Every man is the child of his own deeds • Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800
Spain’s Golden Century
1499 The story of a procuress told in a series of dialogues, La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas, marks the beginning of a literary renaissance in Spain.
1554 The anonymously published novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities invents a new form — the picaresque novel.
1609 Lope de Vega, Spain’s most prolific playwright and a major poet, publishes his artistic manifesto New Rules for Writing Plays at this Time to justify his writing style.
1635 Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s philosophical allegory Life is a Dream is one of the Golden Century’s most widely translated works.
Straddling the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain’s Golden Century refers to an extraordinary flourishing of the arts that began with the nation’s rise to superpower status via the wealth of its colonies in America.
Under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519—56), there was a free flow of ideas across Europe, with Spain’s writers responding to the excitement of the Renaissance. New techniques in storytelling, verse, and drama produced defining prose, poetry, and plays. The anonymously authored Lazarillo de Tormes featured a picaro (young rascal) narrator of mixed fortunes, giving the world a new literary genre — the picaresque novel. Experimentation with verse forms as well as metre characterized the work of poet Garcilaso de la Vega. And the dramatist Lope de Vega produced a vast and dazzling oeuvre of 1,800 plays — rich in character, plot, and history — together with sonnets, novellas, and lyric poetry.
In the same period, Miguel de Cervantes produced Don Quixote (originally titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote), the defining literary achievement of the Golden Century. Like Lope de Vega, he was writing near the end of an era, as Spain began to decline owing to a combination of despotic rule, religious fanaticism, and dwindling fortunes after the English defeat of the Armada. Out of this climate of flux leapt Don Quixote, an eccentric hero who bestrides a romantic past and an unstable present in a chivalric adventure that continues to enchant and inspire.
Engagement with reality
Just as the plays of Cervantes’ contemporary William Shakespeare are at the origin of modern drama, so Don Quixote is at the origin of modern fiction. Both writers delved into the motivations, actions, and emotions of their protagonists in a way that had not been attempted before, lending such characters as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Don Quixote a psychological complexity that made them seem real.
Don Quixote engages with reality on two main levels. The main character of Cervantes’ novel is enthralled by the knightly heroes of earlier chivalric romances, and renames himself “Don Quixote” in imitation of them. Yet unlike these romantic heroes, the characters of Don Quixote worry about everyday concerns, such as food and sleep. They travel through a world of taverns and windmills, along fairly nondescript roads and paths. The characters occupy an ordinary setting that resembles our world.
On another level of engagement, the novel also operates according to the literary approach known as “realism”: everything happens within the unities of time and place (the action in the book is contemporary with the time it was written, it adheres to a specific geographical region, and is broadly chronological), without magical or mythical intervention.
Giants of the imagination
Despite this realism, illusion has its place in the novel — but only in the mind of its central character. Don Quixote’s encounters with innkeepers, prostitutes, goatherds, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and scorned lovers are magnified by his imagination into the kind of chivalrous quests that might be undertaken by the knight Amadis of Gaul, in the romances that bear his name. Donning his rusty armour, mounting the ancient horse he renames Rocinante, and enlisting the simple labourer Sancho Panza as his “squire”, Don Quixote — in the best tradition of chivalric romances — announces his love for the peasant girl he calls Dulcinea. In his realm of fantasy the everyday is transformed into the extraordinary, the lasting symbol of which are the windmills of La Mancha, elevated by his imagination into fearsome enemies, with whom he sees fit to engage in combat.
The gap between reality and illusion is the source of the book’s comedy (and no less its tragedy), and is a theme that has nourished fiction across the world in the subsequent four centuries. Yet, having established his theme, Cervantes deepens and complicates it in the second part of his novel, which was published 10 years after the first part.
In Cervantes’ Part Two, the characters — including Don Quixote himself — have read, or at least heard of, the first part of the novel in which they appear. When strangers encounter Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in person, they already know their famous history. A duke and duchess, for example, are excited when they meet Don Quixote, having read all about his adventures. They think it amusing to deceive him for entertainment, setting in play a string of imagined adventures, which result in a series of sadistic practical jokes. Honour —Cervantes suggests — clearly has nothing to do with social position. Readers begin to laugh less.
While Cervantes was writing Part Two, a spurious Second Volume of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by the Licenciado Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, of Tordesillas appeared. Cervantes’ literary creation had been stolen, inciting his comment, at the end of Part Two: “For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; it was his to act, mine to write.” In literary revenge, Cervantes sends his knight and squire off to Barcelona, to kidnap a character from the Avellaneda book.
"Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind."
In the second part of Don Quixote, Cervantes himself appears as a character, and other versions of Quixote are introduced. Reality is reflected by these various mirrors, deliberately confusing life and literature.
Stories within stories
Literature is itself also a theme in the novel. We are told that Don Quixote’s delusions result from reading too much — an interesting proposition to present to a reader of Don Quixote. But even when Don Quixote’s books are burned by the priest, housekeeper, and barber, his improbable quest for glory continues. The role of the book’s narrator is also questioned. Far from disappearing behind his characters and story, Cervantes makes frequent appearances, ostensibly in his own voice or often in the guise of a narrator called Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moorish storyteller. The first words of the novel — “In some village in La Mancha, whose name I do not care to recall” — exhibit the narrator’s wilfulness as well as the author’s control over his material.
The novel is written in episodic form, laying the groundwork for the many road novels and films that would follow. Most of the characters whom Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encounter have a story to tell, providing the novel with a format familiar to readers of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron, and of the canon of tales from the East that entered southern Spain in the long centuries of Arab rule.
For example, one of the novel’s minor characters, Ricote, a Morisco (a Muslim forcibly converted to Christianity), recounts his exile from Spain — a story within a story that introduces historical facts to the fictional narrative. The expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609 was highly topical, and whereas the earlier romances of chivalry had dwelt in a world of myth, Cervantes’ novel was ready to engage with gritty, present-day issues.
Illusion and disillusion
Stories proliferate at every turn, offering further opportunities for illusion and disillusion. Quixote and Sancho hear of a young man who became a shepherd after having studied pastoral literature, but died for the love of a beautiful shepherdess, Marcella. Accused of being the cause of his death, Marcella delivers a fiery speech at the funeral defending her right to live as she wants and refusing to be the object of male fantasy. Literature is seemingly condemned for its capacity to encourage its readers to live in a dream world, while the book achieves precisely this aim.
Cervantes makes clear that as an author he will do exactly what he wants. Slowly, Don Quixote is brought back home, exhausted and disenchanted. “I was mad, now I am in my senses,” he says, shortly before his death. By killing him off, Cervantes clearly wished to prevent any more unauthorized sequels.
Despite Cervantes’ claims of ownership, Don Quixote illustrates the way great fictional characters ultimately escape their authors, seeming to move away from the pages in which they first appear. He inspired English comic novelists such as Henry Fielding and French realists such as Gustave Flaubert, whose character Emma Bovary can be seen as a 19th-century Quixote in her bid to escape the tedium of life by imitating fiction. In the 20th century, Cervantes’ playful and metafictional side inspired Jorge Luis Borges to write “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (about a writer who re-creates Cervantes’ novel), which Borges described, mischievously, as “more subtle than Cervantes’ [story]”. Don Quixote is also immortalized as an English adjective for erratic if idealistic behaviour — quixotic.
"’Tell me, Senor Don Alvaro,’ said Don Quixote, ’am I at all like that Don Quixote you talk of?’"
Standing at the junction between medieval chivalric tales and the modern novel, Don Quixote bequeathed a rich cultural legacy to generations of readers, and the work has been subject to shifting interpretations over the centuries. On publication in Spain’s Golden Century, it was widely perceived as a satire — with Don Quixote as the butt of the jokes; but with much of Spain’s history woven into the tale, it was also seen as a critique of the country’s imperial ambitions. Don Quixote’s delusions of heroism can be read as a symbol of his nation’s wasteful expansionism in the face of decline. For revolutionaries, Don Quixote was an inspiration — a man who was right when the system was wrong; and the Romantics transformed him into a tragic character — a man with noble intentions, defeated by the second-rate. This re-evaluation of the work over time points to the enduring power of its story and its writing, and guarantees the text a central place in literary history.
La Mancha in central Spain is a dry but agriculturally important area, lacking in literary resonance and therefore an unlikely (and amusing) home for a would-be chivalric hero.
MIGUEL DE CERVANTES
Miguel de Cervantes was born near Madrid, Spain, in 1547. His mother was the daughter of a nobleman, his father was a medical practitioner. Little is known of Cervantes’ early life, but it is likely that he lived and worked in Rome around 1569, before enlisting in the Spanish Navy. Badly wounded in the Battle of Lepanto (in which an alliance of southern European Catholic states defeated Ottoman forces), he was captured by the Turks in 1575 and spent five years in prison in Algiers; his ransom was paid by a Catholic religious order, and he returned to Madrid. Cervantes’ first major work, La Galatea, was published in 1585. He struggled financially but kept writing, finding success (though not wealth) with Don Quixote. He died in 1616, in Madrid, but his coffin was later lost. In 2015, scientists claimed to have unearthed his remains in a convent in Madrid.
Other key works
1613 Exemplary Novels
1617 Persiles and Sigismunda (unfinished)
See also: The Canterbury Tales • First Folio • The Decameron • Amadis of Gaul • The Tin Drum • Hopscotch • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller