Join us in Celebrating the International Day of the Book - Resources for your Spanish Classroom
Spain was a trendsetter throughout the artistic world in the Seventeenth Century. Painters like Diego Velásquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, and El Greco, among others, had a tremendous impact throughout Europe at that time, while writers like Francisco de Quevedo and Lope de Vega were arguably as gifted and of the same stature as their contemporary William Shakespeare was in the English-speaking world in the early 1600s.
There was a man, however —a fighting man, a traveling man, an enslaved man, and also a man of letters— who was to become the most influential voice in Spanish literature and in Spanish culture in general. Today we regard Castilian Spanish as “la lengua de Cervantes” and for good reason. Miguel de Cervantes was the first “novelist” to compose what is regarded as the modern novel. Even though he wrote numerous other novels and works of poetry and drama, he is best remembered outside the Spanish-speaking world for what many consider his magnum opus: El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha.
A satirical work that criticized and made fun of the old romantic ideas of chivalry, Don Quijote has more than stood the test of time by becoming an important referential source for universal literature. The skillful narrative as well as the masterful dialogues brought Cervantes out of poverty —although the book did not make him rich— and gave him international acclaim while he was still alive. However, he died just a year after the publication of the second volume in 1616. The first volume, which became immediately popular, had been published in 1605. Today both volumes are published together, and they are available in English as well as in many other languages.
Also today, Cervantes is on more equal footing internationally as William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s other contemporary literary rivals, the talented Spanish playwrights and poets Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, and Luis de Góngora are long gone from the minds of the general public and only inspire interest in people who major in Spanish literature. Shakespeare has emerged as the greatest writer in the English language, and Cervantes is his counterpart in the Spanish language. In commemoration of the day they both died and to honor them, UNESCO chose to create the International Day of the Book: April 23. Although it has already been well documented that they really didn’t die on the same day —Cervantes died on April 23 of the Gregorian calendar and Shakespeare on April 23 of the Julian calendar— the two men nonetheless share remarkable coincidences. For instance, the Bard of Avon has Hamlet say: “To be or not to be; that is the question.” The Prince of Wits has Sancho Panza say: “Today we are, and tomorrow we are not.” There’s even been speculation that the two men knew each other, and a movie was made about it. More wildly, there’s even been literary speculation that the two men were one and the same, pointing out the known gaps in Shakespeare’s life and the fact that Cervantes was an adventurer and even worked as a spy for the Spanish crown for a few years.
Why does all this matter today? It matters tremendously. Many people today regard impossible or unrealistic enterprises as “quixotic,” meaning the person or people attempting such enterprises are like Cervantes’s hero and probably off their rocker. On the other hand, there is also positive idealism in Don Quijote, a person who dared to dream impossible dreams. Many old-school romantics argue that if there were more people like Don Quijote the world would be a better place. We have to decide which side we are on. Perhaps teachers can also have their students decide which side they are on, with the satirists or with the romantics, once they read the book. This is the challenge Cervantes gives us today. This is why his work and his ideas are still relevant today. Never mind his contributions to universal literature, all his quotes that have become proverbs, his colorful life, or whether indeed he was the Prince of Wits (There’s dispute in Spain as to who was the real Prince of Wits, Cervantes or Góngora). The question, the dilemma he poses, much like his soul brother Shakespeare, is whether we’re willing to fight and go all the way for what we believe in, even if we face ridicule, or whether we want to look at the world satirically, accepting our lot in life, without taking significant risks.
Teachers should keep these ideas as well as their own in mind when planning to teach about Cervantes, and specifically when planning to have their students read Don Quijote for the first time. Reading about the adventures of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza is itself an adventure, and the book should not be regarded as a “must-read” simply because of academic reasons. It is a must-read because it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, sense-stimulating, and challenging. It might also be a good idea for teachers to encourage their students to read additional works by Cervantes. Besides other prose masterpieces such as Novelas Ejemplares, he wrote quite a few plays, among them El trato de Argel, in which he presumably recounts his experiences as a captive of the Moors. He wrote poetry and, again like Shakespeare, excelled at composing sonnets. His most celebrated poetic work, however, is Viaje del Parnaso, in which he also utilizes satire.
Over the centuries, Don Quijote has been turned into operas, musical plays, ballets, and epic poems in diverse languages. In more recent history, it has also been turned into quite a few movies, but there are many other reasons why everyone must remember Cervantes. There are many reasons why everyone should read Cervantes, and there are many reasons why Cervantes’s work is still relevant today. We hope we have exposed some of those reasons here. In addition, there is also good cause why teachers of Spanish should always use Cervantes’s work with their students. Unlike Lope de Vega, Luis de Góngora, and Francisco de Quevedo, all of whom enjoyed much fame and fortune since early on in their lives, Cervantes became a lot more famous after his death, which happens with many “immortals” of the arts.
We hope that the general public and teachers of today continue to become better acquainted with the survivor of the Battle of Lepanto and are encouraged to find out more about the man who may have met (or may have been!?) Shakespeare. We hope teachers will be encouraged to find out more about Cervantes’s contribution to world culture and to discuss with their students what the man’s legacy is. It turns out that Sancho’s assertion that we are today and tomorrow we are not, does not apply to his master and creator. Cervantes was yesterday as he is today, and tomorrow he will continue to be.
What are you doing to teach your students about Cervantes? Let us know and automatically be entered to win a copy of Don Quixote!
Every year, Americans around the nation get together to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15th through October 15th. The contributions Hispanic Americans have made to the United States are endless and inspiring, and they have had a profound and positive impact on our county.
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