Don Quixote

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Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


In 1605 a novel appeared that has become one of the most beloved stories of European literature. It was the history of Don Quixote, the tall, gaunt knight-errant astride his fallible steed, with his potbellied, illiterate squire, Sancho Panza. These eccentric characters are as famous as Sinbad, Tarzan, Odysseus, Hamlet, or Superman. Don Quixote was immediately embraced by his countrymen; it is a testament to the novel and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's vivid characterization that the character of Don Quixote is still utilized to mock politicians and satirize the self-righteous.

The original story, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, was immediately popular—with six editions in 1605 alone—and has never lost its prominence. Cervantes not only created one of the greatest comic figures of world literature, but with his realist and humanist techniques, he originated, some critics assert, the modern novel.

Part I of Don Quixote's story appeared in 1605 and was complemented ten years later—a year after the usurper, Avellaneda, published a false se-quel—by Part II. In both parts of the novel, Don Quixote lives in a world created in his imagination, which had been fueled by his obsession with chivalric tales. He longs to resurrect this world he has long read of: chivalry, battles with giants and evil knights, the rescue of virtuous maidens. Instead, Don Quixote deals with windmills, bedclothes, and much disappointment. Along the way, he acquires a sidekick, Sancho, who helps Don Quixote in hopes of getting rich. This dynamic duo has pro-vided readers throughout the centuries with humorous, yet poignant, chivalric tales.

Author Biography

Cervantes was born in Alcalé de Henares on September 19, 1547. Little is known about his early childhood, other than that it was an itinerant existence; his father, a barber-surgeon, was constantly moving his family from town to town to find work. It is assumed that Cervantes's education was minimal although he does seem to have received some education from the Jesuits in Seville.

In 1569, his teacher, López de Hoyos, published four of his poems in Madrid. Cervantes then traveled to Italy, possibly as a result of a duel with Don Antonio Sigura. In Rome, Cervantes served the Cardinal-elect Giulio Acquaviva. In 1571 he enlisted in the Spanish militia to fight for Don Juan of Austria against the Ottoman-Turks at Lepanto. During this battle, he received two bullets to the chest and one to his left hand, which left him permanently disabled. In 1572, he joined Don Juan's campaign to fight at Navarino, Corfu, and Tunis. Returning to Spain in 1575, he was captured by Algerian corsairs.

Cervantes fetched a high price for his captors. Cervantes, as is recorded in the Informacion (a document based on eyewitness testimony to refute his enemies and avoid the Spanish Inquisition), kept up the spirits of his fellow hostages. He tried unsuccessfully to lead them in several escapes. Finally, in 1580, Trinitarian friars paid his high ransom, probably collected from family and friends. Now free, he returned to Spain a great hero. Despite his fame, he was without a job and his family was destitute.

He was unsuccessful as a playwright, because he was unable to compete with the monopoly of Lope de Vega. He wrote poems, but that brought in little money. His only child, Isabel de Saavedra, was the result of an affair with an actress named Ana Franca de Rojas. In 1584, he married a young woman, Catalina de Salazar y Palacios.

In 1585 Cervantes published La Galatea. He became a commissary agent, then a tax collector. Since his salary was often late, he made money by lending out his tax collections at interest. When such a transaction went bad, he was investigated. This landed him in jail several times. During one such jail term in 1597 he conceived of the story that became Don Quixote.

With the publication of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, Cervantes became famous around the world. Although inadequate copyright protection robbed him of riches, patrons enabled him to settle in Madrid and write more novels. His last works included the second part of the Don Quixote saga and Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, completed three days before he died in April 1616.

Plot Summary

Part I

Don Quixote opens with a prologue. Much of the prologue, however, is devoted to a discussion of what a prologue should include, offering the reader some insight into what a seventeenth-century audience might expect.

Don Quixote is the story of Alonso Quijano, an aging gentleman of La Mancha. He reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity. As the narrator reports: "With virtually no sleep and so much reading, he dried out his brain and lost his sanity."

Don Quixote decides to become a knight-errant, which is a knight who travels the countryside performing good deeds and seeking adventure. He puts on an old suit of armor, mounts a bony old horse he calls Rocinante, and renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha. He also appoints a peasant woman, Aldonza Lorenzo, as his ladylove, and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso. Like the knights of old, Don Quixote performs good deeds in the name of Dulcinea, although she does not know that she is the object of the older man's attention.

Don Quixote then rides in search of adventure. Just as he considers himself a knight, he imagines that a local inn is a castle and the innkeeper a castellan. As a result of his madness and odd behavior, a group of travelers beat him.

After the beating, he makes his way home, where he is interrogated by the local priest and barber. Concerned, they decide to cure him of his madness by burning his books. Don Quixote attributes the missing books to a thieving wizard.

Soon he sets off on another adventure, this time accompanied by Sancho Panza, a rude peasant. In a very famous scene, Don Quixote mistakes some windmills for giants and rushes at them with his spear. When Don Quixote realizes that he has attacked a windmill, he says that the same magician who has stolen his books has also turned the giants into windmills.

Don Quixote and Sancho have several more adventures, including mistaking two herds of sheep for armies and a funeral for a parade of monsters. Furthermore, they free some prisoners on their way to becoming galley slaves. Don Quixote travels to the mountains to fast and pray for his love, Dulcinea, and sends Sancho Panza with a message to Dulcinea. Don Quixote's friends intercept Sancho and learn his master's whereabouts. They finally lure Don Quixote home, hoping that they can keep him safe.

Part II

Don Quixote's friends are unable to keep him at home for long. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza take off in search of adventure again, this time meeting with the Knight of the Wood (a village student in disguise who had promised to impede Don Quixote's adventures), joining a wedding party, and destroying a traveling puppet show.

The second volume of the novel also includes a long section in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stay with a duke and a duchess who have read about the pair's famous adventures. The Duke and the Duchess play a series of tricks on Don Quixote, including the "disenchantment" of Dulcinea and the enthronement of Sancho as ruler of an island.

Next, Don Quixote and Sancho decide to go to Barcelona where they have additional adventures. Finally, the student firm the earlier episode finds Don Quixote and challenges him to combat. Don Quixote is defeated. He decides to return home and become a shepherd.

On his return home, Don Quixote falls ill. He instructs his niece and housekeeper, "Take me to my bed because I don't feel at all well, and just remember: whether I'm a knight errant, as now, or a shepherd, later on, I'll never stop doing for you whatever needs to be done, as you will see in the event."

Although his friends try to cheer him up, Don Quixote grows weaker and weaker. Finally he writes his will and apparently returns to sanity:

I was mad, and now am sane; I was Don Quixote de La Mancha and now, as I have said, I am Alonso Quijano the Good. I pray that my repentance, and my honesty, may return me to the good opinion your graces once held of me.

With this renunciation of chivalry and romance, Don Quixote receives his last rites and subsequently dies. He leaves an inheritance to both Sancho and to his niece, instructing her to marry a man who has never read a book of chivalry.


The Barber

See Master Nicholas

The Captive Captain

See Perez de Viedma


Cardenio is in love with Luscinda, but Don Fernando tricks him into giving her up. After seeing them wed, he hides in a desolate region of mountains. Found by the Curate and Barber, they find the woman wronged by Don Fernando. Together they fetch Don Quixote and return to the Inn, where Cardenio and Luscinda are reunited.

Sanson Carrasco

Carrasco is a scholar and historian who informs Don Quixote and Sancho Panza about the book that had been written of their adventures. Carrasco seems to encourage Don Quixote to ride again, but then he becomes the Knight of the Mirrors to convince Don Quixote to return home. When Carrasco is vanquished instead, he tries again as the Knight of the White Moon. This time he is successful and commands Don Quixote to return home for one year. Carrasco, unlike the Barber and Curate, really respects and loves Don Quixote, and worries about the old man's safety. Don Quixote thanks him by making him the executor of his will—a position of trust. Carrasco also writes Don Quixote's epitaph.

The Curate

See Pedro Perez

Dulcinea del Toboso

See Aldonza Lorenzo

Don Diego de Miranda

Don Diego is a wise gentleman from La Mancha. He is concerned by Don Quixote's madness and is witness to his conquest of the lion. As a man of sense, he represents what Don Quixote would be if he hadn't become obsessed with chivalric tales.

Gines de Pasamonte

Pasamonte is a notorious criminal freed by Don Quixote. He gives Don Quixote no thanks and even knocks his teeth out with a stone. Later, he steals Sancho's ass.

Perez de Viedma

Maria's companion, Perez de Viedma, the Captive Captain, relates the experience of his slavery in Algeria to Don Quixote. His tale is based somewhat on Cervantes's own captivity experience in Algeria.


Dorotea flees to a convent rather than marry Don Fernando. He retrieves her and is escorting her home when they meet Cardenio and Luscinda.


The Duchess is based on Maria Luisa de Aragon, Duchess of Villahermosa. Sancho is her favorite character in the story and she pays much attention to him. At her encouragement, Sancho is made governor of a small village.


Based on the historical Don Carlos de Borja, the Duke of Villahermosa is a kindhearted, wealthy man. He has read Part I of Don Quixote and hopes to play tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho.

Don Fernando

Don Fernando is a rich and selfish man who steals his friend's woman, Luscinda. In the process he affects the life of another woman, his lover Dorotea.

Roque Guinart

Roque Guinart is like Robin Hood; he steals only from the rich. Don Quixote and Sancho travel with Roque's band for three days until they are delivered to a friend of Roque's in Barcelona.


One of several stock characters, Don Quixote's housekeeper is a woman "about forty" who blames books of chivalry for her master's madness and wants them all burned.

Knight of the Green Cloak

See Don Diego de Miranda

Media Adaptations

  • In 1984, Universal released a laser disc game called "Super Don Quixote." It was similar to Dragon's Lair, and the gamester was a knight named Don who had to rescue Isabella from a witch. Sancho Panza even tags along but, as one would expect, does little to help.
  • Don Quixote has been adapted as a ballet many times. Famous dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, have performed in various productions. Rudolf Nureyev choreographed a production in 1973. He also danced the part of Basilio. The Kirov Ballet performed Don Quixote as choreographed by Petopia and Gorsky in 1988. Tatianna Terekhova was the star performer. Nina Ananiashbili starred in a production in 1992.
  • Don Quixote was made into a silent film a few times. Edward Dillon directed DeWolf Hopper Sr., Fay Tincher, and Max Davidson in 1915. Maurice Elvey filmed another silent version in 1923; his film starred Bertram Burleigh and Sydney Fairbrother.
  • Dramatic film adaptations have been produced in Russia. The first, which contained an amazing windmill scene, is known as Don Quichotte. Georg Wilhelm Pabst directed the story in three linguistic versions using mostly the same cast: French, English, and German. Feodor Chaliapin Sr. stars as Don Quixote. Several years later, Don Kikhot (1957) appeared. This version was directed by Grigori Kozyntsev and starred Nikolai Cherkassov as Don Quixote and Yuri Tolubeyev as Sancho Panza. Oleg Grigorovich directed a version known as Don Quixote Is Coming Back (1966). A film version of Don Quixote for children was released by Mosfilm Company in 1965. For this production, Yevgeni Karelov directed a cast including Anatoli Papanov, Vera Orlova and Vladimir Korenev.
  • There have been many adaptations produced in Spanish. Don Quijote de la Mancha was directed by Rafael Gil in 1948. It starred Rafael Rivelles as Don Quixote and Juan Calvo as Sancho Panza. More recently, an animated series was made for TV by Romagosa International Merchandising, S.L., in 1997, entitled Don Quixote of La Mancha.
  • An Israeli version of the story was released in 1956. Dan Quihote V'Sa'adia Pansa, also known as Don Quixote and Sa'ad Pancha, was directed by Nathan Axelrod.
  • An Australian version of Don Quixote (1973) was directed by Robert Helpmann and Rudolf Nureyev.
  • Jesus Franco and Patxi Irigoyen finished Orson Welles's black-and-white Don Quixote in 1992. The original narrator was Orson Welles, but Constantino Romero narrates in the new version. Jose Mediavilla is Don Quixote and Juan Carlos Ordónez plays Sancho Panza.
  • Alvin Rakoff directed Don Quixote de la Mancha for BBC-TV in 1973. Rosemary Leach played Dulcinea and Bernard Hepton played Don Quixote.
  • Dale Wasserman wrote the original TV play Don Quixote, in 1959. This version eventually evolved into the musical Man of La Mancha.
  • Combining the play by Dale Wasserman with the music of Joe Darion, Don Quixote was made into the musical Man of La Mancha by United Artists in 1972. Don Quixote was played by Peter O'Toole, but the singing voice was that of Paolo Gozlino. Sophia Loren played Dulcinea and Sancho Panza was acted by James Coco.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes: A Multimedia Storybook—Windows CD-ROM was released in 1997 by TDC. With illustrations by Manuel Boix, the interactive story teaches kids about Spain in the time of Don Quixote while telling the story of the famous knight-errant.

Aldonza Lorenzo

To be a full knight requires a ladylove. Don Quixote chooses Aldonza Lorenzo, a local woman, and renames her Dulcinea. She does not have a major role in the novel, but remains the ideal of womanhood in Don Quixote's mind. He resolves to do good deeds in her honor. Dulcinea has three appearances in the novel: the delivery of the letter; the appearance in an "enchanted" form astride an ass outside El Toboso; and finally, in a vision in the Cave of Montesinos.


Having been dumped by Don Fernando for Dorotea, Luscinda runs away to live the quiet life of a shepherd. She is a clever woman who steps in to play the role of a princess and therefore saves the Barber from transvestitism. While playing this role, she is reunited with Don Fernando.


See Lela Zoraida

Princess Micomicona

See Luscinda

Master Nicholas

Master Nicholas, the village barber, helps to preserve some of Don Quixote's library. He and the Curate work to bring Don Quixote back to his estate and, in the process, amuse themselves. The Barber, like the Curate, is well intentioned but cruel to Don Quixote. In their duplicity, they allegorize humanity's kind inhumanity to man.

The Niece

See Antonia Quixano

Sancho Panza

Sancho Panza is a neighbor of Don Quixote. He is an illiterate laborer who signs on to be Don Quixote's squire in hopes of becoming governor of an island as a reward for some adventure. At first Sancho is a timid character. Gradually, however, Sancho becomes more loquacious, full of proverbs, and a believer in Don Quixote's madness. He also functions as the jester, or the gracioso (the buffoon character of Spanish comedy) archetype.

Although he continues to hope for financial reward from his association with Don Quixote, Sancho admits that he his happy to be with Don Quixote, participating in wild adventures. Eventually, he does receive the position of governor to an island, and his leadership decisions surprise everyone by their wisdom. He is funny, round, and wise.

Pedro Perez

Perez, the Curate, is a friend of the family who preaches good will and "bonhomie." He considers it his duty to help Don Quixote recover his senses. First, the Curate and the Barber undertake a mock Inquisition and burn chivalric books. Later, they take a more active role in Don Quixote's adventure and bring him home in a cage.

Alonso Quixano

See Don Quixote

Antonia Quixano

Don Quixote's niece loathes chivalric tales and her uncle's fascination with them. She pleads with him to stay home and be sane. In an effort to curb Don Quixote, she willingly helps to burn many of his books.

Don Quixote

Alonso Quixano is a fifty-year-old man who reads of chivalric tales until he begins to neglect his domestic affairs. Eventually he decides that for his own honor and that of the state, he must revive the profession of the knight-errant. He therefore dons his armor and becomes Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha and Knight of the Rueful Figure. Not happy with the modern world, he takes it upon himself to bring back the golden age of heroism and chivalry.

In first part of the novel, Don Quixote suffers physical humiliation. In several instances, he is aggressive and rather dangerous. On numerous occasions, he charges into the fray of an adventure, only to come crashing down to earth with his lance in splinters and his body bruised. He is wise in the ways of knight-errantry and his speech on the importance of the scholar is a good example of this.

Resurrected in the second part of the novel, he becomes the gaunt figure towering above the Spanish landscape. Due to the publication of the first part, he had become famous. Unlike his earlier adventures, however, he is gradually regaining his reason. This becomes more obvious as he begins to call an Inn an Inn; in addition, he admits to interpreting reality. "God knows whether Dulcinea exists on earth or not. I contemplate her in her ideal." Don Quixote becomes wiser and less likely to lash out in the fury that surrounded him in part one.

As Don Quixote strives to return to sanity, however, people take advantage of his fame and encourage him in his delusions. His defeat at the hands of the Knight of the White Moon crushes him in mind and body. It leads to his speedy death.

The Ragged One

See Cardenio

Lela Zoraida

Lela Zoraida, known as Maria, is a Moor who escapes with the Captive Captain. She wants to become Christian.



Love is the major theme of the novel. It functions as the motivating force of knight-errantry. In the several real adventures (for example, Dorotea and Cardenio or Basilio and Quiteria), where there is a question of forced conjugation, love conquers all: "true love cannot be divided, but must be free and uninhibited." In each of these encounters, there are lessons about the nature of love. These lessons are spelled out in ABC fashion in "The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity." Love also allows forgiveness, even of murder—as is the case of Claudia and Don Vicente.

The theme of love never really involves the character of Don Quixote. He speaks favorably of true love and prevents a quarrel (as in the situation with Camacho the Rich), but because the theme of love deals with what is true in reality, Don Quixote plays no part in the many reunions that occur in the novel. In fact, in the case of Luscinda and Don Fernando, Don Quixote is asleep and dreaming when their tense reunion occurs.

War and Peace

"There are two roads … by which men can travel and reach wealth and honor: one is the way of letters, the other the way of arms." Don Quixote has chosen arms. In fact, he believes that fighting for what is right is as important as anything else. He is not a big believer in modern warfare; instead, he prefers the ancient, chivalric duels that pit one man against another.

There is also a desire for peace. Don Quixote, by his words and actions, prefers the Arcadian life. He admirably defends the art of poetry and in the end wishes to lead the simple life of a shepherd with no mention of revenging his honor. Sancho shows a preference for this quiet alternative when he questions the chase. The Duke tells us that all rulers partake in the exercise of the chase to keep their skills fresh, for "chase is the image of war." But Sancho wonders if it isn't a waste to always be at war "killing an animal that has done no harm to anyone." The same could be said about the other victims of Don Quixote's efforts to revive knight-errantry.


In the life of a knight-errant, fans, admirers, and squires often broach the topic of fear. Sancho is in constant fear for his own safety and for that of his master. However, as Sancho admits to his wife, such a life makes him happy. For whether he climbs an oak tree or runs away, Sancho is just happy to be a part of the action. And that adventure is the main thing; as both Don Quixote and Sancho believe, it is better to try and maybe fail than not to try at all.

At the height of his powers, right after defeating the Knight of the Mirrors, Don Quixote passes the ultimate test of courage. In the face of this test, Don Quixote reveals a truth about fear. "Fear … will make [danger] seem bigger by half." Subsequently, he faces and defeats the lion. Everyone is impressed by the feat, although the narrator downplays the event. It is Don Quixote's willingness to face up to his fears that is the true achievement.

Sanity and Insanity

Don Quixote becomes obsessed with the idea of knight-errantry to the point of losing himself. His loss of reason is similar to that of any person who becomes obsessed with something. As he says to his niece, "if these knightly thoughts did not monopolize all my faculties, there would be nothing I could not do…."

Indeed, Don Quixote never quite loses his mind, he simply indulges—to the fullest extent—his imagination. It is a conscious effort, "and that is where the subtleness of my plan comes in. A knight-errant who goes mad for a good reason deserves no credit; the whole point consists in going crazy without cause." That is, if knight-errantry were in fashion, Don Quixote would not be unique. If he succeeds in resuscitating chivalry, he will become famous.

The point of Don Quixote's knight-errantry is to make a fantasy come true. Living a fantasy even for a short time is more than most hidalgos could say. His friends unwittingly bring his wish to fruition better than he could have possibly hoped. Everyone wins, for "what the world needed most of all was plenty of knights-errant" and by acting in his fantasy, his friends help revive the traditions of knight-errantry.

In fact, it is their indulgence—their cooperation with the fantasy—that fulfills Don Quixote's dream and "astonished [him], and for the first time he felt thoroughly convinced that he was a knight-errant in fact and not in imagination." Don Quixote's madness, sadly, is the only way for adults to play in the serious world of Spain's Golden Age.



Cervantes switches between a style of narration that Boccacio employed in the Decamaron—a renowned collection of tales—to a more modern style. Like the Decamaron, Don Quixote is a medieval work wherein characters incorporate novellas, old ballads, and legends. Cervantes combines this style with the chivalric genre. This hybrid style is considered innovative.

Another result of Cervantes's unique style is that his characters have independent, interesting stories of their own. To offset this, Cervantes adds the device of the found manuscript; well into the story, the reader discovers the story is part of a manuscript found in the ruins of an old building. In fact, the history is the work of Cide Hamete Berengena, "the author of our true history."

This clever stylistic device does not change the tone of the narration, which is that of an omniscient, omnipresent, and amused narrator. This duplicity of narration only adds to the overall irony of the work. The characters are aware of being characters in a story that is being delivered by a narrator who is quoting, with liberality, from a found manuscript. In addition, there are other narrative viewpoints mixed into the melange. The potential layering—anticipating later Russian narrative forms—is kept at a minimum by the picaresque.


Don Quixote is a satire on conditions in Spain at the time the novel was written. This is accomplished by rendering Spain's archetype—the knight-errant as formidable, honorable, and above reproach—into realistic terms. For example, at the end of the first section, Don Quixote answers the call of nature—bathroom breaks are not a part of chivalric tales.


Don Quixote transforms the chivalric tale of adventure into the picaresque. This type of narrative chronicles the humorous adventures of a rogue, like Gines de Pasamonte (who has been working on a manuscript about his own adventures), while on the road, often traveling a long distance. The picaresque is often a satiric tale.

Topics for Further Study

  • Discuss the importance of reading in the novel and in the lives of the characters. Be sure to examine negative, as well as positive, examples from the story.
  • Don Diego believes that "if the laws and ordinances of knight-errantry had been lost, they would be found in your worship's heart, as in their right repository and archive." What does he mean by this? What is the code of the knight-errant according to Don Quixote? How does this compare with the real code of chivalry?
  • Find misrepresentations of the Don Quixote character in the media, on film, or in cartoons. Compare these versions with the original character in the book. How has the image of Don Quixote changed throughout time?
  • Spain's tenure as a superpower was ruined by extravagant military spending and a lack of investment in business and industry. How does Spain's experience as a superpower contrast with that of the United States? Will the United States suffer the same fate as Spain? Why or why not?
  • Investigate the meaning of the story about the madman and the dog experiment at the start of


The technique of irony has its roots in the character Eiron. This character in Greek comedy always manages to outsmart Alazon. The term has come to mean a moment when words express something other than their literal meaning. The result is often intentionally humorous. Cervantes employs this technique on many levels.

In the process, Cervantes tears down the barriers between maturity and fantasy. Don Quixote and Sancho are so famous by the beginning of the second part of the novel that they are able to have a man with a degree help them judge the verisimilitude of their story—they are aware of themselves as being fictional characters. This leads to other jokes about whether the character or the narrator or the writer said such and such.

In fact, this occurs at the opening of the second part of the novel. There, Sancho surprises the narrator, and the reader, with his clever speech—or he has been faking his stupidity the whole time. Although the audience should know the truth, in many moments of Don Quixote the truth is whatever you wish it to be and therein lies the irony.


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dialogue was being developed into an artistic technique. At that time, dialogues in histories or "novels" were flat, presenting and debating ideas; then the techniques of the playwright were incorporated into dialogue, and the technique was used to show characterization and motivation, as well as propel the action of the story. Cervantes's practice as a playwright enabled him to utilize dialogue in an engaging, non-pedantic manner.

Don Quixote is an excellent example of an early effort to inject depth of psychology into a character through conversation. Two hundred years before the first psychological thriller, psychology—usually shown in mannerisms and action—could be revealed and confessed by the character.

Historical Context

The First Global Empire: Philip II

The marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1469 unites the kingdom of Spain. After defeating the Moors in 1492, as well as financing the expedition of Christopher Columbus, Spain becomes a global empire. Spain also benefits from an early form of capitalism amongst its merchant classes—a force Spain weakens by deporting its Jewish citizens. The remaining Moors fill the void, however, and Spain flourishes.

Using the influx of wealth from the New World, Spain remains a superpower for more than one hundred years. Consolidated and powerful, leadership is passed to Philip II in 1556. He commands fifty thousand soldiers, the best generals, a navy of 140 vessels, and collects an annual revenue ten times that of England.

In addition, Philip reigns over all of Central America and parts of North and South America; also the Netherlands, several kingdoms in Italy, the Philippines, protectorates in Europe, and the West Indies. The Spanish court is the most splendid, its nobles are the proudest, and its architecture is on display on five continents.

Philip II nearly doubles the size of the empire when he absorbs Portugal and its holdings in 1580 (Portugal regains independence in 1640). However, despite his meticulous attention to detail, Spain's economy begins to decline. Prices skyrocket and wages fail to catch up. Industry, never a strong part of Spain's economy, simply grinds to a halt.

To compound these dire circumstances, wars grow more costly. Philip II grows so intolerant of the Protestants in England harassing his convoys that he bankrupts his government to finance a formidable armada. The Spanish Armada sails in 1588 and is destroyed by winds and storms. The loss is so disastrous that Spain is in denial of the repercussions. The economic situation worsens as Philip tries to rebuild his armada. As a result, the Spain of Don Quixote is a superpower in decline.

Phillip III

Taking power in 1598, Philip III is weak and totally unable to manage even one-tenth of the empire left by his father. He appoints the Duke of Lerma to govern in his stead.

The Duke of Lerma funnels more money into war supplies, in particular the Spanish Armada. Failure on all fronts prompts him to search for scapegoats. In 1609 the Moriscos are shipped to Africa (where many are killed as Christians and others die of starvation). The loss of the best members of the industrial, merchant, and banking classes weaken Spain even more. By 1618 Spain is in ruins.


While the rest of Europe is undergoing a period known as the Renaissance, Spain clings to its medieval values. The Roman Catholic Church is second only to the monarchy in terms of power. Spain is virtually ruled by Catholic laws and philosophies.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1600s: In 1615, 40,000 people demonstrate in favor of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (which contended that the Virgin Mary was without Original Sin). Once approved, this doctrine becomes a central tenet of Catholicism.

    Today: Devotion to Mary is still central to the practice of Roman Catholicism. Around the world there are many holy sites where she is believed to appear to believers.
  • 1600s: As the most powerful nation on Earth, Spain ignores its industrial and agricultural sectors, leading to their eventual decay.

    Today: With one of the healthiest economies in the European Union, Spain exports 63% of its industrial production. It is also the center for small car manufacturing in Western Europe. With 29 million acres in permanent crops, Spain's agricultural base is larger than the United States'.
  • 1600s: Spain ruins its economy building armadas to win the naval war against England.

    Today: The United States and Russia, after spending trillions of dollars on an arms race, are still affected by the economic repercussions. In particular, Russia has a difficult time adapting to a capitalist economy and suffers a near financial collapse.
  • 1600s: Moralists bemoan the corrupting influence of chivalric tales on the young.

    Today: Commentators blame television, video games, music, and absent parents for a youth culture viewed as irresponsible and immoral. Dramatic incidents of youth violence prompt a widespread debate on how society raises its youth.
  • 1600s: The land that would eventually become the United States is claimed by Spain, although it is inhabited by native peoples.

    Today: The United States is a world superpower. Ownership of the land is still contested by native people in various parts of the American hemisphere.

Thousands of young men enter the priesthood—approximately 32,000 men comprise the Dominican and Franciscan orders during this time. A number of these men form a secret, very powerful group: the Inquisition. This group behaves like police, enforcing the highest standards of morality; in fact, they punish sinners with a range of punishments from 100 lashes to execution. The Spanish Inquisition also persecutes those of other faiths, especially Jews and Protestants. As a result, many people of these faiths convert to Roman Catholicism out of fear.


Originally a term used to describe the minor nobility of Spain, the number of hidalgos explodes as Spain reaches her zenith as a superpower. A hidalgo is anyone with papers proving he descends from a noble family. Such a heritage meant, to the hidalgo, that he deserved the honor due to a person of nobility. Consequently, a whole segment of the population refuses to work and aspires to an aristocratic lifestyle; this, along with the expulsion of those who did work, is another factor in Spain's downfall.

Critical Overview

Readers have always loved Don Quixote. Critics, however, have offered mixed assessments of the novel. For example, Lord Byron asserted that Cervantes was responsible for finally extinguishing the flame of chivalry in Europe. This charge was repeated by the English author Ford Madox Ford. Other negative reviewers, like Miguel de Unamuno and Giovanni Papini, consider Don Quixote a brilliant novel but deem its author a disorganized hack.

Yet, these authors are in the minority. Most critics appreciate the achievement of the novel and the author. Highest praise for the author came from Victor Hugo: "Cervantes sees the inner man."

Don Quixote's popularity spread throughout Europe soon after the first English translation of the first part of the novel appeared in 1612. By the eighteenth century, Cervantes was a literary icon. In his biography of the author, Tobias Smollet recalled that dignitaries visiting Spain were appalled by the idea that Cervantes was not financially supported for his contribution to Spanish literature. Summarily, said Smollett, "Cervantes, whether considered as a writer or a man, will be found worthy of universal approbation and esteem."

William Hazlitt, in his "Standard Novels and Romances," examined a very popular subject of Cervantes criticism—the delightful characters. "The characters in Don Quixote are strictly individuals; that is, they do not belong to, but form a class of themselves." Hazlitt applauded the linguistic play of the author and the insights into human nature. Furthermore, Cervantes "furnished to the whole of civilized Europe" a great "number of allusions" useful for conversation and for sermonizing. Hazlitt ranked Cervantes with Le Sage as one of the great writers of the ages and ahead of Fielding, Richardson, Smollett and Sterne on the local English stage.

Unlike Lord Byron, many commentators were thankful that Cervantes had, as Heinrech Heine contended, "uprooted the tales of chivalry." Heine asserted that after Don Quixote the "taste for such books died." Indeed, "Cervantes founded the modern novel by introducing into the knightly romance the faithful delineation of the lower classes—by giving the life of the people a place in it."

Carlos Fuentes maintained that if Don Quixote is the first modern novel then his "debt to tradition is enormous." Another critic, the noted author Vladimir Nabokov, agreed:

I wish to stress the fact that in romances of chivalry all was not Ladies and Roses and Blazons, but that scenes occurred in which shameful and grotesque things happened to those knights and they underwent the same humiliations and enchantments as Don Quixote did—and that, in a word, Don Quixote cannot be considered a distortion of those romances but rather a logical continuation, with the elements of madness and shame and mystification increased.

Cervantes is often compared with his English contemporary, William Shakespeare. For example, Wyndham Lewis compared the character of Don Quixote to Falstaff. Ivan Turgeniev, in "Hamlet and Don Quixote" made a more immediate comparison: While Hamlet represents the Northern European archetype, Don Quixote represents the Southern European man. This man is characterized by his affinity for a romantic view of the Middle Ages. Perhaps Don Quixote is more limited than Hamlet but he "reflects all that is human … [he is a] deep river quietly flowing [with which] the reader, slowly carried by its transparent waves, looks with joy at that really epic tranquility."

Believing that Cervantes was sent by God solely to give us Don Quixote, Miguel de Unamuno asserted, "Cervantes never existed but Don Quixote did." As if that were not clear enough, Unamuno categorically declared, "I have no doubt in my mind but that Cervantes is a typical example of a writer enormously inferior to his work, to his Don Quixote." However the novel came into being, Unamuno admitted that Don Quixote is as much an artifact for meditation as anything Homeric or, for the English, anything Shakespearean.

The master of magic realism, Jorge Luis Borges, considered Don Quixote his muse. His remarks, characteristically, analyze the theme of reality: "Every novel is an ideal depiction of reality." He asked the troublesome question, "Why does it make us uneasy to know that the map is within the map … that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet?" The answer is such: "Those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious."

The theme of madness is a recurring subject of Cervantes commentary. Recent criticism of the psychological vein has been insightful. Caroll B. Johnson speculated on the relationship between Don Quixote and his loyal sidekick, Sancho. He perceived homoerotic elements in their friendship; moreover, he considered the relationship a life-affirming example of how men can be friends with men.

Carroll summarized his view of Quixote: "Don Quixote's madness propels him backward into life. It enables him to have a life, to engage in purposeful and meaningful activity, and to enjoy a fulfilling, evolving relationship with another human being. That is, in the psychological as well as the existential sense already observed by Unamuno, our fiftyish hidalgo's only meaningful life is his life as a madman Don Quixote … [therefore, readers] are saddened by his recuperation of sanity and his swift death."


Diane Andrews Henningfeld

Henningfeld is an associate professor at Adrian College. She holds a Ph.D. in literature and writes widely for educational publishers. In this essay, she views the novel Don Quixote as postmodern.

In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote the first part of his ingenious novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, known in English as Don Quixote. Written because Cervantes was in financial trouble and he needed to make some money, Don Quixote met with immediate commercial success.

Indeed, the novel was so popular that in 1614, another writer imitating Cervantes's subject and style published a book called Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. While imitation might be the most sincere form of flattery, Cervantes was not amused. Already working on the second volume of Don Quixote, he wrote into the book a chapter castigating the impostor and denigrating the imitative work. This second volume was published in 1615, and once again met with both critical and popular approval.

Since the seventeenth century, Don Quixote has grown to be one of the most regarded and highly influential novels in the western world. It continues to generate critical study and controversy, and has been called the most important novel ever written, particularly by South American writers. Indeed, important writers such as Michel Foucault and Jorge Luis Borges have both discussed Don Quixote at length.

What is there about the novel that makes it the subject of so many literary studies, centuries after its first publication? Perhaps it is because the novel offers readers nearly endless possibilities for interpretation. As Harold Bloom argues in The Western Canon: "No two readers ever seem to read the same Don Quixote…. Cervantes invented endless ways of disrupting his own narrative to compel the reader to tell the story in place of the wary author."

Further, a number of critics believe that it is the first modern novel. Carlos Fuentes, for example, in a foreword to the Tobias Smollet translation of Don Quixote, tells the reader that for him, "[T]he modern world begins when Don Quixote de la Mancha, in 1605, leaves his village, goes out into the world, and discovers that the world does not resemble what he has read about it."

P. E. Russell, in his book Cervantes, also traces the connections between Don Quixote and the modern novel. Most interesting, however, are Russell's statements concerning how the book is not like the modern novel. For example, he argues that "A parodic or even a more generally comic stance is hardly the norm in the modern novel." Russell continues, "The ambiguity of the book is another feature that we scarcely associate with the modern novel."

The problem, of course, is how to reconcile Cervantes' multi-layered, highly ironic, playful text with the modern novel, which tries to preserve the illusion of the reality of its fictive world. Russell might meet with more success if he were to connect Don Quixote with the postmodern novel, what Russell refers to as "experimental fiction."

Postmodern literature is concerned with narrative and the disruption of narrative; with the connection between naming and reality; and with fiction that self-reflexively calls attention to itself as fiction. By examining each of these in turn, readers may find that Cervantes anticipates the postmodern moment in Don Quixote.

A narrative is, according to The Harper Handbook of Literature, an account of real or imaginary events, and a narrative perspective is the standpoint from which a story is told. A narrative demands a narrator, that is, a teller of the story. While this may seem self-evident, postmodernism has rendered the entire relationship between the narrator and the narrative problematic. Like a postmodernist himself, Cervantes plays with the relationship as well.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Cervantes's first book, La Galatea (1684), is one of the few books in Don Quixote's library to escape the fire. The work is a pastoral novel.
  • Cervantes's Exemplary Novels is comprised of stories that depict examples of exemplary behavior. Some tales, like "Lady Cornelia," are traditional cloak-and-dagger romances. Others are Kafkaesque; "Doctor Glass Case" chronicles the story of a servant boy who gets to attend school. He goes mad when he falls in love, and in his madness he believes he is made of glass.
  • Cervantes's final novel was completed three days before his death. Published posthumously, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda is a scathing denunciation of reason and science in favor of the idylls of the golden age of Spain. The story itself is a quest, as several characters leave an imperfect society and eventually arrive at superior wisdom.
  • Voltaire's classic satire, Candide, is a picaresque adventure that unmasks many of the pretensions of 1750s Europe. The principal characters are engaged in a quest for understanding.
  • R. E. Raspe wrote a collection of stories based loosely on the tales of the adventurer Karl Friedrich Hieronymus (Baron von Munch-hausen) in 1785. The volume is titled Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.
  • Published at approximately the same time as Don Quixote, Shakespeare's Hamlet is the tale of a prince trying to solve the mysterious death of his father. Under the ruse of madness, he succeeds in exposing the perpetrator.
  • An excellent example of a chivalric tale is Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, by John Steinbeck. The story retells the exploits of the legendary King Arthur and the tragic Lancelot.
  • Charlotte Lennox wrote The Female Quixote, or the Adventures of Arabella to warn young women against reading novels. In her story, set just outside of colonial Philadelphia, Arabella pays so much attention to novels that she is unable to attract a husband. In fact, she goes mad as a result of so much reading. A family friend finally works out a romantic ruse by which to cure her.
  • Gulliver's Travels is Jonathan Swift's satire of Europe, set in the first half of the eighteenth century. Gulliver visits many strange lands, and as a result gains a new perspective on his own country. Upon his return home, he is pronounced mad and spends his remaining days talking to his horses.

As the novel opens, Cervantes introduces himself to the reader through his prologue. Readers thus expect that Cervantes will be the voice narrating the tale. As E. Michael Gerli in his book Refiguring Authority: Reading, Writing, and Rewriting in Cervantes notes, however, "[T]he narrative structure of Don Quijote is exceedingly complex." The voice that opens the novel, introduces the characters, and recounts the action remains consistent for the first eight chapters.

Suddenly, however, Cervantes disrupts his own narrative, and informs the reader that he has been reading from a text that has suddenly come to an end, right in the middle of a battle. This disruption of the narrative throws the reader into confusion. Does this mean that Cervantes is not the narrator of his own story? Or that he is not the author of this text?

At the beginning of chapter nine, the battle suspended, the narrator goes in search of the rest of the story. He tells the reader that he is "always reading, even scraps of paper [he] finds in the street…." He finds a set of notebooks, written in Arabic. Although the narrator is a voracious reader, he is unable to read the Arabic and must find a translator. He finds a Moor in the marketplace who translates the notebooks, which are, it appears, the work of the Arab historian Sidi Hamid Benengeli, who is the writer of the History of Don Quijote of La Mancha. With the translation finished, the original narrator resumes his story.

However, the disruption has served several purposes. First, it undermines the reliability of the narrator and of the text itself. Although the reader thought that the narrator and Cervantes were one and the same, clearly this is not the case. In addition, the text that the narrator reads from is located within the larger text Cervantes creates. Second, the disruption forces the reader to consider the reliability of sources and of history itself. Whose story is this anyway? What does it mean that the story was originally written in Arabic, translated by someone the narrator finds in the market, written in Spanish by Cervantes, and translated into English by any one of several translators?

Certainly, the layering of text upon text serves to distance Cervantes from his story. However, at the same time, it calls attention to Cervantes as a writer of fiction. The disruption in the narrative reminds the reader that Don Quixote is a character in a novel, not a real human being. It also reminds the reader that the narrator, the translator, and Sidi Hamid Benengeli are all fictional characters, created by Cervantes for his novel.

In addition, the fictional Moorish translator forces readers to consider the role of the real English translators who undertake to interpret and render meaningful texts separated from their readers by culture, space, and time. How does reading a novel in translation differ from reading it in the original language? What is the relationship between the text itself and the translation? For that matter, what is the text itself? These are questions that postmodern writers and readers find most intriguing.

Postmodernism is also concerned with the process of naming. As Brenda Marshall suggests in Teaching the Postmodern, "Naming must occur from a position 'outside' of a moment, and it always indicates an attempt to control…. Only from a fictional, removed, and separate point of perspective do we name (identify) the framework or paradigm within which people have lived in the past."

Cervantes calls attention to the power of naming by first creating doubt over the name of his fictional character: "It's said his family name was Quijada, or maybe Quesada: there's some disagreement among the writers who've discussed the matter. But more than likely his name was really Quejana." By introducing this moment of doubt, Cervantes suggests that he has less control over his story than one might think. Always there is the possibility of not being able "to tell things as faithfully as you can."

As Michel Foucault argues in The Order of Things, Don Quixote is a novel about the rupture between words and meaning, between names and identity. Reality depends on the ability to name, to identify, and to tell a story faithfully. The rupture evident in the novel suggests that there may be more than one reality.

Brenda Marshall continues, "But the traditional process of naming—a belief in the identity of things with names, so that 'reality' may be known ab-solutely—provides a space of interrogation for postmodernism, which asks: whose 'reality' is to be represented through the process of naming?"

The importance of names is especially clear when Alonso Quejana renames himself, his servant, his lady, and his horse. In so doing, he creates identities for them that have meaning within the "framework or paradigm within which people have lived in the past." Cervantes makes it clear that names have consequences: once Don Quixote becomes Don Quixote, he enters into a different reality and becomes a knight-errant. Don Quixote, through the process of naming, creates a reality that requires particular action on his part. Likewise, the naming of Don Quixote as "mad" requires a different understanding of reality on the part of his friends.

The kind of fiction described above can be called "metafiction." Metafiction asks readers to recognize that what they are reading is fiction, not reality, in order to help readers explore the rela-tionship between fiction and reality. Throughout Don Quixote, Cervantes says as much about the nature of fiction as he does about the adventures of Don Quixote. For example, at the beginning of chapter twenty-four, he tells the reader,

He who translated this great history from its Arabic original, written by its primal author, Sidi Hamid Benengeli, tells us that, when he got to this chapter about the adventure in Montesinos' Cave, he found, written in the margins, and in Sidi Hamid's own handwriting, "I cannot persuade myself nor quite believe that the valiant Don Quixote in fact experienced literally everything written about in the aforesaid chapter, because everything else that has happened to him, to this point, has been well within the realm of possibility and verisimilitude, but I find it hard to accept as true all these things that supposedly happened in the cave, for they exceed all reasonable bounds."

This intrusion reminds the reader that the translator, the Arabic original, the marginal notes, and Sidi Hamid Benengeli are also fictional creations of Cervantes, just as Don Quixote is a fictional creation. In addition, while a fictional text may seem to be true because of verisimilitude, that is, its imitation of reality, all fictional texts "exceed all reasonable bounds." In other words, a text that seems true is no truer than a fictional text that does not seem true; both only exist in the world of fiction.

Don Quixote, then, is a work that continues to speak to its readers. Through its play with narration, its exploration of the power of naming, and its attention to metafictional concerns, the novel seems acutely appropriate for reading in the postmodern moment. Nevertheless, if, as Harold Bloom contends, no two readers ever read the same Don Quixote, future readers will also find much to interest them, for with each reading, the novel grows in richness and complexity.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Miguel de Unamuno

In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1905, Unamuno, one of the most influential Spanish writers and thinkers of his era, argues that Cervantes "extracted Don Quixote from the soul of his people and from the soul of all humanity."

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Source: Miguel de Unamuno, "On the Reading and Interpretation of Don Quixote," in Selected Works of Miguel de Unamuno: Our Lord Don Quixote, Vol. 3, edited by Anthony Kerrigan and Martin Kozick, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, Bollingen Series LXXXV, Princeton University Press, 1967, pp. 445-66.

Havelock Ellis

Ellis was a pioneering sexual psychologist and a respected English man of letters. In the following excerpt, he favorably compares Don Quixote to other literary masterpieces and also emphasizes the indelibly Spanish nature of the work.

There can be no doubt, Don Quixote is the world's greatest and most typical novel. There are other novels which are finer works of art, more exquisite in style, of more perfect architectonic plan. But such books appeal less to the world at large than to the literary critic; they are not equally amusing, equally profound, to the men of all nations, and all ages, and all degrees of mental capacity. Even if we put aside monuments of literary perfection, like some of the novels of Flaubert, and consider only the great European novels of widest appeal and deepest influence, they still fall short of the standard which this book, their predecessor and often their model, had set. Tristram Shandy, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of English novels, a book that in humour and wisdom often approaches Don Quixote, has not the same universality of appeal. Robinson Crusoe, the most typical of English novels, the Odyssey of the Anglo-Saxon on his mission of colonising the earth—God-fearing, practical, inventive—is equally fascinating to the simplest intellect and the deepest. Yet, wide as its reputation is, it has not the splendid affluence, the universal humanity, of Don Quixote. Tom Jones, always a great English novel, can never become a great European novel; while the genius of Scott, which was truly cosmopolitan in its significance and its influence, was not only too literary in its inspirations, but too widely diffused over a wilderness of romances ever to achieve immortality. La Nouvelle Héloïse, which once swept across Europe and renewed the novel, was too narrow in its spirit, too temporary in its fashion, to be enduring. Wilhelm Meister, perhaps the wisest and profoundest of books in novel form, challenges a certain comparison, as the romance of the man who, like Saul the son of Kish, went forth to seek his father's asses and found a kingdom; it narrates an adventure which is in some sense the reverse of Don Quixote's, but in its fictional form it presents, like the books of Rabelais, far too much that is outside the scope of fiction ever to appeal to all tastes. The Arabian Nights, which alone surpasses Don Quixote in variety and universality of interest, is not a novel by one hand, but a whole literature. Don Quixote remains the one great typical novel. It is a genuine invention; for it combined for the first time the old chivalrous stories of heroic achievement with the new picaresque stories of vulgar adventure, creating in the combination something that was altogether original, an instrument that was capable of touching life at every point. It leads us into an atmosphere in which the ideal and the real are equally at home. It blends together the gravest and the gayest things in the world. It penetrates to the harmony that underlies the violent contrasts of life, the only harmony which in our moments of finest insight we feel to be possible, in the same manner and, indeed, at the same moment—for Lear appeared in the same year as Don Quixote—that Shakespeare brought together the madman and the fool on the heath in a concord of divine humour. It is a storybook that a child may enjoy, a tragicomedy that only the wisest can fully understand. It has inspired many of the masterpieces of literature; it has entered into the lives of the people of every civilised land; it has become a part of our human civilisation.

It was not to be expected that the author of such a book as this, the supreme European novel, an adventure book of universal human interest, should be a typical man of letters, shut up in a study, like Scott or Balzac or Zola. Cervantes was a man of letters by accident.

He was a soldier, a man of action, who would never have taken up the pen, except in moments of recreation, if a long chain of misfortunes had not closed the other avenues of life. Before he wrote of life he had spent his best years in learning the lessons of life.

Seldom has any great novel been written by a young man: Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, La Nouvelle Héloïse, Wilhelm Meister, were all written by mature men who had for the most part passed middle age. Don Quixote—more especially the second and finer part—was written by an old man, who had outlived his ideals and his ambitions, and settled down peacefully in a little home in Madrid, poor of purse but rich in the wisdom garnered during a variegated and adventurous life. Don Quixote is a spiritual autobiography. That is why it is so quintessentially a Spanish book.

Cervantes was a Spaniard of Spaniards. The great writers of a nation are not always its most typical representatives. Dante could only have been an Italian, and Goethe only a German, but we do not feel that either of them is the representative man of his people. We may seek to account for Shakespeare by appealing to various racial elements in Great Britain, but Shakespeare—with his volubility and extravagance, his emotional expansiveness, his lightness of touch, his reckless gaiety and wit—was far indeed from the slow, practical, serious Englishman. Cervantes, from first to last, is always Spanish. His ideals and his disillusions, his morality and his humour, his artistic methods as well as his style—save that he took a few ideas from Italy—are entirely Spanish. Don Quixote himself and Sancho Panza, his central personages, are not only all Spanish, they are all Spain. Often have I seen them between Madrid and Seville, when travelling along the road skirting La Mancha, that Cervantes knew so well: the long solemn face, the grave courteous mien, the luminous eyes that seem fixed on some inner vision and blind to the facts of life around; and there also, indeed everywhere, is the round, wrinkled, good-humoured face of the peasant farmer, imperturbably patient, meeting all the mischances and discomforts of life with a smile and a jest and a proverb. Don Quixote! I have always exclaimed to myself, Sancho Panza! They two make Spain in our day, perhaps, even more than in Cervantes's day; for, sound as Spain still is at the core, the man of heroic action and fearless spirit, the conquistador type of man, is nowadays seldom seen in the land, and the great personalities of Spain tend to become the mere rhetorical ornaments of a rotten political system. Don Quixote, with his idealism, his pride of race and ancestry, his more or less dim consciousness of some hereditary mission which is out of relation to the world of to-day, is as inapt for the leadership of the modern world as Sancho Panza, by his very virtues, his brave acceptance of the immediate duty before him, his cheerful and uncomplaining submission to all the ills of life, is inapt for the ordinary tasks of progress and reform. The genius of Cervantes has written the history of his own country.

Even in the minute details of his great book we may detect the peculiarly national character of the mind of Cervantes, and his thoroughly Spanish tastes. To mention only one trifling point, we may observe his preference for the colour green, which appears in his work in so many different shapes. Perhaps the Moors, for whom green is the most sacred of colours, bequeathed this preference to the Spaniards, though in any case it is the favourite colour in a dry and barren land, such as is Spain in much of its extent. Cervantes admires green eyes, like many other Spanish poets, though unlike the related Sicilians, for whom dark eyes alone are beautiful; Dulcinea's eyes are verdes esmeraldas [green emeralds]. Every careful reader of Don Quixote, familiar with Spain, cannot fail to find similar instances of Cervantes's Españolismo.

And yet, on this intensely national basis, Don Quixote is the most cosmopolitan, the most universal of books. Not Chaucer or Tolstoy shows a wider humanity. Even Shakespeare could not dispense with a villain, but there is no Iago among the six hundred and sixty-nine personages who, it is calculated, are introduced into Don Quixote. There is no better test of a genuinely human spirit than an ability to overcome the all-pervading influences of religious and national bias. Cervantes had shed his blood in battle against the infidel corsairs of Algiers, and he had been their chained captive. Yet—although it is true that he shared all the national prejudices against the Moriscoes in Spain—he not only learned and absorbed much from the Eastern life in which he had been soaked for five years, but he acquired a comprehension and appreciation of the Moor which it was rare indeed for a Spaniard to feel for the hereditary foes of his country. Between Portugal and Spain, again, there was then, to an even greater extent than to-day, a spirit of jealousy and antagonism; yet Cervantes can never say too much in praise of Portugal and the Portuguese. If there was any nation whom Spaniards might be excused for hating at that time it was the English. Those pirates and heretics of the north were perpetually swooping down on their coasts, destroying their galleons, devastating their colonial possessions; Cervantes lived through the days of the Spanish Armada, yet his attitude towards the English is courteous and considerate.

It was, perhaps, in some measure, this tolerant and even sympathetic attitude towards the enemies of Spain, as well as what seemed to many the ridicule he had cast upon Spanish ideas and Spanish foibles, which so long stood in the way of any enthusiastic recognition by Spain of Cervantes's supreme place in literature. He was for some centuries read in Spain, as Shakespeare was at first read in England, as an amusing author before he was recognised as one of the world's great spirits. In the meanwhile, outside Spain, Don Quixote was not only finding affectionate readers among people of all ages and all classes; it was beginning to be recognised as a wonderful and many-sided work of art, a treasure-house in which each might find what he sought, an allegory, even, which would lend itself to all interpretations…. It is not alone the pioneer in life, the adventurous reformer, the knight of the Holy Ghost, who turns to Don Quixote, the prudent and sagacious man of the world turns thither also with a smile full of meaning, as the wise and sceptical Sydenham turned when an ambitious young practitioner of medicine asked him what he should read: Read Don Quixote. It is a good book. I read it still. And when we turn to the noble ode—etania de Nuestro Señor Don Quijote—which Ruben Dario, the most inspired poet of the Spanish-speaking world of to-day, has addressed to Don Quixote, we realise that beyond this Cervantes has created a figure with even a religious significance for the consolation of men. Don Quixote is not only the type and pattern of our greatest novels; it is a vision of the human soul, woven into the texture of the world's spiritual traditions. The Knight of La Mancha has indeed succeeded in his quest, and won a more immortal Dulcinea than he ever sought.

Source: Havelock Ellis, "Don Quixote," in The Soul of Spain, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1908, pp. 223-43.


Harold Bloom, "Cervantes: The Play of the World," in his The Western Canon, Harcourt, Brace, 1994, p. 128.

Jorge Luis Borges, "Partial Enchantments of the 'Quixote,'" in his Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 43-6.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in Don Quixote, translated by Burton Raffel, edited by Diana de Armas Wilson, W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Manuel Duran, Cervantes, Twayne, 1974.

Carlos Fuentes, "When Don Quixote left his Village, the Modern World Began," in The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1986, p. 15.

――――――――, "Foreword," in The Adventures of Don Quixote, translated by Tobias Smollet, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1986, p. xi.

E. Michael Gerli, Refiguring Authority: Reading, Writing, and Rewriting in Cervantes, The University Press of Kentucky, 1995, p. 62.

William Hazlitt, "Standard Novels and Romances," in his The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, edited by A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover, McClure, Philips & Co., 1904, pp. 25-44.

Heinrech Heine, "Heine on Cervantes and the 'Don Quixote'," in Temple Bar, Vol. XLVIII, October, 1876, pp. 235-49.

Victor Hugo, "Men of Genius," in his The Works of Victor Hugo, Vol. X, The Jefferson Press, n.d., pp. 23-65.

Caroll B. Johnson, Madness and Lust: a Psychoanalytical Approach to Don Quixote, University of California Press, 1983, 230 p.

Brenda Marshall, Teaching the Postmodern: Fiction and Theory, Routledge, 1992, p. 3.

P. E. Russell, Cervantes, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 117.

Tobias Smollet, "The Life of Cervantes," in The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, Vol. I, by Miguel Cervantes, translated by Tobias Smollet, A. Millar, 1755, pp. i-xx.

Ivan Turgeniev, "Hamlet and Don Quixote," translated by Josef Firi Kral and Pavel Durdik, in Poet Lore, Vol. IV, No. 4, April 15, 1892, pp. 169-84.

Miguel de Unamuno, Selected Works of Miguel de Unamuno: Our Lord Don Quixote, Vol. 3, edited by Anthony Kerrigan and Martin Nozick, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, Bollingen Series, LXXXV, Princeton University Press, 1967, 553 p.

For Further Study

Jean Canavaggio, Cervantes, translated by J. R. Jones, W.W. Norton, 1990.

Originally published in Paris, this biography of Cervantes is considered one of the best. Also contains bibliographical references.

Brenda Knox and Joe Main, Don Quixote de la Mancha Exhibit, at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at the Johns Hopkins University,

The Don Quixote Exhibit contains historical illustrations of the novel and some background information.

Felix Martinez-Bonati, in Don Quixote and the Poetics of the Novel, translated by Dian Fox, Cornell University Press, 1992.

This critical work examines past criticism and trends for reading Don Quixote.

Melveena McKendrick, in Cervantes, Little Brown, 1980.

A comprehensive biography of Cervantes.

Ian Watt, Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe, Cambridge University Press, London, 1997.

Watt examines four hero archetypes of the modern West: Faust, Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe. He traces their historical influence and considers their continued relevance in our society.

Don Quixote

views updated Jun 11 2018

Don Quixote

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra


A novel set in Spain in the late 1500s and early 1600s; Part 1 published in Spanish (as El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha) in 1605, in English in 1612; Part 2 in Spanish (as Segunda parte del Ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha) in 1615, in English in 1620.


After reading too many popular tales of chivalry, an idealistic, imaginative middle-aged gentleman goes mad, remakes himself as a knight, and, in imitation of his favorite fictional heroes, embarks on a series of adventures with his “squire,” an illiterate peasant.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in 1547 in the university town of Alcalá de Henares, Spain, to a struggling barber-surgeon’s family. Unable to afford enrollment in the university, Cervantes acquired a different sort of education by joining the military. He served with distinction against the Turks in the battle of Lepanto (1571; in Greece), permanently losing the use of his left hand in the process. On the voyage home, he and his brother were captured by Barbary Coast pirates and imprisoned for five years in Algeria. After being ransomed, Cervantes returned to Spain to find the country in economic peril and his job prospects slim. He applied for posts in Spain’s overseas colonies but, unable to secure one, took a job as a tax collector; when his accounts failed to balance, the job landed him in the Royal Prison of Seville. Cervantes has hinted that the seeds of Don Quixote (spelled Don Quijote in modern Spanish) took root during this imprisonment. At age 58, Cervantes experienced his first literary success by publishing Part 1 of this novel. He went on to write numerous poems, plays, and fictional works, most notably the Exemplary Tales in 1613 and Part 2 of Don Quixote in 1615. A parody of the chivalric romances popular in Cervantes’s day, Don Quixote informs as it entertains. The work is considered the first modern novel because of how its central characters interact and because of its general reflections on life in Counter-Reformation Spain.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Spain’s Golden Age—imperial pre-eminence

Cervantes was born 50 years into Spain’s ascension as a global empire. The nation rapidly achieved the rank of a world power after the union through marriage of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469. In 1492 Columbus’s discovery of the New World gave Spain footholds in both Americas, lands occupied by indigenous peoples, whom Spain proceeded to conquer and colonize. Shortly thereafter, through war and marriage, Spain gained control of most of Western Europe, including much of Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria. The breadth of Spain’s achievement was awe-inspiring, prompting King Ferdinand to claim in 1514, “the crown of Spain has not for over seven hundred years been as great or resplendent as it now is” (Ferdinand in Kamen, p. 9). The “seven hundred years” harks back to Spain’s 1492 reconquest of the last of the Muslim hold-outs in Granada, after more than seven centuries of widespread Muslim rule. Also in 1492 the “Catholic Monarchs” Isabella and Ferdinand called for the expulsion or forced conversion of all Jews.

Isabella and Ferdinand pursued a policy of Catholicizing all the subjects within their vast domain. They used a tribunal of priests, the Holy Inquisition, to test the purity of the religious faith of their converted subjects. Their successor and grandson Charles I of Castile (reigned 1516–56), also known as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, held grander ambitions for the achievement of a universal monarchy or united “Christendom” under Spain’s direction. This conception of a Holy Roman Empire, a Christian version of the ancient Roman Empire, enjoyed favor among the Spanish nobility, the Spanish Catholic Church, and Spanish humanists with their esteem for classical learning. (Humanists favored a revival of Greek and Roman letters and an individualistic, critical bent that would manifest itself in art.) Spain’s achievements, indeed astounding, gave rise to an intense pride, which “revealed itself in a feeling of theological, and sometimes even of racial, superiority over others” (Kamen, pp. 193–94).

Whether or not Charles I himself sought world domination is debatable; however, his enemies—the French and the Ottoman Turks—took the threat seriously and became Spain’s chief rivals for power in Europe, embarking on a series of wars through the next century. Meanwhile, northern Europe saw the onset of movements to reform Christianity. The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus proposed disciplining the Catholic Church from within; reforms proposed by the German monk Martin Luther amounted to a disciplining from without, initiating in 1517 the Reformation, which divided Latin Christendom into Protestant and Catholic factions. Spain, for its part, continued to be a staunchly Catholic nation. But by 1550 its clergy was showing the same excesses common elsewhere in Europe: priests were notoriously absent from parishes; churchmen kept concubines and became famous for their illiteracy and ignorance. Such failings, along with the Reformation, led to the Counter-Reformation, a militant movement to reform the Church from within while opposing the Protestants and Erasmus. This militancy gave rise to some of the most unforgettable works of Spanish culture as well as to some of its most forgettable.

Spain’s Golden Age—literary pre-eminence

Don Quixote is only one of the products of Spanish cultural pre-eminence from about 1550 to 1650. The era saw Spain produce some of the finest literature, thought, and painting in world history. The spread of Castilian, carried into the far reaches of the empire, as Spain’s dominant language, was one of the main developments, but, in the words of one historian, “this does not mean that the ‘Golden Age’ was exclusively a Castilian achievement. On the contrary, the development of creativity occurred only because there was a positive response to multiple internal and external influences—Arabic, Jewish, Italian, Flemish, American—that stimulated all corners of the peninsula” (Kamen, p. 193). Cervantes himself spoke of his Spain as the “common mother of all nations” (Cervantes in Kamen, p. 193). The country was ripe for cultural exchange and creativity, and its artists rose to the occasion, producing unparalleled works.

Spain reached a summit of its Golden Age in the poetry and prose of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross (see Interior Castle and “Dark Night” and Other Poems , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Saint John (1542–91), often described as the finest lyric poet to emerge in Europe, wrote about the human soul’s quest for union with God. Much of the same mystic symbolism surfaces in the religious painting of El Greco (1541–1614). Another pre-eminent Golden-Age poet, Garcilaso de la Vega (1503?-1536) revolutionized Spanish verse, his posthumously published verse (1543) setting standards of refinement for subsequent lyric poets: Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, and Luis de Góngora. Also a playwright, Lope established a new way of writing theater in Spanish—a three-act play that mixes comic and tragic elements. Astoundingly prolific, he said he wrote 1,000 plays, (less than 400 are extant); not Lope, though, but his successor Pedro Calderón de la Barca, would write the most widely read play written in Spanish, the philosophical drama Life Is a Dream (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Calderón was court playwright for King Philip IV. Philip’s court painter, Diego Velázquez, reached new heights in his medium, representing distant vision with short brushstrokes (as in his The Maids-in-Waiting), anticipating nineteenth-century impressionism. Like Cervantes in Don Quixote, Velázquez also used his art to debunk heroic myth, satirizing, for example, the debauchery of military life in his own times in his painting Mars; which depicts the Roman war-god Mars as an aging, mustachioed soldier, sitting helmeted but otherwise unclothed on a bed after he has presumably enjoyed erotic relations with Venus.

Plight of the hidalgo

The era’s ardent Catholicism, a legacy of the medieval Crusades (holy wars for Christian territory) and of the centuries of Reconquest, inspired a new chivalric spirit during the Golden Age. Much like medieval knights, Spain’s armed forces in Europe and conquistadores in the New World thought of themselves as “soldiers of God,” their numerous victories and seeming invincibility reinforcing this image of themselves. Men such as Hernaá Cortes, conqueror of Mexico, captured the imaginations of those around them as the knights-errant of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There was the possibility of wealth in the New World too. Many hidalgos (low-ranking members of the nobility who were often impoverished but nevertheless expected to keep up the appearances befitting their rank) sought to improve their fortunes as conquistadors in the New World. As already mentioned, Cervantes, who was himself an hidalgo, sought a post overseas, albeit unsuccessfully.

Whereas it had been possible in the Middle Ages for hidalgos to earn their fortune and glory by serving as knights in Europe, it was virtually impossible by the end of the 1500s. Most of Europe had already been conquered; and though Spain’s empire spanned the oceans, the country itself remained poor, offering soldiers low pay and little or no opportunity to fight as part of a private force for booty, as the medieval knights had. On the other hand, the New World offered similar opportunities. “The pioneers in America were not nobles but dispossessed Spaniards of all conditions, many of them soldiers and sailors unemployed


Medieval knights fought as commissioned soldiers for specific kingdoms and lords, and later, during the Crusades, for the Catholic Church. They would be rewarded with spoils from victory, as well as land and noble titles, which elevated their status. A hidalgo in the sixteenth-century, Don Quixote had no such opportunity. Properly speaking, hidalgos refers to those Spaniards who have the status of nobles but no specific rank. They comprised the lowest category of the nobility. Don Quixote’s sole assets consisted of his status as an “old Christian” and “non-taxpayer.” While higher-ranking nobles received palace appointments and tax revenues, hidalgos were entitled to neither, and like the lower classes, could no longer augment their fortunes or elevate their status by becoming knights, as in the Middle Ages. In a word, the hidalgo in Spain became obsolete. Those who did not join the conquistadores found themselves stricken with the “subtle hunger of the hidalgo,” working in Spain at jobs they detested or aimlessly idling their lives away (Defourneaux, p. 41).

employed after the wars in Granada and Italy had come to an end, others young and hardy men of limited means, including many hidalgos and illiterate laborers who looked to America to better their fortunes” (Kamen, p. 91). To conquer the unknown, risking all to serve God and their king and to grow rich in the process became the credo of the conquistadores, who combined a spirit of militant Catholicism with personal aspirations, “their heads filled with fantastic notions, their courage spurred by noble examples of the great heroes of chivalry” (Schulte, p. 69).

The problem with novels of chivalry

From where did hidalgos get such fantastic notions?—in no small part, from the romances of chivalry. Throughout most of the sixteenth century, these works were bestsellers-Amadís de Gaula (1508; Amadis of Gaul) by Garci Ordónez de Montalvo set the standard. A romance in four volumes, the


Poor literature proliferated after the 1450 invention of the printing press by the German Johann Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg’s time, manuscripts were reproduced by hand, a slow, painstaking process. As a result, books were rare and costly, and only a small fraction of the population—mainly clergy—could read or write. Moreover, most books were written in Latin—the universal language of educated Europe, but one unknown to most Europeans. With the advent of the printing press, the cost of books dropped precipitously and literacy rose dramatically. Despite the rise, the number of Spaniards who actually could have read the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 was probably no greater than 20 percent. But, even Spaniards who never learned to read were affected by the printing revolution. As the number of readers grew, the literate villager read aloud to neighbors. Scenes such as the one in Don Quixote that features a priest reading “The Story of III-Advised Curiosity” (otherwise called “The Tale of Foolish Curiosity”) to guests at an inn, were undoubtedly common in Spain at this time. The result was a new audience, less educated and of a lower class than before, traits that had a great effect on the types of texts produced. By the late 1500s, more European books were being published in Castilian Spanish and other dialects than in Latin. Also books accessible to those with limited reading skills began to outnumber complex, scholarly texts. Curious new readers snatched up miscellanies of proverbs and practical tidbits as well as longer prose fiction. In addition to chivalric romances, pastoral romances such as Jorge de Monte-mayor’s Diana (1559), a favorite of Don Quixote’s, became bestsellers.

work describes the adventures of a knight who personifies the chivalric code—single-minded devotion to one woman, loyalty to one’s superior, fanatic hatred of the infidel, absorption in the pursuit of idealistic justice, and defense of the oppressed. So successful was Amadís de Gaula that its publication generated many other novels of chivalry, which carried its elements to excess. The adventures conveyed no universal truth and strayed far from any consideration of verisimilitude. It is against these inferior chivalric romances that Cervantes directs his satire. Don Quixote reads so many bad chivalric novels that he loses his sanity and decides to restore chivalric ideals to a world gone amuck. As he pursues his quest, the story becomes a parody of the romance of chivalry, meanwhile conveying universal truths in a lifelike context.

Cervantes censures bad chivalric novels for their immorality, poor style, untruthfulness, and absurdities. The purpose of art, says a priest to Don Quixote, is to teach and delight at the same time, but the mediocre novels of chivalry do neither. The style of many of these novels is so obscure that they offer negative examples to writers and readers. The chivalric novels of the real-life writer Feliciano de Silva (1492?-1558?), a favorite of Don Quixote, are a frequent butt of Cervantes’s satire, which parodies their turgid style and overly complex sentences: “The heavens on high divinely drop your divinity down on you, the stars themselves bringing you strength, thus making you deserving of the high deserts which your immensity deserves” (Cervantes, Don Quijote, p. 9). “Specializing in obfuscation, the authors of inferior chivalry novels also confuse history with fiction. They do not know how to sustain the illusion that things are really happening, precisely because they have no clear purpose” (Riley, pp. 47–48). Cervantes reflects this confusion when his protagonist, grown mad from reading bad chivalric novels, believes fantastic characters like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to be as real as Spanish historical figures like El Cid. Finally, bad chivalric novels were associated with immorality. They typically displayed excessive violence, eroticism, and sentimentality. The innkeeper in Don Quixote admires the hero of the novel Felixmarte de Hircania for slicing five giants in half like bags of beans; the chambermaid Maritornes, for her part, enjoys the sentimental eroticism of ladies embracing their knightly loves under orange trees while their duennas, spinster guardians, keep watch, filled with envy and anxiety.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The first part of Don Quixote opens with Cervantes’s prologue, in which the author encourages readers to probe the novel for deeper meaning, indicating that he has written an entirely different type of chivalric tale. Using the device of a friend who rescues him from his writer’s block, Cervantes mocks the literary convention of writing flowery prologues, that of quoting ad nauseam every famous writer and philosopher from antiquity. His friend says he need not “because the whole tale is an attack on chivalry, which Aristotle never heard of, and St. Basil never mentioned, and Cicero never ran across” (Don Quijote, p. 6).

Chapter 1 sets up the parody of contemporary romances of chivalry. It opens with an introduction to a middle-aged country gentleman, Mr. Quixana (or Quijada, Quesada, or Quejana), who spends his idle hours—which are many because he is a hidalgo without much means or occupation—enraptured in chivalric prose. He marvels at the “pearl-like” wisdom of authors such as Feliciano de Silva who write such eloquent sentences as, “The ability to reason the unreason which has afflicted my reason saps my ability to reason, so that I complain with good reason of your infinite loveliness” (Don Quijote, p. 9). Trying to decipher the meaning of such prose causes poor Mr. Quixana to lose his sanity, for “even Aristotle couldn’t have comprehended if he’d come back to life for just that purpose” (Don Quijote, p. 10). Further, intoxicated by the fantastic exploits and seeming valor of the knightly existence—particularly as compared to his own empty life—he remakes himself as a knight and sets forth to “right every manner of wrong” and “cover himself with eternal fame and glory” (Don Quijote, p. 10).

Naming himself “Don Quixote,” a name apparently based on a word denoting a piece of armor for the thigh, he dusts off his great-grandfather’s suit of armor—rusted and in a state of disrepair—dons it, and mounts his trusty steed, a poor workhorse that he renames “Rocinante,” which means “old horse before,” because “an old horse was exactly what it had been, before, while now it had risen to be first and foremost among all the horses in the world” (Don Quijote, p. 11). Here Don Quixote’s idealistic qualities come to the fore, as does his vivid imagination. The world transforms itself in his mind’s eye. An old horse becomes the first and foremost in all the world, and he, Don Quixote de la Mancha, the noblest and most esteemed knight-errant straight out of the pages of Amadís de Gaula. His transformation nearly complete, Don Quixote invents Dulcinea del Toboso, a noble lady whose honor he will preserve and fight his battles for (for “a knighterrant without love entanglements would be like a tree without leaves or fruit” [Don Quijote, p. 12]). She is the transformation of a peasant woman with whom he has been secretly in love but has never addressed. In honor of Dulcinea, he embarks on his first chivalric expedition.

Don Quixote mistakes a decrepit country inn for a castle, two prostitutes for virtuous ladies, and a roguish innkeeper for a great lord. He requests the “lord” to dub him a knight in accord with the rituals performed in the novels of chivalry he has read, so that he may properly go about his knightly deeds. Amused by his madness, the innkeeper agrees to the ceremony and the ladies treat him kindly.

Upon leaving the inn, our hero performs his first knightly act, rescuing a servant he perceives to be blameless from a master’s beating. However, as soon as Don Quixote leaves, the master resumes the beating more savagely than before and fires the servant without pay, revealing the harmfulness of misguided acts of chivalry. After this, Don Quixote is beaten up by a mule driver who dares insult the honor of Dulcinea del Toboso. Luckily, he is rescued by a fellow villager and returned home.

When the knight Don Quixote sets out again, it is with his newfound “squire,” Sancho Panza—a peasant who speaks in prattling language and proverbs. With Sancho by his side, the knight fights windmills that he perceives to be giants, frees a chain gang of prisoners, who then rob him and his squire, and engages in similar adventures in the name of chivalry, doing more harm than good. In a series of elegant speeches, he makes the purpose of his adventures clear: to restore justice and virtue to the world by battling the forces of evil, thereby gaining fame and fortune. Sancho’s motives are initially slightly less admirable. He clings to the hope that Don Quixote will make good on the promise to grant Sancho his own island to rule.

Interspersed between the adventures of the knight and squire are intercalated novels in the guise of stories told by characters they meet, including miniature pastoral romances and the tale of a soldier held captive in Muslim North Africa (autobiographical, this tale contains information based on Cervantes’s own captivity in Algeria). The intercalated novels offer Cervantes the opportunity to experiment with different narrative possibilities suggested by the misadventures of his mad hero. Don Quixote’s comical situation sometimes is given a serious variation in an intercalated novel. For instance, what if a madman had been driven mad because of an actual love, as opposed to a feigned chivalric love (as in Don Quixote’s case)? Then there would be the intercalated novel of Cardenio of Part 1, Chapter 27.

While Don Quixote and Sancho listen to these stories and continue their exploits, the knight’s village friends—the priest and the barber—devise a plan to rescue Quixote from his chivalrous hallucinations and bring him home. In disguise, they convince Don Quixote that he is enchanted and enclose him in a cage. After being released from the cage, Don Quixote is beaten to near death—this time after attacking a religious procession whose statue of the Virgin Mary he takes to be an enchanted damsel in distress. Barely able to move, he is placed on a cart and wheeled home, ending his second round of exploits.

Throughout Part 1 of Don Quixote, the narrator reminds us that the author’s story is based on a translation of Don Quixote’s original history, written by a Moor, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes purposely identifies the historian as a Moor because as an outsider hardly given to being overly sympathetic to a Christian knight, the Moor may well stray from the truthful portrayal of Don Quixote’s adventures! Thus the reader must extrapolate the truth between Cide Hamete’s lines.

In the final pages of Part 1, it is implied that, after recuperating from his injuries, Don Quixote engages in further adventures. Because the author can find no records of these adventures, however, this part must end with a series of poetic epitaphs found in a lead box discovered in the ruins of an ancient hermitage. These epitaphs, written in mock-epic language to parody romances of chivalry, mourn the deaths of Don Quixote, Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s horse, Roci-nante, and Sancho. The one for the damsel reads in part: “She whose fat and flabby face you see, / tubby-breasted, looking down her nose so, is Dulcinea … / whose love inspired the great knight Don Quixote” (Don Quijote, p. 344).

In Part 2, however, these characters return to life. After a prologue in which Cervantes scolds Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, the author of an apocryphal sequel to Don Quixote, he picks up the action of the story only a few weeks after Don Quixote has returned home. There he is confronted by a neighbor, Sansón Carrasco, who has recently returned from the university, where he read Part 1 of Don Quixote. Carrasco explains to a pleased Don Quixote that his adventures are famous all over Europe. (This is in fact true at the point that Part 2 was written, ten years after Part 1). Inspired by this news, Don Quixote and Sancho soon set out again to right more wrongs.

Their first adventure is an encounter with the Knight of the Mirrors, who challenges Don Quixote to a duel on the condition that, if Don Quixote loses, he will comply with any honorable requests the winner may have. However, Don Quixote soundly defeats the Knight of the Mirrors, who turns out to be Sansón Carrasco in disguise. Though Carrasco’s intention was to lure Don Quixote back home again and keep him safe from more potentially harmful adventures, the neighbor gives up his plan for the time being and instead, noting the pain in his ribs, vows revenge.

After this victory, Don Quixote proudly resumes his exploits, which include an attack on puppets during a puppet-play. Since the play deals with a chivalric theme, he gets swept up into the illusion and thinks the puppets real. He embarks on a host of adventures, during which it slowly dawns on Don Quixote that he is not the hero he has deceived himself into believing. Disenchantment sets in during Chapter 10, which follows Don Quixote as he goes to the village of Toboso to greet his lady Dulcinea. When he commands Sancho to fetch her, his squire, hard-pressed to find a nonexistent lady, invents a chivalric fiction, though on a cruder, simpler plane than his master. To the credulous Don Quixote, he identifies an approaching peasant woman as Dulcinea. Don Quixote, shocked at this woman’s coarse appearance, believes the enchanters have changed Dulcinea’s form.

Chapter 23 marks the beginning of Don Quixote’s disillusionment with his own efforts to be a knight errant. He descends into Montesinos’s Cave—a symbol, perhaps, of his own unconscious. There he has a vision of Lady Belerma, figure of a chivalric tradition belonging to the legend of Charlemagne. She languishes, like his own Dulcinea, under an enchantment, for Belerma is a victim of the magician Merlin. Don Quixote also sees the enchanted Dulcinea in the cave, but, when one of her maidens asks him for a loan, he in unable to supply the cash his lady needs—a symbolic reference to his own impotence and inability to “disenchant” Dulcinea. In succeeding adventures he continues to harbor doubts about himself, about his efficacy as a hero, and about seeing the world as a place for chivalric adventure at all.

Meanwhile, Sancho Panza gradually undergoes a contrary development. His fantasy begins to run away with him. In Chapter 41, some pranksters set him and Don Quixote blindfolded on a hobbyhorse, and tell them they are flying through the air. While Don Quixote could swear they were still on the ground, Sancho has what amounts to a mystical experience, imagining himself playing in the constellation of the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters).

A series of elaborate pranks played on Don Quixote and Sancho comprise the middle section of Part 2, where knight and squire are taken in by a country duke and duchess. These nobles, who have read Part 1 of Don Quixote, fritter away their leisure to make life imitate art. They play along with the hero’s fantasy and, for their own amusement, carry it even further. The duke and duchess grant Sancho an island to govern, as if to fulfill the chivalric promise Don Quixote made to his squire in Part 1. Sancho plays his part as governor very seriously. By now he is accustomed to living in the framework of the chivalric novel. Within that framework, Sancho uses common sense to administer justice. He “decreed such wonderful things that, to this very day, his laws are still observed there, and are known as The Great Governor Sancho Panza’s Legal System” (Don Quijote, p. 623). (According to Howard Mancing, Sancho Panza occupies stage center here, as in all of Part 2. “He speaks more often [than Don Quixote] and more confidently directs the action to a greater degree”; the chapters devoted to his governership form the apex of his mental and psychological evolution [Mancing, p. 390].)

Don Quixote’s faith in himself as a hero meanwhile continues to deteriorate. During a visit to Barcelona, the knight meets his downfall. He gets defeated in a joust by the Knight of the White Moon—a vengeful Sansón Carrasco in disguise. Under the terms of the agreement he had accepted before fighting Carrasco, he must renounce knighthood and return home for a year. The sacrifice proves too great: Don Quixote falls ill, and on his deathbed gives up knighthood forever. He explains that he is once again in his “right mind”—no longer Don Quixote but Alonso Quijano—and declares to Sancho: “Forgive me, my friend, for having made you seem as mad as I was, by making you fall into the same error into which I had fallen, namely, that there were, and still are, knights errant in the world” (Don Quijote, p. 731). Sancho, by now a thorough convert to the ideology of Don Quixote, begs him to revert to his old idealistic self and resume his mission to right the world’s wrongs: “Don’t die … but take my advice and live a long, long time because the worst madness a man can fall into, in this life, is to let himself die, for no real reason” (Don Quijote, p. 731). But it is too late. Don Quixote has reverted back to “sanity” and dies, the implication being that it is now up to Sancho—and us, Cervantes’s “new readers”—to pick up where he left off.

The place of idealism

Role reversal takes place in Don Quixote on a scale previously unseen in any novel. Sancho Panza becomes quixoticized, caught up in the pursuit of impossible goals. Don Quixote grows to be ever more like Sancho Panza. Herein lies the great conscious innovation of the first modern novel: environment has impact on character change as the novelist explores in detail the meaning of life in general. This is the ultimate consequence of Cervantes’s application of Aristotle’s twin truths: it is a psychological fact—a historical truth—that Don Quixote’s madness is “contagious,” that ideals pass from one individual to another in ever widening circles; at the same time, it is a poetic truth that ideals should not last forever, lest society stagnate. The age of chivalry has disappeared, says this novel to its readers. The attitude of idealism, on the other hand, should last forever. The trick is to adopt attainable ideals. In Part 2 (Chapter 20), for example, the poor man Basilio adopts a reachable goal: scheming to marry the maiden Quiteria for love, he outwits her fiancé, the rich Camacho. Basilio feigns death, insisting that Quiteria marry him before he begs God’s forgiveness for his sins in his final hour. “For someone as badly wounded as this young man,” Sancho Panza murmured, “he certainly talks a lot” (Don Quijote, p. 461). Quiteria, who loves Basilio, gladly acquiesces, and the two get married at the very wedding intended for her and Camacho, her ideal suitor winning out over the practical choice.


Woven through Don Quixote are various critiques of early-seventeenth-century Spanish society. For instance, there is implicit criticism of the excessive leisure characteristic of the high aristocracy in Cervantes’s day. In the novel, the duke and duchess play enormous practical jokes on an unsuspecting Don Quixote, concocting a surrogate damsel in distress (Altisidora) instead of his own Dulcinea, when they could be occupying themselves with something far more worthwhile. Sancho Panza, to take another example, has a friend Ricote, who is a Morisco, or christianized Moor. Ricote, who disguises himself as a German because the Moriscos were expelled from Spain in 1609, lives bereft, longing for his Spanish homeland, suffering mistreatment even in North Africa, where Muslims abound. Through Ricote, the novel finds fault with the 1609 expulsion, bringing its initial readers face-to-face with the consequences of Spain’s recent action.

Sources and literary context

Spain’s Golden Age featured works that spanned a number of genres—pastoral romance, mystic poetry, cloak-and-dagger drama, picaresque novel. Reflecting the variety, Don Quixote contains elements of multiple genres. It is most obviously a parody of the chivalric romance of knightly misadventures written in a grandiose style. But it also includes stories of lovelorn unfortunates wandering the wilderness, in imitation of the pastoral romance, whose characters reject material concerns and escape to the countryside to commune with nature and lament their unrequited love. The novel is likewise a treasury of proverbs, sonnets, quotes from scripture, and debates about the nature of high quality literature. In one incident, for example, Don Quixote encounters a poor young man plodding off to war, which allows the novel, in the guise of his song, to include a contemporary Spanish literary form, a four-line folk-type verse known as the seguidillas.

I’m taking my nothing
off to war,
but if I had anything
I wouldn’t go far.
     (Don Quijote, p. 478)

From the picaresque novel, Don Quixote borrows down-to-earth (sometimes slapstick) humor and characters such as the galley prisoner Ginés de Pasamonte. An often cynical response to romance literature, such novels focused on wretched antiheroes, usually poor young men forced to cheat and lie to survive in a cruel world (see Lazarillo de Tormes , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times).

Although Cervantes relied on others before him for ideas about style, events, and form, the main characters in Don Quixote seem to be his own. Cervantes is consistently praised for his close attention to detail in portraying people from every corner of Spanish society. He gained keen insight into the lives of his fellow Spaniards—students, priests, dukes, soldiers, innkeepers, and peasants—from his wanderings. Many of his characters represent stages in Cervantes’s life. He was, at various times, a student, a cardinal’s assistant, a soldier, a captive in Algiers, a purveyor of food for the Spanish Armada, a prisoner, a tax collector, and, of course, a writer. Some of these jobs required frequent travel, which allowed Cervantes to form opinions not only about different classes of Spanish people, but about the different regions in which they lived. When Don Quixote battles a Basque, dines with a Barcelona gentleman, or discusses literature with the canon of Toledo, Cervantes draws on his own extensive knowledge of Spanish culture to render an authentic word-picture. Other fundamental sources on which Cervantes drew follow:

Some Sources of Ideas in Don Quixote Poetics by Aristotle.

Greek idea of universal (poetic) truth and historical truth.

Philosophia antigua poética by Alonso López Pinciano (1596; Ancient Poetic Philosophy).

Harmonization of Aristotle’s Poetics with contemporary Italian literature to preserve Greek aesthetics in light of innovations.

Ars Poetica by Horace (1800s-1700s b.c.e.; Art of Poetry).

Idea that the purpose of art is to delight and instruct.

Amadis de Gaula by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo (1508; Amadis of Gaul).

Romance of chivalry whose hero, gathering superhuman strength from fidelity to his beloved, is emulated by Don Quixote in a number of adventures (e.g., the penance performed in Sierra Morena). Also contains a governor of an island (like the one promised to Sancho).

Amadís de Grecia by Feliciano de Silva (1530; Amadis of Greece).

Continuation of Amadis de Gaula, written in the convoluted style continually parodied by Cervantes; exemplifies only one of many mediocre chivalric novelists criticized in Don Quixote.

Tirant lo Blanch by joanot Martorell (1490; Tirant the White Knight).

One of the few chivalric novels respected by Cervantes for its veracity. It contains episodes with historical grounding and autobiographical elements, as does Don Quixote.

Examen de ingenios para las ciencias by Juan Huarte de San Juan (1575: Examination of Men’s Wits).

Very influential on Don Quixote, the treatise newly applies the ancient notion of four humors, analyzing personalities based on combinations of four body liquids—blood, lymph, black bile, yellow bile; contains ideas for compensating for strengths and weaknesses of each personality type.

Dialoghi d’amore by León Hebreo (c. 1502; Dialogues of Love).

A main source of Cervantes’s ideas on love and beauty.

Don Quijote de la Mancha by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (1614).

A false continuation of Cervantes’s first part; influenced the final adventures in Part 2.

Orlando il Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1516; Roland the Furious).

Greatest Italian epic poem, affects the intercalated novel “The Curious Impertinent” as well as Don Quixote’s penance in Sierra Morena.

Diana by Jorge de Montemayor (1559).

Pastoral novel, affects the story of Grisostomo and Marcela in Part 1 as well as other pastoral episodes in Don Quixote.


First published in 1605, Don Quixote (Part 1) met with immediate popular and critical success. It was in such high demand that six new editions were issued in the next four years, and foreign editions began to be released as well. Cervantes’s instant celebrity helped him procure a generous patron, the Count of Lemos, whose financial assistance allowed him to finish the writing of Part 2 and several other works. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Cervantes must have felt dubiously flattered by the publication, only several months before Part 2, of the false sequel to Part 1 by a still unknown author, who used the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. The reception to Cervantes’s Part 2 was as enthusiastic as that to Part 1. Four hundred years later, in today’s world, Don Quixote is unanimously hailed as the greatest literary work in the Castilian language. Apart from its innovation of character change, it covers many of the loftiest themes known to humankind—liberty, poverty, fame, virtue, immortality, envy, work and leisure, and love—coverage of which usually appears in dialogues between Don Quixote and Sancho.


SANCHO PANZA: I can’t imagine what this girl saw in you, your grace, to overpower and conquer her like that: I mean, what particularly choice part, what special charm, what display of wit, what feature of your face—which one of these, or what mixture of them all, made her fall in love with you? Because, truthfully, I often stop and look your grace over, from the point of your shoes to the very last hair on your head, and I see more things to frighten than to fire up love. …

DON QUIXOTE: Remember, Sancho, … that there are two kinds of love: there’s spiritual love, and then there’s bodily love; spiritual love walks, and shows itself, in the mind, in virtue, in honorable behavior, in generosity, and in good breeding, and these are all qualities that can occur and be found in an ugly man … a good man only has to be something other than a monster, to be well loved.

(Don Quijote, p. 653)

Although the novel has survived in Hispanic tradition as a model for a variety of writing styles, whether of elevated oratory, of pastoral love soliloquy, or of picaresque adventure narrative, Cervantes’s dialogue is so lively that much of it remains today in the form of expressions that have passed into current Castilian speech, in the same way that Shakespeare’s lines have entered present-day English. Examples of expressions from Cervantes used in Spanish today are, “Paciencia y barajar,” (Be patient and deal the cards while you wait [Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha, p. 735; trans. N. Orringer]) and “Peor es menearlo” (When in an embarrassing situation, it is “worse to rub it in,” from [Don Quijotede la Mancha, p. 188; trans. N. Orringer].) Yet a fourth manifestation of the high quality of Don Quixote lies in its impact on world arts. As Mancing notes, the novel has inspired classical music (Germany’s Richard Strauss), ballet music (Austria’s Lén Minkus), and painting (Spain’s Salvador Dali). Finally the success of Don Quijote resounds in its impact on some of the world’s foremost writers, from Spain’s Benito Pérez Galdos to England’s Henry Fielding, France’s Gustave Flaubert, Russia’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, and America’s Joyce Carol Oates. One of the founders of the English novel, Henry Fielding, pays deference in Joseph Andrews (1742) to his Spanish model: “Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes”; Fielding’s Joseph Andrews was furthermore reviewed in comparison to the Spanish original: “The remarkable thing about this work is that just as Don Quixote is the picture of Spanish customs, the work at hand is the picture of English customs” (Paulson, pp. ix-x). This was already more than a century after the Spanish novel’s initial release, yet it was but the beginning. As the 1700s wore on, the novel would be much imitated by English writers, and German Romantics would begin to see profound philosophical implications in the work. Don Quixote had, in short, revolutionized world literature.

—Nelson Orringer and Diane Renée

For More Information

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quijote: The History of that Ingenious Gentleman Don Quijote de la Mancha. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: Norton, 1995.

_____. Don Quijote de la Mancha. Ed. Martín de Riquer. Barcelona: Editorial Juventud, 1955.

Defourneaux, Marcelin. Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1979.

Elliot, J. H. Imperial Spain: 1469–1716. New York: Penguin, 1963.

Gies, Frances. The Knight in History. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Goodman, David. Spanish Naval Power, 1589–1665: Reconstruction and Defeat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Jones, R. O. A Literary History of Spain: The Golden Age: Prose and Poetry, The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Kamen, Henry. Spain 1469–1714: A Society of Conflict. London: Longman, 1991.

Mancing, Howard. “Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de.” In Dictionary of the Literature of the Iberian Peninsula, A-K. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

McKendrick, Melveena. Cervantes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

Paulson, Ronald. Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetics of Laughter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Riley, E.C. Teoria de la novela en Cervantes. Trans. Carlos Sahagún. Madrid: Taurus, 1966.

Schulte, Henry F. The Spanish Press. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1968.

Don Quixote

views updated Jun 08 2018

Don Quixote.
1. Cervantes's novel, pubd. in 2 parts (1605, 1615), has been the inspiration of many mus. works. Operas on the subject have been comp. by Förtsch, Conti, Boismortier, Paisiello, Piccinni, Salieri, Hubaček, Garcìa, Mendelssohn, Mercadante, Donizetti, Macfarren, Clay, Jaques-Dalcroze, Heuberger, and Falla. Incidental mus. to a play by D'Urfey was written by Purcell and Eccles, 1694–5.

2. Tone-poem, Op.35, by R. Strauss, comp. 1896–7, f.p. Cologne 1898. Introduction, theme and 10 variations, and finale, with solo parts for vc. and va. Sub-titled Fantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters (Fantastic Variations on a theme of knightly character).

3. Ballets on the subject are also numerous, including Petipa's of 1869 with mus. by Minkus. More recent ballet mus. has been composed by Petrassi (1947), Ibert (1950), and Gerhard (1940–1, 1947–9, SW, choreog. N. de Valois 1950).

Quixote, Don

views updated May 23 2018

Quixote, Don the hero of a romance (1605–15) by Cervantes, a satirical account of chivalric beliefs and conduct. The character of Don Quixote, the poor gentlemen devoted to the ideal of chivalry, who christens his peasant lady-love Dulcinea, and seeks adventures wearing rusty armour and riding his old horse Rosinante, is typified by a romantic vision and naive, unworldly idealism.

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