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Little is known about the life of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of the classic Don Quixote. The exact date of his birth is unrecorded, but it is known that he was born in the small town of Alcala de Henares near Madrid and christened in the church of Santa Maria on October 9, 1547. He was the second son and fourth of seven children of Rodrigo de Cervantes and Leonor de Cortinas. His father led a precarious and unsettled life as a an apothecary-surgeon and came from an old family of Northern Spain, now encumbered by poverty and debt. Cervantes learned to lead the life of a penniless gentleman at a very early age.
Somewhere as a child, Cervantes saw the famous actor-manager and dramatist Lope de Rueda (of whom he writes in the preface to his plays) and who possibly ignited his passion for the theatre. Basically there are few facts known about his first twenty-one years. He may have had some schooling in Valladolid and again with the Jesuits in Seville. No specific date is known, except that of 1568-69, placing him as a student in the City School of Madrid. It is possible that he left his studies for a period of service with the army in Flanders. In 1569 he wrote home requesting a certificate of legitimacy in order to enter His Majesty’s Armed Forces. And it is thought that at this time he was serving as chamberlain to Cardinal Acquaviva
Enlisted in the Spanish legion and stationed in Italy, Cervantes participated in the naval battle of Lepanto (October 7, 1571). This battle was a high point of his military career — though ill with fever he fought and suffered three gun shot wounds, one which permanently maimed his left hand. By April, 1572 he recovered and participated in the naval engagement off Navarino (October 7, 1572); the capture of Tunis on October 10, 1573); and in the unsuccessful expedition to the relief of La Goletta in the Fall of 1574; with periods of garrison duty at Palermo and Naples.
In September, 1575 he and his brother, Rodrigo, who was also serving on the peninsula, left for Spain and were captured on the way by Algerian pirates(reflected in the captive’s tale in Part I of Don Quixote). A year later he tried to escape, but he was recaptured. Early in 1577 the priests of the Order of Mercy arrived with 300 crowns sent by his parents. The sum was insufficient to free Cervantes, but adequate to ransom his brother. One more failed escape attempt precipitated the Viceroy of Algiers, Hasan, into buying him as a slave. His family continued its efforts: his father presented a petition to the King and his mother raised money. Finally, after several more attempts at escape, Cervantes’ ransom was accepted and he was granted his freedom in 1580. He returned to Madrid.
He was now 34 years old and it was about this time when he was unable to find official employment, that he began writing plays. It is thought that he wrote between 20-30 plays during the 80’s, but only two manuscripts have survived: El Trato de Argel and La Numancia, which were found in 1784.
His literary efforts were not devoted solely to the theatre. In 1584 the writer obtained a license to print a pastoral novel (then at the height of its popularity). The result was La Galatea, which was published in Alcala de Henares in 1585 and twice reprinted during his lifetime. (The novel remained his favorite and for 30 years he kept promising to write a sequel).
As Cervantes was struggling in his literary efforts, he married Catalina de Palacios Salazar y Vozmediano of Esquivias, a girl 18 years his junior, who brought him little dowry. Although he and his wife had no children, two years earlier Cervantes fathered an illegitimate daughter, Isabel. After his father’s death in 1585, Cervantes’ responsibilities grew — he now had to support two sisters, a niece and a maidservant.
Necessity forced him to seek employment and in 1588 he was appointed deputy purveyor to the fleet, responsible for requisitioning supplies for the Invincible Armada. While his new position did give him a familiarity with the colorful growth and folklore of that province (described in Don Quixote), he was temporarily excommunicated for confiscating supplies which belonged to the dean of the cathedral of Seville. And later, with shortages in his accounts, he was imprisoned at least twice (1592 and 1597). This experience accounts for the legend that the first part of Don Quixote was written in prison.
This was a period of misfortune for Cervantes. In May,1590, he applied to the King for an overseas appointment, but was told to look for something closer to home. His luck was not much better in literature. In 1595 he won a first prize (three silver spoons) in a poetry contest at Saragossa, and three years later his sonnet, “At the Bier of King Philip II in Seville,” attracted some attention, but the rest of his poems went unpublished and he moved frequently from one city to another.
He was in his 50’s when he wrote Don Quixote, which is considered the first modern novel. License to print was granted on September 26 and in January, 1605 Part One was put on sale by the Madrid bookseller Francisco de Robles. The book had an immediate success. Within a few weeks of publication, three pirated editions were issued in Lisbon. A second authorized edition (with minor revisions) was brought out in Madrid with rights extending to Aragon and Portugal and two other reprints appeared in Valencia in the same year. The book was reissued in Brussels (1607 and 1611), Madrid (1608) and Milan (1610). Thomas Shelton’s English version of 1612 was the earliest translation.
Although Cervantes became famous overnight, his financial difficulties continued. In 1605, he became involved in an investigation of a stabbing and he and his family were imprisoned for at least a week. Some sources claim that the writer may have gone into hiding because of that incident, because his whereabouts for the next three years are unknown.
From 1609 until his death in 1616, Cervantes lived in Madrid. In 1609 he was invited to join the newly founded fraternity of Slaves of the Most Blessed Sacrament and about the same time his wife took the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis. And in 1612 the author joined another new literary club — Academia Selvaje.
These years in Madrid comprised his third major period of literary activity, which resulted in his 12 Exemplary Novels (1613) the burlesque poem Viaie del Parnaso and the prose postscript Adiunta al Parnaso (1614). It was in the same year that the “sequel” to Don Quixote written by Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda of Tordesillas was published, which induced Cervantes to complete his own Part Two (1615). As with Part One, his sequel was reprinted quickly in Brussels and Valencia (1616) and in Lisbon (1617) with a first translation into French in 1618. Both parts appeared together from 1617 on.
Eight Comedies and Eight Interludes was brought out in 1615 and The Persiles and Sigismunda was published posthumously in 1617.
Toward the end of his life Cervantes joined the Tertiary Order of St. Francis and it was the Franciscans who carried him to his grave, located, according to several sources, in the Trinitarian convent in the Calle de Cantarranas. Cervantes died of dropsey on April 23, 1616. Sources:
1. Cervantes: The Man and His Time. by Sebastian Arbo.
2. The World of Don Quixote. by Richard L. Predmore.
3. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, Tr. by Samuel Putnam. Researched and compiled by Fran Michelman.