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The 400th Anniversaries of Shakespeare and Cervantes

The 400th Anniversaries of Shakespeare and Cervantes

In 2016 the world took note of the deaths 400 years ago of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes—two of the greatest giants in the history of Western literature. The playwright and the novelist had little in common save their extraordinary inventiveness, the universality of their appeal, and the seeming coincidence of their near-identical death dates (in fact, England used the Julian calendar and Spain the Gregorian calendar at the time, so the dates were actually 10 days apart). There was, however, one tantalizing possible point of contact. A play reported to have been written by Shakespeare (with dramatist John Fletcher) and performed in 1613, The History of Cardenio, was believed to have been based on incidents in the story of a character in Cervantes’s already celebrated novel Don Quixote. The manuscript of the play, however, was never discovered.


On April 23, 1616, English poet and playwright William Shakespeare died in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of 52. His death occurred on or near his birthday (the exact date of his birth remains unknown), which may have been the source of a later legend that he fell ill and died after a night of heavy drinking with two other writers, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Although Shakespeare had achieved some measure of acclaim and financial success during his life, writing for the stage was, at the time of his death, not yet thought of as a serious artistic pursuit, and his modest burial at Holy Trinity Church was more suited to a wealthy local retiree than a celebrity. However, within a few years of his death, Shakespeare’s friends and admirers began to lay the groundwork for his literary immortality. In 1623 John Heminge and Henry Condell assembled his plays into a single large-format edition. That edition became known as the First Folio, one of the most-famous texts in English literature. Anticipating that the world would eventually recognize Shakespeare’s genius, Jonson—an important literary figure in his own right—proclaimed in the folio’s preface that his friend was a writer “not of an age, but for all time!” The four centuries since Shakespeare’s death have confirmed Jonson’s assessment. The “Bard of Avon” holds a place in history as one of the greatest writers to have lived, and his work continues to be performed, read, and taught across the world. Shakespeare’s legacy also evolved to keep up with changing times; for example, in the 20th and 21st centuries, his plays were adapted into hundreds of feature films.

In 2016 Shakespeare was lavishly honoured. The Globe Theatre in London organized The Complete Walk—a 4-km (2.5-mi) course that included 37 short films, each of which explored one Shakespearean play; the project was to be exported to cities in several other countries. The Royal Opera House live-streamed performances from opera and ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. The British Council offered interactive options, including films and the opportunity for members of the public to create a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A free six-week MOOC (massive open online course) on the life and works of Shakespeare was also offered. In the U.S. the Folger Shakespeare Library developed a traveling exhibition intended to take a copy of the First Folio to each state.

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Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes died in Madrid on April 22, 1616. He was buried the next day in a convent. When the convent was rebuilt decades later, Cervantes’s remains were moved, but at some point their exact location became unknown. The grave of Spain’s greatest writer had essentially vanished. Cervantes himself was by no means forgotten, however. Cervantes became a war hero in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, during which he received two gunshot wounds in the chest and a third that rendered his left hand useless, a disability that earned him the nickname “el Manco de Lepanto.” In 1575 a ship on which he was traveling was attacked by Barbary pirates, and as a result, Cervantes spent five years as a slave in Algiers. He began writing in 1585, trying his hand—with limited success—first at the fashionable genre of pastoral romance and later as a playwright and as a poet. His attempts to support himself as a commissary of provisions and as a tax collector were disastrous; he was twice imprisoned for discrepancies in his bookkeeping. However, the first part of his novel Don Quixote was instantly popular when it was published in 1605. Over the next six years, the work was reprinted across mainland Europe. The publication jumped the English Channel, was translated, and appeared in London in 1612. Two decades after he began writing, Cervantes had found a ravenous audience, so he started a Part II. He had not yet completed that work when a bogus sequel by an unknown author was published in 1614. That perfidy proved to be of no consequence, however; Cervantes’s own Part II was published in 1615, and it quickly spread across Europe and to England. Cervantes enjoyed few benefits from the success of Don Quixote. Because he had sold the publishing rights to his work, he made little money from Part I, and he died less than a year after Part II was released. Yet the novel flourished, in Spanish and particularly in translation. Its central characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, became familiar to generations of readers. By the 20th century, scholars were flattering Don Quixote by subjecting it to every sort of analysis, from which the novel emerged gleaming and resilient. It remained a good, if troubling, story—funny, affecting, and wayward, with paroxysms of violence and suffering that continued to shock. In March 2015 Cervantes suddenly rose from his grave. Spanish researchers announced their discovery of bones that they thought were his. Scientific testing confirmed the hunch, and Cervantes’s remains were reburied in June. The rediscovery of his bones, however, seemed superfluous. Cervantes had proved centuries earlier that he did not require his body to survive.

Cervantes was celebrated in Spain and elsewhere as the inventor of the modern novel. Tours of his hometown, Alcalá de Henares, offered a greater understanding of the writer. The National Dance Company of Spain performed Ballet Don Quixote in various Spanish cities, beginning in Valencia. Students at the University of Málaga gave a reading of the first chapter of Don Quixote in 18 different languages. An exhibition at the National Library in Madrid offered an overview of Cervantes’s work and its worldwide influence. In addition, the Cervantes Institute, the embassy of Spain, and the Film Development Council of the Philippines presented a series of films based on the writings of Cervantes, which were not limited to his immortal novel. An exhibit, Don Quixotes Around the World, which focused on the many translations into some 140 different languages of the novel and its dissemination around the world, began in Madrid and traveled to several other cities during the year.

J.E. Luebering
The 400th Anniversaries of Shakespeare and Cervantes
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