I shall never be fool enough to turn knight-errant. For I see quite well that it’s not the fashion now to do as they did in the olden days when they say those famous knights roamed the world.
Don Quixote, Sancho, the priest, the barber, Dorothea, and Cardenio arrive at the same inn where Sancho was tossed in the blanket. The barber takes off his disguise. The innkeeper, his wife, their daughter, and Maritornes join the priest, the barber, Dorothea, and Cardenio to talk about Don Quixote’s madness and the books that have caused it. The priest and the barber want to burn the inn’s collection of chivalric literature, but the innkeeper defends these tales, claiming that the government would not allow them to be published if they were untrue. But he adds that he will never become a knight-errant, because he knows chivalry is out of style. He tells the company that an unnamed man left an old trunk filled with books and manuscripts at the inn. The priest, despite his skepticism about the books of chivalry, asks the innkeeper for permission to copy one of the manuscripts, which the priest reads to the crowd.
The manuscript that the priest reads tells the story of Anselmo and Lothario, two close friends who live in Florence, Italy. Anselmo marries Camilla, a beautiful woman who has the purest intentions. One day Anselmo tells Lothario he wants to test Camilla’s purity and chastity. He asks Lothario to woo Camilla to see whether she will be able to resist. Lothario, in a lengthy speech filled with sonnets and classical references, tells Anselmo that his plan is stupid, but Anselmo does not listen.
Lothario falsely tells Anselmo, on several occasions, that he has tried and failed to woo Camilla. Anselmo spies on the two of them and realizes that Lothario has been lying to him—he has not made any false advances toward Camilla. Anselmo makes Lothario swear that he will try to woo Camilla while Anselmo is away for a week on a business trip. Lothario does try to woo Camilla and inadvertently falls in love with her. Camilla sends a letter to Anselmo begging him to come home and rescue her from his deceitful friend Lothario.
Anselmo receives Camilla’s letter, realizes that his plan is working, and refuses to come home early. Over time Camilla succumbs to Lothario’s advances and they begin a love affair. When Anselmo returns, Lothario tells him that Camilla has resisted his seduction. Anselmo adds to the plan by asking Lothario to write love poetry for Camilla, which the lovestruck Lothario is now thrilled to do. Camilla’s maid, Leonela, helps Lothario and Camilla carry on their affair and takes a lover of her own. Though worried that Leonela will bring her shame, Camilla does not interfere because she fears Leonela will tell Anselmo about her affair with Lothario.
One morning, Lothario sees Leonela’s lover leaving the house and thinks Camilla has taken another lover. In a fit of jealous rage, he tells Anselmo that he has seduced Camilla but that she has not yet acted on her love for him. Lothario reveals Camilla’s plan to meet him in a closet on a certain day and encourages Anselmo to observe his wife’s infidelity. In the meantime, Camilla tells Lothario of her concerns about Leonela, prompting Lothario to realize his mistake. He tells her about his blunder, and she forms a plan to trick Anselmo so that she and Lothario can carry out their affair in the open. She meets Lothario in the closet and, aware that Anselmo is watching, pretends to stab herself rather than give up her purity to Lothario. The deception works, enabling Camilla to carry on her affair with Lothario without Anselmo ever suspecting.
While the priest is reading, Sancho rushes into the room to tell everyone that Don Quixote has slain the giant who captured Dorothea’s kingdom. Rushing to see what has happened, they find that Don Quixote is battling the giant in his sleep and has destroyed several of the innkeeper’s wineskins, which Sancho has mistaken for a giant’s head. When Sancho cannot find the giant’s head, he becomes crazed, fearing that he will not get his governorship.
The priest finishes reading the story contained in the manuscript. Anselmo discovers Leonela’s affair. To prevent Anselmo from killing her, Leonela promises to tell him something very important the next morning. When Anselmo tells Camilla about his discovery, she runs away to Lothario’s, afraid that Leonela will reveal their affair to Anselmo. Camilla and Lothario flee. When Anselmo wakes the next morning, Leonela has run away. Not finding Camilla either, Anselmo goes to Lothario’s for help and discovers that Lothario too has left. On the way to another friend’s house, he learns of Lothario and Camilla’s treachery from a traveler. Reaching his friend’s house, Anselmo dies of grief from the loss of his honor. The priest announces that he likes the manuscript but finds it impossible to believe that a husband could be so stupid.
Ferdinand and Lucinda arrive at the inn in disguise. After a tearful scene, Ferdinand reunites with Dorothea, and Cardenio reunites with Lucinda. Ferdinand tells the company that he and his friends kidnapped Lucinda from the convent where she stayed after running away from the wedding. He now swears his love for Dorothea. Everyone weeps with joy except Sancho, who weeps for the loss of his kingdom now that he and Don Quixote know that Dorothea is not a princess.
In distress, Sancho wakes Don Quixote to tell him that Dorothea is not really a princess and that the giant he fought in his dreams was really just a wineskin. Don Quixote dismisses Sancho’s news merely as further evidence of the inn’s enchantment. He reassures Dorothea that he has sworn to be her protector and that it was unnecessary for her father to turn her into an ordinary maiden to protect her from the enchantment. He then tells her about his fight with the giant, but he stops mid-story, remarking that “time, which unveils all mysteries, will reveal this one when we least expect it.”
Dorothea tells Don Quixote that she is still the Princess Micomicona and still needs his assistance. While Don Quixote berates Sancho for his apparent lie, a traveler dressed like a Moor—hereafter referred to as the captive—and his beautiful companion, Zoraida, arrive at the inn in search of a place to stay. The captive tells the company that Zoraida is a Moorish lady of rank who wants to be baptized. Over dinner, Don Quixote gives a speech about the relative merits of scholars and knights. He is so articulate that at that moment no one thinks he is crazy.
The section containing the reunification of the lovers provides the dramatic climax of the novel’s First Part, and the fact that Don Quixote misses the action of this scene demonstrates how much his madness has alienated him from the rest of the characters. Coming as it does on the heels of the tragic ending of Anselmo’s story, the reunification scene appears especially sweet, though unlikely. The capture and return of Don Quixote to the inn is almost inconsequential in comparison, since Don Quixote continues to live on in his fantasy life. Lost in his madness, he completely misses the reunion, which represents the climax of his madness and alienation and raises doubts about his position in the novel overall. Here, Don Quixote appears to exist almost outside of the events of the novel itself, as though he were nothing more than a guide. The circumstances related to his return bring the necessary parties together, but the crux of the action in this section takes place with him outside the picture.
Just as every climax is followed by a falling action, Don Quixote’s climax of madness dissipates as he gradually begins to see things for what they really are. In the incident with the wineskins, he wakes to the realization that others do not believe him. He refrains from telling Dorothea about slaying the giant out of an awareness that she will not believe him. He then shocks the crowd with the clarity and sanity of his speech, which lauds the virtues of knights over those of scholars. His understanding that others think he is crazy continues to grow throughout the novel, although at any given moment this awareness ebbs and flows. At this point in the novel, his awareness keeps his madness in check, since his madness has grown to such an extent that he is in danger of falling out of his own story.
The priest’s reading of Anselmo’s tale adds more layers to the narrative in Don Quixote. The manuscript, which is found in a trunk that an unknown man has left at the inn, is shrouded in so much mystery that we do not know who narrates the story. Furthermore, the story, written in a high style with long and improbable speeches, seems to be fictional rather than historical. Despite its alleged falsehood, however, the tale is more plausible than many of the stories in the novel that the characters insist are true. It is certainly more plausible than the scene in which the lovers reunite, a scene that Cervantes heralds as true to life. The priest’s observation that Anselmo’s story cannot be true because a husband would never be that stupid is ironic. Compared with the unlikely reunion of the four lovers in Don Quixote, the stupidity Anselmo displays in the story is plausible.