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The Core Curriculum

Miguel de Cervantes

1547 CE – 1616 CE

Plate 1 of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Don Quixote, 1663. (Wikimedia Commons)  ”A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination.” Plate 1 of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Don Quixote, 1663. (Wikimedia Commons) ”A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination.” Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, a little town outside of Madrid. His father was a surgeon and his mother is thought to have been of Jewish descent.  Little is known about his early years. Following a brief period of study in Madrid, where he published a few short works of poetry, and a short-lived sojourn to Rome, he enlisted in the army of the Holy league, established by the Catholic kingdoms of Europe in response to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. He was permanently wounded in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and after a year-long recovery, returned to military service in the employ of Juan of Austria. In 1575, on his return trip to Spain, Cervantes’s ship was seized by Algerian pirates.  He was held as a slave in Algiers for five years, despite four attempts to escape captivity (the story of “a Spanish soldier called something Saavedra” in the Captive’s Tale in Don Quixote is an allusion to the story of Cervantes’s life as a captive.)  Eventually, Cervantes was ransomed, returned to Madrid, and, shortly thereafter, was wed to Catalina de Salazar, a woman twenty-two years his junior.  In 1585, Cervantes’s literary career began in earnest with his publication of a pastoral novel and the performances of some of his plays.  Perhaps for financial reasons, two years later Cervantes moved south to Andalusia, where, for ten years he traveled through the region as a purveyor for the Invencible Armada (see historical context) and a tax collector.  Due to further financial problems, Cervantes was jailed in Seville in 1597, and it was during his time in prison that he conceived of Don Quixote.  In 1605, the first part of Don Quixote was published and enjoyed immediate success, marking Cervantes’s lasting return to his status as a professional writer. Despite setbacks including family deaths, scandals, and interpersonal disputes, Cervantes spent the rest of his life as a writer.  Cervantes died on April 22, 1616 – a date that coincides with the death of William Shakespeare.



Cervantes wrote in nearly all of the literary genres popular at the time.  He tried his hand, rather unsuccessfully, at poetry.  He wrote several plays (El trato de Argel and El cerco de Numancia, 1582), which enjoyed relative success – though not in comparison to the success of his contemporaries.  His most well-known theatrical accomplishment is his collection Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted, published in 1612.  Some of the scenes in the inn in Don Quixote demonstrate the influence of the comic, farcical interlude.  Generally speaking, however, his greatest achievements were in narrative.  He began humbly, with the publication of the pastoral novel, La Galatea, in 1585.  This publication was supposed to be only Part I of a larger work; however, despite his promises, he never returned to write the second, concluding part of the Galatea.  The episodes of Marcela and Grisóstomo and Leandra and Eugenio in Don Quixote, Part I, are somewhat ironic representations of the pastoral literature of La Galatea.  In 1605 he published Don Quixote, Part I.  It is possible that Cervantes only meant to write one part of the Quixote, and he went on to publish his famous Novelas ejemplares (1613), where he is credited with making important advances in the novella genre (a genre popularized by Boccaccio).  In 1615 a spurious Don Quixote, Part II, was published by an anonymous author identifying himself only by his place of origin, Avellaneda.  Avellaneda’s Quixote was much darker and more didactic in tone than Cervantes’s Part I, and Avellaneda tends to degrade Don Quixote and Sancho and limit his text’s comic elements to farcical, low-brow humor.  In 1616 Cervantes published his (far superior) Don Quixote, Part II.  Interestingly, Cervantes engages with Avellaneda’s text and even has one of Avellaneda’s characters, Don Alvaro Tarfe, meet “the real” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Since perhaps before the publication of Don Quixote, Part I, Cervantes was at work composing what he would consider to be his masterpiece, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, which Cervantes would complete right before his death, and which would be published posthumously in 1617.


Written by Alison Krueger, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Canavaggio, Jean. “Miguel de Cervantes: (1547-1616) Life and Portrait.” Translated by Eduardo Urbina., May, 2004 

Canavaggio, Jean. Cervantes. Translated from French by J. R. Jones. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990