The Fall 1997 issue of Life listed its choices for the hundred greatest events and the hundred greatest people of the millennium. Don Quixote rated as Nº 97 on the great events list. The only other literary monuments are the Japanese The Tale of the Genji, considered the first novel, 1008 a.d. (Nº 83 on the list), and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Nº 35).
The Life of Cervantes as it Relates to This Work
Miguel de Cervantes was the fourth of seven children. He was born on September 29, 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, a university town about 30 kms. east of Madrid. His father, Rodrigo, was a barber-surgeon. The family had little money and moved frequently. When Miguel was three and a half years old, they moved to Valladolid, the country’s capital, then on to Cordova in 1553, when Miguel was seven. In 1564 at age 17, the family was in Seville. Next to nothing is known about Miguel’s education, although it had to be both intense and broad, whether in schools or on his own. There is a record that he attended the Estudio de la Villa de Madrid for about six months when he was a rather old 20, under the humanist priest Juan López de Hoyos. Cervantes contributed four poems (one sonnet, two short poems, and a 66 stanza long elegy written in tercets) to the volume put together by López de Hoyos to honor the dead queen, Isabel de Valois. Cervantes—although not celebrated as a poet—could handle many poetic forms adroitly, and used a large number of poetic formats in the Quixote (there are 45 of his poems in both parts of the book). Don Quixote’s own poems are not very good, and his young admirer, Altisidora, writes like the fourteen-year old she is, but these bad poems are not Cervantes’ fault. He is just giving us what we should expect from an old man, hardly a poet, and from an immature girl.
On September 15, 1569, an arrest warrant was issued in Madrid for Cervantes, who had wounded a rival in a duel. The warrant said that Cervantes’ right hand was supposed to be cut off and he was to be in exile from Madrid for ten years. He fled to Andalusia—the southern part of Spain—and shortly thereafter made his way to Rome where he worked in the household of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva, whom he may have met the previous year in Madrid. During his stay in Italy, he learned Italian and was initiated into Italian literature. You will see many references to Italy, and writings in Italian, in the Quixote, particularly the Italian continuations of the French Song of Roland. The novella of the Ill-Advised Curiosity (in Chapters 33-35 in Part I) is based on Italian models.
In the summer of 1570, Cervantes joined a Spanish regiment in Naples and went off to war as a naval gunner. He fought against the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto (Náfpaktos, Greece) on October 7, 1571, a critical battle on which the future of Europe as a Christian continent hinged. After another battle in Tunis, and a stay in Naples, as Cervantes was finally returning to Spain in 1575, his galley was attacked by Barbary pirates and he was taken to Algiers where he was held for five years waiting to be ransomed. His time in Algiers is reflected in the Captive’s Tale (Part I, Chaps. 39-41).
Once back in Spain, twelve years after he left, he had to set about earning money, and got some work from the king. Miguel married Catalina de Salazar—18 years his junior—in 1584, in what turned out to be an unhappy marriage. They lived in Esquivias in La Mancha, where he came to know the types of people who were later to populate his Quixote.2The following year, he published the first—and, as it turns out, the only—part of his pastoral novel La Galatea. The novel was not successful enough to support him for long. But he liked the pastoral genre well enough to write a number of pastoral narrations in the Quixote (starting with Part I, Chap. 12).
For about ten years he had a job as a buyer and tax collector for the crown, and traveled all around Andalusia. His knowledge of the geography of that region is frequently seen in the Quixote. In 1590 he applied for one of several positions in the New World—Guatemala, Cartagena [in modern Colombia], or La Paz [in modern Bolivia]—but his petition was denied, for which posterity can be grateful.
In 1604 he moved to Valladolid to a house that you can visit today. Part I of his Quixote was all but finished by then, and was printed on the presses of Juan de la Cuesta in Madrid in 1605. It was an instantaneous success. As the printers were taking apart the typeset pages from the first printing, a second printing was urgently needed, and what had been taken apart had to be re-set. Since the original royal license (the equivalent of the modern copyright) didn’t include Portugal, two enterprising printers in Lisbon produced pirated Spanish-language editions immediately. It was reprinted in Madrid once again, this time including the toyal license included Portugal. There was also an edition in Valencia. All of this publishing activity so far was in 1605! Then came foreign editions in Spanish (Part I, Brussels, 1607; Milan, 1610; and of both parts, Antwerp—and there were many editions in this city—1697; London, 1738; The Hague, 1744; Amsterdam, 1755; Leipzig, 1800-07; Bordeaux, 1804; Berlin, 1804-05; Paris, 1814; Mexico, 1833; New York, 1853); then there were translations (English, 1612; French, 1614; German, 1621; Italian, 1622-25; Dutch, 1657; Portuguese, 1794; Russian, 1769). In fact, the Quixote has been translated into more languages than any other work of fiction.
Now that he was well known as an author, Cervantes turned to other projects. In 1613 he published his twelve Exemplary Novels, several of them being in the Italian style. In 1614 he published a long poem called Voyage from Parnassus in which he talks about a hundred twenty authors. Although he had hinted at a second part of his Quixote at the end of Part I, he waited until 1615 to finish his Part II. In the meantime, in 1614, a second author came out with his own continuation of Cervantes’ book (more about this in the section dealing with Avellaneda later in this Introduction, since the spurious Quixote greatly affected Cervantes’ second part, including the ending of the book). Also in 1615 his Eight New Plays and Eight Skits was published. Cervantes was a real fan of the theater, and in Chapters 47-48 of Part I, there is a critique of the contemporary theater. The following year, just as he was finishing his last novel, Persiles and Sigismunda (published in 1617), he died on April 23.