Don Quijote and Sancho Panza

Recalling Don Quixote’s temperament

Spain and Britain are celebrating these days the 400th anniversary of two literary giants: Cervantes and Shakespeare, considered as the most universal and greatest writers in their respective languages. You probably heard that the reason why we celebrate the International Book Day every 23 April is because both of them died on the 23 April 1616. Except they didn’t: they actually died 11 days apart. By 1616 Spain had moved on to using the Gregorian calendar, while England was still using the Julian. So, when Shakespeare died, the Spanish calendar showed 3rd of May…

Miguel de Cervantes, heavily affected during his life by his stutter, had a much more colourful and turbulent life than Shakespeare. Born in 1547 to a modest barber near Madrid, he joined the army and fought at the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks, where he lost his left hand: he was actually proud of this. He was also jailed several times and, while sailing, he was captured by Barbary pirates along with his brother. They were kept as slaves and ransomed home five years later.

He was already well into his fifties when he wrote Don Quixote, the book that made him famous: he then became a popular writer, although he was never paid for his work and he died in poverty. He was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which remains unclear. In 2015 a group of scientists claimed they had found the true remains of Miguel de Cervantes in a Madrid church, but this has yet to be verified as there is no DNA proof available.

Cervantes and Shakespeare almost certainly never met but it seems very likely that the English playwright did read Cervantes’s work. In fact, he called one of his books ‘The History of Cardenio’ (1613), honouring one of Don Quixote’s characters, Cardenio. There are a number of reasons why Shakespeare seems to overshadow Cervantes, but all Spaniards truly feel Cervantes is *our* Shakespeare. Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel and became the model to follow, it has been translated into 140 languages (in fact, the most translated work in the world after the Bible), and has inspired generations of writers worldwide. Jose Crespo, from the Cervantes Institute, argues that “both [writers] contributed to elevate the level of the language and culture to which they belonged in a similar way.”

However, a mere two out of ten Spanish adults, according to a recent survey, claim they have read it in full: the main reason is because it is close on impossible to understand ancient Spanish unless thou hath one of those editions with more footnotes than text.

When I think of Cervantes’s most popular character, Don Quixote (Don Quijote for us), I fondly remember how he lost his mind trying to emulate the heroes of all those chivalry books he used to read; how he fell in love with an imaginary woman he believed real; how he tried to fight against giant monsters when in reality he came across windmills so typical of the Spanish landscapes at that time…. In Don Quijote’s world, nothing is as it seems, a bit like our current political situation, awaiting our second general election in six months after parties have been wooing their respective imaginary Dulcineas, yet have failed to form government. “To be prepared is half the victory,” Cervantes once said.

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