Miguel de Cervantes Critical Essays

Miguel de Cervantes Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Reading the drama of Miguel de Cervantes often results in a search for intimations or reminiscences of Don Quixote de la Mancha. The stature of this one work and the intensity of life conveyed in it nearly overwhelm the rest of Cervantes’ artistic work. What is most interesting in examining Cervantes’ drama is recognizing his obsession with certain themes and certain situations that eventually merge and metamorphose into the gigantic masterpiece. The dramas present these obsessions worked out onstage and in different, if not equally fascinating, guises.

The Siege of Numantia

Perhaps the oddest source for one of the principal motivating themes of Don Quixote de la Mancha appears in The Siege of Numantia. It should come as no surprise that Cervantes, who always expressed pride in his accomplishments at the Battle of Lepanto, should have believed in the importance of the cultivation of heroism in human life. In The Siege of Numantia, that heroism is already inseparable from isolation and defeat. For Cervantes, heroism is not necessarily victory and glory; heroism may more naturally find expression and be more readily apparent in endurance, defiance, and failure. Greatness lies in the struggle itself, not in the outcome of that struggle. In the principal dramatic situation of the play, the town of Numantia has been completely isolated by the Roman general Scipio. His men have dug a trench around the city so that no food may enter it and no warriors leave it. Rather than losing his own men in battle, Scipio hopes to starve the town into submission. The people of the town stoically accept their fate, never turning on one another in their hungry desperation as Scipio anticipates, but rather using their remaining strength to strip the town of all vestiges of wealth that might interest the Roman conquerors. The townspeople die valiantly by their own hand or kill one another honorably and with goodwill, in fellowship and in defiance. The individual characters never assume personal identities, but the town itself becomes the hero, in a way that anticipates Lope de Vega’s most famous play, Fuenteovejuna (wr. 1611-1618, pb. 1619; The Sheep Well, 1936), in which a town unites against an evil commander and, in doing so, becomes a kind of collective hero.

At the conclusion of the play, Cervantes brings on Fame, the last of the many allegorical figures who appear throughout the play. So that the moral of the play will not be misunderstood, Fame announces that in spite of the devastation and suffering witnessed by the audience, the play has a happy ending. The legend of the strength and determination of the citizens of Numantia will live for all time, proclaiming the greatness of the Spanish people, prompting future generations to follow the glorious path of honor shown by the city, and inspiring poets to praise the bravest of all unvanquished nations. Cervantes’ sense of the mysterious ways in which defeat may be transformed into victory and failure inspire heroism found a home in the town of Numantia long before it traveled down the road in the person of a mad knight-errant.

A corollary to this theme is also present in many of the dramas: the resilience and recuperative powers of the human spirit. Cervantes certainly believed in the human capacity for rejuvenation. Failure, loss, and defeat do not necessarily mark an end, for the human spirit can always rekindle life and spark new energy and hope, even in the most unlikely places. In the second act of The Siege of Numantia, the magician Marquino raises a young man from the dead. He hopes to learn from the revived corpse secrets concerning the town’s fate that the deceased might have learned during his stay in the underworld. Even though the resulting news is tragic, the scene of the resurrection called forth theatrical magic from Cervantes that he too seldom displayed elsewhere. Made powerful and vivid with magic,...

(The entire section is 1624 words.)