Writer of the first modern novel who changed face of fiction with his masterpiece, Don Quixote.
(b. Sept. 29?, 1547, Alcalá de Henares, Spain—d. April 22, 1616, Madrid)
Miguel de Cervantes was a Spanish novelist, playwright, and poet. Best known as the creator of Don Quixote (1605, 1615), he is the most important and celebrated figure in Spanish literature. Cervantes tried his hand in all the major literary genres save the epic. He was a notable short-story writer, and a few of those in his collection of Novelas exemplares (1613; Exemplary Stories) attain a level close to that of Don Quixote, on a miniature scale.
A Life Filled with Adventure
Little is known of Cervantes’s early education. The supposition, based on a passage in one of the Exemplary Stories, that he studied for a time under the Jesuits, though not unlikely, remains conjectural. Unlike most Spanish writers of his time, including some of humble origin, he apparently did not go to a university. What is certain is that at some stage he became an avid reader of books. His first published poem, on the death of Philip II’s young queen, Elizabeth of Valois, appeared in 1569. That same year he left Spain for Italy. By 1570 he had enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service. A confrontation between the Turkish fleet and the naval forces of Venice, the papacy, and Spain was inevitable at this time. In mid-September 1571 Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the large fleet under the command of Don Juan de Austria that engaged the enemy on October 7 in the Gulf of Lepanto near Corinth. The fierce battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Turks that was ultimately to break their control of the Mediterranean. There are independent accounts of Cervantes’s conduct in the action, and they concur in testifying to his personal courage. Though stricken with a fever, he refused to stay below and joined the thick of the fighting. He received two gunshot wounds in the chest, and a third rendered his left hand useless for the rest of his life. He always looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride. He set sail for Spain in September 1575 with letters of commendation to the king from the duque de Sessa and Don Juan himself. On this voyage his ship was attacked and captured by Barbary corsairs. Cervantes, together with his brother Rodrigo, was sold into slavery in Algiers, the centre of the Christian slave traffi c in the Muslim world. The letters he carried magnifi ed his importance in the eyes of his captors. This had the effect of raising his ransom price, and thus prolonging his captivity, while also, it appears, protecting him from punishment by death, mutilation, or torture when his four daring bids to escape were frustrated. His masters, the renegade Dali Mami and later Hasan Paşa, treated him with considerable leniency in the circumstances, whatever the reason. In September 1580, three years after Rodrigo had earned his freedom, Miguel’s family, with the aid and intervention of the Trinitarian friars, raised the 500 gold escudos demanded for his release. Back in Spain, Cervantes spent most of the rest of his life in a manner that contrasted entirely with his decade of action and danger. He would be constantly short of money and in tedious and exacting employment; it would be 25 years before he scored a major literary success with Don Quixote. His first published fiction, La Galatea (Galatea: A Pastoral Romance), in the newly fashionable genre of the pastoral romance, appeared in 1585. The publisher, Blas de Robles, paid him 1,336 reales for it, a good price for a first book. Cervantes also turned his hand to the writing of drama at this time, the early dawn of the Golden Age of the Spanish theatre. He contracted to write two plays for the theatrical manager Gaspar de Porras in 1585, one of which, La confusa (“Confusion”), he later described as the best he ever wrote. Many years afterward he claimed to have written 20 or 30 plays in this period, which, he noted, were received by the public without being booed off the stage or having the actors pelted with vegetables. The number is vague. Only two plays certainly survive from this time,
the historical tragedy of La Numancia (1580s; Numantia: A Tragedy) and El trato de Argel (1580s; “The Traffic of Algiers”). Though destined to be a disappointed dramatist, Cervantes went on trying to get managers to accept his stage works. By 1587 it was clear that he was not going to make a living from literature, and he was obliged to turn in a very different direction. A series of positions as a civil servant followed. He spent time in jail several times because accounts he oversaw showed discrepancies. After 1598, information about Cervantes’s life over the next four or five years in sparse.
In July or August 1604, Cervantes sold the rights of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha,” known as Don Quixote, Part I) to the publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles for an unknown sum. License to publish was granted in September, and the book came out in January 1605. There is some evidence of its content’s being known or known about before publication—to, among others, Lope de Vega, the vicissitudes of whose relations with Cervantes were then at a low point. The compositors at Juan de la Cuesta’s press in Madrid are now known to have been responsible for a great many errors in the text, many of which were long attributed to the author. Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote has been variously interpreted as a parody of chivalric romances, an epic of heroic idealism, a commentary on the author’s alienation, and a critique of Spanish imperialism. While the Romantic tradition downplayed the novel’s hilarity by transforming Don Quixote into a tragic hero, readers who view it as a parody accept at face value Cervantes’s intention to denounce the popular yet outdated romances of his time. Don Quixote certainly pokes fun at the adventures of literary knights-errant, but its plot also addresses the historical realities of 17th-century Spain. The novel was an immediate success, with multiple editions published across Europe. Thomas Shelton’s English translation of the first part appeared in 1612. The name of Cervantes was soon to be as well known in England, France, and Italy as in Spain. The sale of the publishing rights, however, meant that Cervantes made no more financial profit on Part I of his novel. Nevertheless, relative success, still-unsatisfied ambition, and a tireless urge to experiment with the forms of fiction ensured that, at age 57, with less than a dozen years left to him, Cervantes was just entering the most productive period of his career. In 1613 the 12 Exemplary Stories were published. Cervantes’s claim in the prologue to be the first to write original novellas (short stories in the Italian manner) in Castilian is substantially justified. Their precise dates of composition are in most cases uncertain. There is some variety in the collection, within the two general categories of romance-based stories and realistic ones. El coloquio de los perros (“Colloquy of the Dogs,” Eng. trans. in Three Exemplary Novels, 1952), a quas -picaresque novella, with its frame tale El casamiento engañoso (“The Deceitful Marriage”), is probably Cervantes’s most profound and original creation next to Don Quixote. In 1614 Cervantes published Viage del Parnaso, a long allegorical poem in a mock-mythological and satirical vein, with a postscript in prose. Having lost all hope of seeing any more of his plays staged, he had eight of them publishedin 1615, together with eight short comic interludes, in Ocho comedias, y ocho entremeses nuevos. It is not certain when Cervantes began writing Part II, Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (“Second Part of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha”), but he had probably not gotten much more than halfway through by late July 1614. Don Quixote, Part II, emerged from the same press as its predecessor late in 1615. It was quickly reprinted outside of Spain. The second part capitalizes on the potential of the first, developing and diversifying without sacrificing familiarity.
In his last years Cervantes mentioned several works that apparently did not get as far as the printing press, if indeed he ever actually started writing them. There was Bernardo (the name of a legendary Spanish epic hero), the Semanas del jardín (“Weeks in the Garden”; a collection of tales, perhaps like Boccaccio’s Decameron), and the continuation to his Galatea. The one that was published, posthumously in 1617, was his last romance, Los trabaios de Persiles y Sigismunda, historia setentrional (“The Labours of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story”). In it Cervantes sought to renovate the heroic romance of adventure and love in the manner of the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. It was an intellectually prestigious genre destined to be very successful in 17th-century France. Intended both to edify and to entertain, the Persiles is an ambitious work that exploits the mythic and symbolic potential of romance. It was very successful when it appe]ared. In the dedication, written three days before he died, Cervantes, “with a foot already in the stirrup,” movingly bade farewell to the world. He died in1616 and was buried in the convent of the Discalced Trinitarians in the Calle de Cantarranas (now the Calle de Lope de Vega). The exact spot is not marked.