Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de 1547–1616 Spanish Author

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Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de
Spanish author

Miguel de Cervantes, one of the most celebrated writers of the Renaissance, led a life of danger and intrigue. On more than one occasion Cervantes almost lost his life, but he lived to turn his often hair-raising escapades into literary achievements. The most famous of these is his novel Don Quixote, a classic of world literature.

A Troubled Life. Cervantes was born in the university town of Alcalá de Henares. His father, a surgeon, suffered from money troubles, and the family moved constantly in search of a decent living. As a result, Cervantes received no formal university training. However, his family's frequent travels exposed him to all parts of Spanish society.

When Cervantes was in his early 20s, a late-night fight led to a warrant for his arrest and for the removal of his right hand. In 1569 Cervantes fled to Italy, the center of Renaissance culture. His experience of Italy greatly influenced his growth as an artist. Cervantes enlisted in the Spanish army in 1570 and lost the use of his left hand in the battle of Lepanto a year later.

Traveling from Italy to Spain in 1575, Cervantes was kidnapped by Muslim pirates and sold into captivity in Algiers. The pirates mistakenly thought Cervantes was a person of some importance, and they set his ransom so high that it took five years before he could return to Spain. Cervantes described his ordeal in The Commerce of Algiers, his first literary work. This document, written shortly before he left Algiers, describes his heroic behavior and loyalty to Christianity during his captivity. It also relates his four unsuccessful attempts to escape and his astonishing ability to avoid punishment for them.

Back in Spain, Cervantes tried to use his heroic experiences to secure a comfortable position in the Spanish government. When this effort failed, he took a job collecting supplies for the Spanish Armada, a fleet of ships sent to attack England in 1588. He also worked as a tax collector. His duties took him all over Spain and brought him into contact with people from all levels of Spanish society. He made little money, however, and twice he was sent to prison for irregularities in his accounts.

In 1584 Cervantes married Catalina Salazar Palacios, who came from an area known as La Mancha. He continued to seek out government positions, usually without success. In 1601 King Philip II moved the Spanish court from Madrid to Valladolid, and Cervantes set up a household there with his wife, his two sisters, his illegitimate* daughter, and his niece. At one point the entire family was jailed after the murder of a man in the street outside their house. When the king moved Spain's capital back to Madrid in 1606, Cervantes followed. He spent the rest of his life living and writing in Madrid.

Literary Accomplishments. During the 1580s Cervantes began writing for the theater. He hoped to create an official form of Spanish drama, but instead that accomplishment fell to the writer Lope de Vega. However, Cervantes did produce several notable plays, including The Siege of Numantia and The Business of Algiers, both written in the 1580s.

Cervantes's greatest achievements are his works of fiction. In his major writings Cervantes challenged the accepted literary and cultural standards of his day. For example, two of his Exemplary Tales, a collection of short stories published in 1613, are told from more than one point of view, forcing readers to question their own relationship with reality. He also broke with tradition by portraying strong female characters, showing respect for Muslim societies, and mocking certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

Cervantes's masterpiece, Don Quixote, tells the story of an unknown nobleman who, at the age of 50, suddenly decides to pattern his life after the romances* of the Middle Ages. The novel appeared in two parts. In part one, published in 1605, Quixote creates a new existence for himself as an adventurous knight. Accompanied by his sidekick, Sancho Panza, he commits himself to fighting evil and saving women in a modern world far removed from the Middle Ages. The first half of Don Quixote established its author as a literary success. In part two, published ten years later, Quixote suffers many defeats and is forced to face the real world. Eventually he returns to his village and dies a loyal Christian.

Cervantes combined an astonishing variety of literary forms in Don Quixote, including the epic*, the romance, and the Spanish ballad tradition. The book also blurred the line between history and fiction. For centuries literary critics have puzzled over how to interpret the novel. Some have described the title character as a threat to society, while others have viewed him as a misunderstood genius. Most readers see the novel as contrasting an ideal world with reality. The many different interpretations of the book reveal how complex and enduring a work it is. The novel also inspired the well-known musical Man of La Mancha (1965).

Cervantes was one of only a few Spaniards who followed the ideals and values of the Renaissance. In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. His highly original writings question traditional values and point the way toward modern Western culture.

(See alsoChivalry; Spanish Language and Literature. )

* illegitimate

refers to a child born outside of marriage

* romance

adventure story of the Middle Ages, the forerunner of the modern novel

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero