Cervantes was born in Alcala de Henares, near Madrid, into an itinerant apothecary-surgeon's family. Little is known of Cervantes's childhood, though it is assumed that his schooling was minimal and his comforts few, given the family's continual sojourn throughout the regions of Castile, Seville, and Andalusia as the father searched for work. The first documented evidence concerning Cervantes's life, other than his birth record, places him at the Estudio de la Villa de Madrid, a pregraduate liberal arts school, in 1568. While studying in Madrid, Cervantes probably wrote his first known works: elegiac verses on the death of Queen Isabel de Valois. Cervantes's schoolmaster, humanist Juan Lopez de Hoyos, edited and published these and other poems, with approbatory reference to Cervantes, in 1569. By this time, however, Cervantes had removed to Rome to serve as steward to Cardinal Guilio Acquaviva. The following year, he enlisted with Spanish forces stationed in Italy that planned to help defend the countries of southern Europe against the burgeoning Ottoman-Turkish empire, which threatened invasion. In 1571, under the general command of Don John of Austria, Cervantes fought heroically in the naval battle of Lepanto off the coast of Greece. Although shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand—this last an injury which left him permanently crippled—Cervantes gloried in the victory for the duration of his life. His military career ended in 1574 and was followed by royal commendations. While returning from the Tunisian coast to Spain the following year, Cervantes and a group of fellow Spaniards were captured by Algerian pirates; for the next five years they remained imprisoned in North Africa, waiting for friends and family to meet the inordinately high ransom demanded by the leader of the Moorish captors. After four failed escape attempts organized by Cervantes and numerous setbacks to efforts on their behalf at home, the prisoners were finally ransomed, and the group returned to Spain as national heroes late in 1580.
Unfortunately, Cervantes soon found that his heroic efforts had been forgotten and that procuring official employment amidst a floundering national economy—due largely to ill- conceived war efforts in other regions of Europe—appeared impossible. In hopes of fame as well as fortune, he began writing plays for the Spanish stage in the classical tradition of Euripides and Aeschylus, though he focused on contemporary national concerns. It is believed that during the course of only a few years Cervantes wrote some thirty full-length plays, though only his first (El trato de Argel; The Commerce of Algiers ) appears to have been produced, probably in 1580. The advent of the prolific young dramatist Lope de Vega and his lively comedies, replete with recognizable stock characters and sensational stories intended for a wide audience, eclipsed any possibility for success which Cervantes might have had in this field. An attempt at mastering the pastoral romance form with La Galatea, published in 1585 (the year of his marriage to Catalina de Salazar y Palacios), also met with little public notice. In 1587, in desperate need of a salaried job to support his wife, his two sisters, and an illegitimate daughter, Cervantes accepted a position as commissary agent for the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately, Cervantes was caught a short time later in the middle of a dispute concerning grain requisitions and was charged with malfeasance and jailed on at least two, and possibly three, occasions. During this troubled period Cervantes continued to write poems—some of which won great popularity, though small remuneration—and dramas, which he unsuccessfully attempted to have produced. Cervantes's position as commissary agent ended in 1597, though for several years afterward he was hounded by investigators charging him with further mismanagement while in his former job.
Remarkably, it was following this low point in his career that Cervantes—past fifty, impoverished, increasingly unhappy in marriage, and almost entirely unknown as a literary figure—undertook the composition of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605), the first part of the masterpiece from which virtually all fame during and following his life stemmed. Apparently, Cervantes's initial intention was to capitalize on the public's overwhelming interest in chivalric romances by writing a lively, salable parody of the genre. His own references to this work and its sequel clearly demonstrate that he viewed the prose narrative in general as a lower literary form, and that he believed his efforts in the forms he admired most—poetry, drama, and poetic romance—would one day earn critical acclaim. Nonetheless, both critical and popular welcome emerged rapidly after publication of the novel in 1605. Within a few months the hilarious exploits of the eccentric knight Don Quixote were being recited and discussed throughout Spain. However, Cervantes's and the publisher's reprint and royalty rights had been grievously unprotected so that, despite the appearance of more than a dozen editions throughout Europe during the next several years, Cervantes's monetary compensation was slight. As the creator of one of the most entertaining and vivid stories yet seen in European literature, though, Cervantes was now enabled to publish and command regard for several works heretofore neglected, including the burlesque poem “Viage del Parnaso” (1614; “Voyage to Parnassus” ) and the dramatic collection Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (1615); Cervantes also published Novelas exemplares (1613; Exemplary Stories ), a collection of new and older material which, in many instances, anticipated in style and theme much of Don Quixote. In 1614, already far along in the composition of Part II to this work, Cervantes learned of a spurious imitation of his novel entitled Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, recently published under the pseudonym Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. Adapting the situation to his advantage through a clever discreditation of Avellaneda's work within a chapter he was currently drafting, Cervantes raced to complete the authentic version, publishing it the following year. Again, the reception was universally enthusiastic, and Cervantes's name now commanded great admiration throughout Europe, particularly in England, following the appearance of spirited translations by Thomas Shelton. This second part of the novel was as widely pirated as the first, however, and afforded Cervantes relatively little recompense. While Don Quixote, Part II (1615) signified a considerable advancement over Part I in terms of technique and narrative artistry, his final work, the posthumously published Los trabaios de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617; The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda ), reaffirmed the poetic romance form and an idealistic worldview, both of which Don Quixote denies. Shortly after completing Persiles and Sigismunda, Cervantes died of edema at the age of sixty- nine.
Few writers in world literature, aside from Shakespeare, are esteemed more than Cervantes. Yet, it is more truly said of Cervantes than of most major literary figures that his works vary widely in artistic value. The least of Cervantes's literary talents was that for writing poetry. In addition to his few individual poems, Cervantes generated through his verse dramas, two versified interludes, and the countless interpolated poems of his novels and short stories, a mass of poetic material which far exceeded the production of most noted Spanish poets of his era. His use of form and subject was wide, encompassing heroic and religious verse, elegies, and love poems. His most significant achievement in the genre is “Journey to Parnassus,” the allegorical, self- deprecatory epic of Cervantes's trek to Parnassus's peak to seek recognition from Apollo and from Spanish colleagues for his poetic abilities. The poem is considered accomplished and occasionally lit by high humor and imagination. His verse in general, though, shows him a largely unimaginative poet unable to sustain extended, inventive lyric flights or sophisticated formulations of his thoughts and impressions.
As a dramatist, Cervantes was somewhat more successful according to modern evaluations. Only ten of his full-length plays survive: of these, only two—The Commerce of Algiers, which recreates his five years in captivity, and Numancia (1585?), a drama set in Classical Greece and reflecting Cervantes's desire for a renewed, heroic Spain—have been performed to moderate success since his death. Aside from a close adherence to the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place—guidelines which Lope successfully chose to disregard—Cervantes's dramas may be distinguished by an overriding concern with characters in search of identities. Although Cervantes is credited for refusing to stereotype his characters, or to treat the drama form as a streamlined vehicle for light entertainment as did Lope, his dramas are considered drab theatrical exercises hobbled by discursive, moralistic dialogue, compared to most other Spanish Renaissance dramas. Unanimously acknowledged as Cervantes's highest achievement in drama are his eight entremeses: one-act comic interludes meant to be performed between the first and second acts of longer plays. Typically concerned with marital discord or the enactment of a clever swindle, Cervantes's interludes are praised for their swift pace and compelling entertainment and are still regarded as some of the best examples of this little- known form.
As with his other literary endeavors, Cervantes's early fiction stemmed from established generic models. La Galatea, considered an otherwise fairly good period romance, appears fraught with such pitfalls of the genre as contrived description and dialogue, melodramatic scenes, and a circuitous, confusing plot. Critics agree that Cervantes was considerably more successful in presenting artistically sound narrative in his later romance, Persiles and Sigismunda. This work, nearly as popular as Don Quixote throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, gradually fell into disrepute until well through the first half of the twentieth century due to an increasing emphasis in fiction on realistic portraiture and thematically unified story, traits which the majority of scholars find absent from Persiles. However, a notable Persiles critic, Alban K. Forcione, has discovered significant meaning, unity, and masterful narration in the novel. He asserts that Persiles—a tale of the titular heroes' epic travels and records of self-discovery, culminating in their visit to the Holy See in Rome—is a “quest romance” mirroring humanity's difficult journey toward spiritual fulfillment. Aside from this central religious allegory, Persiles presents a multiplicity of secondary plots, which to most readers have seemed superfluous and disruptive. Nevertheless, Forcione has concluded that “the major effect of this structure is an accumulation of power in the statement of theme through ritualistic repetition. Moreover, through fragmentary narration Cervantes succeeds in superimposing the episodes on the main plot, creating a richly complex texture and heightening the effect of timelessness that springs from the recurrence of ritual.” Although the literary merit of Persiles is still questioned, most scholars concede that it deserves serious study in order to understand Cervantes's circular development of the extended prose narrative: from the traditional pastoral romance of La Galatea to the modern satirical novel Don Quixote, to the epic, architectonic romance Persiles and Sigismunda, a work which has been said to represent Cervantes's final rejection of an increasingly science-oriented society in favor of the idealized beauty and grandeur of the Golden-Age Spain of his youth.
Perhaps most undeservedly overshadowed by Cervantes's masterpiece is his Exemplary Stories. Twentieth-century scholars recognize the stories as the first and, quite often, best examples of the traditional Spanish short story. Like few other works in his canon, the stories are considered virtually without flaw. Benefiting from the discernment of such Renaissance dramatists as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who adapted Cervantes's skillfully managed plots to successfully entertain English audiences, many of the pieces have attained a wide and long-lived popularity. According to William Byron, Cervantes's foremost achievement with the stories was that “he placed his characters in society and gave them psychologies of their own with which to deal with their situations. The stories are open to the sights and sounds of everyday life, habits, clothes, attitudes, the random comings and goings of people and events in a lived-in world. His characters exist and act in the context of that world; their problems are created by it, its accidents change their lives and they in turn stir the general air.” Despite such high evaluations, of greater importance to most Cervantists than the independent success of the stories is the fact that they strongly shaped the narrative style, characterization, and thematic scope of their longer counterpart, The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha.
It has often been claimed that, had he not written Don Quixote, Cervantes would undoubtedly be an obscure writer in world literature today. Judged by the overwhelming body of critical material devoted to this novel alone during the past three centuries, the assertion appears justified. Certainly the novel has, in addition to entertaining readers for centuries, wielded an incalculable literary influence and has been honored by a host of major literary figures: from Henry Fielding, who in his advertisement to Joseph Andrews (1742), one of the most influential early English novels, humbly acknowledged his work to be “in imitation of the manner of Cervantes,” to Carlos Fuentes, who in 1986 labelled Don Quixote “the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written.” The reasons for which Don Quixote has attracted such veneration are numerous and varied. Firstly, it is a novel of original, unforgettable characters, the first such of its kind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza vie with the most memorable fictional personalities of all time in their larger-than-life existences—made so through their endlessly quotable speeches, distinctive mannerisms, and emblematic worldviews. Don Quixote is commonly understood, via his ludicrous exploits, perpetual endurance of personal suffering, missionary zeal, and blind refusal to reconcile reality with the ideals of a chivalric knight, as a composite of the tragic idealist, the unbridled imaginative genius, the suffering Savior, and the aging, psychosexually frustrated male. Sancho, conversely, is the ardent skeptic, the simple-minded expositor of rationality, and the would-be complacent individual (provided he is well-fed and reasonably comfortable). What largely elevates the novel to greatness, according to many scholars, is the close and complex bond that develops between these two characters. They share one another's perceptions of the world; they fuel each other's aspirations for fame; and they repeatedly share the pain and anguish that follow upon their brutal encounters with reality. Most importantly, each sustains the glorified existence—for they have crowned themselves roving apostles of truth and honor—of the other: without Sancho, Quixote is a knight lacking a squire; similarly, Sancho, without Quixote, is a common farmer lacking any exalted sense of purpose in his life. Each supports the other and ultimately both sustain the entire imaginative framework of the novel.
Although the structural components in this long novel are numerous, perhaps most important is its novel-within-a-novel scheme. At the opening of Part II Cervantes firmly iterates such a structure, recalling that Cide Hamete Benengeli (Cervantes's created narrator, whom he brought forth periodically in Part I to undergird the authenticity of his narrative as well as to distance himself from his subject) has already brought fame to the wayward heroes Quixote and Sancho, for Part I has popularized the two throughout Spain. Although much may be said of the many divergent themes that have been uncovered in the novel, it is Cervantes's representation and examination of the fine line between real and imagined worlds, between sanity and insanity, between the world of the creative artist and the actual world, that becomes Cervantes's central theme.
This theme is continually brought to the fore by Cervantes through several techniques, among them his many interpolated, fantastic tales in the manner of Boccaccio, which serve to reinforce the reader's belief in the actuality of Quixote's more immediate exploits. Another technique Cervantes employed is the subtle discourse on the art of creative writing, that is, of how best to represent both reality and the imagination through the use of the narrator, or dual narrator, as well as through the dialogue of the characters. Cervantes's principal theme is, of course, fully embodied in the very character of Quixote, in his world-altering personality. Until recent times, Quixote was considered a laughable lunatic who unwittingly afforded readers a telling exploration of the human condition. Increasingly though, he has come to be regarded as a cunning, brilliant old man who, rather than acquiesce to lifeless existence in his retirement, decides to transform his own reality by fictionalizing his past, creating a maiden (Dulcinea del Toboso) whom he religiously serves and honors, and adopting a medieval worldview, a blindness to all but the sphere of his imagination. Joseph Wood Krutch has thus found that “the quixoticism of Don Quixote is more than mere chivalry and more than a generous folly in dealing with persons or events. It is the expression of a faith in the power of the human being to create values by virtue of his faith in them and to generate a world above the world of nature in which his human as opposed to his natural life may be led.”
As ardent as the proponents of the work are, it has had prominent detractors. Among them is Lord Byron, who charged in Don Juan (1819-24) that Cervantes was responsible for extinguishing the chivalric spirit in Europe through his parodies of chivalric encounters, a charge repeated by Ford Madox Ford in 1938. More cutting than this and similar complaints, however, are those by Miguel de Unamuno and Giovanni Papini, who have regarded Cervantes's knight, respectively, as an eternal, miraculously conceived literary symbol, yet one virtually disassociated with its coincidental, marginally talented author; and as a cunning poseur, rather than a guiltless, lovable madman, who cruelly uses those about him for his own egocentric ends. The general trend in criticism has, however, been overwhelmingly favorable; from the seventeenth century onward, the work has progressively been regarded as more than a comic entertainment. Ultimately, it has been considered an epic masterpiece in which the aberrant psyche of the human mind, the friendship between individuals, the struggle to create lasting art out of drab existence, are dramatized in modern language and form.
As such, Don Quixote has had a vast influence on the development of the modern novel. It remains a watershed work of art which exerted undeniable impact on the fiction of Fielding, Alain Rene Le Sage, Tobias Smollett, and other early novelists; further, it anticipated, through its exemplary treatment of the comic outsider, satire of social convention, and exploration of the human psyche, countless later fictional masterpieces, including Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1868), and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884). A harsh critic of Cervantes, Unamuno has nonetheless lauded his magnum opus (if not its creator) thus: “As much as we may meditate on Don Quixote, as the Greeks meditated on the Homeric poems or the English on the dramas of Shakespeare, we cannot consume all the marrow of wisdom that it contains.” Vladimir Nabokov, a major twentieth-century proponent of Cervantes's enduring main character, has written: “He has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought—and he has gained in vitality and stature. We do not laugh at him any longer. His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish, and gallant. The parody has become a paragon.” Cervantes's authorship of Don Quixote, above all else, has established him as one of the greatest figures of world literature, one who pioneered the modern novel's construction and, in so doing, produced an indisputable literary classic.
From: "Miguel De Cervantes (saavedra)." Gale Online Encyclopedia, Gale, 2021.