Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in 1547 to a poor Spanish doctor. He joined the army at twenty-one and fought against Turkey at sea and Italy on land. In 1575, pirates kidnapped Cervantes and his brother and sold them as slaves to the Moors, the longtime Muslim enemies of Catholic Spain. Cervantes ended up in Algiers. He attempted to escape his enslavement three times and was eventually ransomed in 1580 and returned to Spain.
Only with the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote, in 1605, did Cervantes achieve financial success and popular renown. Don Quixote became an instant success, and its popularity even spawned an unauthorized sequel by a writer who used the name Avellaneda. This sequel appeared several years after the original volume, and it inspired Cervantes to hurry along his own second volume, which he published in 1615. Cervantes died later that year.
Many of Don Quixote’s recurring elements are drawn from Cervantes’s life: the presence of Algerian pirates on the Spanish coast, the exile of the enemy Moors, the frustrated prisoners whose failed escape attempts cost them dearly, the disheartening battles displaying Spanish courage in the face of plain defeat, and even the ruthless ruler of Algiers. Cervantes’s biases pervade the novel as well, most notably in the form of a mistrust of foreigners.
Funded by silver and gold pouring in from its American colonies, Spain was at the height of its European domination during Cervantes’s life. But Spain also suffered some of its most crippling defeats during this time, including the crushing of its seemingly invincible armada by the English in 1588. The tale of the captive, which begins in Chapter XXXIX of the First Part of Don Quixote, recounts in detail many of the historical battles in which Cervantes himself participated. In this sense, Don Quixote is very much a historical novel.
Nevertheless, the novel illustrates Spain’s divergent worlds. Spain at the time was caught in the tumult of a new age, and Cervantes tried to create in Don Quixote a place to discuss human identity, morality, and art within this ever-shifting time. Though the Renaissance gave rise to a new humanism in European literature, popular writing continued to be dominated by romances about knights in shining armor practicing the code of chivalry. Chivalry emphasized the protection of the weak, idealized women, and celebrated the role of the wandering knight, who traveled from place to place performing good deeds. Books of chivalry tended to contain melodramatic, fantastical stories about encounters with cruel giants, rescues of princesses in distress, and battles with evil enchanters—highly stylized accounts of shallow characters playing out age-old dramas.
On one level, the first volume of Don Quixote is a parody of the romances of Cervantes’s time. Don Quixote rides out like any other knight-errant, searching for the same principles and goals and engaging in similar battles. During these battles, he invokes chivalric ideals, regardless of how ridiculous his adventures may be. On another level, however, the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the novel’s First Part attempt to describe a code of honor that could serve as an example for a Spain that was confused by war and by its own technological and social successes. Cervantes applies this code of values to a world in which such values are out of date.
In the Second Part, however, Cervantes provides the answer to questions about identity and codes of conduct in the personalities of Don Quixote and especially his sidekick, Sancho Panza. The Second Part is a textured work with responsive and credible characters who engage one another in sincere and meaningful ways. Cervantes wanted to place his novel within a literary tradition that was fluctuating at the time, and the novel’s numerous discussions of playwriting, poetry, and literature mark this effort to understand the changes in the intellectual environment.
Cervantes also includes social and religious commentary in Don Quixote. He bitterly criticizes the class structure in Spain, where outmoded concepts of nobility and property prevailed even as education became more widespread among the lower classes. The arrogance of the Duke and the Duchess in the Second Part highlights how unacceptable Cervantes found these class distinctions to be. Likewise, the prevailing of Sancho and Teresa Panza’s wisdom at the end of the novel is a victory for old-fashioned goodness and wisdom in the face of a world that makes people practical but petty. Finally, Cervantes, who was briefly excommunicated from the Catholic church in 1587, discusses the church in the novel as well. Sancho’s self-identification as an “old Christian,” in particular, informs the new morality he represents.