In terms of the representation of gender, what does the treatment of women in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes say about the role of women in Spain during the Golden Age?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Golden Age in Spain is the equivalent of the Renaissance in England. It spans, roughly, from the end of the fifteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth centuries and includes great art, music, and writing; one of the most long-lasting works to come from this period is Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, published in the early 1600s. This novel has become one of the most recognized, translated, and revered works in the world over the past four hundred years, continually rediscovered and re-studied over time as the literary and philosophical worlds change.

Don Quixote is both a reflection of the times as well as a throwback to earlier times. For example, the women in Cervantes times were relatively confined by society's patriarchal restrictions; yet the chivalry component of the story is a reflection (and sometimes a parody) of Medieval times and the women are idealized.

Queen Isabella was the prominent female face of the Golden Age in Spain. She was a bold and adventurous woman who consistently promoted learning, knowledge, and scholarship. Despite her commitment to words and books, 

literacy statistics surveying that period have [concluded that] women’s literacy [was] lagging behind men’s by some 40%–50%.

On the other hand, though society in Spain was patriarchal, women at this time were

active in public, private, secular, and religious spheres. They ran schools, convents, and small businesses; advised kings, princes, and battered women. From within and outside of convents, they functioned as community leaders, educators, and reformers. They worked as vendors, seamstresses, and healers, and often pieced together a living based on a combination of these activities. Throughout the social spectrum, women positioned themselves as key to the functioning of the emerging nation-state and often overcame the obstacles placed on them by that state and its culture of control.

Despite the restrictions placed on women of this time by caste and class as well as gender, Cervantes has his protagonist, the rather crazy but beloved Don Quixote, revering women and even recognizing their value beyond ideal representations. Unfortunately, this reverence remains rather on (or below) the surface, as few of the female characters in the play are developed in any real way.

  • Dulcinea del Toboso is the most important and perhaps the least significant female in the novel. While everything Don Quixote does is for her, she is really just Aldonza Lorenzo, an earthy peasant girl.
  • Both the niece and the housekeeper speak intelligently when they are given the chance, but realistically spend most of their time bemoaning and crying over Don Quixote. According to his will, Antonia Quixana is restricted in her choice of a husband to someone who reads the same books of chivalry as her uncle.
  • Teresa Panza is a smart woman who speaks her mind; however, her husband rarely listens to her. 
  • Dorotea is described as being "shrewd and sprightly" and tries to persuade Don Quixote to leave the mountains and go home. On the other hand, she is jilted by Ferdinand.

The complexities and restrictions women experienced in Spanish society in the Golden Age are, at least in part, reflected in the novel. What does seem to be missing is the success stories. As cited above, the women of Cervantes' time did have some significant successes even in their restrictive society, something the fictional characters do not get to experience in any significant or meaningful way.