Article abstract: Poet, playwright, and novelist, Cervantes is Spain’s greatest writer, chiefly because of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the first real European novel and one of the supreme works of world literature.
In 1547, the year that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born, Henry VIII of England and François I of France died, leaving Charles I of Spain (and V of the Holy Roman Empire) undisputedly the dominant ruler in Europe and the Spanish dominions the most powerful empire on earth. The sixteenth century is known in Spanish history as the siglo del oro (the golden century), partly because of Cervantes, who is the greatest of all Spanish writers. His parents were impoverished members of the gentry, and Miguel, the fourth of their seven children, was born in Alcalá de Henares, some twenty miles from Madrid. His father, Rodrigo, was an apothecary surgeon, who was usually in debt and was even sent to debtors’ prison. In 1551, he moved the family to Valladolid, and in 1553 to Córdoba, once the greatest city of Moorish Spain. There Miguel probably studied under Father Alonso de Vieras and later at the Jesuit College of Santa Catarina, where he is likely to have seen his first plays. For six years after 1558, the family’s whereabouts cannot be determined, but in 1564, they appeared in Seville, the major city of Andalusia. There Miguel attended the new Jesuit college and saw the great actor Lope de Rueda and his company perform. The residence in Seville was brief, however, for in 1566, the family moved to Madrid, the new seat of the royal court under Philip II. There, Cervantes became a student in the city school. When Queen Elizabeth de Valois died, Cervantes’ teacher composed a commemorative book in 1569 that included four poems by young Cervantes on the death of the queen.
That same year, however, a warrant was issued for Cervantes’ arrest for wounding a man in a duel, apparently in the royal court, because the penalty was for Cervantes to have his right hand amputated and to be exiled for ten years. Not waiting for the sentence to be carried out, Cervantes escaped to Rome, then proceeded to Naples, where he enlisted in the Spanish army, where his brother Rodrigo joined him. In 1571, the brothers were among the troops aboard the immense fleet of two hundred galleys and one hundred additional ships that engaged the equally formidable Turkish armada at Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth. On the eve of the battle, Cervantes was ill with malaria and was ordered to stay below, but he insisted that he be posted “where the danger is greatest and there I shall remain and fight to the death.” During the Battle of Lepanto, the greatest naval combat in history to that date, Cervantes held his post on the deck of the Marquesa, and at the end of the day, when the Spanish were victorious, he was found there covered with blood, his sword in his right hand, his left hand shattered, and his chest bleeding from two severe wounds. The victorious admiral, Don Juan of Austria, must have been aware of Cervantes’ valor, for that day he ordered an increase in his pay. It was three weeks before Cervantes had his wounds properly treated at the hospital in Messina. It is not clear whether his left hand was amputated or was crippled and useless for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Cervantes considered that day in battle as one of the greatest of his life and said that he would rather have been in the battle than have missed it and the wounds he suffered. After six months’ hospitalization, Cervantes recovered, rejoined the fleet, and was present when Don Juan captured the Turkish flagship on which the galley slaves rebelled and killed their captain, the grandson of the pirate Barbarossa. He was also present when Don Juan captured Tunis without a battle in 1573. Garrisoned in Naples for a year, he fell in love with a woman who became the model for Silena in his first novel, La Galatea (1585; Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, 1833).
On a voyage home in 1575, his ship was attacked by Algerian galleys, and after a sharp fight the ship was captured and the survivors, including Miguel and Rodrigo de Cervantes, were taken as slaves to Algiers. Cervantes later described the event in a verse epistle to the king’s secretary, Matteo Vásquez. Because Cervantes was bearing letters of praise from Don Juan of Austria and the Duke of Sessa, his ransom was made impossibly high. During five years of brutal captivity, though usually loaded down with chains, Cervantes masterminded four escape attempts. Each was thwarted, yet, despite the strong danger of being mutilated, impaled, hooked, or burned alive, as some of his confederates had been, he kept trying. Each time he was caught, he claimed sole responsibility for the plot. Each time, he was chained and imprisoned more severely, yet his courage, resourcefulness, and lust for freedom were irrepressible. At one time he may have planned to organize a massive slave insurrection. According to one account of Algerian captivity, the pasha lived in perpetual fear of “the scheming of Miguel de Cervantes.” Apparently only greed for his ransom kept his master from putting him to a horrible death. Such ransom as was provided was inadequate for both Cervantes brothers, so Miguel relinquished his share so that Rodrigo could go free. Not until three years later was Miguel finally ransomed, in October, 1580. His captivity provides the basis for the captive’s tale in part 1 of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha).
Back in Spain, after twelve years’ absence, Cervantes sought preferment and was sent on a confidential mission to Spanish territory in North Africa. Thereafter, he spent seven months in Lisbon seeking employment and even requesting a post in the New World. When his money ran out, he began to devote himself to literature, turning to the theater, for which he wrote, in his own words, “twenty or thirty plays,” of which all but two have been lost. One of the survivors is El trato de Argel (1585; The Commerce of Algiers: A Comedy, 1870), about Christian lovers imprisoned in Algiers. Artistically, it is not impressive, but it is valuable as a realistic picture of Algerian life and the lot of prisoners, one of whom, a soldier named Saavedra who assists his fellow captives, is a self-portrait. The other play, El cerco de Numancia (wr. 1585, pb. 1784; Numantia: A Tragedy, 1870), dramatizes the tragic siege of a city in Spain by Scipio the Younger. Rather than yield to the Romans, every citizen chooses death. The play became symbolic of Spanish courage and was performed during Napoleon I’s siege of Saragossa in 1809, to strengthen the resistance of the defenders.
During his years with the theater, Cervantes had an affair with Ana de Villafranca, who in 1584 bore him an illegitimate daughter, Isabel. Shortly thereafter, Cervantes was married to Catalina de Salazar y Palacios. Though she was eighteen years younger than he, though his business often kept them apart for the next thirteen years, and though they had no children, the marriage endured for the rest of his life.
The next year, Cervantes published his first novel, Galatea, in the then-popular genre of pastoral romance. His income from literature was not enough to support his family, however, for with his father’s death in 1585, Cervantes had to care for his wife, mother, two sisters, daughter, and a niece. Accordingly, he took a position to procure grain in Andalusia for the Spanish Armada. Outraged at his confiscating some wheat from powerful churchmen, the Vicar General of Seville had Cervantes excommunicated, but Cervantes...
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