Cervantes: Life Part II

Miguel de Cervantes 1547-1616 Part II

Cervantes returned from Algiers with high hopes of getting a hero’s welcome and secure employment at court since his war wounds made military option out of the question.  However, reintegration into civilian life after his military experience and captivity was not easy for him. What he got initially were some minor jobs for the king.  For a while, he hung around the court, and then in 1581/2 applied unsuccessfully for a position in America.  What he ended up with --in 1587-- was the unenviable task of traveling through Andalusia organising supplies for the Great Armada (1588) and subsequent naval expeditions.  Later (1594-95) he covered the same area, this time working at the equally unpopular job of tax collector.

Sometime in 1583, he had an affair with a young married woman which produced an illegitimate daughter, Isabel. The following year, he married Catalina de Salazar, 18 years his junior, and settled in her village of Esquivias (Toledo) for a few years.

Although Cervantes’s hopes for a rewarding occupation were constantly frustrated in the years following his return to Spain, he found satisfaction in starting his literary life.  He claimed to have written, between 1580 and 1587, twenty to thirty plays, of which only two have survived, (El cerco de NumanciaThe Siege of Numancia  and El trato de ArgelLife in Algiers). In 1585, Cervantes published the first part of a pastoral romance, La Galatea.  A promised second part never materialised, although he was sufficiently attached to the genre to include pastoral tales in Don Quixote.

Cervantes’s travels through the towns, villages and back roads of Andalusia provided him with abundant material that he later incorporated into his works. But life as requisitioner for the Armada was not easy, and he was twice excommunicated when he confiscated corn from the Church’s storehouses. Things didn’t get any better after the defeat of the Armada, and in 1590 he applied –again unsuccessfully-- for a post in the New World. Troubles continued to mount for Cervantes: he was twice imprisoned, first in 1592 in Castro del Río and then in 1597 in the infamous jail of Seville.  On the first occasion, he was accused of selling wheat without authorization.  On the second, because he had deposited a sizeable amount of tax money in a bank that went bankrupt.  In neither instance was Cervantes found guilty.

Sometime around 1600 Cervantes was back in Castile, possibly in Madrid and Esquivias where his wife had continued living during his absence. At the same time he probably renewed his literary career, and may have begun Part I of Don Quixote, although tradition holds that he began it in the jail of Seville (Cervantes suggests in the Prologue to Part I that the book had been given birth in a prison--se engendró la historia en una cárcel ).

In 1604, Cervantes moved with his wife, two sisters, a niece, his illegitimate daughter and a maid to Valladolid, following the royal court which had moved there three years earlier. The highlight of this period was the publication in 1605 of Part I of Don Quixote which proved an immediate success. The low point, in the same year, was his imprisonment over the duelling death of a man allegedly involved with his daughter or sisters (most of his family ended up in the jail with him).  The case was dropped for lack of evidence and Cervantes and family were freed within a week.

Despite the success of Part I of Don Quixote, Cervantes did not benefit financially, having signed away his publication rights to the publisher and bookseller, Francisco de Robles.  His fame, however, was firmly established with reprints, pirated editions and translations of Part I appearing all major European countries.

In 1606, the royal court returned to Madrid and shortly after so did Cervantes and his family. It is between 1606 and 1616, the year of his death, that the bulk of his work was published. His twelve Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Stories) appeared in 1613, a long burlesque survey in verse of the literary figures of his day, Viaje del Parnaso (The Journey to Parnassus) followed in 1614.  His collection of Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (Eight Plays and Eight Interludes) came out in 1615, as did Part II of Don Quixote. His final work, a Byzantine romance entitled Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda) appeared posthumously in 1617.

These years of intense literary activity by Cervantes were part of a wider cultural explosion occurring in Spain, and particularly in Madrid.  Lope de Vega was revolutionising drama, the poets Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo, when they weren’t casting scurrilous verbal darts at each other, were testing the limits of poetic language, Mateo Alemán’s picaresque Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604) was redefining the epic hero, and (in nearby Toledo) the painter El Greco was challenging the optics of reality.  There were literary salons and religious brotherhoods with literary affiliations.  Cervantes joined one such religious brotherhood, the Confraternity of the Slaves of the Most Blessed Sacrament in 1609.  It counted Lope de Vega and Quevedo as its members, and the King himself and the court favourite, the Duke of Lerma, as its patrons.

Cervantes’s last years were tarnished by the death of both his sisters and his granddaughter, and estrangement from his daughter, Isabel.  He was disappointed also in not being selected to join the literary entourage of the Count of Lemos, who had been appointed Viceroy of Naples. Added insult came from the publication of a spurious sequel in 1614 to Don Quixote Part I by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, just as Cervantes was writing his own continuation. It was not uncommon for a second author to continue the work of another, but Avellaneda --whose true identity is still a mystery-- went beyond the bounds of decency with gratuitous insults directed at Cervantes in the Prologue of his false Part II. Nevertheless, Cervantes was to gain more than a measure of revenge when he ridiculed the false Quixote in the latter half of his own Part II.

On top of all this, Cervantes and his wife had financial troubles despite his fame.  Their poverty was alleviated somewhat in the last couple of years thanks to the patronage of the Count of Lemos and the Archbishop of Toledo.  Ill health, however, was now his companion, as he points out in his dedication of Part II of Don Quixote to the Count of Lemos, dated the last day of October 1615.  In the Prologue to his last work, Persiles and Sigismunda, his description of his illness suggests that he was suffering from diabetes.  Three days after writing his dedication for the Persiles, Cervantes died. The date: April 22 (possibly the 23), 1616, ten days before the death of another giant of world literature: William Shakespeare**.  Cervantes was buried in the newly founded convent of the Discalced Trinitarians in the Calle de León in central Madrid.

**It is traditionally argued that Cervantes died on April 23, in which case the date of his death is the same as that of Shakespeare.  It was not be the same day, however, because England was following the old Julian calendar while Spain had moved to the Gregorian calendar.  There was a difference of 10 days between the two calendars.

In 1996, the novelist Stephen Marlowe published a well-received fictionalised autobiography of Cervantes's life: The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes writing his own life, adopting the form made popular by the picaresque novels of the time!  The irony would not have been lost on Cervantes, since he studiously avoided writing first-person narratives, and in fact critiqued the picaresque format in Don Quijote and some of his short stories (e.g. Rinconete y Cortadillo and El coloquio de los perros).

Postscript: Was Cervantes a converso?

There has been substantial interest in attempting to determine whether Cervantes was a converso
(conversos = Jews who converted to Christianity, or gave the appearance of having converted, or their descendants). It matters to many because Cervantes would then be the most illustrious of an impressive list of converso writers in Spain’s Golden Age: Fernando de Rojas, Juan Luis Vives, Santa Teresa de Avila, Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz (aka St John of the Cross), Mateo Alemán …

There is no direct proof that Cervantes was a converso, but there is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that suggests that he was: there is a 15th century document that lists a Cervantes family as being converso; on his paternal side, Cervantes’s ancestors had been cloth merchants, a trade pursued almost exclusively by conversos; his father was an itinerant barber surgeon, another business overwhelmingly occupied by conversos;  conversos were barred from emigrating to Las Indias (America)… Cervantes’s request to emigrate to Las Indias was twice turned down (some conversos did make it to the New World by signing on as crew members and then jumping ship); Cervantes’s Entremes (Interlude Play), El Retablo de las Maravillas  (The Stage of Marvels) pokes fun at the obsession with limpieza de sangre ("purity of blood"), and reveals it to be no more than a ridiculous sham.

(A very good summary regarding the converso question in Don Quixote is Michael McGaha’s article: “Is There a Hidden Jewish Meaning in Don Quixote? in Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 24.1 (2004): 173-88.)


Canavaggio, Jean        Cervantes Transl by J.R.Jones.  New York 1991
Cervantes, Miguel de        Don Quijote ed. T.  Lathrop.  Newark 2001
Cervantes, Miguel de        Exemplary Stories ed. L. Lipson. Oxford 1998
Close, Anthony    in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature ed. David T Gies Cambridge  pp. 201-21
McKendrick, Melveena     Cervantes  Boston 1980
An interesting article on the search for Cervantes's bones: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jul/25/cervantes-bones-madrid-convent-search

For a recent article on a lost Shakespearean play inspired by Cardenio's tale in Don Quixote (Part I), see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18010384