Cervantes and Shakespeare died in the same year, 1616, and it was once thought that they died on the same day. Perhaps this was a trick of fortune designed to remind us that we should think of them both, and think of them together, as if they were a strange but wonderful team. They are the two greatest successes of writing and the imagination of the Renaissance. Nothing resembles the comprehensiveness and the brilliance of the plays of Shakespeare and Cervantes’s narrative masterpiece, Don Quixote. Their principal challengers—Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, and Dante—come before them. The modern age begins here, and they remain today the standards of excellence.
Harold Bloom says of the pair: Only Cervantes and Shakespeare occupy the highest eminence; you cannot get ahead of them because they are always there before you. Confronting the strength of Don Quixote, the reader is never lessened, always enhanced.1
Only Cervantes and Shakespeare occupy the highest eminence; you cannot get ahead of them because they are always there before you.
Confronting the strength of Don Quixote, the reader is never lessened, always enhanced.1
Of course the lives of the two men were not at all alike. Shakespeare quickly became the rage of London, his plays were performed before royalty, his genius was always appreciated, and it is safe to presume that he became quite influential and wealthy.
Cervantes’s life before his great work was largely a failure. As a young man he was permanently injured in battle fighting for his country at Lepanto, he spent five years as a captive slave in Algiers, his early plays were only moderately successful, and in later life he barely scratched out a living as a government tax collector. This job forced Cervantes to spend much time separated from a wife he clearly loved. He was once jailed, and in his final years he was tormented by disease, the dropsy. Because Cervantes was never paid properly for the enormous sales of Don Quixote, he and his wife had to spend his last year in the home of a Franciscan priest, Father Francisco Martínez.
Their gifts, too, were different. Cervantes was a storyteller, while Shakespeare was a poet and a dramatist. Cervantes’s rhetorical brilliance, his ability to write in any style, his obvious sprezzatura, is largely lost to English-speaking readers. And the drama is, in many ways, a superior medium to novel-writing. Storytelling styles can grow stale, but plays can be performed again and again with new actors in a new setting—they need never go out of fashion. In addition, they require no labor on our part: we just sit there for a couple of hours and watch other people entertain us. Reading can be long and lonely.
For colleges and university professors, Shakespeare is easy to teach—a play may be read in a week—while Don Quixote consumes an entire semester and requires considerable specialized knowledge. Even Spanish departments experience academic years in which no Don Quixote course is taught.
Shakespeare and Cervantes resemble each other most closely in their insight, compassion, and recognition of the beauty and blessedness of life. In their writings, happiness is available to everyone—rich and poor, great and small. That is another way of saying that they are both essentially comic writers. Don Quixote is a funny book, full of love stories with happy endings, while Shakespeare wrote more comedies (fourteen) than he did histories (eleven) or tragedies (twelve).
The comic catharsis celebrates the norm; its theme is integration into society. The hero of tragedy is not better than we are, as Aristotle says, but he is more of an extremist than we are. To reach his goal—generally unattainable—he is ready to sacrifice everything, even his life. He takes on the full burden of righting a wrong. Comedy, on the other hand, restores our confidence in the human condition. It celebrates the small life well lived. G.K. Chesterton sums up A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s purest comedy, quite directly: it shows us “the mysticism of happiness”—something we too often fail to appreciate.2
Don Quixote is anti-heroic; the hero fails at almost everything, beginning with his attempt to battle the windmills he believes to be giants. In Cervantes’s day the aristocratic knight was considered the finest expression of male heroism, but this is not where we find heroism in Don Quixote. In part 1, chapter 38, Don Quixote himself tells us about real heroism, the kind we seldom see.
This is the heroism of the first soldier to board the enemy’s ship in a battle at sea, sword in hand, hoping desperately that his comrades will follow him in the attack. If they are not close behind, brandishing their swords, he is a dead man, and he knows it. He is probably poor and young, making a living as best he can fighting the king’s battles. If he becomes seriously injured he will be awarded no medal, receive no disability payments or pension from the state. Cervantes knew of his heroism firsthand; he lived it.
Reading Don Quixote today is a problem. It is really two books, with part 1 published ten years before part 2. Part 2 is more polished, more clever, more philosophical. It turns in on itself in a way that appeals to our modern interest in self-reflective complexity. Part 2 also contains three of the most brilliant scenes in the entire work: Don Quixote’s descent into the Cave of Montesinos, his battle with Maestro Pedro’s puppets, and his visit to a modern publishing house in Barcelona.
Part 1 is developmental. We see Cervantes forming the character of Don Quixote, who, for the first six chapters, is without his companion Sancho Panza. Don Quixote’s imaginary lady, Dulcinea, is just beginning to take shape. The endless possibilities opened up by pairing the lean, idealistic Don Quixote with the chubby, down-to-earth peasant farmer will take another nine hundred pages to fill out. Of course, this brilliant device has endured. Consider: Robinson Crusoe and Friday, Holmes and Watson, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, and Calvin and Hobbes. This is where it all began.
Cervantes, like Shakespeare, also reveals to us a gallery of brilliant, wonderful women. Early on it became evident to Cervantes that his book would not be popular—and he sought popularity—without exciting women. As early as chapter 12 of part 1 we meet Marcela, a beautiful, strong-willed young woman who will not marry any of her ardent suitors simply because they claim to love her passionately. She does not rail against the institution of marriage, but she defends her right to decide when and whom she will marry.
The most important woman in part 1 is Dorotea, a beautiful girl not of the aristocratic class, who must save her betrothal to a smug nobleman, Don Fernando. Dorotea stoops to conquer the man she loves. But she is also kind to Don Quixote, and she is clever in her disguises—a perfect Shakespearean heroine, and perhaps even more lovable, resourceful, and kind than Viola, the darling of Twelfth Night. Zoriada, a wealthy Muslim maiden who leaves the father she loves to become a Christian in Spain, is saint-like in her virtue. Perhaps to an even greater degree than Shakespeare, Cervantes is able to place successfully the utmost seriousness next to slapstick buffoonery and nonsense.
These are just a few of the tender, intelligent women we meet in Don Quixote. Even Maritornes, the sometime prostitute Don Quixote meets at the inn, is a good-hearted woman. The same can be said for Sancho Panza’s wife and for Don Quixote’s humble housekeeper at home. Part 1 of Don Quixote is a virtual gallery of good women.
Both Cervantes and Shakespeare were conventional Christians of their time. Because Cervantes was Catholic in an intensely Catholic country, his piety is often more obvious than Shakespeare’s. Both men put a high value on marriage, which they regarded as the ultimate fulfillment of life for both men and women. For Cervantes marriage is more than just a happy ending. When Don Fernando finally agrees to marry Dorotea (part 1, chapter 36) she reminds everyone present that their union is blessed by God, that it is a holy sacrament. For both Cervantes and Shakespeare, women take charge because they must. The noblemen involved are just not up to it.
The final chapters of the book, the end of part 2, have become a bit controversial. The best of Don Quixote’s readers differ. This is the deathbed scene in which the humble landowner, Alonso Quijano, renounces his adventures as a chivalrous knight. By this time all his friends have come to adore this mad but idealistic righter of wrongs; they want him to continue. Many readers agree with this theme. But our hero seems to contradict it. He says he wishes only to be remembered as Alonso “the good,” a small man with very good intentions.
When the angels announced the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Luke 2:14), they proclaimed “Peace to men of good will.” This was not simply a proclamation, it was also a promise. Don Quixote never relinquished his innermost desire to do good; he was always a man of good will. Thus, we have reason to hope that he received this final gift of sublime peace in full measure.