Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Book “Don Quixote’s” Theme

Featuring Henry Edward Watts

Previously on Cervantes' "Don Quixote" Reforms Literature. And now Henry Edward Watts

Time: 1605
Place: Spain

Taking the object of Don Quixote to be, what Cervantes declared it--"the causing of the false and silly books of chivalries to be abhorred by mankind"--no book was ever so successful. The doughtiest knight of romance never achieved an adventure so stupendous as that which Miguel de Cervantes undertook and accomplished. With his pen, keener than the lance of Esplandian or Felixmarte, he slew the whole herd of puissant cavaliers, of very valiant and accomplished lovers. Before him went down the Florisandros and Florisels, the Lisuartes and Lepolemos, the Primaleons and the Polindos, and the whole brood of the invincible. Scarcely a single romance was printed, and not one was written, after the date of the publication of Don Quixote.[14] Such a revolution in taste was never accomplished by any single writer, in any age or country.

A few words only are here needed, in the discussion of that question which has occupied so largely the ingenuity of writers, native and foreign, as to what was the object of Cervantes in writing Don Quixote. There are those who insist upon seeking in every work of humor or of wit some meaning other and deeper than in the book appears, as though it were impossible that an author should be disinterested or write merely out of the fullness of his heart or pride in his work. With Cervantes' own declaration, more than once repeated, of the purpose of his book the critics will not be content. So good a book must have had a better reason for being than Cervantes' dislike of the fantastic books of the later chivalry. Who, then, was the man--the original of Don Quixote? Against whom was the satire leveled? Of course nothing was then known to the world outside of poor Don Rodrigo de Pacheco, the Argamasillan hidalgo. Some great man Cervantes must have intended to ridicule. It was Charles V, said some. It was his son Philip, cried others--ignoring the absurdity of the Prudent one losing his wits through excessive reading of romances. It was the Duke of Lerma--or the Duke of Osuna--or some other great man, or Cervantes' wife's cousin, who opposed his marriage with Catalina. It was Ignatius Loyola--our own countryman, the good John Bowle, suggested.

Surely these various theories are a little far-fetched and not a little grotesque and absurd. What there is in either of the two Spanish monarchs to liken him to the Knight of La Mancha it is difficult to see. Those who have looked upon that wonderful equestrian picture of Titian's in the Museo at Madrid, with its weird, weary, far-off expression, are irresistibly led to think of Don Quixote; but the converse is by no means so clear that on looking at Don Quixote we are tempted to think of that most unromantic of monarchs, Carlos Quinto.[15] His son is still more unlike his supposed portrait. As to the Duke of Lerma, they who can believe, on the faith of the cock-and-bull stories told by the Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy and the Jesuit Rapin, that Cervantes satirized the all-powerful minister in revenge for personal injuries suffered at his hands, may be consigned to the same limbo with the believers in the Bacon-Shakespeare. The theory about Loyola, first mooted by Bowle, the English commentator, is of all, perhaps, not the least absurd. The one shred by which it hangs is a passage in Don Quixote where the angry Biscayan, the adversary of Don Quixote, is made a native of Azpeitia--this being the name of the obscure village where Loyola was born.

A sufficient answer to all these theories is that contained in the book itself. Surely no one has read Don Quixote with profit to himself who has been unable to see that the hero is not one whom the author desired to revile or to malign. Never was a satire like this, which leaves us full of love and sympathy for the object. And why cannot we believe the author when he avers that never did his humble pen stoop to satire? He meant, of course, the satire of persons as distinguished from the reprehension and the ridicule of human follies and general vices. As a lampoon, Don Quixote could hardly have endured to this day. The spirit which has given it eternal life is love, and not hate.


[14] The last book of the kind written before Don Quixote, according to Clemencin, was Policisne de Boecia, published in 1602; but La Toledana Discreta, which is a romantic poem in ottava rima, was published in 1604, and a few chap-books and religious romances, of the slighter kind, afterward.

[15] The question is reopened in the España Moderna (1894), by my good friend Asensio, who quotes from one of the histories of Charles V how that as a youth he would draw his sword and lay about him at the figures in the tapestry, and how once he was discovered teasing a caged lion with a stick. This is slender material on which to base the theory of Charles V being the original of Don Quixote.

Continued on Monday, November 17th.

More information here.
Read the book here.

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