Don Quixote’s Squire Sancho Panza.

Sancho Panza is the squire and inseparable companion of Don Quixote  (Part I published 1605, Part II, published 1615).  Sancho makes his appearance in Part I, chapter 7, following the return of Don Quixote from his first adventure. Don Quixote’s decision to return is prompted by the innkeeper’s reminder that knights-errant always had money which was carried by their squires, although these things –the innkeeper adds– were not mentioned in romances of chivalry because they were taken for granted (I, 3).

Part I, 8: The windmill episode.  Sancho and the fallen Don Quixote.  By Gustave Doré

That Don Quixote should have forgotten about a squire when he first set out is a surprise, because every knight-errant had a squire.

This squire, however, is like no other! A fat, earthy, gluttonous and garrulous married peasant who burps, farts and defecates, he is the antithesis of those handsome, youthful squires wandering through romances of chivalry.

Even his name would immediately provoke laughter in the 17th-century reader for its ridiculous combination: “Panza” signifies “belly” while Sancho carried with it an illustrious pedigree, being the name of several kings of medieval Spain!

First described as “not too bright” (de muy poca sal en la mollera),  Sancho actually turns out to be canny, shrewd, and practical, and a perfect foil to his master. A proud “old Christian” **(I, 21, 47, II, 3, 4), he is persuaded to accompany Don Quixote only because he has been promised an island to govern (I, 7).

The term “Old Christian” (Cristiano viejo) was a boast frequently made by peasants to indicate that they had no Jewish or Moorish blood in their background. Limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”) was a social obsession in the 16th and 17th centuries and was supported by the peasantry as an indicator of their esteem or honour. Many noble families, on the other hand, carried Jewish blood, the result of marriages in the past, especially between wealthy Conversos (converted Jews) and Christian nobility looking for financial improvement.

The first adventure they share is the famous windmill episode (I, 8).  From a distance Don Quixote sees what he believes to be giants. Sancho sees only windmills.  The result is one of the most iconic scenes in literature, provoking immediate laughter. But it is more than pure comedy; it also establishes one of the basic themes that Cervantes examines throughout the book: what is reality

Sancho is necessary for this because he provides another voice that questions and challenges what Don Quixote sees.  (Don Quixote blames the windmill debacle on enchanters, and tells Sancho to shut up (Calla, amigo Sancho) reminding him at the same time of his ignorance of romances of chivalry.)

In I, 19 Sancho begins his proverbial sayings, and acquires depth of character as a fount of home-spun wisdom. But the most notable change occurs at the beginning of Part II when he becomes aware of his fame as an important character in the recently published Part I.  See his excited reaction, for example, in chapters 2 and 3 of Part II, when news has just arrived of the publication of Part I:  “They say I’m mentioned in it,” he says proudly (II, 2), “They say that I am one of the main ‘presonages’ in it” (II, 3).  

Significantly it is Sancho who suggests that he and Don Quixote undertake further adventures to provide material for another book,(II, 4): “I and my master will easily give the author more than enough material to write about (note how Sancho places himself first!)…  What I can say is that if my master were to take my advice, we would be out in the fields now undoing injuries and righting wrongs.” 

Despite the beatings and discomfort suffered in Part I, Sancho feels enough of the allure of knight-errantry to want to be famous as the best squire to have ever served a knight: “I’m not thinking of being famous for my valour but as the best and most loyal squire that ever served a knight-errant.”  Sancho has not lost sight of his promised island, but fame has also become a major motivation.

The pair’s first business in Part II is to head for El Toboso (II, 10) so that Don Quixote can be blessed by Dulcinea (II, 8) whom he has never previously seen. Sancho is to lead him since he has supposedly delivered a letter from Don Quixote to Dulcinea (I, 25, 31). It is night and their search is unsuccessful, so Sancho suggests they wait outside the village for Dulcinea.

Once outside, Don Quixote becomes impatient and orders Sancho back to El Toboso to ask Dulcinea if she will see him and favour him with her blessing.  Once out of sight of Don Quixote, Sancho sits under a tree (II, 10).  Reviewing his situation, he reasons that Don Quixote will transform things as usual, and so decides to tell him that the first woman he sees leaving the village the following morning is the Dulcinea.

And so it happens that when three village girls on donkey back approach, Sancho points one out to Don Quixote as the peerless Dulcinea!  But significantly Sancho has not noticed that Don Quixote transformed nothing in El Toboso, not even the church looming in the dark. At first he assumed that it was Dulcinea’s palace but on closer inspection realised that it was a church. The point is that Don Quixote is no longer reshaping reality to fit his chivalric fantasies, so that the girl pointed out by Sancho is not his beautiful lady but an ugly, garlic-smelling peasant girl

It’s a pivotal moment in Part II and parallels the windmill adventure although Sancho and Don Quixote now reverse roles. Now Don Quixote sees things as they are and it is Sancho who converts reality –to cover up his lie in Part I about talking to Dulcinea and delivering Don Quixote’s letter to her (I, 25, 31).  (And it is Sancho who now says Calle (“Quiet“) in defence of his “reality”.) This moment has implications for Sancho when he and his master reach the palace of the duke and duchess.

Unfortunately for Don Quixote and Sancho, the duke and duchess had read Part I, and recognising their guests, set about creating “adventures” for their own amusement.  Knight and squire are the butts of a series of practical jokes (burlas is repeated like a leitmotiv throughout the long episode) which, in the last analysis, only serve to show how superficial and cruel their two hosts are. 

One such trick is to have Sancho whip himself voluntarily 3,300 times in order to disenchant Dulcinea (II, 35). Since Don Quixote’s main preoccupation now is to disenchant Dulcinea, he frequently urges his squire to carry out the whipping, even attacking him on one occasion (II, 60). Sancho finally concedes, but only after Don Quixote agrees to pay him (II, 71). Sancho then withdraws out of sight and proceeds to lash numerous tree trunks, sighing and moaning as he “whips himself!”

Of course the allure of being governor has been constant for Sancho since I, 7, and is finally fulfilled when the duke offers him the “island” of Barataria (II, 42 838). Unknown to Sancho and Don Quixote, this is one of the practical jokes fashioned by the duke and duchess. But Sancho does a very good job at it and demonstrates that he is a far better governor than the socially superior duke. Called upon (II, 45) to give judgement on various issues, his solutions are fair, sound and perceptive.  However, the ongoing jokes he is subjected to (and which are reported back to the duke and duchess for their amusement) frustrate him.  The final straw comes when he is expected to defend Barataria and is trussed up like a tortoise between two shields (II, 53).  Unable to move he is trampled upon and beaten. 

Predictably, Sancho’s experience as governor (II, 44-55) leaves him profoundly disillusioned and he abandons the “island.” The experience, however, has not been without benefit because Sancho has learnt something about himself: that he “was not born to be a governor.” (II, 53).  It reflects self awareness:  he knows who he is through experience.

To know oneself (conocerse) or to conquer oneself
(vencerse) were issues frequently addressed
by writers in the 17th century, when the evidence
of the senses was seriously questioned.

When Sancho leaves his “island,” it would seem a good moment for him to return home, but instead he makes his way back to Don Quixote. Why?  Because of the deep affection he has for his master “whose company pleased him more than being the governor of all the islands in the world” (II, 54).

The bond has always been there, and confirmed forthrightly earlier by Sancho in his conversation with the squire of the Knight of the Mirrors (“I love him as dearly as my heartstrings and can’t conceive of leaving him no matter how much nonsense he does” II, 13), and later with the duchess (“I have to follow him: we are from the same place, I’ve eaten his bread and I love him dearly … and above all I am loyal.” II, 33).  His return is an excellent example  of “talking the talk and walking the walk.”

Notwithstanding the pleasure he enjoys from being famous, Sancho never loses sight of the practicalities of life, the most important being his material well-being. Fame may be a spur, but so too is Sancho’s poverty, as he points out to his wife in II, 5: “I’m leaving with him (i.e. with Don Quixote) because of my poverty (necesidad), and I’m hoping to find another 100 “escudos” just like the ones we’ve already spent.” Later, in II, 7, he attempts to persuade Don Quixote to pay him a salary, but fails. The matter is not forgotten, however, and eventually he does convince his master to pay him in II, 28.

The power of money is never far from Sancho’s mind. “A good building is constructed on solid foundations and the most solid foundation is money,” (II, 20) he tells Don Quixote when discussing the differences between the wealthy Camacho and the impoverished Basilio. And when he and Don Quixote finally arrive within sight of their village, Sancho’s pleasure is expressed in terms of the money he is bringing with him, Dineros llevo (“I’m bringing money”). 

Its importance is emphasised shortly after, when he responds to his wife’s criticism: “Be quiet, Teresa… I bring money –which is what matters– gained by my labours and without harming anyone.” (II, 74). Money, for Sancho, is a sign of his success in the world; for Don Quixote it symbolises the destruction of his chivalric ideals (in that he has to pay to disenchant Dulcinea, the very embodiment of his chivalric world).
Some scholars have seen in the evolution of both Don Quixote and Sancho an instance of the passage from feudalism to modern capitalism. They have a persuasive argument, but we’ll leave that for another page.

The literature is vast.  The following are very good introductions in English to various aspects of the novel.

Bjornson, Richard ed.  Approaches to Teaching Cervantes’ Don Quixote  New York 1984
Johnson, Carroll B.  “Don Quixote”: The Quest for Modern Fiction  Boston 1990
Riley, E. C. “Don Quixote”  London 1986
Russell, Peter  Cervantes Oxford 1985
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