Cervantes, Miguel de

views updated May 21 2018

Cervantes, Miguel de


Born September 29 (?), 1547, in Alcala de Henares, Spain; died of edema, April 22 (some sources say April 23), 1616, in Madrid, Spain; buried in the convent of the Discalced Trinitarians; son of Rodrigo de Cervantes Saavedra (an apothecary and surgeon) and Leonor de Cortinas; married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, 1585; children: (with Ana de Villafranca) Isabel de Saavedra.


Steward to Cardinal Guilio Acquaviva, Rome, Italy, 1569; Spanish government messenger to Oran, 1581; commissary agent for the Spanish Armada, 1587-97; tax collector; became a member of the Tertiary Order of St. Francis shortly before his death. Military service: Served in the Spanish military, 1570-74; captured and imprisoned for five years, 1575-80.


Yo que siempre trabajo y me desuelo (poetry), 1569.

La Galatea (romance), 1585, published as Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, 1791.

El cerco de Numancia (drama; produced, 1585), 1784, published as Numancia, 1870, also published as The Siege of Numantia in the Classic Theatre, 1961.

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (novel), 1605, published as The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612.

Novelas exemplares (short stories), 1613, published as Exemplarie Novells, 1640, also published as Exemplary Novels, 1846, and Exemplary Stories (partial translation), 1972.

(Adaptor) Viage del Parnaso (poetry; based on the poem "Viaggio in Parnasso" by Cesare Caporali di Perugia), 1614, published as "Voyage to Parnassus" in Voyage to Parnassus, Numancia, and The Commerce of Algiers, 1870, also published as Journey to Parnassus, 1883.

Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (dramas; includes Los banos de Argel, El gallardo espanol, La gran sultana, Pedro de Urdemalas, El rufian dichoso, and La casa de los celos), 1615.

Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero don Quixote (novel), 1615, published as The Second Part of the History of the Valorous and Witty Knight Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1620.

Los trabaios de Persiles y Sigismunda (romance), 1617, published as The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda. A Northern History. Wherein, amongst the Variable Fortunes of the Prince of Thule, and this Princesse of Frisland, are interlaced many Witty Discourses, Morall, Politicall, and Delightfull, 1619.

El trato de Argel (drama), 1784, published as The Commerce of Algiers, in Voyage to Parnassus, Numancia, and The Commerce of Algiers, 1883.

Obras completas de Cervantes (novels, short stories, romances, dramas, and poetry), twelve volumes, 1863-64.

Poesia, French and European Publications, 1972.


Through his authorship of Don Quixote and other lesser known works, Miguel de Cervantes has had an inestimable impact on the development of modern fiction. Don Quixote represents the first extended prose narrative in European literature in which characters and events are depicted in accord with modern realistic tradition, with the form of the work artfully constructed upon a complex of symbol and theme. Hence, Don Quixote maintains the distinction of being the original European novel, one from which all others, in some sense, are descended. Countless writers and scholars have viewed it as one of the most enduring masterpieces, as the deranged gentleman-turned-knight Quixote and his companion, Sancho Panza, assume archetypal importance for what they reveal of the human mind and emotions, Golden Age Spanish society, and the compass of earthly existence. Cervantes's short stories are also admired for their similar independence from stereotype and contrivance and are accorded high importance for their parallel development of the short fiction form.

Cervantes was born in Alcala de Henares, near Madrid, into an itinerant apothecary-surgeon's family. Little is known of Cervantes's childhood, though it is assumed that his schooling was minimal and his comforts few, given the family's continual sojourn throughout the regions of Castile, Seville, and Andalusia as the father searched for work. The first documented evidence concerning Cervantes's life, other than his birth record, places him at the Estudio de la Villa de Madrid, a pre-graduate liberal arts school, in 1568. While studying in Madrid, Cervantes probably wrote his first known works: elegiac verses on the death of Queen Isabel de Valois. Cervantes's schoolmaster, humanist Juan Lopez de Hoyos, edited and published these and other poems, with approbatory reference to Cervantes, in 1569. By this time, however, Cervantes had moved to Rome to serve as steward to Cardinal Guilio Acquaviva.

Goes to War and Imprisoned

The following year, Cervantes enlisted with Spanish forces stationed in Italy that planned to help defend the countries of southern Europe against the burgeoning Ottoman-Turkish empire, which threatened invasion. In 1571, under the general command of Don John of Austria, Cervantes fought heroically in the naval battle of Lepanto off the coast of Greece. Although shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand—this last an injury which left him permanently crippled—Cervantes gloried in the victory for the duration of his life. His military career ended in 1574 and was followed by royal commendations. While returning from the Tunisian coast to Spain the following year, Cervantes and a group of fellow Spaniards were captured by Algerian pirates; for the next five years they remained imprisoned in North Africa, waiting for friends and family to meet the inordinately high ransom demanded by the leader of the Moorish captors. After four failed escape attempts organized by Cervantes and numerous setbacks to efforts on their behalf at home, the prisoners were finally ransomed, and the group returned to Spain as national heroes late in 1580.

Unfortunately, Cervantes soon found that his heroic efforts had been forgotten and that procuring official employment amidst a floundering national economy—due largely to ill-conceived war efforts in other regions of Europe—appeared impossible. In hopes of fame as well as fortune, he began writing plays for the Spanish stage in the classical tradition of Euripides and Aeschylus, though he focused on contemporary national concerns. It is believed that during the course of only a few years Cervantes wrote some thirty full-length plays, though only his first (El trato de Argel; The Commerce of Algiers) appears to have been produced, probably in 1580. The advent of the prolific young dramatist Lope de Vega and his lively comedies, replete with recognizable stock characters and sensational stories intended for a wide audience, eclipsed any possibility for success which Cervantes might have had in this field. An attempt at mastering the pastoral romance form with La Galatea, published in 1585 (the year of his marriage to Catalina de Salazar y Palacios), also met with little public notice. In 1587, in desperate need of a salaried job to support his wife, his two sisters, and an illegitimate daughter, Cervantes accepted a position as commissary agent for the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately, Cervantes was caught a short time later in the middle of a dispute concerning grain requisitions and was charged with malfeasance and jailed on at least two, and possibly three, occasions. During this troubled period Cervantes continued to write poems—some of which won great popularity, though small remuneration—and dramas, which he unsuccessfully attempted to have produced. Cervantes's position as commissary agent ended in 1597, though for several years afterward he was hounded by investigators charging him with further mismanagement while in his former job.

Don Quixote

Remarkably, it was following this low point in his career that Cervantes—past fifty, impoverished, increasingly unhappy in marriage, and almost entirely unknown as a literary figure—undertook the composition of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, the first part of the masterpiece from which virtually all fame during and following his life stemmed. Apparently, Cervantes's initial intention was to capitalize on the public's overwhelming interest in chivalric romances by writing a lively, salable parody of the genre. His own references to this work and its sequel clearly demonstrate that he viewed the prose narrative in general as a lower literary form, and that he believed his efforts in the forms he admired most—poetry, drama, and poetic romance—would one day earn critical acclaim. Nonetheless, both critical and popular welcome emerged rapidly after publication of the novel in 1605. Within a few months the hilarious exploits of the eccentric knight Don Quixote were being recited and discussed throughout Spain. However, Cervantes's and the publisher's reprint and royalty rights had been grievously unprotected so that, despite the appearance of more than a dozen editions throughout Europe during the next several years, Cervantes's monetary compensation was slight.

As the creator of one of the most entertaining and vivid stories yet seen in European literature, Cervantes was now enabled to publish and command regard for several works heretofore neglected, including the burlesque poem "Viage del Parnaso" and the dramatic collection Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses; Cervantes also published Novelas exemplares, a collection of new and older material which, in many instances, anticipated in style and theme much of Don Quixote. In 1614, already far along in the composition of Part II to this work, Cervantes learned of a spurious imitation of his novel titled Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, recently published under the pseudonym Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. Adapting the situation to his advantage through a clever discreditation of Avellaneda's work within a chapter he was currently drafting, Cervantes raced to complete the authentic version, publishing it the following year. Again, the reception was universally enthusiastic, and Cervantes's name now commanded great admiration throughout Europe, particularly in England, following the appearance of spirited translations by Thomas Shelton. This second part of the novel was as widely pirated as the first, however, and afforded Cervantes relatively little recompense.

Don Quixote is the story of Alonso Quijano, a country gentleman living in the dry, desolate region of La Mancha in central Spain. As a hidalgo, he has plenty of free time, which he has devoted almost entirely to reading tales of legendary knights and their exploits. He buries himself in these books day and night until he begins to think of himself as a knight and develops a hunger for adventure. As the narrator reports: "With virtually no sleep and so much reading, he dried out his brain and lost his sanity." Quijano decides to become a knight-errant—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. When Don Quixote sets out again, it is with his newfound "squire," Sancho Panza, a fat peasant who expresses his insights in proverbs that convey the wisdom of the common folk in contrast to his master's book learning. With Sancho by his side, the knight Don Quixote fights giants disguised as windmills, frees a chain gang of prisoners (who then rob the knight and his squire), and engages in countless other adventures in the name of chivalry. Don Quixote's purpose in all this is plain: to restore justice and virtue to the world by battling the forces of evil, and thereby gain fame and fortune. Sancho's motives are slightly less admirable. He seeks to better his condition somehow through his association with this seemingly crazy nobleman. Don Quixote finishes this second round of exploits by once again being beaten to near death. He returns home with Sancho to recuperate and plan new adventures, at which point the first book ends.

The second book of Don Quixote, though written ten years after the first, picks up the action of the story only a few weeks after the point where Book One ended. Still at home, the knight is confronted by a neighbor who has recently returned from college, where he read The Adventures of Don Quixote. The neighbor explains to a pleased Don Quixote that his adventures are famous all over Europe and discusses with him the details of some of them. Inspired by this news, Don Quixote and Sancho soon set out again to right more wrongs. This time they meet with the Knight of the Wood (a village student in disguise who had promised to impede Don Quixote's adventures), join a wedding party, and destroy a traveling puppet show. The second volume of the novel also includes a long section in which Quixote and Panza stay with a duke and a duchess who have also read about the pair's famous adventures. The duke and the duchess are happy not only to play along with Don Quixote's fantasy, but to add to it for their own entertainment. Actually many of the "adventures" they devise for Don Quixote are quite cruel. The portrayal of the duke and duchess is an obvious criticism of the idleness and injustice of much of Spain's upper class in Cervantes's time. Eventually Quixote and Sancho leave the duke and duchess and embark on more adventures. These culminate in a visit to Barcelona, where the knight meets his downfall. Challenged to a joust by the Knight of the White Moon—who is actually his neighbor, the college student in disguise—Don Quixote is defeated. Under the terms of the knights' agreement, Quixote must relinquish his knighthood and return home for a year. This sacrifice proves too great for Don Quixote. He soon 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," he writes, "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.

It has often been claimed that, had he not written Don Quixote, Cervantes would undoubtedly be an obscure writer in world literature today. Judged by the overwhelming body of critical material devoted to this novel alone during the past three centuries, the assertion appears justified. Certainly the novel has, in addition to entertaining readers for centuries, wielded an incalculable literary influence and has been honored by a host of major literary figures. The reasons for which Don Quixote has attracted such veneration are numerous and varied. Firstly, it is a novel of original, unforgettable characters, the first such of its kind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza vie with the most memorable fictional personalities of all time in their larger-than-life existences—made so through their endlessly quotable speeches, distinctive mannerisms, and emblematic worldviews. Don Quixote is commonly understood, via his ludicrous exploits, perpetual endurance of personal suffering, missionary zeal, and blind refusal to reconcile reality with the ideals of a chivalric knight, as a composite of the tragic idealist, the unbridled imaginative genius, the suffering Savior, and the aging, psychosexually frustrated male. Sancho, conversely, is the ardent skeptic, the simpleminded expositor of rationality, and the would-be complacent individual (provided he is well-fed and reasonably comfortable). What largely elevates the novel to greatness, according to many scholars, is the close and complex bond that develops between these two characters. They share one another's perceptions of the world; they fuel each other's aspirations for fame; and they repeatedly share the pain and anguish that follow upon their brutal encounters with reality. Most importantly, each sustains the glorified existence—for they have crowned themselves roving apostles of truth and honor—of the other: without Sancho, Quixote is a knight lacking a squire; similarly, Sancho, without Quixote, is a common farmer lacking any exalted sense of purpose in his life. Each supports the other and ultimately both sustain the entire imaginative framework of the novel.

Few writers in world literature, aside from Shakespeare, are esteemed more than Cervantes. Yet, it is more truly said of Cervantes than of most major literary figures that his works vary widely in artistic value. The least of Cervantes's literary talents was that for writing poetry. In addition to his few individual poems, Cervantes generated through his verse dramas, two versified interludes, and the countless interpolated poems of his novels and short stories, a mass of poetic material which far exceeded the production of most noted Spanish poets of his era. His use of form and subject was wide, encompassing heroic and religious verse, elegies, and love poems. His most significant achievement in the genre is "Journey to Parnassus," the allegorical, self-deprecatory epic of Cervantes's trek to Parnassus's peak to seek recognition from Apollo and from Spanish colleagues for his poetic abilities. The poem is considered accomplished and occasionally lit by high humor and imagination. His verse in general, though, shows him a largely unimaginative poet unable to sustain extended, inventive lyric flights or sophisticated formulations of his thoughts and impressions.

As a dramatist, Cervantes was somewhat more successful according to modern evaluations. Only ten of his full-length plays survive: of these, only two—The Commerce of Algiers, which recreates his five years in captivity, and Numancia, a drama set in Classical Greece and reflecting Cervantes's desire for a renewed, heroic Spain—have been performed to moderate success since his death. Aside from a close adherence to the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place—guidelines which Lope successfully chose to disregard—Cervantes's dramas may be distinguished by an overriding concern with characters in search of identities.

Cervantes is consistently praised for his realistic portrayal of people from every corner of Spanish society. The author's keen insight into the lives of his fellow Spaniards—students, priests, dukes, soldiers, innkeepers, and peasants—was gained from a life of wandering. Many of the characters in Don Quixote, in fact, could represent stages in Cervantes's own life. He was, at various times, a student, a cardinal's assistant, a soldier, a captive in Algiers, a purveyor in charge of buying food for the Spanish Armada, a tax collector, and, of course, a writer (a poet, a playwright, and a novelist). Many of these jobs required extensive travel throughout Spain, which allowed Cervantes to form opinions not only about the different classes of Spanish people but about the different regions in which they lived. When Don Quixote battles a Basque, dines with a gentleman in Barcelona, or discusses literature with a priest from Toledo, Cervantes draws on his own extensive knowledge of Spanish culture to create an authentic picture of each of these characters.

Cervantes lived through two distinct periods in Spanish history. The first was a "golden age" of military success, national pride, and intellectual freedom; the second, a time of economic and military weakness and religious and intellectual repression. Don Quixote was written at the end of his life and in the midst of the second of these periods. Spain at that time was in a state of desengano (a word meaning both "disillusion" and "disappointment"); the Spanish people realized by 1605 that the powerful empire of the previous century had been built on a shaky foundation—and that the foundation was crumbling.

Don Quixote, considered by many the first modern novel, was both a symbol of its times and a ground-breaking work. An inspiration for countless novels, including Madame Bovary, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Joseph Andrews, Cervantes's story made an enormous impact on the literary world. In Cervantes's own world, Don Quixote was considered the funniest book of his time and was widely read by all members of society. As a comic novel, it failed to offer practical solutions for Spain's many problems, but its impractical hero, who remains positive despite his many downfalls, might have given the Spanish people a surge of optimism, and it definitely provided them with a reason to laugh.

If you enjoy the works of Miguel de Cervantes

If you enjoy the works of Miguel de Cervantes, you might want to check out the following books:

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 1856.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885.

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 1988.

In April 1616, Cervantes—by now very ill—picked up his pen one last time to bid farewell to the world: "Good-bye, all that is charming, good-bye, wit and gaiety, good-bye, you merry friends, for I am dying, and wishing to see you soon contented in another life!" Cervantes died on April 23, 1616, the same day on which William Shakespeare died.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Anglo, Sydney, editor, Chivalry in the Renaissance, Boydell (Rochester, NY), 1990.

Arbo, Sebastian Juan, Cervantes: The Man and His Time, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1955.

Bell, Aubrey F. G., Cervantes, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1947.

Byron, William, Cervantes: A Biography, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.

Cannavaggio, Jean, Cervantes, Norton (New York, NY), 1990.

Church, Margaret, Don Quixote: Knight of La Mancha, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1971.

Duran, Manuel, Cervantes, Twayne (New York, NY), 1976.

Ford, J. D. M., Main Currents of Spanish Literature, Holt (New York, NY), 1919.

Goldberg, Jake, Miguel de Cervantes, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1993.

Marlowe, Stephen, The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes: A Novel, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 1991.

Novels for Students, Volume 8, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Short Story Criticism, Volume 12, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Van Doren, Mark, Don Quixote's Profession, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1958.

World Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.*

Cervantes, Miguel de

views updated Jun 08 2018

Miguel de Cervantes

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Madrid, Spain


"For years, this Cervantes has been a great friend of mine, and he certainly knows a lot more about misfortune than he does about poetry."

The priest, Chapter Six of Don Quixote translated by Burton Raffel.

The Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is famous for Don Quixote, (pronounced kee-HO-teh) considered one of the great masterpieces of world literature. This work was largely responsible for creating what is known as the modern novel. (A novel is a long written work that tells a story featuring fictional, or imaginary, characters involved in complex plots.) Don Quixote has been translated into more than sixty languages and its central character, Don Quixote of la Mancha, has become a major figure in Western culture. Don Quixote's image has been popularized in films, musicals, and paintings. His creator, known simply as Cervantes, lived at the end of the glorious years of the Spanish empire and fought heroically at the decisive sea battle of Lepanto. However, throughout his life Cervantes lived on the margins of society in a continuous struggle for survival. On occasion he was subjected to all the mishaps of Don Quixote, with extended periods in captivity and ceaseless economic hardship. These experiences are reflected in the novel's narrative, which is sympathetic and touchingly humane.

Educates himself through reading

Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, a village close to Madrid, Spain, in 1547. He was the fourth of seven children in the family of Rodrigo de Cervantes, a barber-surgeon, and Leonor de Cortina. His birth coincided with the final years of the powerful rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; see entry). Cervantes's father was continually oppressed by debts and barely made a living by moving from town to town. Little is known about Cervantes's education. He probably studied with the Jesuits (members of the religious order founded by Ignatius of Loyola ; see entry), as he made references to them in some of his works. Evidence points to his having briefly studied in Madrid, Spain, in 1569, the same year his first poem appeared. He dedicated the poem to the recently deceased Elizabeth of Valois (1545–1568), the young wife of King Philip II (1527–1598; ruled 1556–98). It is known that Cervantes never attended university. Any knowledge he acquired over the years was due to his lifelong devotion to independent reading.

In 1570 Cervantes went to Italy and served in the household staff of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva (1543–1615). During this time a man named Miguel de Cervantes had a scuffle with another man, Antonio de Segura, who was stabbed. An arrest warrant was issued for the accused stabber. It is uncertain if this Miguel de Cervantes was the same person who became a famous writer. It is known that Cervantes did leave Spain at this time and went to Italy. Those years in Italy were important to his intellectual development. He completed his education by reading Italian literature and philosophy. Italy was the capital of culture, and the Italian experience was central to Cervantes's development as an artist. Years later, in one of twelve stories in a collection titled The Exemplary Novels, Cervantes described the amazement of a young Spaniard as he faced the exuberant cities of sixteenth-century Italy for the first time. Throughout his life, Cervantes used his own experiences as literary inspiration.

Wounded in battle

Later in 1570 Cervantes joined Diego de Urbina's Spanish forces at Naples. At that time Spain had the most powerful army in the world. Some of its bases were located in Italy for better access to the Mediterranean Sea, where Spain could fight the Ottoman Empire, which posed a major threat to European countries. The Spanish troops formed the most powerful army in Europe, feared by Spain's numerous enemies. Political alliances between European nations were fragile, so former enemies could quickly become friends, and vice-versa. The common enemy to all of Europe, however, was the Ottoman Empire, a vast Muslim (followers of the Islam religion) kingdom in Asia and parts of North Africa. The empire was based in Turkey. Fear of the Ottomans was especially great in Spain, where the Turkish citizen was identified with the Moor. (The Moors were originally nomadic people of the northern shores of Africa. They were mainly Berbers and Arabs, and strongly Muslim.) The Moors in Europe were the traditional foe of Catholics.

In 1492, after eight centuries of fighting, the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516; ruled 1468–1516) and Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504; ruled 1479–1504) expelled the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula (name of the body of land where Spain and Portugal are located). Now the Turks threatened maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea with piracy (robbing of ships). On October 7, 1571, the Spanish Armada (fleet of heavily armed ships) faced the Turkish fleet in the Gulf of Lepanto, an inlet of the Ionian Sea extending into Corinth, Greece. Cervantes was aboard the ship La Marquesa. Although he was ill, he insisted on staying on deck during the confrontation. He fought heroically in the battle, suffering three wounds. The two in his chest healed, but his left hand was maimed and remained useless for the rest of his life. Cervantes took pride in these wounds and considered them a reminder of a great historical event. The Christian fleet won the Battle of Lepanto and earned the gratitude of the European nations threatened by the Turkish empire.

Held captive by the Turks

After his wounds healed Cervantes remained in Italy as a soldier and participated in other campaigns (Navarino, Tunis, and La Galeta). Perhaps in order to obtain a promotion to the position of captain, he left Italy in 1575 to return to Spain. On the way, three Turkish galleys (large ships powered by oars) intercepted his ship off the coast of Marseille, France. The ship was forced to surrender, and the crew and passengers were taken as captives to Algiers, Africa, a center of the North African Christian slave trade. Cervantes' brother, Rodrigo, was on the same boat and was his companion in captivity. Cervantes was carrying letters of commendation (recommendation) from high-ranking officials. This made him appear to be an important person. As a result, Cervantes's cruel captor, a Greek named Dali Mami, set his ransom (money paid in exchange for release of a captive) at an impossibly high price. For five fearful years Cervantes lived as a prisoner in harsh conditions. He made several failed escape attempts, and on two occasions other captives informed the Turks of his plans. The misconception that Cervantes was such an important person probably helped save him from being impaled (killed by being placed on a sharp stake) or tortured after he tried to escape.

In 1580, with the help of the Trinitarian friars, a Catholic religious order committed to the rescue of Christian captives, Cervantes's family finally managed to pay the five-hundred escudos (Spanish money) ransom that secured his freedom. Years later Cervantes described the experiences of Christian captives in several plays, as well as in the "Story of the Captive" a chapter in Don Quixote. In his first work of narrative prose, Infomación de Argel (Information of Algiers) Cervantes wrote about the four unsuccessful escape attempts he organized. The reader learns that he refused to inform on any of his fellow captives, and he described a near miraculous escape from the severe punishments usually given out for those offenses. Most of what is known about Cervantes's experience of captivity comes from this work, which shows fierce dedication to Christianity.

Begins writing career

Cervantes's years of service in Italy and his subsequent years of captivity did not win him any privileges upon his return to Spain. He was not appointed to an official position, as he may have been expecting. Instead, he was briefly sent to Oran, Algeria, as a royal messenger in 1581. He struggled financially and tried to immigrate to the New World (European term for the Americas), but was denied official permission. During these years he wrote his first novel, La Galatea (1585). The novel gave him some prestige but not much economic help. In 1584 he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, a woman eighteen years his junior. She came into the marriage with a small dowry (money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage), but little is known about their relationship. The previous year, Cervantes had fathered an illegitimate daughter with the wife of the owner of a tavern that was a meeting place for writers and comedians. Cervantes did not legally recognize this daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, who was his only offspring, until she was fifteen.

In 1587 the Spanish fleet entered Cervantes' life again, when he was appointed commissary (officer in charge of supplies) for the Spanish Armada. The Armada's mission was to diminish the British fleet, which posed a continuous threat to the Spanish galleons sailing back from America. Spain's decaying economy depended heavily on the timely arrival of the galleons with their precious cargo. Cervantes's position did not allow for a repeat of his previous heroic behavior. His duty was simply to acquire grain from rural communities. Not only did the Armada expedition end in a military catastrophe when it was defeated by the British navy in 1588, but Cervantes's assignment also brought him endless distress. When municipalities and local churches refused to pay, he was accused of mismanagement. As a result, he was imprisoned in Córdoba in 1592 and Seville in 1597. It was probably during his last imprisonment that he conceived the idea of writing Don Quixote.

Although Cervantes published The Exemplary Novels in 1612, he had written them during the 1590s. In the prologue (introduction) Cervantes declared himself the first person ever to write novellas (a form of short fictitious stories originating in Italy) in Spanish. The story "El coloquio de los perros" (Colloquy of Dogs) follows the conversation of two dogs. "La española inglesa" (The Anglo-Spanish Lady) recounts the romantic adventure of a young girl who is kidnapped. She is taken to England where she keeps her Catholic faith and falls in love with the son of her captor. The main character in "El Licenciado Vidriera" (The Glass Licentiate) is much like the madman in Don Quixote : a scholar who becomes insane and believes that he is made out of brittle glass. His temporary insanity gives him remarkable understanding of the problems of his society.

Cervantes, the Failed Playwright

Cervantes tried without success to become a playwright. In Madrid, theater-going had become a very popular form of entertainment, much like going to the movies today. There were several open-air theaters in the city, and the people were eager to see new plays. Cervantes decided to try his fortune in the thriving market of comedies. He wrote several plays, but only two have survived from this period: El cerco de Numancia (The siege of Numantia) and El trato de Argel (The business of Algiers.) Cervantes's theatrical attempts were not very successful. Cervantes's competition was the public's favorite playwright Lope de Vega (1562–1635), a prolific writer who claimed the ability to write a play in one evening. Cervantes tried to establish a national theater based on the Greek and Roman model, which consisted of four acts, with comedies and tragedies clearly separated. Vega was more successful because he formed what is known as comedia. Comedia is divided into three acts, with no distinction between comedy and tragedy, and filled with fierce patriotism and celebration of national values. Cervantes did not abandon the theater altogether, however. In 1615, at a book-seller's request, Cervantes collected some of his plays and published them under the title of Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nunca representados (Eight plays and eight interludes never performed). The plays were published in the three-act comedia form, with the interludes (short plays between acts of longer plays) in the traditional form of farce (obvious humor). These plays were never performed in Cervantes's lifetime.

Don Quixote is a great success

In 1605 Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote. It was his first literary success and established him, at age fifty-eight, as an important writer. The novel contains a number of the popular literary styles and subjects of the time, such as the romantic novel focusing on tales of chivalry, and issues of religion and faith. (Chivalry was a medieval tradition that required knights, or nobleman soldiers, to pledge themselves to a complex code of honor. Knights frequently dedicated their military adventures to ladies, whose virtue they vowed to protect.) Cervantes originally intended to mock the popular chivalric romances and the adventures stories of errant (traveling) knights. He created Don Quixote, an elderly gentleman who becomes insane due to his excessive passion for reading chivalric romances. Don Quixote leaves his home, having decided to revive heroic times by reenacting knightly feats. Later, with the promise of fabulous rewards, he convinces the poor peasant, Sancho Panza, to be his squire (shield bearer). The novel narrates in a descriptive and majestic manner the absurd adventures of knight and squire as they travel through Spain. Cervantes depicts characters who reflected their society, thus making a commentary on the social customs of the day. The book was an immediate success and was reedited several times in subsequent years. It was translated into English as early as 1612 and eventually appeared in French and other European languages.

The success of Don Quixote was so extraordinary that in 1614 a man named Avellaneda attempted to write a sequel without the permission of Cervantes. This unauthorized work so enraged Cervantes that he decided to write the second part of Don Quixote, which was successfully published in 1615. This continuation is considered to be as good as, if not better than, the first installment. The second part is more reflective and possesses greater structural unity. At the conclusion Don Quixote dies after recovering his sanity, much to the distress of a transformed Sancho who is eager to engage in more adventures. With Don Quixote's death Cervantes ended the possibility of further adventures for his character.

Don Quixote is still widely read in nearly every language throughout the world. According to the web site Famous Hispanics The novel contributed many familiar expressions to the English language: "the sky's the limit," "thanks for nothing," "mind your own business," "think before you speak," "forgive and forget," "to smell a rat," "turning over a new leaf," "the haves and have-nots," "born with a silver spoon in his mouth," "the pot calling the kettle black," and "you've seen nothing yet." Don Quixote also contains one of the most memorable scenes in world literature: in Chapter Eight, Don Quixote—against the common-sense warnings of Sancho Panza—charges windmills that he mistakenly believes to be evil giants (see accompanying box). This scene resulted in the expression "tilting at windmills," which is used to describe a foolhardy venture that is sure to end in failure or disappointment.

Novel becomes classic

Writers in Cervantes's time lost the economic rights to their work after selling it to a merchant. Therefore, Cervantes's success did not grant him the economic security that best-sellers bring their authors today. Cervantes's chief literary achievements came late in his life. His widow published his last book, Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda (The Labors of Persiles and Segismunda) after his death. Cervantes thought that its success would exceed that of Don Quixote, but it did not. Cervantes signed the dedication of the book to the Count of Lemos on April 19, 1616. He died four days later and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Trinitarians' convent in Madrid. His wife survived him by ten years, and his daughter Isabel de Saavedra died in 1662.

Windmills In His Head

Don Quixote contains one of the most memorable scenes in world literature: Against the warnings of his squire Sancho Panza, the errant knight Don Quixote (spelled Quijote here) charges windmills that he mistakenly believes to be evil giants. Following are excerpts from the windmill scene.

Just then, they [Don Quixote and Sancho Panza] came upon thirty or forty windmills … and as soon as Don Quijote saw them he said to his squire:

"Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look here, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

"The ones you can see over there," answered his master, " with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long."

"Now look, your grace," said Sancho, " what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seem to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."

"Obviously," replied Don Quijote, "you don't know much about adventures.

Those are giants—and if you're frightened, take yourself away from here and say your prayers, while I go charging into savage and unequal combat with them."

Saying which, he spurred his horse, Rocinante, paying no attention to the shouts of Sancho Panza … but charged on, crying:

"Flee not, oh cowards and dastardly creatures, for he who attacks you is a knight alone and unaccompanied."

When Don Quixote and Rocinante reach the first windmill, a sudden gust of wind starts it moving. The sail breaks the knight's shield and spear, knocking him and his horse to the ground. Sancho comes to their rescue on his donkey, exclaiming, "God help me!… Didn't I tell your grace to be careful what you did, that these were just windmills, and anyone who could ignore that had to have windmills in his head?" Don Quixote is determined not to listen to common sense, however, and he replies, "Silence, Sancho, my friend… Even more than other things, war is subject to perpetual change." Then he mounts Rocinante, and the knight and his squire set out for further adventures.

Source: Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quijote. Burton Raffel, translator, and Diana de Armas Wilson, editor. New York: Norton, 1999, pp. 43–44.

All of Cervantes's major works have been translated into English, and Don Quixote is one of the few books translated into most languages. The literary influence of the novel has been immense. Direct traces can be identified in the work of countless other authors of various nationalities. In addition, thinkers and philosophers have dedicated essays to the myth of Don Quixote. Twentieth-century musical productions, such as The Man of La Mancha, and movies have been inspired by Don Quixote. Modern artists like the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) have immortalized the image of the errant knight escorted by his faithful squire.

For More Information


Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. J. R. Jones, translator. New York: Norton, 1990.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Adventures of Don Quixote. J. M. Cohen, translator. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Sound Recordings

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. St. Paul, Minn.: HighBridge,1997.

Man of La Mancha. New York: Sony Classical, 1996.

Video Recordings

Don Quixote. TNT Original: Hallmark Entertainment Production, 2000.

Man of La Mancha. Farmington Hills, Mich.: CBS/FOX Video, 1984.

Web sites

"Cervantes, Miguel de." Britannica.com. [Online] Available http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=114980&tocid=0&query=cervantes, April 5, 2002.

"Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de." Encyclopedia.com. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/searchpool.asp?target=@DOCTITLE%20Cervantes%20Saavedra%20%20Miguel%20de, April 5, 2002.

The Don Quixote Exhibit. [Online] Available http://milton.mse.jhu.edu:8006/, April 5, 2002.

"Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra." Famous Hispanics. [Online] Available http://coloquio.com/famosos/cervante.html, April 5, 2002.

Cervantes, Miguel de

views updated May 29 2018

CERVANTES, Miguel de

Nationality: Spanish. Born: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Alcalá de Henares (about 20 miles from Madrid), 1547. Education: Studied in Valladolid, then possibly with the Jesuits in Seville; studied with Juan López de Hoyos, Madrid. Military Service: Served in Spanish Navy, 1570-71; took part in the sea battle of Lepanto where he lost the use of his left hand; took part in the campaigns of Corfu, Navarino, and Tunis; imprisoned by the Turks, 1575-80. Family: Married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, 1584; one daughter. Career: Writer; worked for the Spanish government in various capacities; attendant to Cardinal Giulo Acquaviva, 1570. Died: 22 April 1616.



Obras completas de Cervantes. 1863-64.

Short Stories

Novelas exemplares. 1613; as Exemplarie Novells, 1640.


Primera parte de la Galatea (romance). 1585; as Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, translated by Gordon Willoughby James Gyll, 1867.

El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. 1605; as The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, translated by Thomas Shelton, 1612-20.

Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha.1615; as The Second Part of the History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, translated by Thomas Shelton, 1612-20.

Los trabaios de Persiles y Sigismunda historia setentrional (romance). 1617; as The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern History, 1619.


Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nuevos. 1615; as The Interludes of Cervantes, translated by S. Griswold Morley, 1948.

La Numancia. 1784; as Numantia, translated by Gordon WilloughbyJames Gyll, 1870.

El trato de Argel. 1784; as The Commerce of Algiers, 1883.

Interludes. 1964.


Yo que siempre trabajo y me desuelo. 1569.

Viage del Parnaso. 1614; as Voyage to Parnassus, translated by Gordon Willoughby James Gyll, 1870.



Cervantes: A Tentative Bibliography by J. D. M. Ford and R. Lansing, 1931; Cervantes: A Bibliography by R. L. Grismer, 1946; Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares: A Selective, Annotated Bibliography by Dana B. Drake, 1981.

Critical Studies:

Don Quixote, His Critics and Commentators with a Brief Account of the Minor Works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and a Statement of the Aim and End of the Greatest of Them All by A. J. Duffield, 1881; The Life of Miguel de Cervantes by James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, 1892; "Cervantes, the Exemplary Novelist" by William J. Entwistle, in Hispanic Review, January 1941, pp. 103-09; "Reality and Realism in the 'Exemplary Novels"' by Frank Pierce, in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, July-September 1953, pp. 134-42; Cervantes and the Art of Fiction by G. D. Trotter, 1956; "The Pertinence of 'El Curioso Impertinente"' by Bruce W. Wardropper, in PMLA, September 1957, pp. 587-600; Cervantes's Theory of the Novel by Edward C. Riley, 1963; Cervantes: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Lowry Nelson, Jr., 1969; Novel to Romance: A Study of Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares by Ruth S. El Saffar, 1974; Cervantes: A Biography by William Byron, 1978; The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote: A Critical History of the Romantic Tradition in Quixote Criticism by Anthony Close, 1978; "Symmetry and Lust in Cervantes' 'La fuerza de la sangre' " by David M. Gitlitz, in Studies in Honor of Everett W. Hesse, 1981; "Versions of Pastoral in Three Novelas ejemplares " by Thomas Hart, in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, October 1981, pp.283-91; Cervantes and the Humanist Vision: A Study of Four Exemplary Novels by Alban K. Forcione, 1982; Cervantes by Jean Canavaggio, 1986; "Narrative Structures in the Novelas Ejemplares: An Outline " by L. A. Murillo, in Cervantes, Fall 1988, pp.231-50; Through the Shattering Glass: Cervantes and the Self-made World by Nicholas Spadaccini, 1993; Formalistic Aspects of Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares by Joseph V. Ricapito, 1997; The Endless Text: Don Quixote and the Hemeneutics of Romance by Edward J. Dudley; Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetics of Laughter by Ronald Paulson, 1998.

* * *

While Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's most famous novelist, is the best known for his novel Don Quixote (Don Quixote de la Mancha), he worked in several literary genres, including the short story. In 1613, eight years after the publication of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, the first part of Don Quixote, and two years before the publication of its second part, Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha, Cervantes published a book entitled The Exemplary Novels (Novelas ejemplares) that included 12 short stories. Today these stories are ranked among their author's production "as works of invention next after Don Quixote; in correctness and grace of style they stand before it."

Cervantes was aware of the originality and beauty of his stories, and he wrote in the author's preface, "I consider (and with truth) that I am the first who has written Novelas in the Spanish language, though many have hitherto appeared among us, all of them translated from foreign authors. But these are my own, neither imitated nor stolen from any one: my genius has engendered them, my pen has brought them forth, and they are growing up in the arms of the press." In the same preface he also explained the meaning of "exemplary": "I have called them exemplary, because, if you rightly consider them, there is not one of them from which you may not draw some useful example; and were I not afraid of being too prolix, I might show you what savoury and wholesome fruit might be extracted from them, collectively and severally." In English literary translation from Spanish, "exemplary" implies that the stories are instructive.

The Exemplary Novels were inspired by a variety of personal experiences that, as often happens, went through the process of crystallization and modification in the mind of the author during the process of writing. The stories in The Exemplary Novels can be divided in two types: picaresque ("Rinconete and Cortadillo," "The Licentiate Vidriera, or, Doctor Glass-case," and "Dialogue between Scipio and Berganza, Dogs of the Hospital of the Resurrection in the City of Valladolid,") and romantic ("The Jealous Estramaduran," "The Illustrious Scullery-maid," "The Little Gipsy Girl," "The Generous Lover," "The Spanish-English Lady," "Two Damsels," "The Illustrious Scullery-maid," "The Force of Blood," and "The Lady Cornelia"). The collection also contains one short story, "The Deceitful Marriage," that is a frame tale for "Dialogue between Scipio and Berganza" and that does not fall in either of the other two categories. Although similar to the other stories in style, it is different in genre, and some critics, with reason, call "The Deceitful Marriage" a realist story.

The picaresque stories describe characters who go from place to place and are implicitly or explicitly critical of society, even though some of them are part of society's negative behavior. Thus, in "Rinconete and Cortadillo" both boys are thieves and pilferers. One of the main features that distinguish them, especially Rinconete, from the pilferers and thieves of the community of mafiosi that they encounter in Seville, however, is their sense of good and evil. Contrary to Monipodio, the head of that community, and its members, the boys are aware of the evil of the activity they profess. Understanding this, they feel negatively about Monipodio and his company, and eventually, Cervantes implies, they leave the community to start a new, "honest" life. Cervantes gives a picturesque characterization of Rinconete's thoughts regarding the matter:

… He [Rinconete] was most surprised at the respect and deference which all these people paid to Monipodio, whom he saw to be nothing better than a coarse and brutal barbarian. He recalled the various entries which he has read in the singular memorandum-book of the burly thief, and thought over all the various occupations in which that goodly company was hourly engaged. Pondering all these things, he could not but marvel at the carelessness with which justice was administered in that renowned city of Seville, since such pernicious hordes and inhuman ruffians were permitted to live there almost openly.

Rinconete's attitude is especially striking in comparison to the attitude of other members of Monipodio's company, who believe that going to church is sufficient to be blessed by God and thus to deserve the right to steal, to kill, and to do other activities that they do not even perceive as being criminal:

He [Rinconete] … was amazed to see with what security they all counted on going to heaven by means of the devotions they performed, notwithstanding the many thefts, homicides, and other offences against God and their neighbor which they were daily committing. The boy laughed too with all his heart, as he thought of the good old woman, Pipota, who suffered the basket of stolen linen to be concealed in her house, and then went to place her little wax candles before the images of the saints, expecting thereby to enter heaven full dressed in her mantle and clogs.

In "The Licentiate Vidriera, or, Doctor Glass-case," Cervantes's character Thomas Rodaja is a talented, tenacious, and determined scholar who is also critical of society, but to a higher degree than Rinconete. Rinconete is aware of society's shortcomings, but he laughs at and takes advantage of them. In contrast, Rodaja is critical of the injustice of society and of human behavior in a variety of social situations and is victimized by them. His situation is a result of the unforgiving quality and cruelty of people and of society. In relating Rodaja's story, Cervantes demonstrates how intelligence and honesty, given an unusual frame, are perceived as buffoonery and entertainment, whereas the same qualities framed within a regular style of life often are seen as a threat to the society they fight against. Cervantes also shows how even a talented and intelligent person, when deprived of any kind of aid, is powerless in the struggle with society and how his struggle is condemned to failure. He shows how Rodaja is forced out of society to become an outcast and how he later is forced out of life. Rodaja is forced to leave Seville for Flanders to become a soldier and to die, for it seems that there is no place for him in life. At his departure for Flanders, "where he finished in arms the life which he might have rendered immortal by letters," he exclaims, "Oh, city and court! You by whom the expectations of the bold pretender are fulfilled, while the hopes of the modest labourer are destroyed; you who abundantly sustain the shameless buffoon, while the worthy sage is left to die of hunger; I bid you farewell."

"Dialogue between Scipio and Berganza" is another pica-resque and allegorical story. Here Berganza, the dog who tells Scipio, another dog—both being endowed with the gift of speech and aware of its uniqueness—the story of his life, shows that he could not survive in human society. He was forced to change masters as well as his job because he was honest and good and could not tolerate the dirty tricks, malfeasance, and dishonestly of humans. Berganza's case is similar to Rodaja's though less severe. Unlike Rodaja, Berganza is critical of society only through his unarticulated observations. His "professional" situation is of his own choice. Wherever he has worked, he has been appreciated, but he did not want to stay because the conditions of work were not congenial to his moral values. Like Rodaja, because of his values, he does not find the right place in society and is forced to accept jobs that are inferior to his talents.

In one of his adventures Berganza discovered, while guarding a flock of sheep, that the high mortality rate among the animals was caused not by wolves as the shepherds claimed but by the shepherds themselves. It is one of the most picturesque situations in which Berganza found himself. "I was horror-struck," exclaimed Berganza, "when I saw that the shepherds themselves were the wolves, and that the flock was plundered by the very men who had the keeping of it…. Thus there were no wolves, yet the flock dwindled away, and I was dumb, all which filled me with amazement and anguish. O Lord! said I to myself, who can ever remedy this villainy? Who will have the power to make known that the defense is offensive, the sentinels sleep, the trustees rob, and those who guard you kill you?"

Cervantes's romantic stories are different. Although the majority of them have picaresque elements, mainly expressed in characters who go from place to place and encounter a number of adventures, their tone is less didactic. All are constructed in a similar manner. In them an event, usually something negative, begins the plot, which then develops by taking a more positive direction. The last third of each story involves overcoming an obstacle that threatens the possibility of a successful outcome. In spite of obstacles, the positive ending is achieved through lucky circumstances and the determination of the characters. The characters of the romantic stories usually go through only limited development, and each story usually contains a woman of divine beauty. The fairy-tale element of these stories lies in the infallible victory of good over evil. Even if the evil is not always punished, justice always triumphs.

The main focus of the romantic stories is on interpersonal relationships. One of the main issues raised in them is the treatment of women by men and by society, including the physical and psychological offenses that women endure in their relationships with men. Rape is present in a number of the stories. On the one hand, from a theoretical point of view the question of honor in the relationships of men toward women plays an important role; men owe women respect, and virginity seems to be an issue. But on the other hand, from a practical point of view the fact that socially and physically the women are defenseless allows men to treat them without respect, even with regard to their virginity, social rank, or humanity.

Rape is the central theme of "The Force of Blood," and it is a secondary theme in "The Illustrious Scullery-maid." In both stories Cervantes not only treats the cruelty of rape, but he also shows the consequences of it. In "The Force of Blood" the raped virgin, Leocadia, gives birth to a child whom even she cannot claim as her own since it was not born within marriage. In "The Illustrious Scullery-maid" the widowed Lady of Guadalupe gives birth to a child away from home "to hide her shame," and she is forced to abandon the child, whom she never sees again and who is condemned to be brought up not according to her birth, in wealth and culture, but in relative poverty. It is true that the stories that raise these issues end happily. The offender usually repents and repairs his past mistakes by the nobility of his present and future deeds, but the issue remains. Thus, Rodolfo in "The Force of Blood" eventually marries Leocadia, and Don Diego in "The Illustrious Scullery-maid" eventually becomes aware of his guilt and repents by finding his grown-up daughter and taking care of her.

Psychological offense is a central theme of "Two Damsels." In this story one man, Marco Antonio, a Don Juan figure, takes psychological advantage of two women. He seduces both of them psychologically and one of them physically. After he promises marriage to both, he disappears. Nonetheless, as in other of Cervantes's stories, justice is restored. The offender repents and marries Teodosia, the woman most offended. The other woman, Leocadia, finds happiness with the brother of Teodosia, Don Rafael.

Another important issue, the question of real love versus love as attraction, is raised in two stories, "The Spanish-English Lady" and "The Little Gipsy Girl." In the first story the love of Richard for Isabelle is tested through her illness, which results in her temporarily losing her beauty. She regains her beauty once she is cured. Although Richard does not know that she will do so, he remains faithful to her. In the second story the principal character, Preciosa, distinguishes between love as attraction, which is based on physical appearance, and real love, in which a person is loved for his soul and not only for his appearance. To make sure that she is loved for what she is, she puts her beloved, Don Juan de Carcamo, through numerous trials. Her discourse about love and attraction is filled with wisdom and insight:

… I know that the passion of love is an impetuous impulse, which violently distorts the current of the will, makes it dash furiously against all impediments, and recklessly pursue the desired object. But not unfrequently when the lover believes himself on the point of gaining the heaven of his wishes, he falls into the hell of disappointment. Or say that the object is obtained, the lover soon becomes wearied of his so much desired treasure, and opening the eyes of his understanding he finds that what before was so devoutly adored is now become abhorrent of him. The fear of such a result inspires me with so great of a distrust, that I put no faith in words, and doubt many deeds.

In spite of the hardships present in Cervantes's stories and in spite of a great deal of injustice and cruelty, the spirit of the works is optimistic. They all impress by their wisdom, charm, beauty, humor, kindness, and faith in the triumph of justice and fairness. They are also instructive, but the picaresque stories are instructive in a different way than the romantic stories. If the picaresque stories convince us of a realistic view of life that is quite disappointing, they also teach us to be critical of it. The romantic stories, on the other hand, make life more beautiful than it is, with the lesson that it is up to us to create a life filled with beauty and nobility. It seems that the majority of Cervantes's stories were written to teach people to be critical and to inspire them by giving an example of the justice and grace, together with the beauty living in each of us, that must triumph over the dark part of human nature.

—Rosina Neginsky

See the essay on "The Little Gipsy Girl."

Cervantes, Miguel de

views updated May 17 2018

Miguel de Cervantes

BORN: 1547, Alcalá de Henares, Spain

DIED: 1616, Madrid, Spain


GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama

Don Quixote (1605–1615)


Miguel de Cervantes had an enormous impact on the development of modern fiction. His novel Don Quixote represents the first extended prose narrative in European literature in which characters and events are depicted in

accord with modern realistic tradition. It is considered the original European novel, one from which all others, in some sense, are descended.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Family and Early Life Miguel de Cervantes was born on or about September 29, 1547, in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, Spain, to Rodrigo de Cervantes Saavedra and Leonor de Cortinas. His father was a pharmacist and surgeon, and the family traveled frequently as he looked for work. Cervantes went to school in Madrid, where he probably wrote his first known works, poems on the death of Spanish queen Isabel de Valois, which were published in 1569.

Soldier and Prisoner At that point, Cervantes had moved to Rome to serve as steward to Guilio Cardinal Acquaviva, a high-ranking clergyman. The following year, he enlisted with the Spanish army. In 1571, Cervantes fought in a naval battle off the coast of Greece. Although shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand—an injury that left him permanently crippled—Cervantes gloried in the victory for the rest of his life. His military career ended in 1574 and was followed by royal commendations.

While returning from the Tunisian coast to Spain the following year, Cervantes and a group of fellow Spaniards were captured by Algerian pirates; for the next five years they remained imprisoned in North Africa. After four failed escape attempts organized by Cervantes and numerous setbacks to efforts on their behalf at home, the prisoners were finally ransomed, and the group returned to Spain as national heroes late in 1580.

Early Writing With a faltering Spanish economy, jobs were few and far between. The Spanish government spent vast sums on foreign wars and the flow of money from New World territories was being interrupted by enterprising British privateers who seized Spanish treasure ships in the name of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In hopes of fame as well as fortune, Cervantes began writing plays for the Spanish stage in the classical Greek tradition of Euripides and Aeschylus, though he focused on contemporary national concerns. It is believed that during the course of only a few years Cervantes wrote some thirty full-length plays, although only one was produced.

In 1585, he wrote his first pastoral romance, Galatea and married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios. The following year, he took a position as requisitioning supplies for the Spanish Armada, a fleet of ships assembled for a planned invasion of England. The Spanish Armada was dealt a crushing defeat by the British navy in the English Channel in 1588. Historians speculate that this costly defeat marked the end of Spain's power and influence in Europe. During the 1580s and 1590s, Cervantes found himself on the wrong side of the law for various reasons (debt, tax fraud, even suspected murder), and was imprisoned and released several times.

Don Quixote Throughout this period, he had continued to write both well-received poetry and unsuccessful plays. He began to write El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (Don Quixote) in order to capitalize on the public's overwhelming interest in chivalric romances by writing a lively, salable parody of the genre. Part 1 was published in 1605 to popular and critical praise and was an immediate best seller. Part 2 (1615) was equally popular. The chivalric romances Cervantes poked fun at were tales of knights and ladies told by traveling storytellers of the earlier Middle Ages. By Cervantes's day, the idea of a gallant knight setting off on a quest was considered an entertaining notion of a bygone era.

Cervantes published a few more tales after Don Quixote, and was finishing a new novel when he died in 1616.

Works in Literary Context

The First Modern Novel Don Quixote is widely considered the first modern novel. The term “novel” in this case means a long work of fiction written in prose featuring

realistic characters and settings. Don Quixotewas, in fact, a self-conscious break from the popular prose genre of the time, the “romance,” which featured heroic characters and mythic settings. Cervantes used his work to poke fun at the popularity of these romances.

Don Quixote has had a vast influence on the development of the modern novel. It remains a watershed work of art that exerted undeniable impact on the fiction of Henry Fielding, French writer Alain Rene Le Sage, Scottish writer Tobias Smollett, and other early novelists. The novel also anticipated—through its treatment of the comic outsider, satire of social convention, and exploration of the human psyche—countless later fictional masterpieces.

Illusion and Reality Although the structural components in this long novel are numerous, perhaps most important is its novel-within-a-novel scheme. Cervantes's representation and examination of the fine line between real and imagined worlds, between sanity and insanity, between the world of the creative artist and the actual world, becomes the book's central theme.

Works in Critical Context

The general trend in criticism has been overwhelmingly favorable toward Don Quixote. From the seventeenth century onward, the work has progressively been regarded as more than a comic entertainment. Ultimately, critics have viewed the novel as an epic masterpiece in which the abnormal psyche of the human mind, the friendship between individuals, and the struggle to create lasting art out of ordinary existence are dramatized in modern language and form. As ardent as the proponents of the work are, however, it has had prominent detractors. English Romantic poet Lord Byron, for example, claimed that Cervantes was responsible for extinguishing the chivalric spirit in Europe through his parodies of chivalric encounters, a charge repeated by English novelist Ford Madox Ford in 1938.

Critics often claim that, had Cervantes not written Don Quixote, he would undoubtedly be an obscure writer in world literature today. What largely elevates the novel to greatness, according to many scholars, is the close and complex bond that develops between the two characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is commonly understood as a composite of the tragic idealist, the unbridled imaginative genius; Sancho, on the other hand, is the ardent skeptic, the simple-minded advocate of rationality.

Responses to Literature

  1. Think about Don Quixote as the idealistic genius and Sancho Panza as the rational skeptic. Write an informal essay in which you describe the character you are more like. Do you have a close friend who is the opposite type?
  2. Don Quixote was adapted for stage as the musical Man of La Mancha, and its 1965 Broadway production garnered numerous awards. The musical was adapted for film in 1972. Read the novel, then watch the film version. Bearing in mind that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to satirize popular chivalric romances, what do you make of the characterization of Don Quixote in the film? What aspects of Don Quixote does the film highlight? Why do you think this version of Don Quixote would appeal to modern viewers?
  3. Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, considered a classic of American literature, but she has published nothing since. Cervantes's reputation arguably rests on one novel as well. Do you think someone should be considered a “classic” writer for just one work, or should a reputation be based on multiple works of high quality? Write an essay arguing your point of view, being sure to use specific reasons.


Cervantes's famous contemporaries include:

Tycho Brahe (1546–1601): Danish nobleman, astrologer, and alchemist whose observations of planetary and stellar positions enabled the discovery of the laws of planetary motion.

William Byrd (c. 1543–1623): English Renaissance composer well known for his liturgical music and works for harpsichord.

Caravaggio (1571–1610): Italian Baroque artist whose use of naturalism was radical for his time.

Philip II of Spain (1527–1598): King of Spain, Naples, Portugal, and Chile, as well as husband of Queen Mary I of England. He led the Spanish Empire to become a global power through expansion and exploration.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616): An English poet and dramatist considered by many to be the greatest English-language writer, he died on the same date as Cervantes.



Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. Trans. J. R. Jones. New York: Norton, 1990.

Church, Margaret. Don Quixote: Knight of La Mancha. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

Frye, Northrup. “The Acceptance of Innocence.” In Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Goldberg, Jake. Miguel de Cervantes. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.

Madariaga, Salvador de. “Don Quixote“: An Introductory Study in Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Mondador, Arnoldo, ed. Cervantes: His Life, His Times, His Works. Trans. Salvator Attanasio. New York: American Heritage, 1970.

Predmore, Richard. The World of “Don Quixote.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Russell, P. E. Cervantes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.


Bamforth, Iain. “A Lance for Hire: 400 Years of Don Quixote.” Quadrant SO (November 2006): 68-71.

Qualia, Charles B. “Cervantes, Soldier and Humanist.” South Central Bulletin 9 (January 1949): 1, 10-11.

Web Sites

Cervantes Project. Retrieved May 24, 2008 from http://cervantes.tamu.edu/V2/CPI/index.html.

Cervantes Society of America. Retrieved May 24, 2008 from http://www.h-net.org/~-cervantes/csapage.htm.

Cervantes, Miguel de

views updated Jun 08 2018

Miguel De Cervantes

Born: c. 1547
Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Died: April 23, 1616
Madrid, Spain

Spanish author and novelist

Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes is one of the greatest novelists of the Spanish language. His masterpiece, Don Quixote, is one of the most important and influential books in the history of the novel.

Early years

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in Alcalá de Henares in the old kingdom of Toledo, Spain. His birth date is unknown but a record states that he was christened on October 9, 1547. It is likely that because of the Christian name he was given, he was born on September 29, Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. He was the second son and the fourth of seven children of the pharmacist-surgeon Rodrigo de Cervantes and his wife, Leonor de Cortinas.

Nothing is known of Miguel Cervantes' life until 1569. In that year Juan López de Hoyos, a humanist (having to do with human concerns and values) teacher who was devoted to literary culture and whose ideas emphasized nonreligious concerns, brought out a volume in memory of the death of Queen Isabel de Valois in 1568. Cervantes contributed three poems to this work, and López de Hoyos wrote of him as "our dear and beloved pupil." Since López de Hoyos was an admirer of the Dutch humanist Erasmus (c. 14661536), Cervantes' attitudes about religion and his admiration toward Erasmus is reflected in his works. Other than the probable likelihood that he studied with the Jesuits in Seville, Spain, that is all that is known about his education.

Military career

In 1570 Cervantes joined the Spanish forces at Naples, Italy. At this time the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and the Mediterranean countries (Christians) were at war over control of land and power. As a soldier he witnessed the naval victory at the Gulf of Lepanto (now Gulf of Corinth), Greece, on October 7, 1571. Aboard the Marquesa, in the thick of the battle, he was wounded twice in the chest and once in the left hand. The last wound maimed his hand for life. Cervantes often mentioned this victory in his works.

The fleet returned to Messina, and there Cervantes recovered. He saw battle action from 1572 through 1574. While on garrison duty in Palermo, Italy, he felt he was ready for a promotion to captain. He got letters of recommendation and obtained leave to sail back to Spain. With his brother Rodrigo he sailed from Naples on the Sol in September 1575.

Five years of captivity

On September 26 the Sol was captured with its crew and passengers. Cervantes lived in slavery for five years. In captivity he demonstrated an unbreakable will and honorable courage. He led several escape attempts but failed. Twice his family gave priests ransom money, but the amounts were not enough. The first ransom money was used to rescue his brother.

Christian merchants supplied the difference for the second attempt. On September 19, 1580, Cervantes was released. On October 10, before leaving Algiers, Cervantes wrote his Información, which described his conduct while in captivity. Two weeks later he sailed for Madrid, Spain, and on December 18, 1580, he signed a statement about his release. He had proved himself as a true Christian soldier, equally heroic in battle and in captivity.

Early works

While in Tomar, Portugal, in 1581, Cervantes was given money to accomplish a royal mission to Oran. This he did, but the royal service was not very rewarding. In a signed letter, addressed to the royal secretary and dated February, 17, 1582, Cervantes tells of his misfortunes in trying to obtain a post in the Peninsula. He also states that he is ready to apply for some post in the Indies, and reports some progress in the writing of the Galatea. This novel was to be his first published book, but it did not appear until 1585.

About this same time, Cervantes turned to writing for the theater, an activity that guaranteed a certain income if the plays were successful. In the Adjunta to his Viaje del Parnaso (1614) and in the prologue to his Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (1615), he tells of his dramatic successes and his eventual downfall. In a manuscript discovered in 1784 it was learned that of these early plays only two have survived: Los tratos de Argel and La Numancia.

On December 12, 1584, Cervantes married Doña Catalina de Palacios Salazar y Vozmediano, from Esquivias, in the old kingdom of Toledo, Spain. About a year or two before his wedding, Cervantes had an affair with Ana Franca de Rojas, with whom he had a daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, who was to become an important figure in his later years.

Royal service continues

In 1587 Cervantes was in Seville, Spain. The war between Spain and England was gearing up. The preparation of the Spanish Armada for its disastrous expedition against England was happening on a grand scale. But his new post as commander of the navy brought him only grief, shame, and discomfort. The Cathedral church of Seville excommunicated (denied the rights of church practices and membership) him for taking their grain in Ecija. He traveled considerably, but his finances went from bad to worse. On May 21, 1590, he wrote to the king requesting one of four vacant posts in the Indies. His request was denied. As he had before, he turned to the theater for financial help. Cervantes agreed to write six plays, but payment would be withheld if the producer did not find each of the plays to be "one of the best ever produced in Spain." Nothing is known of the outcome of this contract. For the next seven years Cervantes was in and out of jail for bad financial deals.

Don Quixote

Little documentation for the years from 1600 to 1603 exists. It is very probable that Cervantes was jailed again for financial reasons. Most of his time must have been taken up by the writing of Don Quixote. In January 1605 Don Quixote was published in Madrid. It was an immediate success. In the words of the German philosopher F. W. J. von Schelling, Don Quixote is "the most universal, the most profound and the most picturesque portrait of life itself."

Again, from 1605 to 1608, there is little known information about Cervantes. When he reappeared in Madrid, his illegitimate (born out of wedlock) daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, involved him in a series of lawsuits having to do with her financial matters. Once more Cervantes sought escape from Spain, and in 1610 he tried to go to Naples as an attendant to the newly appointed governor, the Count of Lemos. He was turned down, but nevertheless, he dedicated five books, including the second Quixote, to the Count of Lemos.

Later works

When Cervantes was sixty-five years old he entered a period of extraordinary literary creativity. His Novelas ejemplares were published in Madrid in 1613. They are twelve little masterpieces, with which Cervantes created the art of short story writing in Spain.

In 1614 his poem Viaje del Parnaso was published. But that same year a counterfeit (fake; not genuine) copy of Don Quixote, signed with a false name, was published. The identity of this author remains the greatest mystery of Spanish literature. His writing was not affected by the publication of the counterfeit, and in 1615 he published Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses, concrete proof of his devotion to the theater. Later in 1615 Cervantes published his own second part of Don Quixote. The only fitting praise of the authentic second part of Don Quixote is to say that it is even better than the first part.

Cervantes then put all of his energy into finishing Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, a novel of adventures. He had probably begun it at the turn of the century. He signed the dedication to the Count of Lemos (dated April 19, 1616) on his deathbed. He died four days later in Madrid. His widow published his last work in 1617. Cervantes' unmarked grave is in the convent of the Calle de Lope de Vega in Madrid, Spain.

For More Information

Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

De Armas, Frederick Alfred. Cervantes, Raphael and the Classics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Entwistle, William J. Cervantes. Oxford, England: The Clarendon Press, 1940.

Cervantes, Miguel de (1547–1616)

views updated May 21 2018

Cervantes, Miguel de (15471616)

Spanish novelist and playwright whose work Don Quixote has become a worldrenowned

epic, laying an important foundation for modern literature and the novel. Born in Alcala de Henares, a town near Madrid, Cervantes was the son of a physician and minor noble. He left Spain as a young man and journeyed to Rome, where he entered the service of a cardinal. In Rome he discovered the literature of ancient Latin authors, and was inspired by the idea of reviving the literature of antiquity.

Cervantes enlisted with a Spanish garrison in the city of Naples, Italy, then under the control of a Spanish royal dynasty. He sailed with the fleet that battled the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto, off the western coast of Greece, in 1571. He was wounded by gunfire in the battle and lost the use of his left handan injury that remained a source of great pride throughout his life. He returned to active service and sailed in expeditions against the Turks in Greece and Tunis, a North African port.

In 1575 he set out for Spain from Naples. In the waters off the northern coasts of Catalonia, Cervantes's ship was attacked and he was captured by Algerian pirates, who brought him to the city of Algiers and sold him into slavery. He was held for five years until his parents ransomed him and brought him back to Spain.

Civilian life in Spain led him into a number of poorly paid positions as a civil servant. He worked as a purchasing agent for the fleet assembled against the English, known as the Spanish Armada, and as a tax agent, whose duties included the collection of taxes for the royal treasury. He suffered arrest and two short prison terms for misconduct and debt; historians believe that during one of these imprisonments he began writing Don Quixote.

He had begun his literary effort with La Galatea, a short novel, in 1585. In 1597 he was accused of mishandling money as a tax collector and was jailed in the royal prison of Seville. In 1607 Cervantes settled in Madrid, where he remained for the rest of his life. He wrote the Exemplary Novels in 1613, and a second part to Don Quixote in 1615. He recounted his misadventures as a slave in Algiers in two plays, The Traffic of Algiers and The Baths of Algiers.

Don Quixote first appeared in 1605. It was a tale of a poor Spanish nobleman, who relives the glories of the chivalric age through a fertile imagination and the companionship of a simple and devoted companion, Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is in constant quest to fight injustice, defend his honor, and win the hand of the fair maiden Dulcinea.

The novel attracted a wide audience through down-to-earth language, realism, sharply drawn characters, and its vivid depiction of the many ironic encounters that arise from the hero's delusions. The book is seen as a break with the chivalric romances that were the dominant form of literature in medieval Europe, and in this way paves the way for the modern novel and its basis in everyday experience and the inner emotional and spiritual life of its characters. Don Quixote has been translated into dozens of languages and printed in more than five hundred editions and remains a landmark of Western literature.

See Also: Lepanto, Battle of; Shakespeare, William

Cervantes, Miguel de

views updated May 18 2018

Cervantes, Miguel de (1547–1616) Spanish novelist, poet, and dramatist. Cervantes published two volumes of his masterpiece Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). Don Quixote is a great archetype of Western fiction; the picaresque hero who misapplies the logic of high Romance to the mundane situations of modern life. It established Cervantes as a towering figure in Spanish letters. Other works include two surviving plays and a collection of short stories, Novelas Ejemplares (1613).


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