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This Week in History
September 27 - October 3, 2015

Cervantes and Shakespeare

by Carlos Wesley

This week we celebrate the birth of the Spanish playwright and novelist Miguel de Cervantes, born on September 29, 1547. Author of the famous book  "El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha", (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) published in 1605, "Don Quijote" remains to this day one of the most important, and universal, literary works ever written. One of the first novels ever composed, it holds a mirror up to society, and was read and discussed by statesmen throughout the world, both in the original Spanish and in its many translated versions. The first English edition was translated by an associate of William Shakespeare and appeared in 1607. Coincidetally, Cervantes died on the same day as the Bard, on April 23, 1616.  The following two short excerpts are taken from the 2003 article in Fidelio Magazine, entitled "The Joy of Reading Don Quixote"

Miguel de Cervantes

The Englishman William Shakespeare, who was baptized on April 26, 1564, was a contemporary of the Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes. In fact, they both died on the same date, April 23, 1616, though not on the same day, since England still followed the Julian calendar, whereas Spain had adopted the Gregorian one.

That Shakespeare knew Cervantes' work is clear, since he co-authored with John Fletcher a play, Cardenio, based upon the tale of Cardenio from Don Quixote, which was acted at court for the royal wedding of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, to the Elector of Palatine, on June 8, 1613. The first English translations of Don Quixote,both Parts I and II, were printed by Shakespeare's publishers.[1] It is quite possible that Cervantes knew Shakespeare's work as well, Cervantes started and ended his literary career as a playwright (Eight commedies and Eight Interludes). Both he and his fellow playwright, Shakespeare, sought, through their writings, to uplift their respective populations.

William Shakespeare

Both were "political" writers, as all real artists are. This is most notable in Shakespeare's history plays, but also in his works of "legendary" history, such as Hamlet and Macbeth, where the issue is how a society can deal with its flaws before they lead to tragedy.

Similarly in Cervantes, all of whose works take aim at the tragic flaw in Spanish society: the fantasy state of the "glory" of the medieval feudal past, versus the reality of a decaying empire. Compare Hamlet's crazy behavior, with that of the characters in Don Quixote. ("Who is more crazy: he who is thus because he can't help it, or he who is willfuly thus?", asks the peasant Tomé Cecial to Samson Carrasco, after the latter, posing as the "Knight of the Mirrors," has been defeated in battle by Don Quixote. "The difference between those two kinds of madmen, is that the one that is crazy by compulsion will always be thus, while he who is willingly crazy can give it up when he wishes.") What the artist seeks is for those who are willfuly crazy to get to the point were they wish to give up their disease.

But while Shakespeare worked in England, a society in which a nation-state had been established by Henry VII, Cervantes wrote in an environment that was not yet a nation-state (Castille, Aragon, Portugal, etc., all had their own laws, customs, and systems of taxation, although they were ruled by the same monarch). Spanish society had turned its back on the Renaissance, on progress, and become a racist police-state, rigid in its feudalist outlook.

Don Quixote and America's Founding Fathers

George Washington

Perhaps no group of statesment enjoyed Don Quixote more than the Founding Fathers of the United States. "Dear sir: I have received your letters of the 29th of October and the 9th of Novr. The latter was handed to me by Colo. H[enry] Lee, with 4 Vols. of Don Quixote which you did me the honor to send to me. I consider them as a mark of your esteem which is highly pleasing to me, and which merits my warmest acknowledgment. I must therefore beg, my dear sir, that you will accept of my best thanks for them." So wrote George Washington in a letter, which he addressed from Mount Vernon on Nov. 28, 1787, to Diego Gardoqui, Spain's first ambassador to the United States. During the American Revolution, Gardoqui had functioned as the conduit for the millions of pounds that the Spanish gave to the American cause. Spain's financial contribution to the American Revolution was equal to that of France, with Gardoqui serving as the Spanish counterpart to the Frenchman Caron de Beumarchais, author of the play on which Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro is based.

Washington was not able to read the four-volume Spanish set of Don Quixote he got from Gardoqui, which can still be seen in his library at Mount Vernon, but he did read an English translation that he obtained soon after. Don Quixote was also a favorite of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams (who travelled with the book in his saddlebags), and Thomas Jefferson.

Benjamin Franklin

Jefferson, as he told his son-in-law to be, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., thought that next to French, Spanish was the modern language "most important to an American," given that "our connection with Spain is already important and will become daily more so. Besides this the ancient part of American history is written mostly in Spanish." Jefferson supposedly taught himself Spanish in a few days in 1784, while crossing the Atlantic on his way to Europe, by means of a copy of Don Quixote and a borrowed Spanish grammar, according to what he later told John Quincy Adams in 1804. Adams took the story with a grain of salt: "But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories," wrote Adams in his diary.[1a]

Benjamin Franklin, America's senior statesman, who organized the French and Spanish contributions to the American cause, listed Don Quixote in the first catalogue of his Library Company, in 1741. In his Autobiography,[2]Franklin himself notes that he taught himself the French and Italian languages. "I afterwards with a little painstaking, acquir'd as much of the Spanish as to read their books also." Notably, Cervantes' Don Quixote.


[1] Cervantes, by Melveena McKendrick (Toronto: Little Brown & Co. Ltd., 1980).

[1a] Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his dairy from 1795 to 1848, ed. by Charles Francis Adams (New York: AMS Press, 1970).

[2] In Paul Zall, Franklin on Franklin (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2002). This book consists of the Autobiography, along with selections from Franklin's personal letters and private journals.