Who Was Miguel de Cervantes?
Miguel de Cervantes was born near Madrid in 1547. He became a soldier in 1570 and was badly wounded in the Battle of Lepanto. Captured by the Turks in 1575, Cervantes spent five years in prison. before he was ransomed and returned home. After less successful earlier efforts, Cervantes finally achieved literary success in his later years, publishing the first part of Don Quixote in 1605. He died in 1616.
The fourth of seven children, Miguel de Cervantes struggled financially for almost his entire life. His father, Rodrigo, deaf from birth, worked as a surgeon—a lowly trade at the time—and the family moved around often in Cervantes youth as his father searched for better prospects.
Whatever his family's financial conditions, Cervantes was an avid reader as a child—a skill he was reportedly taught by a relative. But whether he had much in the way of formal education has been a subject of debate among scholars. Based on analyses of Cervantes's later work, some believe that he may have been taught by the Jesuits, however, others dispute this claim.
Cervantes's first known published writing dates to 1569, when he contributed some poetry to a memorial collection after the death of Elizabeth of Valois, the wife of Spain's King Philip II. But by the following year, Cervantes had put his pen aside and, instead, picked up a weapon, joining a Spanish military unit in Italy.
Known for his bravery, Cervantes took part in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Stationed on the ship La Marquesa, he fought against the Ottoman Empire and sustained serious injuries in the conflict, suffering two chest wounds and the complete maiming of his left hand. Despite his disability, however, Cervantes continued to serve as a soldier for several more years.
In 1575, Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo tried to return to Spain, but they were captured during their voyage by a group of Turkish ships. Cervantes subsequently spent five years as a prisoner and a slave, and made several failed attempts to escape during his imprisonment. In 1580 he was finally able to return home after a ransom was paid for his release.
In 1585, Cervantes published his first novel, La Galatea, but the pastoral romance failed to make much of a splash. Around the same time, Cervantes tried to make it the then-lucrative world of theater. (Plays were an important form of entertainment in Spain during the era, and a successful playwright could earn a good living.) Unfortunately, Cervantes achieved neither fortune nor fame with his plays, and only two have survived.
In the late 1580s, Cervantes began working for the Spanish Armada as a commissary. It was a thankless job, which involved collecting grain supplies from rural communities. When many did not want to provide the required goods, Cervantes was charged with mismanagement and ended up in prison. However, it was during this trying time that he began to write some of literature's greatest masterpieces.
In 1605, Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote, a novel that tells the story of an elderly man who becomes so enamored by the old stories of brave knights that he seeks out his own adventures. The title character soon gets lost in his own fantasy world, believing he is one of these knights, and convinces a poor peasant, Sancho Panza, to serve as his squire. In one scene, the deluded Don Quixote even fights a windmill, mistaking it for a giant. Quixote finally regains his senses before the novel ends.
Don Quixote became the world's first best seller and was eventually translated into more than 60 different languages. Cervantes published the second part of the story in 1615.
Despite its undisputed place in the literary canon, Don Quixote did not make Cervantes wealthy at the time, as authors did not receive royalties for their works. However, he continued to write, setting to work on The Labors of Persiles and Segismunda, though he would not complete it before his death on April 22, 1616, in Madrid. He was buried on the grounds of a convent there, in an unmarked grave.
Since his passing, Cervantes has been credited with writing the first modern novel. His work has inspired countless other authors throughout the centuries—including Gustave Flaubert, Henry Fielding and Fyodor Dostoyevsky—and the story of Don Quixote has been retold in many ways, including in the popular musical The Man of La Mancha and in an artwork by Pablo Picasso.
Cervantes married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584, and the couple remained married until Cervantes's death. Though they never had any children, Cervantes had an affair with actress Ana Franca de Rojas, with whom he had a daughter, Isabel de Saavedra in 1584.
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