Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3229
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.
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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 managed to get the ban removed. Further commissions sent him through many Andalusian towns and cities in search of grain and olive oil. Having difficulty collecting his salary, Cervantes applied for one of four positions vacant in America, but the Council of the Indies rejected him. Instead, he returned to work as a royal commissioner, traveling extensively through Andalusia and between Seville and Madrid. His intimate knowledge for nearly thirteen years of roads, inns, folklore, and travelers and their speech provided him with a rich background for his exemplary novels and for Don Quixote de la Mancha. Finally in 1594, Philip II abolished the royal commissions, and Cervantes, then forty-six years old, had to look for new employment.
His first job was to collect back taxes in the provinces of Málaga and Grenada. In 1595, he won first prize (three silver spoons) in a poetry competition at Saragossa, and the next year he wrote a celebrated sonnet satirizing the English sack of Cadiz. In 1597, he was still collecting taxes, and when an accountant made an error that showed Cervantes’ accounts to be short, he was imprisoned for seven months in Seville. There he may have begun Don Quixote de la Mancha. In 1598, Philip II decreed that the theaters be permanently closed, thus interrupting Cervantes’ career as a playwright. When the king died later that year, Cervantes wrote a poem in his honor and then wrote and read in the cathedral of Seville a far better sonnet satirizing the monarch’s exceedingly grand catafalque. In the final years of the century, Cervantes probably wrote some of his exemplary novels and continued work on Don Quixote de la Mancha. He associated with most of the leading writers of the day, such as Lope de Vega Carpio, Francisco de Quevedo, and Luis de Góngora y Argote. When the new king, Philip III, moved the court to Valladolid, all the writers followed him there, including Cervantes in 1604.
At the beginning of 1605, part 1 of Don Quixote de la Mancha was published. Probably parts of it had already circulated in manuscript, for there is evidence that it was already known in literary circles. The first edition quickly sold out, and Cervantes soon found himself internationally famous, though still in financial difficulties, for he had sold the work outright and got no royalties. His new fame did not prevent him and most of his household, though innocent, from being imprisoned briefly in the summer of 1605 after testifying about a fatal duel fought in front of their home.
There is no record of Cervantes for the next three years, but in 1608, he appeared in Madrid, which was to be his main residence for the rest of his life. These final years were those of his most intense literary activity, for he was working on part 2 of Don Quixote de la Mancha as well as on more plays, a long poem, and a series entitled Novelas ejemplares (1613; Exemplary Novels, 1846). These are actually long short stories or short novellas, intended to instruct as well as to entertain. Cervantes prided himself on being the first person to write novels in the Castilian tongue. In the prologue, he presents a vivid description of himself as a man of average height with stooping shoulders and a somewhat heavy build, with an aquiline countenance, chestnut hair, a smooth brow, a hooked nose, a once golden beard turned silver, a large mustache, and a small mouth with only half a dozen teeth remaining. One of the works he mentions in the prologue is Viage del Parnaso (1614; The Voyage to Parnassus, 1870), a narrative poem that in eight chapters tells of a journey to Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses, where a battle is fought between good and bad poets. The poem is of considerable autobiographical importance, for in it Cervantes discusses the other poets of his day, his relationship with them, and his evaluation of his own work. In 1615, he published Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (English translation, 1807), none of which had yet been performed. His full-length plays have not made a lasting mark, but the interludes made him the greatest Spanish creator of one-act comedies.
Meanwhile Don Quixote de la Mancha went through innumerable editions in Spain and abroad. In 1614, a spurious sequel attributed to Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda appeared—a meretricious work lacking any literary distinction and full of obscenities and vulgar details, together with insulting comments on Cervantes’ poverty, advanced age, and crippled hand. Incensed, Cervantes turned back to his own work in progress and completed part 2 of Don Quixote de la Mancha, which was published in the fall of 1615, about half a year before the author’s death. In the remaining months of his life he completed Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617; The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern History, 1619), the dedication and prologue to which he wrote after he had received extreme unction, only four days before he died of dropsy on April 23, 1616, the same day and year that William Shakespeare died. A few years before his death, Cervantes had joined the Tertiary Order of the Franciscans, and they buried him in an unknown grave.
Cervantes’ poems, plays, and exemplary novels are minor works, but Don Quixote de la Mancha is generally regarded as one of the world’s supreme works of literature, ranking with the masterpieces of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. Cervantes conceived of it as a satire upon books of chivalry. Having read chivalric romances until his wits are scrambled, Alonso Quejana decides to become a knight errant, renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, dons a suit of battered armor, proclaims his skinny nag to be the war horse Rosinante, and, accompanied by a peasant, Sancho Panza, as his squire, goes forth to set the world right. At first, he is a figure of satire, as he confuses illusion with reality, mistakes windmills for giants, inns for castles, and flocks of sheep for armies, wears a barber’s basin for a helmet, and generally causes chaos and confusion by meddling in matters which do not need mending. Gradually, he evolves into a heroic figure, even a Christlike one. An aged man, lean as a rake, with no help but his lance, sword, and the often-reluctant help of the commonsensical Sancho, he tries single-handedly to right wrongs, help the oppressed, succor widows and orphans, and bring about justice, only to be mocked, reviled, ridiculed, beaten, and almost crucified for his efforts. In a famous essay, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev contrasts Don Quixote with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, finding the latter to be obsessed with himself, whereas Don Quixote is quite selfless in his desire to help others. The novel develops and deepens from comedy into tragicomedy. The nineteenth century French critic Charles Sainte-Beuve called it the “Bible of humanity.” Far from being opposed to chivalry, Cervantes was chivalric to a fault, and in his life he showed many of the traits of Don Quixote himself. It is Quixote’s gallantry, his idealism, and his panache that has made him, rather than the historic El Cid, the symbolic national hero of Spain.
In the Exemplary Novels and in Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes wrote a model of clear Castilian prose and portrayed a realistic panorama of Spain, particularly of the lives of ordinary people, even while he created a hero whose idealism makes him confuse reality with his illusions. It is that idealism and those illusions that have made Don Quixote a legend. Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac takes him as a model. From the beginning, Don Quixote de la Mancha was immensely popular and profoundly influential. In England, it inspired Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), the picaresque novels of Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett in the eighteenth century, and such novels as The Spiritual Quixote (1773) and The Female Quixote: Or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), and Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are surely in the background of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. W. Somerset Maugham has Don Quixote reappear as a character in his novel Catalina (1948), and Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote (1982) has a twentieth century priest who claims to be a descendant of the don go on a similar pilgrimage around Spain. Innumerable artists have illustrated Don Quixote de la Mancha or done paintings inspired by it, including Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, and Pablo Picasso. There are dozens of operas, operettas, ballets, and songs based upon Don Quixote de la Mancha as well. There are several film and television versions of Don Quixote de la Mancha, as well as a popular musical. Don Quixote is one of the best-known and best-loved literary characters in the world, and the term “quixotic” has come to mean gallantly chivalrous, romantically idealistic, and courageously visionary.
Bell, Aubrey F. G. Cervantes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947. Studies Cervantes’ work in the context of the Renaissance and of his life and times; argues that Don Quixote de la Mancha must be read in relationship to all Cervantes’ writings.
Byron, William. Cervantes: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. The most complete life and times, providing graphic detail on Cervantes’ activities, the Battle of Lepanto, his captivity, the theater, and the like. Analyzes the writings both for their intrinsic artistry and as part of the literary scene of the golden age.
Cervantes, Miguel de. The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Translated by Samuel Putnam. New York: Viking Press, 1949. The best modern translation.
Duran, Manuel. Cervantes. Boston: Twayne, 1974. Number 329 in the Twayne World Authors series, Duran’s study examines the universality of Cervantes’ work, the clarity of his style, his relationship with his public, the humor and realism of his fiction, his compassion for the humble, and his democratic spirit.
Flores, Angel, and M. J. Benardete, eds. Cervantes Across the Centuries. New York: Gordian Press, 1969. A collection of critical essays dealing with the genesis, composition, style, realism, and social and historical background of Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Fuentes, Carlos. Introduction to The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. This introduction by Mexico’s leading novelist discusses the influence of Desiderius Erasmus on Cervantes and the duality of realism and imagination in Don Quixote de la Mancha and argues that this work can be considered the beginning of a modern way of looking at the world.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Don Quixote. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Six lectures, originally given at Harvard in 1951 and 1952, plus two essays on narrative and commentary, dealing with the structure, main characters, victories and defeats, and cruelty of Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Predmore, Richard L. Cervantes. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973. A clear and concise biography by a leading Cervantes scholar, lavishly illustrated with 170 pictures from Cervantes’ time and by later artists.
Riley, Edward C. Cervantes’ Theory of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Gathers Cervantes’ scattered ideas on literature into coherent theories for the art of poetry, drama, and the novel. Argues that Cervantes created the modern European novel and speculated more about the problems of literature than any writer before the eighteenth century.
Russell, P. E. Cervantes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A slim volume (117 pages) in the Past Masters series. Deals with Cervantes as poet and dramatist, examines his parodies of chivalric romance, analyzes Don Quixote as a Romantic hero, investigates his madness, and gives a close reading of both parts of the novel.
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