Honouring national heroes may not come easily to the British, but the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April is surely one day when we can kick up our heels and sing “Hey Nonny” without shame. There is no other Briton of whom we can feel so straightforwardly proud. Whatever doubts hang over the details of Shakespeare’s life, few question the genius of the work nor the way it has enriched our language and culture. (See this issue’s “The way we were”.)
For Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who died on 22nd April 1616, the Spanish celebration will be more muted. Last year, forensic scientists proved that bone fragments buried at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid belonged to Cervantes, a discovery that might have given a fillip to this year’s commemoration. But the 2016 programme has come together late and grudgingly. Arguably, it’s easier to celebrate plays, which are performed in public, than novels, which are enjoyed alone. Besides, Spain has already had to make merry over Cervantes twice in just over a decade. In 2005, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first part of Don Quixote was marked by a 48-hour reading. Celebrities, children and politicians took turns to read, with fishermen joining in from their boats, and prisoners from their cells. Soldiers were given free copies to take on tours of duty, and were perhaps not grateful for the extra luggage (my copy weighs half a kilo). Last year, the 1615 publication of the novel’s second part was fêted with exhibitions, lectures, theatre performances and a new version in modern Spanish by poet Andrés Trapiello. His “dumbed-down” version inevitably drew criticism, but it went to number nine in the Spanish bestseller chart—just below Fifty Shades of Grey.
Nevertheless, with no official events announced until February, the commission charged with this year’s programme has been accused of dragging its feet. Darío Villanueva, Director of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, confessed to feeling twitchy about British plans for a Shakespeare “offensive” in 140 countries, “with all the power for global penetration that the British government has.” Javier Cercas, a novelist and professor of Spanish literature, has accused his country’s government of a contempt comparable to that meted out to Cervantes during his life. “I’ve often wondered whether we Spaniards really deserve Cervantes. Now I know that we don’t. In fact, let the English have him.” The newspaper El País seemed to agree, predicting a year of “mucho Shakespeare y poco Cervantes.” But José María Lassalle, the Secretary of State for Culture, shot back, declaring that his commission was planning something “more modern” than the British, without letting on what that was. We could have been back in the 1600s, sizing up each other’s galleons.

Spain’s relationship with its greatest writer is complicated, perhaps because his masterpiece, Don Quixote, has so often been held up as a mirror to the national psyche and returned an ambiguous reflection. If Cervantes meant his famous creation to represent the Spaniards, they are idealistic, courageous, obstinate, foolhardy fantasists. He never said he did mean that, but the novel’s unique position makes it irresistible to interpretation, driving successive generations to search for new truths within it.
Contemporary readers find particular meaning in the compassion shown towards a Muslim character who has been first made to convert by the Inquisition, and then expelled from Spain—as all Muslim converts were, in 1609. Last year, Spain offered citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492, but the offer wasn’t extended to the descendants of expelled Muslims. Meanwhile residents of the village Castrillo Matajudíos (“Kill Jews Camp”) voted to change the name, but Valle de Matamoros (“Kill Moors Valley”) has yet to follow suit. What would Cervantes say?
For the Spanish writer Sergio del Molino, it’s time to let Don Quixote be simply a book. “Its sacred, official status demands that anyone thinking about Spain from any intellectual or artistic perspective do so through the filter of Quixote. It’s the source of a lot of misunderstandings and problems.”
Part of the reason is timing: Don Quixote appeared at the moment the Spanish empire began to decline under Philip II’s paranoid reign and seemed to describe the flaws that would bring about its downfall. Over the next three centuries Spain lived off the New World, then lost it. Spain’s defeat in the last colony, Cuba, in 1898, prompted writers including Miguel de Unamuno to identify “Quixotry” as both the reason for the empire’s collapse, and the key to their country’s revival. The same mad bravery that propelled Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés across the Atlantic had also brought Spain to its knees. That dichotomy continued into the 20th century, with both sides in the Civil War claiming that they were fighting for “Cervantes’s Spain.”
For non-Spanish readers, Don Quixote is essentially a very long novel about an impoverished country gentleman, Alonso Quixano, who loses his mind after reading too many chivalric romances. Styling himself “Don Quixote,” he sets off to have adventures with his friend Sancho Panza and quickly gets caught up in mayhem, mistaking windmills for giants, and hairy slatterns for princesses. He suffers horrible injuries and at the end of part one is forcibly taken home in a cage. So far, so slapstick.
"Don Quixote quickly gets caught up in mayhem, mistaking windmills for giants and hairy slatterns for princesses"
“Don Quixote quickly gets caught up in mayhem, mistaking windmills for giants and hairy slatterns for princesses” ©Look and learn/Bridgeman Images
What raises the novel to a higher plane is the unfolding psychology of its protagonist. Before Don Quixote, novels were about epic heroes who knew what they were doing and whose principles rarely wavered. Quixote is the first character in a European novel to question his own motives and collude in his own deception. Cervantes had read Examen de ingenios para las ciencias (“The Examination of Men’s Wits”) a ground-breaking psychological study by Juan Huarte, published in 1575, which suggested that an imbalance in personality, though dangerous, can in some people produce exceptional qualities. Quixote seems stubbornly sure of his visions, but also admits to some wishful fabrication. His creator is hazy on details, admitting on the first page that he isn’t sure of his character’s real name or where in La Mancha he came from. So when Quixote angrily tells a neighbour “I know who I am,” a world of questions about identity and reality opens up and with it the idea that nothing in life is what it seems.
The bad news for readers is that you need to read Don Quixote more than once to get this. For years Vladimir Nabokov dismissed the novel as a “comic fable,” and refused to teach it until Harvard made him. Reading it again, he discovered a “treatise about how meaning gets into things and lives.” Sigmund Freud was also on his second read in 1883 when he wrote to his fiancée Martha, “I now possess Don Quixote… and concentrate more on it than brain analysis.” Was it not true, he asked, that we are all “noble knights passing through the world caught in a dream?” Soon afterwards, Freud moved from studying neurology to psychopathology, hoping to address “the great problem of how man came to be what he is.”
Cervantes was born in 1547, the son of an itinerant barber-surgeon in Alcalá de Henares, east of Madrid. He didn’t go to university, but may have studied with a follower of Erasmus when his family moved to the capital. In 1569 he travelled to Italy, possibly to avoid punishment for a duel, and fought with Spanish forces at the Battle of Lepanto, where he sustained three gunshot injuries, one of which permanently damaged his left hand. On the way back to Spain in 1575, his ship was ambushed by pirates and he was taken to Algiers and held captive for five years. Two Trinitarian monks secured his release and his unending gratitude.
After returning to Spain, Cervantes found no recognition either for his war heroism or his ordeal. Denied a pension, he was finally offered a post requisitioning provisions for the Armada, but his seizure of corn belonging to the Church earned him excommunication and he was imprisoned in Seville at least twice. Middle age brought more failure: between 20 and 30 unsuccessful plays, bankruptcy, an unhappy marriage, health problems suggesting diabetes. He got work as a tax collector but longed to be recognised as a poet. In 1590, he applied for a post in the New World—“the refuge and shelter of all Spaniards who have lost hope”—and was rejected. A bureaucrat scrawled on his application, “let him find something here.”

How he came to produce the first European novel is one of the great mysteries of western literature. In the novel’s prologue, Cervantes says the idea came to him while in prison. He wondered how the public would receive it, “after all these years I have spent sleeping in the silence of oblivion.” They received it rapturously. Within weeks of its appearance in 1605, Don Quixote had broken all publishing records. Seven editions came out in the first year and translations quickly followed in French, English and German. Shakespeare may have seen a copy since he and John Fletcher wrote a play, Cardenio—later lost—inspired by one of its episodes.
Cervantes, who had signed away his publishing rights, didn’t profit from his novel’s success. Rather, he got flung in prison again—briefly—on suspicion of murder. Meanwhile, another writer, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, brought out a sequel to Don Quixote, spurring Cervantes back to his writing desk. A collection of novellas, The Exemplary Novels, came out in 1613, followed soon by the second part of Don Quixote. This time, when the knight and his sidekick take to the road again, they know that they have been written about. Quixote has a book by Cervantes in his library and they even meet a character from Avellaneda’s spurious sequel. The first modern novel thus becomes the first postmodern one, containing ideas about reality that feel so current and complex some later readers wondered if Cervantes had come up with them accidentally. He couldn’t “knowingly” have produced such a book, said Fyodor Dostoevsky, while, for Virginia Woolf, “the beauty & thought come in unawares; Cervantes scarcely conscious of serious meaning, and scarcely seeing DQ as we see him.”
This year Cervantes’s death will be marked, as it is every year, by a solemn mass at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in central Madrid. Rows of Royal Academicians will sit in gilt chairs behind an empty coffin draped in purple and surrounded by four ceremonial candles. The Trinitiarians, a closed order, dwindling in number, follow the ceremony from barred recesses behind the altar. Afterwards the dignitaries—who included Mario Vargas Llosa the year I attended—eat marzipan delicacies made by the nuns.
There is something deeply poignant about the presence of the coffin, which seems to stand for two deaths: that of the author and his creation. If it is Shakespeare’s language that moves us, in Don Quixote it is the knight himself, and we mourn his loss as if he were real. “Here, I am on the brink of blasphemy,” said the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in a recently discovered lecture, “but I think that when Hamlet is about to die, he should have said something better than ‘the rest is silence.’ Because this strikes me as quite bogus fine writing. I love Shakespeare, I love him so much that I can say these things about him and I hope he’ll forgive me.”
The language Cervantes chooses for his hero is simple, verging on clumsy: “he gave up the ghost; that is, he died.” For Borges, the awkwardness reveals Cervantes’s grief, “and so he may be forgiven a blundering sentence, a groping sentence, a sentence that really is not a groping or blundering sentence but one through which we see what he felt.”
Many in Spain today still feel sad about Cervantes, about Quixote and the honours that came too late. The man who wrote Don Quixote spoke not only for Spain but for all humanity and surely deserved better. “Cervantes had a hard life and felt unloved, disregarded and embittered,” says Del Molino, “while Shakespeare, despite the fire at his theatre, made a lot of money and was celebrated wherever he went. Four hundred years on, it’s still the same story for both of them.”