Happy Deathday, Cervantes and Shakespeare

400 years and still kicking

/ by Roman Vučajnk

This year, we commemorate the fourth centennial of the death of two giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Multi-centennial reminders sometimes serve as an excuse to dust monuments and rediscover something everyone has already heard of, but few can really lay out (without the help of the Wikipedia). I’m looking at you, last year’s Magna Carta. A smooth vellum surface carries a written decision that shaped a significant part of human society, no doubt about that, but by now so distant that we do not recognize our own image in it, nor any reason why we should, so we remain content to cherish it for its age and genealogy.


However, we may rest at ease knowing that the legacy of the Bard, who was clever enough not "to take arms against a sea of troubles," the way poor Christopher Marlowe did, and the Señor, who took a bullet to his chest at Lepanto before he found something mightier than the sword, remains alive in our common cultural tissue. Born in the age of discovery of the New World, they both tackled basic and fundamental drives of the human psyche; explored oceans of motives and causes; braved currents of Fate and persisted through jungles of self-reflection. By their effort, talent, and a nod from the gods, they found a literary Fountain of Youth and gained immortality by genuinely being able to hold a conversation with each passing generation. Not only as a immobile relic of the literary Golden Age, which we have to climb up to, but as a modern partner, in full understanding of our age, and a willing assistant in our quest for the Truth.


How about a date?

Shakespeare and Cervantes, laureates of two hostile households both alike in dignity, share the same date of death, 23 April 1616. As befits the highly pitched drama of the Elizabethan stage, it should come as no surprise that, in truth, they died eleven full days apart. Not a comedy of errors, but a calculated plan to recalibrate the calendar, proposed by an Italian fellow from fair Verona (honestly, you can’t make this stuff up). Catholic Spain complied with the Pope’s instructions to switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, while England clung onto the Julian calendar until 1752. Thus, Shakespeare’s Julian April 23 would translate to the Gregorian May 3, if anyone insisted on ruining the magic. Add the feast of St George, the patron saint of England and chivalric soldiers, to the same day and Destiny can enjoy a well-deserved picnic.


Shakespeare and Cervantes never saw each other in person, but we may still appreciate a cinematographic entertainment of the idea in Miguel and William (2007). If their meeting actually had taken place, it would have reflected the hostile attitude between the Spaniards and the English at the time, however, nothing two brilliant minds could not handle. What a pair they would make! Sadly, it was not meant to happen in our version of the universe.


Not all is lost, though, as one of the giants fathered a couple who bridged the inequality of their respective statuses and changed our perspective of windmills forever.


Complementing differences

The two nomadic natives of La Mancha are definitely not the first known literary couple who pursued the Truth in their discourse, but in contrast to Platos’ Phaedo and Echecrates almost two millennia earlier, they presented us with a prototype of a costumed hero and his sidekick. Now, that is something we can connect with in full, especially if it involves special powers.


We may speculate if Don Quixote’s magic helmet, which for the rest of the world was a mere barber’s basin, has drawn similar reactions from his contemporary audience as Batman and Robin’s underpants-over-trousers style manages from us (even though Don Quixote elaborated on his decision, while I still have no clue in regard to the Gotham’s-finest choice of costume in his animated series). However, we are sure that, in time, his conduct, ambition, and persistence in pursuing a crystal-clear notion of the Truth, and his role of a knight-errant, rose from a ridicule to an inspiration.


Many thanks to the skeptical voice of another crystal-clear notion of reality, provided by Sancho Panza, a servant-turned-squire, which allows for the most important issues from Don Quixote’s LARP quests to stand out in the reader’s own environment.


The dialogue between the two notions challenges the readers to investigate their own aspect of reality, before they can fully appreciate the story. Perhaps this is a part of the secret of this particular literary success: the reader does not need to understand the frame of the narrative. The reader just needs to connect to the action.


We Call Upon the Author

While each of us is free to perceive Don Quixote as either a downright loony or a heroic fighter for justice and liberty for all, it might be interesting to peek at the author. A Castilian soldier in one of the major battles of his time, captured by the Ottomans, a purchasing agent (which eventually led him to stay as a guest at the expense of the Crown in Seville for a while) and, lastly, a successful author with an immense influence on the Spanish language. He even applied for an accountant’s position in one of the prosperous ports on the Spanish Main in the south Caribbean, but that change of scenery never took place.


His nickname, El principe de los ingenios (The Prince of Wits), hits the spot for the author who skillfully mocked the deserving. I cannot say whether his wit stems from a desire to lessen the impact his physical defects may have had on his self-image (he was wounded in battle and lost the ability to use his left arm). Yet he was as sharp and unyielding as Cyrano, a famous Gascon version of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, even if grown out of chivalric tales and more inclined to fight the system.


The main target of his mockery was not so much the lore of knightly tales, a remnant of medieval literature, but those who took excess pleasure in them. Especially when they used the invented tales to propagate their view on how things should be run for everybody else.


A conglomerate of myths and romances commanded an influence that reached far to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, as it was a companion to the conquistadors, motivated them and even inspired them also in their topographical exercises (California was originally a name of an island in the sequel to Amadis de Gaul, a literary target in Cervantes’ masterpiece). A notion of honor, bravery, virtue and duty presented by those romances may have worked for conquistadors, whose minds fantasized about immense riches, while their bodies struggled for survival, but in the Old World, it was confined between hard covers of amusing entertainment.


They provided the Prince of Wits with the necessary cover for his satire. In the days of duels of honor, inquisitive religious tribunals of the true doctrine, and a strong-willed monarch, satire had to find its way to the audiences in a considerate way.


One time, Sancho Panza wonders about the glorified battle cry Santiago y cierra España! and comments whether Spain was perhaps opened, and that it wants to be closed up. That battle cry preceded every military encounter of the Spaniards from the time of the Reconquista, and it called upon St. James, the patron saint of Spain and Matamoros, the Killer of Moors. Some of my Iberian friends snigger at the remark, much too contemporary for modern Spain to enjoy as a mere play of words. Some may even draw parallels to certain EU issues today.


Cervantes also made it onto the infamous list of prohibited publications, run by the Holy Inquisition. The readership may gasp in the expectation of Cervantes being hauled by sneering Dominican monks to a damp cell, laden with devices of torture. Why, we do remember how he openly mocked the methods of the Holy Office in dealing with heretics. In Don Quixote, when the Barber and the Priest want to burn several books of the Innkeeper’s that they found guilty of heresy, he asks: “I hope, Sir, they are neither Hereticks nor Flegmaticks (herejes o flemáticos).” To which the Barber corrects him: “Schismaticks (cismáticos), you mean.”


No, the sentence purged from the same book reads: Works of charity done in a lukewarm and half-hearted way are without merit and of no avail. Apparently, a sensitive theological ear considered it a tad too Erasmian, in favoring the inner human condition to outer action.


Cervantes also poked the influence of invented stories over chronicles, the expulsion of the Morisco population from Spain, governing administrations, and even the mental abilities of the ruling classes. With a dash of ridiculing the Church authority over the common sense of an individual person (that particular dart is still not entirely settled by literary critics, though).


There are many who are errant,” said Sancho.
“Many,” responded Don Quixote, “but few who deserve to be called knights.” 

On his deathbed, Don Quixote came to his senses and detached himself from knight-errantry. The moral of the story steps over boundaries of time, and could wear a ruff just as comfortably as a pair of jeans. It addresses us to stand out as individuals and pursue what we believe to be the Good, in aversion from the corrupted, however, not by retiring to a constructed ideal, incompatible with the surroundings. Not to make that ideal an instrument of lamentation over some good-old-days that never have been, nor a cause for lamination of cherry-picked historical interpretations to parade as the Truth.


Let us rather make it a reminder of the human ability to better oneself. Especially in times when giants are not so easily recognizable.

Roman Vučajnk

(1977) is a translator. His first job was at an archaeological site and he was later threatened with adulthood as an Office IT Guy for an international employer. Roman also teaches 16th century European urban combat across the continent and enjoys rapier sparring with friends. In a fit of affection, he nicknamed his three kids as 'the Huns'.