Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a Spanish novelist, dramatist, poet, and short-story writer, achieved world acclaim, particularly for his Don Quijote, not only the first modern novel but probably also the greatest. Born in Alcala de Henares to a poor surgeon, and into a family once prosperous, Cervantes moved often as a child. Little is known of his education. He apparently studied as a child in Valladolid, then possibly with the Jesuits in Seville, and finally with the hu­manist Juan Lopez de Hoyos in Madrid. In 1569 he departed for Italy in the service of Cardinal Claudius Acquaviva, becoming a soldier in 1570. He lost the use of his left hand in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. After recovering, Cervantes participated in other military campaigns until he was taken prisoner and brought to Algiers by a renegade pirate. He remained in captivity for five years before being ransomed in 1580.
Upon his return to Spain, Cervantes began an unhappy marriage to Catalina de Salazar y Palacios (1584), fathered an illegitimate daughter, and, convinced of his inability to earn a living as a writer, became a purchasing agent for the navy. His troubles were numerous and included at least two imprisonments for debt or bookkeeping errors. In 1605 Cervantes and his family were implicated and later exonerated in the death of a nobleman. After the immediate success of the first part of Don Quijote, he moved with the court to Madrid, beginning his most productive literary period until his death in 1616.
Best known as the author of the first modern novel, Don Quijote, and his Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Tales), Cervantes was a prolific writer in many genres. He often experimented with genre or blended previously distinct genres or styles. His Don Quijote, for example, reconciled the epic and romance traditions and combined elements of chivalric romance, poetry, the pastoral novel, the Byzantine romance, and the Moorish novel, among others. Cervantes is also known for having adapted to his writing elements of Erasmian humanism such as the exaltation of reason, harmony, the overcoming of appearances, com­mon sense, human dignity, and prudence. On the other hand, he appears to abhor ignorance, affectation, pedantry, and arrogance. His writings also reflect his strong belief in free will and personal responsibility.
There were no significant genres of the time with which Cervantes did not involve himself. Although he is not particularly known as a poet, he did write some poetry of interest, including the Viaje del parnaso (Voyage to Parnassus) (1614), 3,000 verses based on a poem of the same title by Cesare Caporali. It was not until the twentieth century that his poetry became well regarded.
Before Lope de Vega,* Cervantes was the greatest Spanish playwright. Much of his theater still holds a great deal of relevance and appeal in numerous lan­guages. His early El trato de Argel (The Commerce of Algiers) recounts in­trigues of life in Barbary and is said to be at least partially autobiographical. El cerco de Numancia (Numantia), written during the same period, presents an entire community as patriotic hero and willing to die to preserve its dignity and autonomy when confronted with the unjust and cruel actions of the Romans. It exalts an empire inspired by virtue and faith. This tragedy is often considered a precursor to Lope de Vega's Fuente Orejuna.
Cervantes's later drama appeared in 1615 in Ocho comedias y ocho entre­meses nuevos (Eight plays and eight new interludes). Among these are El gal­lardo español (The gallant Spaniard), Los baños de Argel (The Baths of Algiers), and La gran sultana dona Catalina de Oviedo (The Grand Sultan Catalina), all of which are based on tensions or themes of captivity between Moors and Christians. Perhaps most successful among his theatrical works were Cervantes's entremeses, or short humorous interludes. Two of these, La elección de los alcaldes de Daganza (The election of the mayor of Paganza) and El rufián viudo (The Widowed Pimp), are in verse, and the others are in prose.
It is his prose for which Cervantes is most appreciated. La Galatea (1585), his first attempt at a novel, follows the pastoral tradition adapted from Italy, where it was popularized by Jacopo Sannazaro.* It contains some Neoplatonic ideas and promises a second part, which never appeared. Part one of El ingen­ioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha met immediate success upon its pub­lication in 1605. The Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha appeared ten years later, after the publication of an illicit sequel by one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda. The novel was the newest genre and thus the most wide open for experimentation. Cervantes incorporated most other genres within it, as well as stories and poems that could stand on their own. The work contains a new literary self-consciousness. The characters detach themselves and comment on the stories, as does the author in his dual role as creator and critic. Humanistic values and the exaltation of free will abound.
In the novel, Cervantes re-creates the reality of life in all of its complexities and contradictions. What appears to be a simple dichotomy between the ideal­istic, crazy, but virtuous Don Quijote and his realistic, grounded, and ignorant squire Sancho Panza becomes far more complicated and less straightforward, as when the two appear to change roles in the second volume. The Don Quijote also deals with the Shakespearean boundaries between life and literature, or art in general. Although the distinction must be made, and Don Quijote errs in treating life like literature, the two constantly interfere with one another. Cer­vantes shows that life, like literature, is susceptible to various interpretations and that only by interpreting experience or literature with virtue and reason can one hope to avoid grave errors. Truth itself is not ambiguous, but human access to it is often limited.
In 1613 the Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary tales) appeared in print. These novellas, or short stories, were exemplary in terms of their adaptation to Spanish or experimentation with various genres, including the Italianate novel, the pic­aresque, satire, and the realistic tale. Cervantes's creations were quite unique and opened the doors for subsequent short prose.
Cervantes's last work, Persilesy Sigismunda, appeared posthumously in 1617 but was probably begun in 1609. It is clear that Cervantes was rushing to finish the work before his death. Perhaps posterity would have viewed this work more generously had Cervantes had ample health and time to finish it as he might have planned. In any case, the novel follows the Byzantine style and attempts to illustrate the spiritual quest of humans by means of the varied adventures depicted in the novel.
The bibliography concerning Cervantes and his works is immense and on­going. Many of these works deal with Don Quijote, a work that has meant different things at different times and in different places. Many editions of his complete works are available as well.
M. Duran, Cervantes, 1974.
J. V. Ricapito, Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares: Between History and Creativity, 1996.
E. C. Riley, Don Quixote, 1986.
Lydia Bernstein

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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