Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes changed the face of fiction with his early 17th century masterpiece, Don Quixote. In the book, a distinguished country gentleman becomes a knight after reading too many chivalric novels. Intended as a spoof on the romantic literature of the time, Don Quixote exposed and satirized Spanish society, medieval romance, and the pastoral novel. Popularly credited as the first modern novel, Don Quixote reveals the essential humanity of its complex, crazed characters and has influenced many subsequent works.
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de (1547-1616), Spanish writer, considered by many to be the greatest Spanish author, whose novel Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615) is regarded as one of the masterpieces of world literature. Because of his eloquent style and remarkable insight, Cervantes has achieved acclaim comparable to that given to such literary greats as Greek poet Homer, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and English playwright William Shakespeare.
Cervantes was born in AlcalĂˇ de Henares. In 1568, when he was a student, a number of his poems appeared in a volume published in Madrid, Spain, to commemorate the death of the Spanish queen Elizabeth of Valois. In 1569 Cervantes went to Rome, where in the following year he began working for Giulio Cardinal Acquaviva. Soon afterward Cervantes joined a Spanish military regiment in Naples, Italy. He fought in 1571 against the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, in which he lost the use of his left hand. While returning to Spain in 1575, Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates. He was taken to Algeria as a slave and held there for ransom. During the next five years he made several heroic but unsuccessful attempts to escape before he was finally ransomed in 1580 by his family and friends.
Returning to Spain at the age of 33, Cervantes, despite his wartime service and misfortunes in Algeria, was unable to obtain employment with a noble family, the usual reward for veterans who had distinguished themselves. Deciding to become a writer, he produced poems and plays at a prodigious rate between 1582 and 1585, but few of these works have survived. His pastoral novel La Galatea (1585) gained him a reputation, but the proceeds from its sale were insufficient to support him. Cervantes then took government jobs, first furnishing goods to the fleet of the Spanish Armada and later collecting taxes. The government imprisoned him several times because he failed to give a satisfactory explanation of his tax-collecting activities.
Probably during his time in prison Cervantes conceived the idea for a story about a man who imagines himself a knight-errant (a knight who seeks out adventure) performing the splendid feats described in medieval tales of chivalry. In 1605 the first part of his tale was issued under the title El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha). It became such an immediate success that within two weeks after publication three unauthorized editions appeared in Madrid. Partly because of these unauthorized editions and partly because of his lack of financial management skills, Cervantes never gained substantial wealth from the enormous success of the work. Don Quixote was first translated into English in 1612.
Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels, 1613), a collection of 12 short stories, includes romances in the Italian style; descriptions of criminal life in Seville, Spain; and sketches of unusual events and characters. One of these stories, â€śEl coloquio de los perrosâ€ť (The Talking Dogs), is particularly renowned for its satirical prose style. The second part of Don Quixote was published in 1615 and translated into English in 1620. In 1616 Cervantes completed the allegorical novel Persiles y Sigismunda (1617), four days before his death. The book was published the next year.
Don Quixote, Cervantes's most important work, describes the adventures of an idealistic Spanish nobleman who, as a result of reading many tales of chivalry, comes to believe that he is a knight who must combat the world's injustices. He travels with his squire, Sancho Panza, an uneducated but practical peasant. Don Quixote's mount is an old, bedraggled horse named Rocinante. Don Quixote travels in search of adventure, dedicating his actions of valor to a simple country girl whom he calls Dulcinea, seeing her as his lady. He sets himself the task of defending orphans, protecting maidens and widows, befriending the helpless, and serving the causes of truth and beauty. His imagination often runs away with him, so that he sees windmills as giants, flocks of sheep as enemy armies, and country inns as castles. Don Quixote's romantic view of the world, however, is often balanced by Sancho Panza's more realistic outlook.
Don Quixote was originally intended as a satire on medieval tales of chivalry. The completed work, however, presents a rich picture of Spanish life and contains many philosophical insights. Don Quixote's quest has been seen as an allegory of the eternal human quest for goodness and truth in the face of insurmountable obstacles. His idealism seems to be madness in a world that sometimes views heroism and love as forms of insanity, and this has led many readers to consider Don Quixote a tragedy despite its satirical style and many comical episodes.
Don Quixote has had a tremendous influence on the development of prose fiction. It has been translated into all modern languages and has appeared in several hundred editions. It has also been the subject of a variety of works in other fields of art, including operas by Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello and French composer Jules Massenet; a symphonic poem (a musical piece meant to evoke images of other artistic, but nonmusical, pieces) by German composer Richard Strauss; motion pictures by German director G. W. Pabst and Russian director Grigori Kozintzev; a ballet by American choreographer George Balanchine; and a musical, Man of La Mancha (1965), with music by American Mitch Leigh. The theme also inspired works by 19th-century French artists HonorĂ© Daumier and Gustave DorĂ©.
Eugenio Florit, Dr.enDerechoCivil, Dr.enDerechoPĂşblico.
Professor Emeritus of Spanish, Barnard College. Editor and Translator, Spanish Poetry.
"Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de," MicrosoftÂ® EncartaÂ® Online Encyclopedia 2000
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