Born 29 September 1547, Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Died 23 April 1616 Madrid, Spain
Miguel de Cervantes
Saavedra [IPA: mi?el ðe ?erßantes saße(ð)ra] (September
29, 1547 – April 23, 1616), was a Spanish novelist, poet and playwright.
He is best known for his novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, which is considered
by many to be the first modern novel, one of the greatest works in Western
literature, and the greatest in the Spanish language. It is one of the
Encyclopedia Britannica's "Great Books of the Western World"
and the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky called it "the ultimate
and most sublime word of human thinking". Cervantes is so well
regarded that his face is depicted on most Spanish Euro coins, and his
image is common in Spanish book stores. Israeli Prime Minister David
Ben-Gurion learned the Spanish language so that he could read it in
Cervantes was born
at Alcalá de Henares, Spain. The date is not recorded but since
he was named Miguel it is believed he was born on the feast day of St.
Michael (Sept 29) in 1547. He was the second son and fourth of seven
children of Rodrigo de Cervantes and Leonor de Cortinas. His father
was an impoverished apothecary-surgeon and came from an old family of
Northern Spain. Cervantes was baptized on November 9, 1558. Although
Cervantes' reputation rests almost entirely on his portrait of the gaunt
country gentleman, El ingenioso hidalgo, his literary production was
considerable. William Shakespeare, Cervantes' great contemporary, had
evidently read Don Quixote, but it is most unlikely that Cervantes had
ever heard of Shakespeare. As a child, Cervantes saw the famous actor-manager
and dramatist Lope de Rueda and mentions this in the preface to his
plays. This possibly ignited his passion for the theatre in later life.
an unsettled life of hardship and adventure. He was the son of a surgeon
who presented himself as a nobleman. Nothing is known of Cervantes'
mother nor her background. Little is known of his early years, but
it seems that Cervantes spent much of his childhood moving from town
to town, while his father sought work. After studying in Madrid (1568-1569),
where his teacher was the humanist Juan López de Hoyos, Cervantes
went to Rome in the service of Giulio Acquavita. In 1570, he became
a soldier, and fought on board a vessel in the battle of Lepanto in
1571. He was shot through the left hand and never after had the entire
use of it.
He recovered sufficiently
to participate in the naval engagement against the Muslims of Navarino
in October 7, 1572. He participated in the capture of Tunis on October
10, 1573 and in the unsuccessful expedition to the relief of La Goletta
in the autumn of 1574.
After living a while
longer in Italy, with periods of garrison duty at Palermo and Naples,
he finally determined to return home in 1575. The ship was captured
by the Turks, and he and his brother, Rodrigo, were taken to Algiers
as slaves. Cervantes was in possession of a letter of recommendation
from the Duke of Alba, whose ship he had served on. The letter was found
on his person and the Turks took him for a man of some importance who
might bring a hefty ransom. He was held captive for five years, since
his family could not afford the overpriced sum, undergoing great suffering,
some of which seems to be reflected in the episode of the "Captive"
in Don Quixote, and in scenes of the play, El trato de Argel. After
four unsuccessful escape attempts, he was ransomed by the Trinitarians,
and returned to his family in Madrid in 1580.
In 1584, he married
Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, 18 years his junior. He and his wife
had no children, although two years before his marriage Cervantes had
fathered an illegitimate daughter, Isabel, in an affair with Ana Francisca
During the next
20 years he led a nomadic existence, working as a purchasing agent for
the Spanish Armada, and as a tax collector. He was temporarily excommunicated
for confiscating supplies which belonged to the dean of the cathedral
of Seville. He suffered a bankruptcy, and was imprisoned at least twice
(1597 and 1602) because of irregularities in his accounts, one due to
a subordinate rather than himself. Between the years 1596 and 1600,
he lived primarily in Seville. In 1606, Cervantes settled permanently
in Madrid, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In 1585, Cervantes
published his first major work, La Galatea, a pastoral romance, at the
same time that some of his plays, now lost except for El trato de Argel
(where he dealt with the life of Christian slaves in Algiers) and El
cerco de Numancia, were playing on the stages of Madrid. La Galatea
received little contemporary notice, and Cervantes never wrote the continuation
for it (which he repeatedly promised). Cervantes next turned his attention
to drama, hoping to derive an income from that source, but the plays
which he composed failed to achieve their purpose. Aside from his plays,
his most ambitious work in verse was Viaje del Parnaso (1614), an allegory
which consisted largely of a rather tedious though good-natured review
of contemporary poets. Cervantes himself realized that he was deficient
in poetic gifts.
If a remark which
Cervantes himself makes in the prologue of Don Quixote is to be taken
literally, the idea of the work, though hardly the writing of its "First
Part", as some have maintained, occurred to him in prison at Argamasilla,
in La Mancha. Cervantes' idea was to give a picture of real life and
manners, and to express himself in clear language. The intrusion of
everyday speech into a literary context was acclaimed by the reading
public. The author stayed poor until 1605, when the first part of Don
to produce several novellas that appear as subplots of the first part.
Although it did not make Cervantes rich, it brought him international
appreciation as a man of letters. Cervantes also wrote some plays during
this period, as well as short novels, and the vogue obtained by Cervantes's
story led to the publication of a continuation of it by an unknown who
masqueraded under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda.
In self-defense, Cervantes produced his own continuation, or "Second
Part", of Don Quixote, which made its appearance in 1615. Surer
of himself, this part does not feature extraneous plots.
For the world at
large, interest in Cervantes centers particularly on Don Quixote, and
this work has been regarded chiefly as a novel of purpose. It is stated
again and again that he wrote it in order to ridicule the romances of
chivalry, and to destroy the popularity of a form of literature which
for much more than a century had engrossed a large proportion of those
who could read among his countrymen, and which had been communicated
by them to the illiterate.
Don Quixote certainly
reveals much narrative power, considerable humour, a mastery of dialogue,
and a forceful style. Of the two parts written by Cervantes, the first
has ever remained the favourite. The second part is inferior to it in
humorous effect; but, nevertheless, the second part shows more constructive
insight, better delineation of character, an improved style, and more
realism and probability in its action.
In 1613, he published
a collection of tales, the Exemplary Novels, some of which had been
written earlier. On the whole, the Exemplary Novels are worthy of the
fame of Cervantes; they bear the same stamp of genius as Don Quixote.
The picaroon strain, already made familiar in Spain by the Lazarillo
de Tormes and his successors, appears in one or another of them, especially
in the Rinconete y Cortadillo, which is the best of all. He also published
the Viaje Del Parnaso in 1614, and in 1615, the Eight Comedies and Eight
New Interludes, the largest group of plays written by Cervantes to have
survived. At the same time, Cervantes continued working on Los trabajos
de Persiles y Sigismunda, a Byzantine novel of adventurous travel completed
just before his death, and which appeared posthumously in January, 1617.
He died in Madrid
on April 23, 1616 (Gregorian calendar), the same date as the death of
Shakespeare (in the Julian calendar). It is worth mentioning that the
Encyclopedia Hispanica claims the date widely quoted as Cervantes' date
of death, namely April 23, is the date on his tombstone which in accordance
of the traditions of Spain at the time would be his date of burial rather
than date of death. If this is true, according to Hispanica, then it
means that Cervantes probably died on April 22 and was buried on April
is seen among others in the works of Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens,
Gustave Flaubert, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and in the works
of James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.
importance and influence
Cervantes's novel Don Quixote has had a tremendous influence on the
development of written fiction; it has been translated into all modern
languages and has appeared in 700 editions. The first translation in
English, and also in any language, was made by Thomas Shelton in 1608,
but not published until 1612.
Don Quixote has
been the subject of a variety of works in other fields of art, including
operas by the Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello, the French Jules
Massenet, and the Spanish Manuel de Falla; a tone poem by the German
composer Richard Strauss; a German film (1933) directed by G. W. Pabst
and a Soviet film (1957) directed by Grigori Kozintzev; a ballet (1965)
by George Balanchine; and an American musical, Man of La Mancha (1965),
by Mitch Leigh.
Its influence can
be seen in the work of Smollett, Defoe, Fielding, and Sterne, as well
as in the classic 19th-century novelists Scott, Dickens, Flaubert, Melville,
and Dostoyevsky. The theme also inspired the 19th-century French artists
Honoré Daumier and Gustave Doré.
Miguel de Cervantes
Saavedra, Spain's greatest literary figure, was born in Alcalá
de Henares, a small university town near Madrid, where he was baptized
in the church of Santa María on October 9, 1547; he died in Madrid
on April 23, 1616. We know little of his early life. The fourth of seven
children, Cervantes, his siblings and mother accompanied his father,
an itinerant surgeon, who struggled to maintain his practice and his
family by traveling the length and breadth of Spain. Despite his father's
frequent travels, Cervantes received some early formal education, in
the school of the Spanish humanist, Juan Lopez de Hoyos, who was teaching
in Madrid in the 1560s. His first literary efforts--poems written on
the death of the wife of Philip II--date from this period.
In 1569 Cervantes
traveled to Italy to serve in the household of an Italian nobleman,
and joined the Spanish army a year later. He fought bravely against
the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he received serious
wounds and lost the use of his left hand. After a lengthy period of
recovery and further military duty, he departed Italy for Spain in 1575,
only to be captured during the return journey by Barbary pirates. He
was taken to Algiers and imprisoned for five years, until Trinitarian
friars paid a considerable sum of money for his ransom. This experience
was a turning point in his life, and numerous references to the themes
of freedom and captivity later appeared in his work.
His new-found freedom
and return to Spain had strings attached. He was deep in debt for the
ransom paid to release him. In 1584 he married a woman almost twenty
years younger (he was 37 at the time), and soon managed to obtain a
position as a government official in the south of Spain, requistioning
wheat and olive oil for the campaign of the Invincible Armada (1588).
Within two years of the Armada's defeat, he requested permission to
emigrate to the New World, most likely to improve his situation, but
was turned down and told to find some gainful employment "at home."
By 1590, Cervantes
was already known as a promising author. In 1585 he published his first
work in prose, La Galatea, a pastoral romance which had attracted qualified
praise from some of his contemporaries. He was also writing for the
theater. At this time he also began to write short stories, some of
which were later included in his Exemplary Tales. His most famous work,
Don Quixote de la Mancha, was published in two parts in Madrid. Part
I appeared in 1605; the second part in 1615. The novel was an immediate
success. The first part went through six editions the year of its publication,
and was soon translated into English and French. The fame of Don Quixote
brought Cervantes to the attention of a wide audience. In 1613 his completed
collection of short stories appeared in Madrid; his satiric poem, Journey
from Parnassus was published a year later; and in 1615, Cervantes was
able to publish some of his theatrical works. His final prose fiction,
The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda, generally described as a Byzantine
romance--whose dedication he finished four days before his death--was
assessed by Cervantes as among the best of his work.