Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V
Only he who attempts the absurd
is capable of achieving the impossible.
– Miguel de Unamuno, summing up Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote
Several years ago, in 2016, Euro-America celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of two of the most influential literary geniuses of Western Civilization. The first, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the Bard of Avon, is well known throughout the world as the greatest playwright of the ages, the father of the modern English theater, and the quintessential poet of sonnets. The second literary giant, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), is perhaps less recognizable by English-speakers; although he is, in many respects, Shakespeare’s literary equal. Also a playwright (although a far less prolific one than Shakespeare), Cervantes excelled in writing great tales – whether in short-story format or in full-length books; and he is credited with creating the modern European novel in the early 1600s, after which many novels since then have been patterned.
Traditionally, the death of both writers is commemorated on 23 April. However, the two writers did not die on the same day. The confusion over the dates has unfortunately been perpetuated by many wishing to believe for sentimental reasons that these two literary giants passed on at the same time, just like our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (4 July 1826).
Part of the confusion over their dates of death can attributed to the fact that, in the early 17th Century, churches recorded dates of burial, not dates of death. Historians therefore have had to adjust the burial dates by one or two days to provide for greater accuracy. Spanish historians now believe that Cervantes was the first to pass on, and the date was 22 April 1616. English historians believe that Shakespeare probably died on the then calendar date of 23 April 1616. However, the Spanish and the English used different systems for charting the passage of the year. By 1616, Spain, a Catholic country, had adopted the new-style Gregorian Calendar, which is used throughout the modern world today. England, however, was in the middle of the throws of the Protestant Reformation, and the nation was still using the old-style Julian method for keeping track of dates, which was 10 days off of the Gregorian version. Thus, by converting the date of Shakespeare’s passing to our current calendar system, Shakespeare actually died on 3 May 1616, a full 11 days after Cervantes.
While these are interesting issues worthy of “Final Jeopardy” answers, the two literary geniuses themselves would probably sum up this foregone discussion of their deaths by one word: “folly.”
Shakespeare and Cervantes shared a lot more in common than just dying about the same time – namely their love of a good story and their uncanny ability to take some basic yarn and mold it into an amazing new creation. However, they differed in how they first happened upon the stories that inspired their creativity.
Both writers emerged into greatness from humble families, who were engaged in “the trades.” Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker, wool-speculator, and small-town mayor. Cervantes’ father was a barber-surgeon. Despite their non-aristocratic origins, both Shakespeare and Cervantes received arguably the best education one could get in 16th Century, short of having a private tutor or attending university. This included a mastery of Latin and at least an introduction to ancient Greek – both hallmarks of the Humanist educational systems in vogue in both nations at the time.
Shakespeare, it should be noted, was first and foremost a “player” (actor); and over time, he became an affluent “gentleman” in English society from the proceeds of his published works and from his occupation as part-owner, full-time actor, and chief playwright for the premier English theater company, the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” Like Cervantes, Shakespeare’s chief source of inspiration was the amazing modern world emerging all around him. The epicenter of Shakespeare’s existence was the hustle and bustle of London, the most rapidly growing mercantile city in the world. However, Shakespeare never traveled abroad. Much of the grist for his plays therefore was derived from the ancient Latin poets he loved from the days of his youth and from the books of tales and histories that he bought from the bookseller stalls located around St. Paul’s Cathedral, or that he borrowed from the libraries of his aristocratic patrons. By all accounts, Shakespeare was almost as voracious a reader as he was a writer.
Although Cervantes also wrote plays and acted in a few of them, he could never seem to make a living from his literary talents alone. Equally ambitious as Shakespeare in his determination to rise above his humble beginnings, Cervantes tried repeatedly to break into the higher rungs of Spanish society by pursuing various careers as a soldier, accountant, purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and tax collector. Of the two writers, Cervantes perhaps led the more interesting life, although he never achieved either Shakespeare’s wealth or renown in his own lifetime. As a soldier, Cervantes fought in the wars of the Eastern Mediterranean against the Turks, distinguishing himself with heroism on several occasions as a naval marine. He was wounded three times and lost the use of his left hand at the pivotal Battle of Lepanto in 1571. After a long convalescence on the island of Sicily, Cervantes was captured by the Turks while sailing for home; and he was made a slave for five years in Algiers, until ransomed. Years later, back in Spain, Cervantes was thrown into prison several times because of false accusations advanced by banking colleagues. Moreover, he survived several close calls with the Spanish Inquisition.
No doubt, Cervantes’ inspiration for his imaginative tales can be found in his world experience, his exposure to different cultures, and from the many stories that he collected during his travels and imprisonment. He claimed to have begun the first part of his most acclaimed work, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, while serving one of his sentences in a Spanish dungeon.
The one notable trait that Shakespeare and Cervantes held in common was that, while each man was proud of his literary accomplishments, neither took himself all that seriously. Each writer could see elements of irony or comedy in each tragedy or drama he composed. . . and even in his own life. This may be explained by the notion that both Shakespeare and Cervantes held their true religious and philosophical views close to their chests, and they may have carried throughout their lives an inner conflict with the prevailing religious order of their respective homelands.
Most historians give at least some substance to the theory that John Shakespeare, Will’s father, was a secret Roman Catholic living in a Protestant society. The evidence of John Shakespeare’s “recussancy” is twofold: first, a “spiritual testament” was discovered in the rafters of the family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was issued by the notorious Jesuit Priest Edmund Campion and signed by Shakespeare’s father affirming his allegiance to the “true Catholic faith”; and second, researchers have discovered an impressive record of fines paid by John Shakespeare for his repeated failures to attend Protestant church services, which was required by law.
Some historians believe that the non-Conformist sentiments of the elder Shakespeare rubbed off on the son; and a few have gone so far as to assert that the playwright was a “crypto-Catholic,” seeing evidence in his compositions. That may be reading too much into all this. What is clear, however, is that Will Shakespeare felt comfortable in the presence of known Catholics in late Elizabethan Protestant England. He may even have gotten his his start in the theater while working as a tutor for a Catholic family residing in the north of England, and several of his wealthiest patrons were prominent Catholics loyal to the Protestant Queen.
While Shakespeare often pushed the limits of Elizabeth’s censors, he was smart enough to steer clear of religious and political controversy (often seen as one and the same in Tudor and Jacobean England). Several of his histories – such as Henry IV Parts I & II, Richard III, and Henry VIII – were even overtly propagandistic in supporting the claims of the Tudor Dynasty.
The one time that Shakespeare and his company of players almost lost their heads was when they were influenced by aristocratic conspirators, including the noted Catholic Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s most wealthy and loyal patron), to stage one of Will’s earlier plays, Richard II, in the Globe Theater, as a symbolic kick-off to Essex’s failed insurrection against Elizabeth in 1601. The play happened to feature the disposing of a properly anointed king – not a particularly wise plot line to be highlighting just as a poorly planned coup was about to go awry. Shakespeare and his colleagues managed to escape the dungeon and scaffold. The players were a rather entertaining bunch (no Netflix back then), and this factor evidently worked in their favor.
Several years later, after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 – the 9/11 of the reign of King James I perpetrated by Papist-terrorists – Shakespeare would over-compensate for his earlier lapse of judgment during the Essex rebellion by quickly writing Macbeth, a play which supported James’s legitimacy as the Protestant King of England & Scotland and, at the same time, clearly promoted the theme that bad things tend to happen to murderers who attempt to assassinate divinely appointed monarchs. James came to the throne in 1603 favorably inclined toward the London theater. He even took over the patronage of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and renamed it The King’s Men. James liked the English theater infinitely more after Shakespeare and his company of players performed Macbeth for him in 1606.
The evidence for Cervantes’ inner religious conflict is far more circumstantial. The most interesting theory among a growing group of scholars is that Cervantes was a descendant of a Conversos, a Spanish Jew forced by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1492.
The notion is that Cervantes, as a “New Christian,” had rediscovered his Jewish roots during his journeys abroad and imprisonment in North Africa and Spain; and this voyage of self-discovery influenced the vision expressed in his writings about a future Spanish society in which differing religious views – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – could be accommodated, as they had been under Moorish rule back during the Medieval period. Some Jewish scholars go so far as to assert the claim that Cervantes was a “crypto-Jew,” and that his writings often reflect themes featured in the mystic strains of Judaism found in the Kabbalah.
While proclaiming Cervantes as a clandestine Jew is perhaps more of a stretch than asserting Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, there are some patterns to the trajectory of Cervantes’ life and themes in his writings that indicate he might have been aware of family connections to the Jewish world of pre-1492 Spain. First, there were thousands of Conversos living in Spain during his lifetime, and one of the most common professions permitted of former Jews was that of Barber-Surgeon, the trade that Cervantes’ father was evidently quite successful at. Next, Cervantes may have been forced to seek a profession abroad as a soldier, because he could not advance in Spanish society as a “New Christian.” Lastly, while Cervantes was a noted war hero and was moderately successful as a bureaucrat in Spain, he was denied several prestigious positions as an adjutant in Spain’s overseas outposts because of an apparent stain in his background. Reminiscent of later Nazi race-based criteria in the 1930s and 1940s, possessing such a “stain” in 16th Century Spain usually meant that one of your grandparents was a Jew, and that aspect of one’s background was disqualifying.
Even the name used in Cervantes’ fabulous novel, Don Quixote of La Mancha, is postulated as a secret joke that Cervantes played on himself – one related to his suspected Sephardic DNA. Scholars searching for such a link in Cervantes’ ancestry believe that he invented the word Quixote based upon the Aramaic term for “Truth” often used in Jewish literature; and La Mancha, rather than being a region in Spain as most of his readers surmised, signified the “stain” of his Jewish blood. Therefore the hidden title of Cervantes’ work could be interpreted as The Ingenious Gentleman, Sir Truth of the Blood Stain – referring to the albatross that the author had to bear throughout his life, although he always remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised.
Several other instances in Cervantes’ great novel support this interesting speculation about the writer’s self-recognition of being a descendant of a Jewish Conversos. The first is a lengthy discussion of religion between the would-be knight-errant and his “squire” Sancho Panza, in which Panza proudly proclaims his family roots as “Old Christian.” His master responds to this proclamation with deafening silence – signifying that he himself is a “New Christian” or descendant of a Jewish Conversos. The second instance is a comic passage in which Don Quixote’s ideal of womanhood, the prostitute he calls “Dulcinea,” is described as preparing pork for a meal. All readers in early 17th Century Spain would have recognized this practice of preparing and eating pork as a stereotypical caricature of a Conversos overcompensating in order to publicly prove his or her bona fides as a “New Christian.”
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of possible Jewish influence on Cervantes’ writings in general, and on Don Quixote of la Mancha in particular, is the use of the Old Testament genre of the epic journey made by the protagonist, who first appears as a flawed anti-hero, but who grows in grace over time. This central character often ends up where he first started, although he has been transformed for the better by the challenges he has faced.
Regardless of whether or not one accepts the various theories regarding Cervantes’ possible Jewish origins, anyone considering the tale of the author’s tragicomic hero recognizes in Don Quixote the Biblical stories of Old Testament patriarchs, such as Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Each character faces the rejection of friends and family, and years of self-imposed exile and wandering in the dessert. Each man experiences exhilaration in his “quest” for an ideal . . . and each shares a common desire with Cervantes’ unlikely hero to reach out to the cosmos.
* * * *
Commenting on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, 20th Century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.” Clearly this observation applies to Cervantes and Shakespeare alike – writers who lived amazing lives, often took risks, and possessed an extraordinary capacity to bring to life both serious and ridiculous characters, who often embarked on impossible quests that audiences over the last four centuries would never have imagined for themselves. Some of us happily went along for the ride; and by doing so, we were inspired to seek out our own improbable adventures.
To commemorate the achievements of these two giants of modern European literature, please consider treating yourself to a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or watching a movie version on Netflix, or ordering one of the many translations of Cervantes’ pivotal novel about the “Man of La Mancha” from Amazon.
If you don’t feel like sitting through an entire Shakespearean production or wading through Don Quixote’s adventures, you might try watching one of my favorite feature films, Shakespeare in Love. Another outstanding drama about the early English threater, Anonymous, promotes the interesting but easily debunked theory that the writer of Shakespeare’s plays was not Shakespeare at all, but the Earl of Oxford. Lastly, you might consider streaming to your flat-screen TV Kenneth Branaugh’s recently produced bio-pic about Shakespeare’s final years, “All Is True.” The title of the film is aptly taken from the subtitle for one of the Bard’s last plays, “Henry VIII.” During one fateful performance of the play in 1613, a cannon used for special effects sparked a fire in the thatched rafters overhead, and Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theater burnt to the ground. Shakespeare went into retirement shortly thereafter.
If you are fortunate enough to live in the Washington, D.C., area, please give consideration to attending in April one of the annual birthday celebrations of William Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located near the U.S. Supreme Court. Or better yet, get yourself a ticket for one of the great performances staged year around by DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company.
As far as Cervantes goes – if a revival of the 1964 musical Man of La Mancha ever comes to your region, sell everything you own and take the family to see it. In my view, it is the perfect Broadway musical of all time. You will come away from the performance singing and soaring!
Lastly, I invite you to click on the links indicated in this paragraph to view YouTube videos of two of the most impressive performances related to Shakespeare and Cervantes ever recorded. The first is the St. Crispin’s Day “Band of Brothers” Speech delivered by Kenneth Branaugh in his 1989 remake of Henry V. The second video features the performance by the incomparable Brian Stokes Mitchell of “The Impossible Dream” during the 2003 Tony Awards.
Whether or not you take me up on any of these suggestions, the most important advice that these two inventors of the modern imagination would probably have given to any of us living today would be “to remain inspired.”
To this imagined counsel, I would add the following:
- Never forget that the world is your stage
- Achieve the impossible by pursuing the absurd
- And with your last ounce of courage, keep reaching for those stars!