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Hail, Knight of the Woeful Countenance! Hail, who? Ah yes, Miguel de Cervantes, of course…Resources for your Spanish Classroom

Pedro Urbina

April 22, 2012 marks the 396th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes’s death. He was 68 years old when he passed away.

As with any good story, there is controversy over this date and some say it was actually April 23. This is a good thing because it coincides with the death of William Shakespeare, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and Josep Pla (and it is also the birth of other famous writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Manuel Mejía Vallejo). And taking advantage of these events, UNESCO established April 23 as World Book and Copyright Day in 1995. It is meant to promote reading, publishing, and respect for copyrighted material.

Of course, some naysayers point out that Cervantes died on April 23 of the Gregorian calendar used in Spain, while Shakespeare died on April 23 of the Julian calendar used in England, which means that Cervantes actually died 10 days earlier than Shakespeare… (details, details…)

Most students of Spanish know what Miguel de Cervantes wrote. Most have read parts of Don Quixote and maybe pieces of some of his other works. Some of us remember the comic event when Don Quixote was knighted Caballero de la triste figura (Knight of the Woeful Countenance). A few of us have even read his complete works in unabridged form (yes, that is a confession).

But who was Miguel de Cervantes, the man? Because when one reads his works, one really wants to know who could write such incredibly funny and vastly profound things. Indeed, many of the everyday quotes that we use to this day, come from him:

  • Bien predica quien bien vive. (He preaches well that lives well.)
  • Cuando una puerta se cierra, otra se abre. (When one door closes, another opens.)
  • Amor y deseo son dos cosas diferentes; que no todo lo que se ama se desea, ni todo lo que se desea se ama. (Love and desire are two different things; not everything that is loved is desired, and not everything that is desired is loved.)
  • El que lee mucho y anda mucho, ve mucho y sabe mucho. (He who reads much and walks much sees much and knows much.)
  • De todos ha de haber en el mundo. (It takes all sorts <to make a world.>)
  • Una retirada no es una derrota. (Retreat is not defeat.)

and many, many more…

So, who was Miguel de Cervantes? Well, that depends on whom you want to believe. Let’s start with some of the more colorful, if not controversial, depictions.

  • Some modern scholars (such as Américo Castro and historian Abraham Haim) believe that he came from a family of Jewish converts (conversos). If you remember your history, way back in 1492, the king and queen of Spain ordered all Jewish Spaniards to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. There is circumstantial evidence that Cervantes’s mother, Leonor de Cortinas, came from one of these “New Christian” families.
  • It is worth noting that Cervantes did not start using his second second surname, Saavedra, until after he returns from slavery (see below). And this second name (a surname of a distant relative, and not of his direct family) did not officially appear until his marriage to Catalina de Salazar y Palacios.
  • The scholar Rosa Rossi has suggested that Cervantes had latent homosexual tendencies and that this is clearly demonstrated in his works.
  • Francis Carr, the noted conspiracy theorist, believed that Cervantes and Shakespeare may have literally been one person, and suggested that Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays as well as Don Quixote.
  • Francis Carr got this notion from the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who metaphysically suggested that Cervantes and Shakespeare were the same, just as Homer, Dante, Defoe, Dickens, Balzac, and Joyce all share the same wandering “writer spirit” throughout the centuries.

Here are some of the more traditional things we know about Miguel de Cervantes, and which no doubt help us to understand the man behind the mask of Don Quixote:

  • Cervantes was an adventurer. Unlike many writers of his time, it seems that Cervantes did not study at the university. He chose instead to travel and see the world. So, in 1569, he did what many Spanish men did at the time to further their careers: he found a way to leave Spain and go to Italy. He became employed by an important cardinal and travelled to Italy in his entourage. In Italy, Cervantes was able to study Renaissance art, architecture, and literature.
  • Cervantes was a soldier. In 1570, at the age of 23, Cervantes joined the naval elite corps, Infantería de Marina. He enlisted in Naples, which was then part of Spain. A year later, he fought against the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571), an area near Greece. He received two gunshot wounds to the chest and one that maimed his left hand. He was thereafter called “El Manco de Lepanto”. Cervantes participated in other expeditions and battles during his military career, which lasted just under five years (1570–1575).
  • Cervantes was a slave. In 1575, Cervantes sailed with his brother Rodrigo on the ship Sol, with Naples as its destination. He carried with him letters of recommendation to be promoted to Captain. He never made it to Naples. Instead, on the eve of his 27th birthday, his ship was attacked and captured by three Turkish galleys. Cervantes and his brother were among the survivors, and were sold into slavery in Algiers. Five years later and after four escape attempts, Cervantes is freed after his ransom was finally paid (his brother had been freed three years earlier). Cervantes was back in Madrid on December 18, 1580. He was 33 years old.
  • Cervantes was an unhappy government employee. Cervantes returned to Spain after being away for ten long years. He was out of touch with Spanish society. Everything had changed. Prices had increased, maintaining a middle-class standard of living had become more difficult, and most likely Cervantes went through a period of culture shock adjustment and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Another thing that Cervantes more than hints to in his writings: He was a courageous and successful soldier and acquired an almost legendary stature as a slave. The Spanish government should have recognized him with glory and rewards, rather than the posts he was given as a government employee (navy requisitions and tax collector). All of this helps to explain why he was very unhappy during his years in government service (1580–1598), and why he repeatedly petitioned the crown for a post in the Americas (las Indias). Let’s not forget to mention that during these years, Cervantes was incarcerated numerous times for mishandling government funds, among other things.
  • Cervantes was probably an unhappy husband. In 1585, at age 36 Cervantes married Doña Catalina de Palacios Salazar y Vozmediano. She was at least 18 years younger than him (some sources say 22 years). They did not have any children. However, Cervantes had a daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, from a prior affair (she died in 1652, the last of his line). Some sources say that Cervantes left his wife in the late 1580s. We know she entered a convent in 1609. However, we also know she published his last work, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, posthumously in 1616. So the question remains: Did Cervantes long for real love with another person? Did he have a secret passion? Could this person have been the “Dulcinea” he wrote about in Don Quixote?

In the end, I am left with more questions than answers. Yes, Cervantes wrote the bulk of his best work during the last five years of his life and this undoubtedly gives breadth to his work. But I wonder if Cervantes didn’t also turn to his writing as a way of recapturing the glory, hope, and purpose that he must have experienced as a young man. I can only wonder if he felt “redeemed” when he published Don Quixote in 1616 at age 58—it was an immediate success and had the dubious honor of having three pirated editions appearing that same year in Lisbon (and within the next twenty years was translated into English, French, and Italian). Of interest and a warning to all budding writers: Cervantes sold the publishing rights of his work, and so never made a dime with Don Quixote.

Perhaps the best description of Cervantes is the one he himself provided in the prologue of his Novelas ejemplares:

«Este que veis aquí, de rostro aguileño, de cabello castaño, frente lisa y desembarazada, de alegres ojos y de nariz corva, aunque bien proporcionada; las barbas de plata, que no ha veinte años que fueron de oro; los bigotes grandes, la boca pequeña; los dientes, ni menudos ni crecidos, porque no tiene sino seis, y ésos mal acondicionados y peor puestos, porque no tienen correspondencia los unos con los otros; el cuerpo entre dos extremos, ni grande ni pequeño; el color vivo, antes blanco que moreno; algo cargado de espaldas y no muy ligero de pies; éste digo que es el rostro del autor de La Galatea y de Don Quijote de la Mancha, y del que hizo el Viaje del Parnaso a imitación del de César Caporal Perusino y otras obras que andan por ahí descarriadas y quizá sin el nombre de su dueño, llámase comúnmente Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Fue soldado muchos años, y cinco y medio cautivo, donde aprendió a tener paciencia en las adversidades. Perdió en la batalla naval de Lepanto la mano izquierda de un arcabuzazo; herida que, aunque parece fea, él la tiene por hermosa, por haberla cobrado en la más memorable y alta ocasión que vieron los pasados siglos ni esperan ver los venideros, militando debajo de las vencedoras banderas del hijo del rayo de la guerra, Carlos V, de feliz memoria».

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