Authors: Miguel de Cervantes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Spanish novelist and playwright.

September 29, 1547

Alcalá de Henares, Spain

April 22, 1616

Madrid, Spain

Biography

In the gallery of universal and eternal symbols, two figures were thrust into fame by the pen of the great writer of the Golden Age of Spain, Miguel de Cervantes (sur-VAHN-teez). These two figures, one sad and gaunt, the other chubby and jovial, are the gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha and his squire, Sancho Panza. "Thin, shriveled, fanciful, and full of various thoughts," the first, and "a man of a good nature but with very little salt in the crown of his head," the second—both constitute an inseparable duality typifying all aspects of humanity through the ages.

Miguel de Cervantes

(Library of Congress)

Cervantes, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, was "more versed in misfortunes than in verses." Born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547, probably on September 29, he was baptized on October 9 of the same year. Fourth son of a poor and deaf surgeon, Rodrigo de Cervantes, and Leonor de Cortinas, his wife, Cervantes was at a disadvantage from the beginning. The father followed his profession in Valladolid, and there Cervantes spent some years of his boyhood. Cervantes may have lived in Seville and Salamanca for a time, but the only known fact is that by 1567 he was studying in Madrid at the School of General Studies, later the University, under the instruction of Juan Lopez de Hoyos, a professor of humanities who called Cervantes "our dear and beloved pupil." In 1569, as chamberlain in the household of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva, Cervantes journeyed to Italy, where he had the opportunity to visit Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples. These cities—especially the first two—were, at the time, centers of Renaissance culture, and this experience undoubtedly gave Cervantes a taste for literature and art that remained with him for the rest of his life.

In 1570, he enlisted as a soldier in the forces of Diego de Urbina. On October 7, 1571, Cervantes fought for the Holy League against the Ottoman Turks in the naval battle of Lepanto aboard the galley La Marquesa. In spite of a high fever and the advice of friends to stay in the cabin of the vessel, he fought as valiantly as any of the others and received three bullet wounds, two in the chest and one in the left hand, which disabled it permanently.

After recovering from his wounds, Cervantes fought in engagements at Navarino, Tunis, and Goletta. When he was on his way back to Spain, the galley Sol on which he was traveling was captured by Turkish pirates. Cervantes was taken to Algiers, where he remained a prisoner for the next five years. He attempted to escape four times but never succeeded. Finally, on October 24, 1580, he was ransomed by Juan Gil, a Trinitarian friar.

Cervantes returned to Spain after spending these formative years abroad and began a grimmer period of daily struggle and hardships. In 1584, he married Dona Catalina de Palacios. The complete failure of his domestic life echoes through Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, his first work as a professional writer. In the discharge of his duties as a commissary deputy procuring wheat for the Invincible Armada, he unjustly suffered excommunication and two terms in prison. In the Seville prison, he conceived the framework of his masterpiece, Don Quixote de la Mancha.

In 1605, Cervantes was living in Valladolid with his two sisters, his illegitimate daughter Isabel de Saavedra, and his niece Constanza de Ovando. The fatal wounding of a gentleman, Don Gaspar de Ezpeleta, outside the house in which Cervantes lived caused the mayor, Don Cristobal de Villarreal, to suspect that the writer’s household was in some way connected with the brawl, and Cervantes and his whole family were arrested. A few days later, they were released because nothing could be proved against them, but the investigation revealed questionable morals on the part of one of Cervantes’ sisters and his daughter, as well as the sordid, poverty-stricken surroundings in which they lived.

When the court moved to Madrid, Cervantes returned to that city. His life, which had been one of varied experience and uncertain fortune, remained focused on literary work. The great Cervantine books were published over a period of little more than ten years: in 1605, the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha, which went into its sixth printing in the same year; in 1613, Exemplary Novels, of which the best are, for their realistic and satirical flavor, "Rinconete," "El Licenciado Vidriera," and "El Coloquio de los perros"; in 1614, The Voyage of Parnassus, a poem both laudable and ironical on the poets of his time; and, in 1615, Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nuevos. Of the comedies, the best are The Siege of Numantia, a play of great dramatic sweep, and The Commerce of Algiers, in which he drew upon his memories of his life as a captive in Africa. In The Wonder Show, one of the briefer comic pieces, Cervantes ridiculed the credulity and hypocrisy of the society of his time.

In The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda, which appeared posthumously in 1617, Cervantes foresees his approaching end. The dedication is dated April 19, 1616, just days before his death, and the prologue is a melancholy departure: "Farewell graces, farewell elegances, farewell beloved friends; that I depart dying and wishing to see you soon, happy in the other life." On April 22, 1616 (long thought to have been April 23, which remains commonly used for commemorations), after having joined the order of Franciscan Tertiaries, Miguel de Cervantes died and was buried in the convent of the Trinitarian nuns in Madrid. The specific location of his grave was long unknown due to a rebuilding of the convent, but in 2015 researchers claimed to have identified the writer's remains along with those of his family. Later that year he was honored by Spanish authorities with a formal burial.

Cervantes began to write his immortal masterpiece as a satire on the romances of chivalry that at the time had become a rather foolish fashion in Spain. "Keep your aim set," he wrote in the prologue to the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha, "on demolishing the ill-founded fabric of these books of chivalry." Yet step by step, as the story unfolded in his imagination, the initial purpose of his book gave way to a far greater design and the loftier goal of the depiction of the realistic and the idealistic in human nature. In the prologue to the second part, Cervantes advises the reader that "in it I give you a Don Quixote of far greater outline. Don Quixote is no longer the poor gentleman gone mad, an unfortunate who inspires pity, but the wise and prudent hero who teaches with his life and his word a love for the highest ideals of humanity." Cervantes developed his valiant hero from a simple, middle-aged gentleman upon an equally dilapidated horse to a national and universal personage.

Like other great works, Don Quixote de la Mancha remains the subject of much study and many interpretations. It is a book that can be read many times and always with fresh joy because of its inexhaustible treasure of humanity, teachings, and ideas of enduring value. It is with reason enough that Cervantes is considered to be the creator of the realistic modern novel.

Author Works Long Fiction: La Galatea, 1585 (Galatea: A Pastoral Romance, 1833) El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, 1605, 1615 (The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612–1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) Novelas ejemplares, 1613 (Exemplary Novels, 1846) Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, 1617 (The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern History, 1619) Drama: El trato de Argel, pr. 1585 (The Commerce of Algiers, 1870) El cerco de Numancia, wr. 1585, pb. 1784 (The Siege of Numantia, 1870) Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nuevos, pb. 1615 (includes Pedro de Urdemalas [Pedro the Artful Dodger, 1807], El juez de los divorcios [The Divorce Court Judge, 1919], Los habladores [Two Chatterboxes, 1930], La cueva de Salamanca [The Cave of Salamanca, 1933], La elección de los alcaldes de Daganzo [Choosing a Councilman in Daganzo, 1948], La guarda cuidadosa [The Hawk-eyed Sentinel, 1948], El retablo de las maravillas [The Wonder Show, 1948], El rufián viudo llamada Trampagos [Trampagos the Pimp Who Lost His Moll, 1948], El viejo celoso [The Jealous Old Husband, 1948], and El vizcaíno fingido [The Basque Imposter, 1948]) The Interludes of Cervantes, pb. 1948 Poetry: El Viaje del Parnaso, 1614 (The Voyage of Parnassus, 1870) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Cervantes. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection of essays addresses topics such as the picaresque, the trickster figure, Cervantes’ biography and use of language, and his attitude toward realism and the literary tradition. Includes an informative introduction, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Cervantes’s "Don Quixote." Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Collection reprints essays about the novel written by well-known authors and critics, including Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mark van Doren. Includes an introduction by Bloom, bibliographical references, and index. Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. Translated by J. R. Jones. New York: Norton, 1990. A well-informed biography. See especially the preface, in which Canavaggio details the problems of separating myth and fact in Cervantes’ life. Cascardi, Anthony J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Collection of essays places Cervantes’ life and work within historical and social context and discusses Cervantes’ relation to the Italian Renaissance and his influence on other writers. An essay titled "Don Quixote and the Invention of the Novel" focuses on the well-known work. Castillo, David R. (A)wry Views: Anamorphosis, Cervantes, and the Early Picaresque. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2001. Looks at anamorphosis, or visual perception, in the writings of Cervantes and other works of Spanish picaresque literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Includes bibliography and index. Clamurro, William H. Beneath the Fiction: The Contrary Worlds of Cervantes’s "Novelas ejemplares." New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Examines the settings of the stories. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Close, A. J. Cervantes and the Comic Mind of His Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Analyzes ideas about comedy and comedic writing in the Spanish Golden Age and describes how Cervantes’ works reflected those ideas. Includes bibliography and index. Cruz, Anne J., and Carroll B. Johnson, eds. Cervantes and His Postmodern Constituencies. New York: Garland, 1999. Essays on the literary works of Cervantes. Bibliography and index. Dunn, Peter N. "Framing the Story, Framing the Reader: Two Spanish Masters." The Modern Language Review 91 (January, 1996): 94-106. Shows how Cervantes fragments and internalizes narrative frames and thus poses basic questions about the way that narrative establishes boundaries. Cervantes defeats our expectation about order and culture by disturbing our sense of what is stable in his narrative frames. Durán, Manuel. Cervantes. New York: Twayne, 1974. Provides a sound introduction to the author, with chapters on Cervantes’ life and his career as a poet, playwright, short-story writer, and novelist. Includes notes, chronology, and annotated bibliography. El Saffar, Ruth S. Novel to Romance: A Study of Cervantes’ "Novelas ejemplares." Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. El Saffar analyzes the exemplary tales in terms of Cervantes’s development as man and artist to demonstrate how his fiction evolves from novel to romance—that is, from tales of individual alienation to idealistic tales in which the characters overcome adversity and achieve their goals. Supplemented by a bibliography and an index. Finello, Dominick L. Cervantes: Essays on Social and Literary Polemics. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis, 1998. A look at Cervantes’ work from the standpoint of social and literary issues. Bibliography and index. Hart, Thomas R. Cervantes’ Exemplary Fictions: A Study of the "Novelas ejemplares." Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994. Presents a reading of Exemplary Novels within the literary conventions of other popular novels of the seventeenth century, drawing on the literature not only of Spain but also of France, Italy, and England. Argues that novels in that era were meant to elicit readers’ surprise or wonder and describes how Cervantes’ work attains that goal. Hutchinson, Steven D. Cervantine Journeys. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. A look at the role that travel played in the writings of Cervantes. Bibliography and index. La Rubia Prado, Francisco, ed. Cervantes for the Twenty-first Century: Studies in Honor of Edward Dudley. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 2000. A group of essays on Cervantes’ life and works. McCrory, Donald P. No Ordinary Man: The Life and Times of Miguel de Cervantes. Chester Springs, Pa.: Peter Owen, 2002. Thorough biography is based, in part, on original research and unpublished material. Places Cervantes’ life within the context of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish history. Includes bibliographical references and index. Mancing, Howard. Cervantes’ "Don Quixote": A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. An excellent companion for undergraduate students and for general readers. Individual chapters explore themes, criticism, language and style, publishing history, and other topics. Select bibliographies make this an important resource. Martinez-Bonati, Felix. "Don Quixote" and the Poetics of the Novel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. An introduction takes up questions and points of confusion. Later sections tackle discontinuities in Cervantes’s novelistic world, forms of literary reflexivity, the unity of the novel, its characters, its use of verisimilitude, and its literary style. Recommended for advanced students only. Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on "Don Quixote." Edited by Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. College lectures by a great twentieth century novelist are divided into portraits of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the structure of the novel, the use of cruelty and mystification, the treatment of Dulcinea and death, and commentaries on Cervantes’ narrative methods. An appendix contains sample passages from romances of chivalry. Nelson, Lowry, Jr., ed. Cervantes: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. A collection of ten essays featuring contributions by the novelist Thomas Mann, the poet W. H. Auden, and venerable figures of Cervantes studies such as Leo Spitzer and Edwin Honig. The essays discuss Don Quixote de la Mancha, the picaresque in Cervantes’s fiction, the one-act plays, and Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. Supplemented by a short select bibliography. Predmore, Richard L. Cervantes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. This biography of Cervantes contains frequent references to the history of the period. Makes liberal use of quotes from Cervantes’s writings to depict the events of his life. Includes illustrations of personalities, places, documents, and historical events of the period. Complemented by notes, a bibliography, and an index. Reed, Croy A. The Novelist as Playwright: Cervantes and the Entremés Nuevo. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. A study of Cervantes’ dramatic works. Bibliography and index. Riley, E. C. Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel. 1962. Reprint. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1992. Provides a detailed examination of Cervantes’ views on questions of literary practice in terms of traditional issues in poetics, such as art and nature, unity, and purpose and function of literature. Includes bibliography and indexes of names and topics. Ruz, Camila. "Spain Finds Don Quixote Writer Cervantes' Tomb in Madrid." BBC News, 17 Mar. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31852032. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017. Discusses the reported discovery of Cervantes's remains after they were lost for centuries, reflecting on the writer's legacy and importance in Spain and the world. Stierle, Karlheinz. "Three Moments in the Crisis of Exemplarity: Boccaccio, Petrarch, Montaigne, and Cervantes." Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (October, 1998): 581-595. Discusses Boccaccio’s response to the exemplum as a form of narration that presumes more similarity in human behavior than diversity. Discusses Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels as attempts to combine exemplary figures with the unique and the morally ambiguous. Weber, Alison. "Pentimento: The Parodic Text of La Gitanilla." Hispanic Review 62 (Winter, 1994): 59-75. Argues that Cervantes imagines Preciosa free from class and family, but that when she is returned to her patriarchal family, she is once again bound to the values of her class. Weiger, John G. "Cervantine Kinesics: Gestures as an Element of Cervantes’s Narrative Technique." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 25 (Spring, 1995): 271-304. Argues that gesture to communicate states of mind is a basic aspect of Cervantes’s narrative technique. Asserts the gradual transition from oral to print culture removed the human body from the act of reading, forcing the writer to convey the kinesics of the plot through language. Weiger, John G. The Substance of Cervantes. London: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Provides valuable insights into Cervantes’ craft as a writer by exploring questions such as the relationship of art and reality, the functions of authors and readers, the elusive nature of truth, the dynamics of society, and the significance of the individual and of communication between individuals. Augmented by a bibliography and an index. Williamson, Edwin, ed. Cervantes and the Modernists: The Question of Influence. London: Tamesis, 1994. Collection of essays explores the novelist’s impact on such twentieth century writers as Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Primo Levi, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez. Ziolkowski, Eric. The Sanctification of Don Quixote: From Hidalgo to Priest. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. A detailed exploration of how Don Quixote became a classic, tracing its influence from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ziolkowski discusses how the novel presents the idea of living a religious life.

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