by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg
Last week my 85-year-old mother had cause to go to the bank, where, with her walker frame, she stood in front of another elderly woman with an identical frame. “Let’s have a race,” said the woman behind her. “I should warn you, when I get going with this thing I can run like the clappers,” replied my mother. The other woman said, “I withdraw.”
Today the world—particularly in its wealthier parts—is blessed with many 85-year-olds. In the 16th and 17th centuries this was not the case: many people considered a good long life to be one lived till the mid-forties. But if you made it to the age of 8 (37 percent of children did not), you were not unlikely, if you had the means (and also the good fortune to avoid the plague), to reach the age of 50 or even 60. This was more than true of Miguel de Cervantes, who lived until almost 70, surviving three gunshot wounds and over 5 years’ imprisonment, much of it spent in irons.
We know almost nothing of the first 20 years of Cervantes’ life from 1547 onward, except that he came from a noble but impecunious family. We know much more about this period in Spain, which was one of great transition. The old “native” Spain, with its chivalrous codes of honor and its powerful nobility, had crumbled under the force of the Habsburg kings’ sole dominion, backed by the church and the Spanish inquisition. Spain sought to command as much of Europe as it could, extending its authority into the Americas, the East Indies, parts of France and Germany, Portugal, North Africa, and Italy’s nation states. The Spaniards’ voyages around the world led to many advantages: for example, on discovering that the orange plants they had plundered from China could, within three days, magically cure the horrible disease of scurvy that produced swollen, stinking gums and bleeding to the brain, wealthy Spanish landowners now graced their homes with their own orangeries, namely glass-enclosed, heated greenhouses that produced oranges all year round.
This period of enormous growth and stature led to an efflorescence not only in the gardens of Spain, but also in its artists. The period from 1492 to 1659 become known as the Spanish Golden Age, during which Miguel de Cervantes spent his entire life.
The clearest knowledge we have of Cervantes’ young days begins with his occupancy, at age 21, of the role of Cardinal’s chamberlain. At the age of 23 he resigned this post and entered the military. Seeds of Don Quixote’s stubbornness can be found in the exploits of the young soldier Cervantes: although desperately ill on the voyage from Messina, Cervantes insisted, against all advice from doctors and comrades, on sticking to his post, claiming that he would die in the service of God rather than remain in the ship’s hold secure and in good health. During this military campaign he survived three gunshot wounds, which left him severely incapacitated and hospitalized for seven months, and he never regained the use of his wounded left hand. He came out of hospital, however, only to enlist for another three years’ military service, beginning his return to Spain at the age of 28 in the company of his brother, with a written recommendation from his General to the king honoring his brave service.
On the way home, the Cervantes brothers’ regiment was overpowered by an Algerine force and taken to Algiers. A ransomed fellow-captive got the news of the brothers’ imprisonment to their family, who strove by every means—the father selling his goods and the Cervantes sisters forfeiting their dowries—to cobble together enough ransom money to free them. But when the Algerian governor found on Miguel’s person the general’s letters of recommendation to the king, he concluded that the young man was a person of great importance, and that the ransom money was inconsequential for someone so highly prized: he kept Miguel in captivity, allowing his brother to go free.
Thus began a period in Miguel’s life that affords some precedent for his eventual literary hero’s indomitable strength of conviction (if not for his absurdity). Miguel tried not only to escape, but to take his fellow captives to safety with him; and when they were discovered, he insisted, despite threats of impalement, that all blame for the breakout be placed on his shoulders alone. The Algerian governor executed some of his companions but held onto Cervantes, feeling that there was something special in his bravery and resourcefulness. Although restrained in irons, Cervantes remained unbroken in spirit and ventured another escape, for which he was sentenced to 2000 blows to the back, which would have killed him had not some unknown powerful people interceded to save him. He was kept under even further confinement (how was this even possible?!), but two years later attempted another escape, trying to save sixty of his fellow-prisoners with him. An informant, jealous of the love and admiration that Cervantes inspired in his fellows, revealed his plot to the governor, and Cervantes’ plan was again foiled. No threat of torture could compel him to name any of his accomplices, and he was sent back to prison heavily ironed as before.
All this time Cervantes’ family never ceased its efforts to raise sufficient ransom money to get him released. Finally the governor, planning his own retirement, accepted a sum, releasing the 33-year-old prisoner five years almost to the day after his first captivity. But Cervantes’ trials were not yet over. A jealous functionary, claiming to be an officer of the Inquisition, concocted false evidence against him, claiming that he was guilty of misconduct while in prison. Cervantes checkmated him by drawing up a list of 25 questions that covered the period of his captivity, and he asked that credible witnesses he deposed to answer them. All of them attested to his bravery and to his selfless concern for others while in prison, and he returned to Spain a free man.
But not for long. He was penniless, and felt compelled, for the sake of his own survival, to rejoin his old regiment. Pushing 40 and with a useless left hand, however, he could expect no promotion, and he finally left the army, married a woman of sufficient means to feed them both as well as his infant daughter (conceived with someone else before his marriage), and wrote 30 or 40 plays in an attempt to earn a living as a writer. The plays were not admired, and at the close of the century, at the age of 50, he accepted a position as tax collector. It was as he traveled from town to town collecting the king’s taxes that he noted down scenes that would eventually end up in his remarkable novel, Don Quixote. He was again imprisoned because a merchant to whom he entrusted the taxation revenue absconded with the money—and although this imprisonment was brief, it appears that Cervantes was not reinstated to his former position. But he did appear, in this last prison stint, to have begun transcribing Don Quixote from his notes. The novel was first published in 1605 when Cervantes was almost 60, and was immediately successful (although Cervantes himself still had to work at various jobs for the Council, trying to make up the money with which the merchant had absconded.)
Despite Don Quixote’s immediate success, Cervantes didn’t continue with his anti-hero’s comic adventures. He wrote several other works, mainly plays, continuing to believe that he could make a great career as a playwright. The fact that Don Quixote has a second volume is due to a disciple of the great writer Lope de Vega, who loathed Cervantes. This disciple, Avallenada, wrote his own “second volume” of Don Quixote, to which he attached a preface attacking Cervantes with such vile descriptions that our literary hero was provoked to write his own second part to Don Quixote, eventually killing off the famous knight errant to ensure that he had final control of his character.
Cervantes died at the age of 69, on April 23 1616, the same day as Shakespeare.