Cervantes is Better than Shakespeare

Those who lack the confidence to simply declare ex nihilo on the peaks of world literature find literary anniversaries convenient crutches to justify their attempts to corral together a few opinions. Last post, I talked about the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this time focuses on Miguel de Cervantes, who, as it happens, died on the same day as Shakespeare (albeit on different calendars): April 22, 1616. Now, it’s to be expected that the quatricentenial of the quietus of the creator of the Quixote will be upstaged in the English-speaking world by the bi-bi-centennial bash for the burial of the Bard, but as I shall argue below, it’s the Spaniard whom we ought to read and fête and hold more dearly in our present American moment.

To begin at the most superficial level — the lives of the two authors — there’s simply no comparison. This is the story of Cervantes: as a young man, he entered into a love affair with a barmaid that his father forced him to end, and soon after he had to flee Spain after wounding an opponent in a duel. Ending up in Italy, he joined the Catholic League to fight the Ottoman Empire and participated in the most famous battle of his era, the Battle of Lepanto, in which he was shot twice in the chest and once in the left arm (the latter injury would leave his left hand useless the rest of his life). Bloodied but unbowed, Cervantes sailed home from Lepanto bearing letters from his superiors addressed to the king praising his loyalty and courage in battle. But before he could reach Spain and secure the cushy post that likely awaited him, his ship was attacked by Algerian corsairs, and for five years thereafter he was held captive (despite his four escape attempts). Finally, his family was able to ransom him back to safety, but upon returning to Spain, where his heroics were now long forgotten, Cervantes struggled to make ends meet. For a while he served as a spy in Portugal, and he later failed to earn any money or notoriety as a playwright. Eventually, he became a tax collector, only to be jailed once again, this time for supposed fraud. Yet somehow, well into his fifties, this ragged, hook-nosed man, who wore spectacles resembling (in the words of one of his literary rivals) badly fried eggs, who was missing most of his teeth, and whose life was one series of disappointments after another — somehow this man pulled out of his imagination the greatest novel of all time. (He penned the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 and the second part in 1615, before dying in 1616). Now to review the life of Shakespeare: he was born, went to school, got married, became an actor and playwright, and died. I guess he also smoked weed every once in a while? So, yup, not even close to as interesting.

Moving from the authors to their works, another superficial advantage of Cervantes over Shakespeare is that the formers’ style is much closer to that of our own speech, so you don’t have to strain your ear so much to figure out what the heck is going on. This holds both between Cervantes’ Spanish and contemporary Spanish, as well as for English translations of DQ. (I first read the Quixote in English using Peter Anthony Motteux’s crummy now-public-domain 1712 translation, replete with hilariously unhelpful footnotes, and there was nothing lost of its liveliness, so even bad translators aren’t enough to diminish the book’s power).

On the level of plot: since we’ve been beaten over the head by Shakespeare so much throughout our upbringing, we pretty much know what is going to happen before the first time we read it. No one goes into Romeo and Juliet expecting it to turn out well or is surprised when Hamlet ends up in a pile of bodies on the floor. Or, even if you don’t know what’s going to happen (perhaps it’s one of his less well-known works you’ve gotten yourself into), your enjoyment of the struggles of the particular characters will be all the same likely be dwarfed by attention to the directorial choices (if you’re watching it live) or the experience of Shakespeare’s artistry (if you’re reading it on the page). By contrast, how many of you who haven’t read all the way through the Quixote can say how it will end? There is a freshness to reading the Quixote that reading or seeing Shakespeare lacks. One of the great things about coming to the Quixote is that almost every part of it that you may have heard about in advance (Don Quixote, Sancho, Rocinante, Dulcinea, the windmills) is contained within the first 50 pages, which means you have over 800 pages of virgin soil to look forward to. And it’s one of the main hallmark’s of the Quixote’s genius is that, though the story can be summarized in a single sentence, never does it get repetitive or tiresome. (DQ was the only book Samuel Johnson said he wished were longer). Now, one grumpy American critic once commented “Never by any chance does [Don Quixote] win” in any of his adventures, to which Nabokov responded, in his lectures on the Quixote “one has to read a book in order to write about it.” In fact, Nabokov proceeded to go through each episode of the novel and score them as if they were a tennis match between the knight and the world (for example, the episode of the windmills would be scored as a point for the world, the episode of the duel with the Knight of the Mirrors a victory for the Don). The match would in fact make for must-watch TV (if one were in to tennis), progressing in back-and-forth fashion into five sets before, well, I won’t give away the ending.

On the level of literary conventions, one will find the Quixote amazingly innovative, compared not only to Shakespeare but even compared to contemporary fiction. In fact, many of the devices Cervantes pioneers in it — frame narrative, invented quotations, inter-textuality, unreliable narrators, genre-bending, meta-fiction, the important character we never meet — wouldn’t really reach widespread popularity until the most recent century. Shakespeare’s meta-theatrics are also well ahead of his time, but never do the boundaries between fiction and real life blend so much in his plays as they do in the Quixote. The most hilarious iteration of this occurs is in Part II of DQ, which is even more rewarding and even less read than in Part I. For, after Part 1 of Don Quixote was published in 1605, a rival of Cervantes published an unauthorized, badly written continuation of the story. And so, when Cervantes continued his story ten years later in Part II, he has Don Quixote meet people in his journey who have read both the authorized Part I and the false Part II, and Don Quixote must go to great lengths to live up to the visage he struck in Part I as well as recapture his reputation from the way it was tarnished by the false Part II.

And so one can agree in good faith with the appraisal of Don Quixote as the “first post-modern novel.” Of course, that’s only one of its accolades. It can equally well be considered the first modern novel, and it’s also been dubbed the “Spanish Bible,” “the Bible of Humanity” “the first great Western book without gods” and many more such honorifics. But, fame, as the narrator of Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” reminds us, is perhaps the worst form of incomprehension, and perhaps few other characters have generated such impossibly divergent forms of incomprehension as the central character of this book. What is the meaning of the man from La Mancha? He has been read variously as an imitation of Christ, a protestant, a Kabbalist, a closet Jew, a converso, the ultimate romantic hero, a Marxist revolutionary, an absurdist, a radical nihilist, and God only knows what new identities he will have picked up 400 years from now.

But in fact, that such discord exists over what exactly Don Quixote represents happens to be something sanctioned by the work itself. The first move Cervantes makes in his prologue is to abandon Don Quixote to the whims of his readers, claiming not to be the father of the character but merely the stepfather. He tells readers he “exempts and excuses you from all respect and obligation, and you can say anything you desire about this history without fear that you will be reviled for the bad things or rewarded for the good you might say about it.” Thus, he grants total freedom of interpretation to his audience, casting the book into the world without responsibility for its meaning.

As is often the case, what at first seems an act of generosity ends up turning into an enormous burden, a paradox indicated by the seemingly innocuous opening words of the prologue, the address: “idle reader” (desocupado lector). This “idle reader” can be taken in several ways. On one hand, it’s a reminder that, yes, in order to read a nearly 900-page book one must not be busy with other things, one must have copious amounts of time on one’s hands. Another way of taking it though is as a sly challenge, for sometimes reading is not an idle or merely entertaining task, but one that forces one into some degree of agonizing. And finally, one my agonize over what one reads so much that they will, I don’t know, put the book down and burst out into the real world with new vigor, like, for instance, the very protagonist of the book Don Quixote.

It was precisely his inability to remain merely an “idle” reader that Alonso Quixano got the ridiculous idea in his head to don a helmet, declare himself a knight, and set out to rid the world of wickedness. In order to begin to appreciate the connections between the position of Alonso Quixano (who DQ was before he was DQ) and our own we need to remind ourselves how Alonso Quixano occupied a novel position in world history. He was neither an aristocrat nor a peasant, and thus neither had a defined role to play in society nor the burden of manual labor. He was middle class, a new type of person which, not an aristocrat but not a peasant. A new type of person, a type which, incidentally, characterizes the vast majority of Americans today. Furthermore, he has no children to support nor any parents who depended on him. We know almost nothing of his past or his upbringing, and so he is even beyond the reach of Freudian psychoanalysis. He is an old man, over fifty, and thus no prospects to live up to. In this respect he resembles his country, for by the time Don Quixote (as well as Cervantes) are old it has become clear that the inertia of Spanish imperialism was grinding to a halt and its Golden Age was coming to a close (a situation that also may remind us of America’s crisis of confidence in its position in the world today). Perhaps it is only someone whose attachments to the world around him have frayed so much, who can’t reasonably expect more form himself or his country in his lifetime, that there exist the conditions for him to become so unreasonably attached to a different world, the world of literature. Another respect in which Alonso Quixano-turned-Don Quixote is a distinctly modern character is that the method to his madness, reading novels, simply wasn’t available in prior eras, as the printing press hadn’t yet been invented. (Cervantes highlights this fact my having Don Quixote’s geographic journey conclude in Part II at, of all places, a book-making factory). Books make possible something that was only rarely possible before, the ability to have seeming direct access to previous eras and alternate geographic locations, to know about past nobility, and to acquire a sense of loss at what once was. This paradox, that the most new inventions allow us to reach back to the oldest things, is captured well by the opening of Robert Hass’ poem “Mediations at Lagunitas”: “All the new thinking is about loss.” (Not that Shakespeare too didn’t see what changes were going on, but perhaps he was enjoying the good go of things in Elizabethean England too much to make it the dominant theme of his work.)

Anyway, so Alonso Quixano, with the means to support whatever he wishes, and no responsibilities to limit himself, is able to make out of himself whatever he wishes. Human freedom is the theme of the book, and that’s why Cervantes speaks so much to us, and why his book carries contemporary urgency lacking in any Shakespeare. Alonso Quixano’s capacity for self-fashioning resembles our own. Literally, tomorrow I can radically change my life in dozens of ways inaccessible to people for most of history. I can shave my head, get a tattoo, move to another town, change my name, change my gender, get married, change my religion, join the army, join ISIS, eat a giant hamburger, change careers, make a website, and any number of other things. I can do so much. I have so much freedom. Although, it must be said: unlike most of us, Cervantes has the experience of freedom’s lack. Like his father and grandfather, incidentally, Cervantes spent a not insignificant portion of his life in prison or captivity (he is supposed to have written the Quixote while in prison). It’s all the more powerful then that it is he who delivers to the world the most penetrating exploration of human freedom. During the “Captive’s tale,” the captive (a character bearing strikingly many parallels to the author himself) declares “There is no joy on earth equal to that of regaining the freedom one has lost.”

But what is one to do with one’s freedom. When one can do anything that one wants, how can one figure out what one wants? Quixano/Quixote could have gone for anything, but for some reason he is drawn to books of chivalry in particular. Why? Can we say more than simply there is something in them that draws them to him? When trying to articulate what he hopes to accomplish, DQ gives contrasting answers, sometimes saying he’s doing what he’s doing to rid the world of evil, and other times to secure for himself everlasting glory. We do know, one of the only facts about his heritage, that his grandfather owned a knights’ helmet, so there’s something in his blood that longs for that lifestyle. But perhaps instead of trying to answer what draws Quixote to chivalric tales, we might as well ask ourselves what draws us to Quixote.

In any case, the world of chivalry becomes so real to DQ that he abandons it altogether, venturing forth into the real world armed with its trapping and expectations When he’s off on his initial adventures, some townfolk conspire to take the books away from him. Therefore, he can no longer rely on reading as a guide as to how to be a knight, he must rely only on his memory, which begins to degrade. Like a teenager who has his cell phone taken away and no longer and go to Wikipedia at every whim, we watch him struggle to remember quotations, proper knight etiquette, and so forth. He slowly reenters the premodern world, which is to say, the world, and the world begins to resist him, refusing to confirm with the way things are supposed to go in the books of knight-errantry.

The ultimate embodiment of world-resistance comes in the form of Sancho Panza. Don Quixote needs Sancho to come along with him because according to the knight books all knights have squires. But Sancho doesn’t know these books and so doesn’t know how he’s supposed to behave. In the books, the squires never talk, but Sancho the real person has a life of his own and can’t help himself from talking. He cannot be assimilated into the world DQ imagines.

The two characters are opposites in almost every way. Don Quixote is the tall, skinny, idealistic, horse-riding, literary, visual (he doesn’t care at all when his ear is chopped off), and has a firm goal that doesn’t exist. Sancho is short, fat, earthly, donkey-riding, equipped with proverbs, audial (he doesn’t mind being blindfolded) and has the goal of an insula but doesn’t know what that is. But through their adventures and conversation, their squabbles and their smiles and above all their laughter, we witness Don Quixote becoming Sancho-fied, and Sancho turning more quixotic, and this constitutes the most joyful aspect of reading the books. My favorite scene from the whole book is when Don Quixote drinks a disgusting potion that’s supposed to be a healing mixture (it isn’t). He calls Sancho over to inspect his mouth and then, when Sancho looks into it, he accidentally vomits all over him. Sancho, disgusted, can’t help himself from vomiting back all over Don Quixote. Eventually, they share a laugh together. This is a most graphic, physical scene, but its most wonderful metaphor for the least physical action: speech. For what is a conversation but not something coming out of one’s mouth that provokes things to come out of someone else’s mouth? What develops between — once they become self-conscious of their adventures — Don Quixote and Sancho is perhaps the most splendid portrait ever offered of friendship. When briefly in Book II the characters are forced to spend time apart, we can’t stand it and hurry through the chapters until their reunion.

Have there been any friendships in literature that have approached the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho? Their friendship is particularly dear to us American readers because friendship is something the United States has never really understood or enacted well. We were born with égalité, we acquired liberté, but fraternité we still are figuring out. Honestly, what binds people here together, besides beer, sports, entertainment, work, location, youth?

The way to conclude this ramble is to discuss what explodes the friendship of Don Quixote and Sancho at the end of the book, but in order to do that I would need to give away the ending, which I don’t want to do. I also want to go eat a Nutella bagel and this is already long so I don’t feel to bad about leaving the last part of my outline unwritten.

But picking up the thread of the theme of friendship, I invite you to, first, read the book if you haven’t already, and then come talk to me in person, email, facebook, or whatever and tell me whether or not it’s not the ending is the most heart-breaking thing you’ve ever read, whether Cervantes is not an intensely cruel man, and whether what Cervantes did to Don Quixote was ultimately inexcusable.


All of Shakespeare’s plays end in applause. Hamlet doesn’t need us; Fortinbras restores order to the kingdom of Denmark, and Horatio answers Hamlet’s call to keep his story alive. There is nothing left for the audience to do but be witnesses and praisers of their creator’s genius. But there can be no such response to the end of the Quixote. The story explodes out of the page and is only justified if we the readers keep him alive. “Don Quixote is greater today than he was in Cervantes’ womb” Nabokov concludes, and if it is so it’s only so because we the people make him so.

There’s a strange coincidence between these two authors, Cervantes and Shakespeare. That the man who’s life was filled with soldiers and pirates and spies and princes wrote a work most suited for generic middle-class Americans, and yet the one who lived the plain white bread life was the one whose works are too much in an aristocratic key for us. Shakespeare will never become indigenous to the United States the way he has in, say, Germany or Russia. And while, the Quixote has by no means yet been absorbed here either (though George Washington did have a copy with him when he was presiding over the Constitutional Convention!), but I believe it ought to be, and maybe by 2050, when (unless President Trump gets his way) the United States has become the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, we will rightly appraise the Quixote as a Great American Novel.

One final tidbit on the Shakespeare and Cervantes: one of the Bard’s unfortunately lost plays was The History of Cardenio, happens to be based on a character from Part I of Don Quixote! If anyone feels like finding that, or recreating it, this would be a great year to do so.


El Don

Quien convertirá el amor a

dios en el dios de amor?

Quien será interlocuradora

De este triste manchego señor?

Este niño bueno, que tiene

El fuerte ritmo del ciclismo

Y andando en Babieca truene

En su vuelta a español destino?

Como oir, sobre el ruido

De lluvia? Quien puede sentir

Sobre su conrazon influido

Con el deseo de sonreir?

Antes de la venganza de la danza

Nunca espera y nunca alcanza.