Miguel de Cervantes’s life was just as extraordinary as any of his far-fetched plots. He was the middle child of seven, born in the university town of Alcalá de Henares on or about October 9, 1547. His father was a surgeon, a common occupation for a man of good family name who didn’t have the money for an education or leisure. The family’s income was meager at best, and whether Cervantes’s father was a poor practitioner or just an adventuresome spirit, he moved his family all over Spain. There are records of the family being in Alcalá, Valladolid, Córdoba, Cabra, Sevilla, and Madrid between the years 1547 and 1566. The family tried to keep up appearances by hiring servants when they moved to new cities. The servants never lasted long, and once or twice, Miguel’s father went to prison for debts.
It is said that the young Miguel had to satisfy his appetite for literature by reading scraps of printed paper he found in the street. His education was as erratic as his location, and all together he probably had six years of formal schooling, which he received from Jesuit priests. The knowledge he displays in his work far surpasses six years of primary education. He must have read whenever he could.
In 1567, Miguel published his first poem, which praised the queen, who had recently given birth to a daughter. Upon the queen’s death two years later, more of Cervantes’s poems in her praise were published in a collection.
In 1569, when Antonio de Sigura insulted his sister, Miguel wounded him in a duel in the royal palace, the penalty for which would have been to lose his right hand and be exiled from the kingdom for ten years. He fled the punishment and joined a Spanish regiment in Italy while he waited for the law to forget his offense.
Cervantes admired soldiers all his life, saying that there was no profession more honorable nor more profitable. To be a soldier meant to serve God fighting against the Turks who were trying to conquer Europe. Miguel was joined by his brother Rodrigo, and together they participated in the Battle of Lepanto, a naval victory much celebrated at the time. On the day of the battle, Miguel was sick with a fever and ordered to stay below. However, the call to duty was too strong. He demanded to be put where the action was thickest. He emerged from the battle with a serious chest wound and the loss of the use of his left hand. This wound, though debilitating, made him proud for the rest of his life, like a badge of honor.
He convalesced in Italy for six months, where he must have done a lot of his reading, and then participated in two more battles before he was sent home. Both he and his brother Rodrigo were going home on the galley Sol in 1571 when the ship was captured by Barbary pirates, and the brothers were sold as slaves in Algiers. The letters of recommendation Miguel was carrying on his way home made the Algerians think he was rich, and they set his ransom outlandishly high. He remained captive in Algiers for five years, during which time his sisters gave up their dowries and his mother begged the government in futile efforts to bring the brothers home. Conditions in captivity were harsh. Most prisoners were chained in dark, filthy rooms, and they had to work for their keep, performing any number of onerous physical tasks under strict guard.
Miguel attempted to escape four times. No one knows why he didn’t receive the official punishment for attempted escape: death by torture. The Algerian officials were noted for their cruelty, often lashing, impaling, and hanging offenders such as Cervantes by the feet until dead. However, they let him off every time with only a short prison sentence. Biographers suggest that they were impressed with Miguel’s courage and generosity. When questioned about the accomplices to his grand-scale escape plans, he never betrayed his collaborators, but asked to be punished alone.
When his family miraculously gathered up enough money to ransom one, but only one, of the brothers, Miguel allowed that brother to be Rodrigo. Finally, he was ransomed by a friar from the Order of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, which specialized in the rescue of Christian captives in Africa. As Don Quijote says, “no treasure the Earth contains nor the sea conceals can be compared to” the liberty known after imprisonment. Cervantes returned to his home country, having been away twelve years. He had left a criminal in danger of losing his right hand, and returned a hero without the use of his left hand.
Despite his numerous talents, he could not find gainful employment to support the family that had gone bankrupt trying to bring him home. He applied for a post in the Americas and was rejected. He published his first novel, La Galatea, a pastoral romance that had very little success; and a few plays that received mild public response. In spite of these disappointments, Cervantes felt optimistic enough at this time to take a wife. Some think he must have married Catalina de Palacios Salazar for her dowry, but she was his match in finances as well as social rank. The couple never had children.
Sometime after his wedding, Miguel secured a job as a king’s commissary, collecting provisions for the Armada. It probably wasn’t a very amusing job, because it involved long hours of riding alone through Andalusia, and when he did see people, they weren’t hospitable because he was there to take their grain. For a meager wage, he had the right to jail people who resisted his authority. He once exercised this right on a sacristan, and was excommunicated from the church. He later had the excommunication lifted because of the social impediments it represented.
Cervantes was often accused of financial chicanery because people were so reluctant to give up their livelihood in exchange for a receipt, but more often than not, Miguel was able to justify himself in a court of law. In 1597, someone’s bad arithmetic landed him in debtor’s prison. He was 50 years old and had more than his share of misfortunes. Rather than rotting away in prison, however, he took advantage of a time when he had no other duties and began writing one of the world’s literary masterpieces, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. The work is a window into his thought. The tale of an aged hidalgo who goes insane reading too many books of chivalry shows the reader his ideals in contrast with a Golden Age Spain at its best and worst. The hero’s noble endeavors turn into disheartening mistakes, just as Cervantes’s youthful dreams and heroic deeds turned into disappointments and injustice in his maturity.
After seven months, he was released from prison, but was from then on unemployed. He traveled, following the roving Spanish court, wrote, and made friends with many of the literary figures of the time.
In 1605, Cervantes sold Don Quijote to the printer Juan de la Cuesta for a small price. There were no royalties for writers, so even though Don Quijote was a phenomenal success, requiring two printings in the first year, and was translated into all the major European languages, he remained poor. However, this was the turning point. Don Quijote possessed the nation. There was not a person in all Spain who didn’t know the story, for those who could not read had it read to them. In the second part, Cervantes writes with great humor about the success of the first, creating another level of metaliterature in addition to the already stacked layers.
Now Cervantes could spend his time writing instead of looking fruitlessly for work. He had another success, The Exemplary Novels, a collection of long stories that demonstrate the social and moral decay of the time, a true witness of the fall of the largest Western empire the world had ever seen.
Toward the end of his life, deaths in his family, poverty, and failing health caused Cervantes to devote himself more fully to the church. In 1609 he joined the Brotherhood of the Slaves of the Most Holy Sacrament, saying that he was at an age when “one doesn’t trifle with the life to come.”
In 1614, a continuation of the adventures of the ingenious knight appeared, but it hadn’t been written by Cervantes! Parody sequels of this kind, which capitalized on the success of a book while at the same time making fun of it, were common at the time, but this was especially offensive because in the prologue, the author of the spurious book, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, insults Cervantes personally. While he had license to lash out verbally against Avellaneda, Cervantes reacted with dignity in the prologue to the real second part of Don Quijote, published in 1615, saying, “Let his sin be his punishment. With his bread let him eat it, and there let it rest.”
Though the second part was even more successful than the first, the novel wasn’t an accepted literary genre at the time, and Cervantes remained on the outskirts of the literary world. The merit of his work was not critically recognized until long after his death. He was frustrated that he wasn’t considered “great,” like many of his friends, but he wasn’t bitter. He was always able to joke about his supposed inadequacies, such as in Viaje al Parnaso, an epic poem in which all the great poets are gathered and Cervantes isn’t invited.
The last months of his life were relatively serene, characterized by illness and time to reflect. He knew that he had done well by his own standard, but was respectful that others didn’t share his standard. His only regret appears to have been that he couldn’t go on living, to write all of the other creations he had in his head. With an admirable acceptance of the inevitable, Cervantes died on April 22, 1616, from a prolonged illness he called “dropsy,” but which we would diagnose today as diabetes.
Cervantes probably accepted that not all of life’s questions can be answered. He sometimes leaves ambiguity in his work instead of trying to solve the problems he deliberately sets forth. He presents humans truthfully, with their good, bad, and indifferent qualities. In his re-creation of the story of the ingenious knight, Camino Real, Tennessee Williams sums up Cervantes’s idea: “Life is an unanswered question, but let’s still believe in the importance and dignity of the question.”
Cervantes was a good witness of human nature because he was both an outsider and an insider. He was accepted by society because of his heroics at Lepanto and his two successful books, but was rejected because of his poverty, his time in jail, and his lack of influential friends. The administration he lived under ignored his accomplishments, while severely punishing every minor transgression. A complete insider might have only seen the rosy aspects of society, while an outsider might have rebelled. However, his vagabond life and privations gave him a full perspective of the society in which he lived. Both his life and his work serve as inspirations for writers and people of all professions.