Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, a university town just east of Madrid. Birth records were not ordinarily kept at the time; baptismal records were scrupulously maintained, however. Since he received the name Miguel (Michael) at his christening on 9 October 1547, it is reasonable to assume that he was born on St. Michael’s Day, 29 September, ten days prior. He was the third child of Rodrigo de Cervantes and Leonor de Cortinas. His full name would ordinarily have been, therefore, Miguel de Cervantes Cortinas. Following his captivity in Algiers, and for reasons unknown, he took on the second surname of Saavedra – perhaps an example of Renaissance self-fashioning. One modern-day opinion is that this surname was that of a legendary medieval warrior, someone whose exploits were recounted in ballads and with whom our author may have felt a bond based on some strikingly similar life experiences.
His father was a low-end “physician”. He was not fully licensed and seems to have had difficulty earning an adequate living, no matter where the family took up residence. We know that some of Miguel’s early years were spent in Valladolid, others in Seville and elsewhere. His early education was necessarily disjointed and uneven. When he was 19, the family settled in Madrid, and two years later we find him studying at a school directed by the Erasmian humanist Juan López de Hoyos. He never attended university. His first literary leanings were toward poetry, for we know of some modest efforts in that genre from 1567.
In 1569, he engages in a duel with Antonio de Sigura, for reasons unknown, wounding him in the process. This leads to banishment from the realm for ten years and, had the arrest warrant been served, it would have dictated the amputation of his right, or sword, hand. Cervantes flees to Seville and from there makes his way to Italy. 1570 finds him in the service of a cardinal in Rome. In the Vatican and environs he is likely exposed, albeit unsystematically, to Renaissance painting and sculpture, and this smattering of culture may influence his subsequent literary production. October of 1571 will take him to the Battle of Lepanto, a momentous naval encounter between Christians and Muslims off the coast of Greece that, had the Muslims prevailed, could have guided the course of Western civilization in quite a different direction. He is seriously wounded in this battle and loses the use of his left hand – decidedly a better option than the one mentioned above – leading to the remark that this apparent personal disaster nevertheless contributed to the greater glory of his right hand, the one that would wield the pen hereafter. Cervantes remains forever proud of his involvement in this pivotal battle and of the personal sacrifice it entailed. The admiral of the Christian fleet was Sir John of Austria, the bastard son of Charles V and thus half-brother to the emperor, Philip II.
On route to Spain in 1575, with letters of support and recommendation from the victorious admiral and others, Cervantes is taken captive by corsairs and will be held for ransom for five long years. The letters from important personages may have led his captors to think that he would fetch a handsome sum. He makes four unsuccessful attempts to escape, but is spared serious punishment, such as the amputation of a foot. In 1580, a few days prior to being shipped off to servitude in Constantinople, and thus into literary oblivion, he is ransomed by Trinitarian friars. At the end of the year, he is back in Madrid. His first plays are performed there in 1582-83. It is clear that his literary inclinations are initially toward poetry and drama, both of which were considered higher forms of imaginative writing than prose. Also, since drama at that time and place was primarily in verse, the standard appellation for a playwright was “poet” (terms commonly used in Spanish were poeta, ingenio, and occasionally dramaturgo, but never autor; an autor at the time was a producer of plays, not an author).
In 1584 he fathers a daughter by Ana Franca de Rojas but does not marry her. Instead, he takes to wife a woman eighteen years his junior named Catalina de Salazar Palacios. They are married in Esquivias, her hometown. A forebear of Catalina, whose lineage was mixed with hers on the Salazar side of the family, was a certain Alonso Quijada, who was reputed to be an assiduous reader of books of chivalry. This is one of the names proffered by the first narrator as the real name of Don Quixote. Cervantes’s employment for several years will be in Andalusia, first as commissary of the royal fleet, including the armada sent against England in 1588, then as a tax collector. During this time, he is imprisoned at least twice for irregularities in his accounts. He applies unsuccessfully for a civil service position in the new world. Had he succeeded in that quest, the history of Spanish and Western prose fiction would likely be quite different. The court moves from Madrid to Valladolid in 1601 (and will remain there until 1606).
In January of 1605, Juan de la Cuesta begins to distribute El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha in Madrid, and the bar for Western narrative is raised immediately and inalterably, in both its mimetic and diegetic dimensions. Cervantes is now in Valladolid, with his wife and sisters. A duel takes place outside the residence where they live, and a man named Gaspar de Ezpeleta is killed. The household is arrested for immoral and disorderly conduct, but they are soon released. Details are sketchy, although speculation about the rectitude of at least one female member of the household continues. A man named Diego de Miranda apparently frequented this same residence, and, curiously enough, this name will be assigned to a memorable character in the second volume of Don Quixote.
In 1606, Cervantes recognizes Isabel as his daughter and she takes the last name of Saavedra. He returns to Madrid in 1607, again following the court. Here he will join a fashionable religious brotherhood and, in short order, be invited to participate in meetings of literary salons, called academias. His standing in literary circles of the day will never equal that of Lope de Vega, however. His life comes full circle in 1613, when he returns to live for a time in Alcalá. He passes to his reward on 22 April 1616, just over a week after William Shakespeare. His remains are interred in a convent in Madrid, where they will rest in peace until the end of the century, at which time they are relocated and lost, apparently forever. Isabel dies childless, so there is no surviving lineage. One of the ironies of history is that Cervantes’s last known resting place is on Lope de Vega Street, while Lope de Vega’s house is on what is now Cervantes Street. Since they did not hold a high opinion of each other in life, neither would have been amused by this twist of fate.
Dates of composition of Cervantes’s works are virtually impossible to establish with certainty. There is much speculation about the sequence of the novelas ejemplares in particular and also about their arrangement in the collection, with particular reference to their thematic and ideological coherence. There are also tenuous attributions, one in particular being Las semanas del jardín, a brief dialogue about country life. We do not know how or where or when he went about composing either volume of Don Quixote. It is likely that he wrote both Don Quixote and his last lengthy narrative, Persiles y Sigismunda, over a span of several years, quite possibly working on them at times in tandem. A traditional perspective is that he worked with manuscripts that he kept in a trunk during his travels, as time allowed. It is fair to assume that at least some of his dramatic production went astray over the years. His real talent did not lie in that area, in any event, although there is one notable exception: his one-act interludes or entremeses are first-rate and continue to attract readers and theater audiences alike, even though this was not the case when he was alive. A telling commentary on this fact is the title, Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses, nunca representados (Eight plays and eight interludes, never staged). Why the interludes were never produced is a mystery, for they are whimsical, often satirical, and a few are brilliant, but the case against the full-length plays is clearer. Lope de Vega had simply changed the taste and expectations of the theater-going public, so that Cervantes’s work seemed pedestrian and antiquated by comparison. A tragedy that does continue to appeal is La Numancia, written in the Senecan vein, with the requisite quantity of corpses on stage at the end. It is about the Roman siege of that city and the mass suicide of the inhabitants in order to avoid defeat and, more important, capture and display as spoils of war. It is about honor and the pervasive assumption of Cervantes’s time that honor was more important than life itself.
His Galatea (1585) is a lengthy pastoral narrative, with which he was not entirely satisfied. He continued promising a never-to-appear second part until the end of his life. Conversely, he was apparently well satisfied with his Persiles, giving every indication that he considered it his best work. Posterity has not been swayed by the author’s evaluation of this work, however. The Persiles is a Byzantine romance that exemplifies the eccentricities of the genre. It is meritorious in its own right, as a kind of literature, but it is hardly comparable to the Quixote in terms of innovation or influence on subsequent narrative. The consensus today is that his best prose work after the Quixote is the collection of exemplary novels that appeared in 1613. These stories are exemplary on two levels: 1) they are excellent models of the genre, and Cervantes in fact claims that he is the first to write short stories in the Italian manner in his native language; so he doubtless intended them to be exemplary for those who might follow his lead; and 2) they offer models or examples of practical precepts for comportment, which sometimes must be extracted from less-than-positive models, however; they thus illustrate the norm for Counter-Reformation fiction that it be edifying, that it subscribe to the Horatian ideal of combining diversion with instruction.
Cervantes is very much a product of his time and place. His production draws upon the genres, conventions, and social and political concerns of the moment, but in almost every instance he is able to surpass the model through art and imagination. He drew upon life experience in his writing but was never circumscribed by biography. He invariably transformed it through imagination. His two immortal characters are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Don Quixote (q.v.) remains his masterpiece. Characters like those two, who are simple-minded, obsessed, deluded, or ride hobbyhorses will become a staple of realistic fiction, while the polyphonic and self-conscious styles of narrating that give this work its distinctiveness will inform narrative discourse from that day until the present moment, not only on the printed page but also now on the screen, both large and small.
Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. Trans. Joseph R. Jones.
New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Cascardi, Anthony (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Cervantes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
Childers, William. Transnational Cervantes. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.
Garcés, María Antonia. Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2002.
Riley, Edward C. Cervantes’ Theory of the Novel. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.
Russell, Peter E. Cervantes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
Citation: Parr, James A.. "Miguel de Cervantes". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 24 October 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=806, accessed 23 February 2024.]