Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Shakespeare's Birthday Salute to Will, Cervantes, and Sancho Panza

It's Shakespeare's birthday again, and to celebrate, my students are taking a test on The Tempest. Lest they be less than enthused, when they finish it I will present them with "Shakespeare cookies," decorated with the faces of characters in the plays we have read this semester.

Here is Petruchio:

 And shrew Kate:

And The Tempest's Ariel.

I went with a basic frog-Caliban in forest green.

Othello and Iago are both green-eyed monsters, but Iago (left) is sporting a devil's tail and horns.

 I like best my Sir John Falstaff.

But what's with Sancho Panza, above left? Let me explain the Shakespeare's birthday connection. (Bear with me.) Tradition has it that Shakespeare and the great early-modern Spanish novelist Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, died within the same 24 hours in 1616, Cervantes on April 22 and Shakespeare on April 23rd. As usual, tradition is wrong, because at that time Spain was using the amended Gregorian calendar devised by Pope Gregory while England, in its anti-papal way, was still clinging to the erroneous Julian calendar, which meant that April 22nd in Spain fell about ten days before April 23rd in England. (It was a confusing time for Europe.) In any case, both these dates were death-dates, not birth dates. But since we aren't entirely sure of the date of Shakespeare's birthday, knowing only that it fell in late April; and since April 23rd is the Day of St. George, the dragon-slaying knight who is England's patron; and since knights on unlikely quests were important to Cervantes, too; and since there must be some cosmic force encouraging us to think of these two towering literary figures as inhabiting the same temporal orbit (though I don't know what that phrase means) -- because of all these things, I think we should honor both Shakespeare and Cervantes on Shakespeare's death-day-turned-birthday. Because, why not?

What, beyond their importance to all later Western (and much non-Western) literature and drama, do Shakespeare and Cervantes have in common? True, from their differing northern and southern vantage points, they bore witness to historical events that profoundly shaped the late-sixteenth-century European world. Shakespeare might have been in London to witness the wild celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, while the older Cervantes was himself a soldier in the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, when the Christian League narrowly defeated the Ottoman Turks -- an event of importance to Shakespeare's Othello. Yet, did their work exert a mutual influence? Hmm. Cervantes never visited England and would have known of its playwrights only by reputation. Some allege that a lost play, Cardenio, is Shakespeare's version of  a story told in Cervantes' capacious Quixote (which was published in 1605, and quickly famous, though not translated into English at that time). However, most scholars are skeptical about the Cardenio story. When they look for Cervantes' influence on Renaissance drama, they find it in the plays of Ben Jonson, who clearly read Cervantes, and who based a hilarious scene in his 1614 Bartholomew Fair on Quixote's windmill-fighting episode. (Jonson's windmill is a puppet show and his deluded knight a Puritan pastor puffed up with holy zeal.)

Yet, what about Shakespeare, who read bits and pieces of everything? Who picked up rags and patches of literary information like a magpie? Even if he knew no Spanish, how could he have avoided knowing about Cervantes' deluded knight and comic companion?

James Walton, my superlative "history of the novel" professor in graduate school, had a brilliant theory. He spoke of Cervantes' ironic pairing of the idealistic, heavenward-striving Quixote and the practical, earth-bound Sancho Panza, then delivered his conclusion with a flourish. How could any of us fail to see a parallel of this complementary pair in Prince Hal and Falstaff, in Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1, first produced in 1597? Oh, Professor Walton was so close! He was almost right! He was, in any case, on the right track. Henry IV, part 1, is indeed Shakespeare's Cervantes play, but his Quixote is not Prince Hal, but Hotspur, the impossibly idealistic knight striving to maintain his outdated chivalric code in an early modern world, where men wield pistols on the battlefield and deal strategically for political advantage. Quixotic Hotspur longs to "pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon" while Falstaff and his London colleagues are picking pockets. Talk about an impossible dream! Prince Hal is the man in the middle between Hotspur and Hal's own Sancho, who is, of course, Falstaff, who cares about food, wine, and self-preservation. (Metaphors of food pepper Falstaff's conversation -- "pepper" is, in fact, one -- and as for Sancho Panza, his very surname means something like "gut.")

Of course, Sancho is a lot nicer than Falstaff, and a lot braver. He follows Quixote out of loyalty and love, and he never leads a bunch of poor, unprepared paupers into battle having persuaded the healthier, fitter men to buy out of their service. That's why this Shakespeare birthday blog is dedicated to Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Sancho. In fact, I've decided my Falstaff cookie is in fact Sancho Panza. Happy Birthday, Will S.!


  1. Jose Ramon Diaz FernandezApril 23, 2015 at 3:11 PM

    The first part of Don Quixote was published in Madrid in 1605, and the first translation into English dates from 1611. Since the Cardenio story appears in the first part of the novel, Shakespeare might well have read it in its English-language translation.

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  3. Man, you are messing up my Hotspur / Quixote thing!