Cervantes, Miguel de (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Cervantes, Miguel de (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra)

Cervantes, Miguel de (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra) (1547-1 61 6)

Spanish novelist and poet

A failure at drama and verse, Miguel de Cervantes nonetheless provided Spain with a poignant burlesque epic at the height of the Renaissance. Born at Alcala de Henares, he grew up on the outskirts of Madrid in a family with impoverished aristocratic connections. During his education at a Jesuit academy and the University of Salamanca, he spent his teens exploring verse and absorbing the Christian dogma that gave strength to the Spanish Empire. A short-lived secretarial post at the Vatican to Cardinal Nuncio Acquavita was followed by fighting as an infantryman at Genoa, Naples, Sardinia, Sicily, and Tunis. At age 24, he was aboard the galley Marquesa at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), his left hand paralyzed from a bullet wound. His adventures in early manhood included six months of hospital rehabilitation and kidnap by Mediterranean buccaneers in 1575. In an Algerian slave pen, his struggles to free himself and 60 bondsmen won the admiration of Dey Hassan Pasha. Ransomed in 1580 and returned to genteel poverty, Cervantes wed for money and began a writing career. The failure of his marriage and his arrest and jailing for embezzlement as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada produced the ideal setting for writing an anti-epic and parody of knight errantry.

From his cell in Seville, Cervantes wrote El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (Don Quixote of La Mancha, first part composed in 1605, second part in 1615), a best-selling collection of tales containing observations and commentary on rakes, rogues, peasant herders, and an antihero from Spain's Golden Age. Don Quixote's farcical exploits derive from his delusions promoted through readings of Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo's Portuguese chivalric tale Amadis of Gaul (1508) and other CRUSADER LORE. An episodic quest story replete with axioms, irony, symbolism, puns, mythological and biblical allusions, and interpolated romances, Cervantes's work elevates an eccentric 50-year-old dreamer into a champion of justice. Throughout his interaction with duplicitous innkeepers, barmaids, picaros, and con artists, the don clings to his vision of the unreachable Dulcinea, a paragon of beauty and grace to uplift and inspire him. His dependence on the worn-out nag Rocinante epitomizes his tendency to rationalize, for he insists that “neither the Bucephalus of Alexander nor the CID'S Babieca could be compared with [his horse]” (Cervantes 1957, 17). Cervantes' mockery of past examples of heroism suggests his intent to infuse Spain with a new, more sensible expectation.

Cervantes interweaves his quest story with examples of state cruelty and vengeance in the Ottoman Empire, Spain's prime opponent of her sovereignty and religion. Of the establishment of a Christian empire, Don Quixote lectures his squire, Sancho Panza, on elements of governance suggesting NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI'S pragmatic views on revolution and spite. For example, the Christian apostate Uchalin spends 14 years rowing a galley for the Grand Turk and abandons his faith to reconcile himself to shipboard brutality. Once Uchalin ascends the throne of Algiers, his experiences cause him to extend benevolence and humanity to prisoners of war. Don Quixote's solution to retribution is to adopt moral principles—benevolence and a love of citizenship and freedom. Of the latter, he exclaims, “There is on earth … no contentment that can equal that of regaining liberty” (39). By surrounding the spirit with a sweet serenity, the avenger ceases wanting to retaliate for past injustices, even forced labor as a galley slave. Some literary critics suspect the author of purposefully undermining Spain's lust for empire and wealth in the Western Hemisphere by instilling virtue in its citizens and discouraging the need for conquest and plunder.

Other works by Cervantes include La Galatea (1585), a pastoral romance; Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels, 1613), a collection of short stories; the novel Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda, 1617; published posthumously); and unsuccessful attempts at drama and poetry. He died in Madrid on April 22, 1616, and was buried on April 23, the same day that WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE died. UNESCO therefore established April 23 as the International Day of the Book.


Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Translated by Walter Starkie. New York: New American Library, 1957.

Higuera, Henry. Eros and Empire: Politics and Christianity in Don Quixote. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.