» Biography Home
» Biographies A-F
» Biographies G-M
» Biographies N-S
» Biographies T-Z
Cervantes, the Shakespeare of Spain, led a life of the most romantic and adventurous kind. In fact, no novelist has ever invented a story as fascinating and varied as the bare facts of his most extraordinary career. He was a soldier, a dramatist, a patriot, a slave; and after producing, perhaps, the greatest novel ever written, a work which is the glory of Spanish literature and a delight to the civilized world, he died poor and neglected.
His family was noble and was first settled in Galicia, from whence it moved to Castile. Cervantes was born in 1547. His family, although honorable, was very poor, but he received a liberal education. He became a page, chamberlain, and afterward a soldier, and fought at the naval battle of Lepanto, "Where," he said, "I lost my left hand by an arquebuse under the conquering banner of the son of that thunderbolt of war, Charles V., of happy memory."
He also distinguished himself at the siege of Tunis, and later was taken prisoner by a Barbary corsair, and was kept in cruel captivity for five years at Algiers, It was customary with the Algerines to treat their prisoners according to their supposed rank and expected ransom. The avarice of the masters sometimes alleviated the lot of the Christian slaves; but, unfortunately for Cervantes, he was treated with extreme severity in order to compel him to obtain ransom from his friends, while he, the very soul of independence, tried to escape in order to avoid trespassing on their resources. The interest of the Moors was to pretend to believe that their captives were of exalted rank and position, in order to obtain a bigger ransom.
Cervantes, in one of his novels, makes Ricardo give an account of this notable custom in the story of his adventures. His master, Fetale, is always complimenting him upon his exalted rank, and telling him that, from a sense of honor, he should pay a high ransom. He tells him that it is not becoming his rank to remain an idle and inglorious captive, and laughs at the repeated disclaimers of his prisoner. Unfortunately, when Cervantes was captured he had in his possession letters of introduction from public personages of the day, which caused him to be highly valued. This led to cruel sufferings, inflicted in the expectation of obtaining a heavy ransom. He was sentenced to be imprisoned in a place called the Baths. The Moorish dungeons had three depths of caverns, like underground granaries. In mockery of the light of heaven, there was one small window, and that was crossed with iron bars. The sun and air never entered this awful place. The only sights were harrowing; the only company was that of convicts, thieves, murderers, and the lowest Moorish rabble; and the sounds and voices, mixed with blasphemies and oaths, were re-echoed as if from the vaults of the dead. Every sense was outraged by the accumulation of horrors that combined to disgust and horrify. Hunger, nakedness, thirst, heat, damp, and cold, all combined to swell the catalogue of their miseries and their woes. We can easily picture the sufferings of Cervantes, whose captivity was as severe as it was possible even for his Algerian master to make it. No wonder that a man so full of energy as Cervantes should try again and again to escape from his infernal captivity. On four occasions he was on the point of being impaled, hanged, or burned alive for his daring attempts to liberate himself and his unfortunate comrades. But, of all the enterprises which entered the imagination of this fearless soldier, the most generous, noble, and remarkable, as regarded its consequences, made too at a period when Europe trembled at the clank of the Ottoman chains, was that of rising upon their tyrants and destroying them in the very stronghold of their cruelty and their power.
There is the best authority for believing that, if the good fortune of Cervantes had been equal to his courage, perseverance, and skill, the city of Algiers would have been taken by the Christians; for his bold and resolute project aimed at no less a result. Moreover, if he had not been sold and betrayed by those who undertook to assist him in his grand and noble undertaking--to liberate the captives of so many lands--his own captivity might have proved a fortunate event.
At last Cervantes returned to Spain, after five years' slavery at Algiers. He returned fired with animosity against the Moors, and filled with ardent sympathy for those Christians still in slavery. Thus his comedy of "El Trato de Argel, Los Banos de Argel," his tale of the Captive in "Don Quixote," and that of the Generous Lover, were not mere literary works, but charitable endeavors to serve the Christian captives, and to excite the public sympathy in their favor. I have dwelt fully on this extraordinary experience of Cervantes, an experience which brought him into direct contact with the lowest classes and the elementary passions of mankind, with a view of showing how profound and terrible was his knowledge of human character and human passion.
Before producing his immortal masterpiece, "Don Quixote," Cervantes wrote a great number of plays which were not successful. When Cervantes speaks of his own dramatic works in his old age, his simplicity and gayety are very touching, because he was evidently deeply wounded at the neglect of his plays.
"Some years ago," he says, "I returned to the ancient occupation of my leisure hours; and, imagining that the age had not passed away in which I used to hear the sound of praise, I began to write comedies. The birds, however, had flown from their nest. I could find no manager to ask for my plays, though they knew that I had written them. I threw them, therefore, into the corner of a trunk, and condemned them to obscurity. A bookseller then told me that he would have bought them from me, had he not been told by a celebrated author that much dependence might be placed upon my prose, but not upon my poetry. To say the truth, this information mortified me much. I said to myself, 'Cervantes, you are certainly either changed, or the world, contrary to its custom, has grown wiser, for in past times you used to meet with praise.' I read my comedies anew, together with some interludes which I had placed with them. I found that they were not so bad but that they might pass, from what this author called darkness into what others might perhaps term noon-day. I was angry, and sold them to the bookseller, who has now printed them. They have paid me tolerably; and I have pocketed my money with pleasure, and without troubling myself about the opinions of the actors; I was willing to make them as excellent as I could, and if, dear reader, thou findest anything in them good, I pray thee, when thou meetest any other calumniator, to tell him to amend his manners, and not to judge so severely, since after all the plays contain not any incongruities or striking faults."
I must not dwell further on Cervantes's minor works, but will pass to his great masterpiece, "Don Quixote." This work contains the hoarded experience of a life. It was written when its author was declining in years. No young man could have written it, because no young man can be a master, especially of humor and human nature. Don Quixote himself is a character of the most complex kind. His single-heartedness, his enthusiasm, his utter want of the sense of the ridiculous, his power of adding romantic charms and romantic attributes to a frowsy servant-girl, are developed and used by the author with a variety of power that has never been equalled. Don Quixote's life is entirely in the imagination; this enables him to see castles in windmills, beauty and refinement in coarseness and vulgarity, and poetry, wisdom, and genius in bombastic and absurd works on chivalry, love, and knight-errantry. To emphasize the romantic and preposterous exaltation of the mad gentleman of La Mancha, we have his coarse, vulgar, practical, almost grovelling squire, Sancho Panza. The master lives in the clouds; Sancho is most at home in the mud. Everything that can be done to bring out the contrast between these two characters is put in the most amusing and effective manner. No extracts could convey to the reader the adventures of the master and man at the inn--a very vulgar inn, too--which Don Quixote takes for an enchanted castle, in spite of the smell of rancid oil and garlic, and where, as a climax to all the other piled-up absurdities, poor Sancho, who is short and fat, is tossed in a blanket. Don Quixote always expresses himself in a stilted and oratorical manner; Sancho's language is of the coarsest kind, and is interlarded with the vulgarest illustrations and proverbs. His master is tall, attenuated, in fact, merely skin and bone; his face is long, his nose prominent, his eyes hollow and very bright; Sancho, on the contrary, is short, fat, his face is round, eyes small and pig-like, mouth large and coarse, nose nothing to speak of; in fact, it is a contrast between the poetical gone mad and the coarsest realism.
This work was the delight of Spain; it was read with shouts of laughter by the king and the peasant. Poor Don Quixote is a type of the fatal results which follow the possession of romantic feelings and enthusiasm without common-sense to guide and control them. On the other hand, and that is the priceless lesson of the book, his man, Sancho Panza, shows what the mere worship of ease and vulgar prudence will degrade a man to. If the enthusiasm and mad exaltation of Don Quixote could have been combined with a little of the vulgar self-love of Sancho, one extreme might have corrected the other, and we might have had a wise gentleman instead of a maniac and a brute.
Such was the success of this wonderful work that, as Philip III. was one afternoon standing in a balcony of his palace at Madrid, he observed a student on the banks of the river Manzanares, with a book in his hand, which delighted him so that, every now and then, he broke into an ecstasy of laughter. The king looked at him, and, turning to his courtiers, said, "That man is either mad or reading 'Don Quixote.'"
Although the king thought so highly of this great work, its author was bowed down by poverty and infirmities, and nothing was done for him by the king or his courtiers. The last glimpse of the life of Cervantes I have space for, is from his own inimitable pen, and is taken from the preface to the "Labors of Persiles and Sigismunda," which was published by the author's widow.
'It happened afterward, dear reader, that as two of my friends and myself were coming from Esquivias, a place famous for twenty reasons, but more especially for illustrious families and for its excellent wines, I heard a man coming behind us, whipping his nag with all his might, and seemingly very desirous of overtaking us. Presently he called out to us to stop, which we did; and when he came up he turned out to be a country student, dressed in brown, with spatterdashes and round-toed shoes. He had a sword in a huge sheath, and a band tied with tape. He had indeed but two tapes, so that his band got out of its place, which he took great pains to rectify.
"'Doubtless,' said he, 'senors, you are in quest of some office or some prebend at the court of my lord of Toledo, or from the king, if I may judge from the celerity with which you get along; for, in good truth, my ass has hitherto had the fame of a good trotter, and yet he could not overtake you."
"One of my companions answered, 'It is the steed of Senor Miguel de Cervantes that is the cause of it, for he is very quick in his paces.'"
"Scarcely had the student heard the name of Cervantes than, throwing himself off his ass, while his cloak-bag tumbled on one side and his portmanteau on the other, and his bands covered his face, he sprang toward me, and, seizing me by the hand, exclaimed:
"'This, then, is the famous one-handed author, the merriest of all writers, the favorite of the Muses!' As for me, when I heard him pouring forth all these praises, I thought myself bound to answer him; so, embracing his neck, by which I contrived to pull off his bands altogether, I said, 'I am indeed that Cervantes, senor, but not the favorite of the Muses, nor the other fine things which you have said of me. Pray mount your ass again, and let us converse together for the small remainder of our journey.' The good student did as I desired. We then drew bit and proceeded at a more moderate pace. As we rode on, we talked of my illness, but the student gave me little hope, saying:
"'It is an hydropsy, which all the water in the ocean, if you could drink it, would not cure; you must drink less, Senor Cervantes, and not forget to eat, for that alone can cure you.'
"'Many other people,' said I, 'have told me the same thing, but it is impossible for me not to drink as if I had been born for nothing but drinking. My life is pretty nearly ended, and, to judge by the quickness of my pulse, I cannot live longer than next Sunday. You have made acquaintance with me at a very unfortunate time, as I fear I shall not live to show my gratitude to you for your obliging conduct.'
"Such was our conversation when we arrived at the bridge of Toledo, over which I was to pass, while he followed another route by the bridge of Segovia. As to his future history, I leave that to the care of fame. My friends, no doubt, will be very anxious to narrate it, and I shall have great pleasure in hearing it. I embraced him anew, and repeated the offer of my services.
"He spurred his ass, and left me as ill inclined to prosecute my journey as he was well disposed to go on his; he had, however, supplied my pen with ample materials for pleasantry. But all times are not the same. Perhaps the day may arrive when, taking up the thread which I am now compelled to break, I may complete what is now wanting, and what I would fain tell. But adieu to gayety; adieu to humor; adieu, my pleasant friends! I must now die, and I wish for nothing better than speedily to see you--well contented in another world."
Such was the calm, philosophical gayety with which this long-suffering, heroic man and Christian contemplated his approaching death; and, in the words of Sismondi, it may be safely asserted that this unaffected fortitude was characteristic of the soldier who fought so valiantly at Lepanto, and who so firmly supported his five years' captivity in Algiers.
Cervantes died at Madrid in 1616. It is, perhaps, interesting to reflect that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, so that the two greatest humorists the world has produced were living at the same time.