Yet Cervantes was characteristically ambiguous on these issues, and this ambiguity inspired criticism of the later 20th century to reconsider previous judgments on his literary prominence. Translated almost immediately into English, French, and Italian, Don Quixote was viewed primarily as a comic work or a satire of Spanish customs. Ironically, it was the German Romantics, selectively reading Don Quixote as a tragic hero, who granted his author world standing. In contrast, 19th-century Spanish academics dismissed Cervantes’s accomplishments, even though his style and language set the standard for modern Castilian. Not until the 20th century did the acclaim of foreign critics and Spanish expatriates finally rehabilitate Cervantes in his own country.
When Freudian psychology became popular, it engendered critical interest in the psychological force of Cervantes’s fiction. European criticism was predisposed early on toward psychoanalytical approaches, which stressed the Spanish author’s duality and ambiguity. From the 1970s, French and American criticism viewed Cervantes as a fragmented character not unlike his protagonists. Both the author and his characters have been perceived as psychoanalytical cases, with Don Quixote’s madness attributed to his “middle-age crisis” and Cervantes’s treatment of several characters to his “subconscious sympathies.” As these critics worked to reveal unexpressed desires, they also analyzed the roles played by women. Feminist and gender studies have increasingly looked to Cervantes for his perceptive approach to portraying the women of 17th-century Spain. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Cervantes expressed great empathy toward women. Although he stops short of a “feminist” position, numerous female characters such as Marcela and Dorotea in Don Quixote and Isabela Castrucho in Persiles y Sigismunda speak forcefully in defense of women’s rights.
Similarly, criticism in the late 20th century began to focus on Cervantes’s preoccupations with contemporary economic and historical events. The 1609 expulsion of the Moriscos (converted Moors), the correct governance of Spain’s overseas colonies, and the exploitation of African slaves are often considered as covertly polemical topics for Don Quixote’s alert readers. The Exemplary Stories and plays have been plumbed for their engagement with political and economic factors. Documented in Don Quixote and Persiles y Sigismunda, Cervantes’s knowledge of and interest in the New World are central to his perception of a different world, one equally as cross-cultural and multilingual as that of the 21st century.
Edward C. Riley, Anne J. Cruz / Source: Britannica