The 400th anniversary of Don Quixote - Spain in the age of Cervantes - Part One

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first publication of Don Quixote, the greatest masterpiece of Spanish literature. The working class, the class that has the greatest interest in fighting to defend culture, should celebrate this anniversary enthusiastically. This was the first great modern novel, written in a language that ordinary men and women could understand.

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The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” (The Communist Manifesto)

Spain knew periods of great bloom, of superiority over the rest of Europe and of domination over South America. The mighty development of domestic and world commerce surmounted more and more the feudal dismemberment of the provinces and the particularism of the national parts of the country. The growth of the power and significance of the Spanish monarchy was inextricably bound up in those centuries with the centralizing role of mercantile capital, and with the gradual formation of theSpanish nation.” (Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 1931.)

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first publication of Don Quixote, the greatest masterpiece of Spanish literature. The working class, the class that has the greatest interest in fighting to defend culture, should celebrate this anniversary enthusiastically. This was the first great modern novel, written in a language that ordinary men and women could understand. It was one of Marx’s favourite books, which he frequently read aloud to his children.

The struggle for socialism is inseparable from the struggle for ideas and culture. In a generous gesture, President Chavez has ordered the printing of a special edition of two million copies of Cervantes’ masterpiece to be distributed free of charge. For our part, we celebrate the anniversary by analysing Quixote from the standpoint of historical materialism.

The life of Cervantes


Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is the most famous figure in Spanish literature. Novelist, playwright, and poet with a considerable literary output, he is remembered today almost entirely as the creator of Don Quixote. Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, a town near Madrid, into a family of the minor nobility. His father, Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a surgeon and much of his childhood Cervantes spent moving from town to town while his father sought work. His father was well known in Valladolid, Toledo, Segovia and Madrid – for his debts. These landed him in gaol on more than one occasion – a fate that was all too common at this time.

At first sight Cervantes’ life was merely a long string of failures: he failed as a soldier; he failed as a poet and playwright. He later had to find employment as a tax collector, but even here disaster struck. He was accused of corruption and ended in prison. But this wide experience of life enabled him to gain first hand knowledge of a great variety of human types and a keen insight into the society of the times.

Cervantes first took an interest in writing in 1568, when he wrote some verses in homage to the late Isabel de Valois, the third wife of Phillip II, doubtless with an eye to obtaining favour and money. But his literary career was interrupted by military service. After studying in Madrid (1568-69), under the humanist Juan López de Hoyos, in 1570 he joined the Spanish army in Italy. He took part in the sea battle at Lepanto (1571), aboard the warship Marquesa. Wounded in the arm by an arquebus, his left hand was left useless for the rest of his life. But this did not prevent him from joining the militia for a further four years.

Tired of war, he returned to Spain in 1575, setting out with his brother Rodrigo on the galley El Sol. But the ship was captured by the Turks and he and his brother were taken to Algiers as slaves. Cervantes spent five years as a slave until his family could raise enough money to pay his ransom. He was released in 1580.

After returning to Madrid he held several temporary administrative posts, and only turned to writing relatively late in life. He wrote works like Galatea and Las Tratas de Argel, which, dealt with the life of Christian slaves in Algiers and gained him some success. Apart from his plays, his most ambitious work in verse was Viaje Del Parnaso (1614). He also wrote many plays, only two of which have survived, and short novels. But none of this work provided him with a living.

Having finally got married, Cervantes realised that a literary career did not pay enough for him to keep a family on. He therefore moved to Seville, where he obtained work as a supplier to the navy. His adventures did not stop here. He gained success but also many enemies, as a result he suffered long periods of imprisonment. In one of these spells of enforced inactivity, he began to work on the book that would win him eternal fame. The first edition of Don Quixote appeared in 1605. According to tradition, it was written in prison at Argamasilla in La Mancha. The second part of Don Quixote appeared in 1615.

The book was a success and it brought its author international fame, but stayed poor. Between the years 1596 and 1600 he lived primarily in Seville. In 1606 Cervantes settled permanently in Madrid, where he remained the rest of his life. On April 23 1616 – Shakespeare’s birthday – Cervantes died in poverty in the Madrid street that now bears his name, just one year after the second edition of Quixote had appeared.

Cervantes’ masterpiece seems to have started life as a comical caricature of the tales of chivalry that were popular at the time, but it broadened out into a kaleidoscopic reflection of the period in which Cervantes lived. It is so full of life because it faithfully mirrors the life of that period – a rich mosaic of a world in transition, a ferment of clashing ideals and customs and an endless variety of characters. Most of his characters are drawn from the lower classes. Don Quixote was a new departure in literature: a picture of real life and manners written in clear, everyday language. The reading public acclaimed the intrusion of everyday speech into a work of literature.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cervantes had no wealthy patron. He depended exclusively on his readers. This was an entirely new relationship between the writer and his public. Cervantes could only eat by selling his books, and he could only sell books by striking a note that resonated in the hearts and minds of his public. In this he succeeded brilliantly. Few books in history have reflected so faithfully the new spirit that was developing in society. In order to appreciate this fact, it is necessary to have a rough idea of what Spanish society at that time was really like.

The Spain of Cervantes

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.” (The Communist Manifesto)

The Spain of Cervantes was a society in transition. The union of the crowns of Aragon and Castile, achieved through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isobel, created the basis for the unification of Spain and the creation of an absolutist monarchy. The fall of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom of Spain, was the final act in the Reconquista that had lasted for centuries. This was quickly followed by the discovery of America and the rise of Spain as the dominant economic and military power of Europe.

By the time Cervantes was born, Madrid had only 4,000 inhabitants, although this was a comparable size to Toledo, Segovia or Valladolid. The growth of Madrid was a result of the fueros or rights conceded to the nascent Spanish bourgeoisie by the kings of Castile and Leon in the medieval period. In the 14th century Ferdinand IV moved the court there to take advantage of the hunting, the climate and the pure water. It also gave the monarchy an independent base, free from the control of the provincial nobility.

Under Phillip I the vast bureaucratic apparatus of an absolutist state was completed and perfected. Madrid was transformed from a shabby provincial village into a city of 100,000 inhabitants, full of churches, cathedrals, palaces and embassies. In order to build the city, all the woods were cut down. The area that had been renowned for its healthy air and pure water became a pestilent sink. The streets of Madrid were dark, narrow and full of putrid rubbish, with pigs rooting around in the filth. Gerry-built houses, palaces in bad taste, streets full of filth and the carcasses of dead animals, impoverished districts with their Moorish atmosphere, the hovels of the poor crowding round the houses of the rich. Everywhere was the stench of rotting garbage and worse, fermenting in the streets where it was conveniently dumped under cover of darkness. The court of Madrid was not much better, by all accounts, being notorious as the dirtiest in all Europe. It was even likened by some foreign ambassadors to a village in the interior of Africa.

This was a seething cauldron of social change in which old classes were melted down faster than new ones could replace them. The decay of feudalism, together with the discovery of America had a devastating effect on Spanish agriculture. In place of a productive peasantry earning its bread by the sweat of their brow, we are confronted with an army of beggars and parasites, ruined aristocrats and robbers, royal servants and drunkards, all striving to make a living without work.

The rot started at the top. In the midst of all this poverty and filth, noise and squalor, the Spanish court was considered to be one of the most brilliant in Europe. Here was an endless spectacle of balls, masques and music. The Spanish royals lived right royally – on credit. They rarely paid their tradesmen. Such a vulgar thing as money was far beneath the consideration of the aristocracy.

A parasitic nobility lived in conditions of such notorious extravagance that it became necessary to pass laws against excessive luxury in dress, furniture and even saddles. The authorities even felt obliged to organise the public burning of decorated slippers, ladies’ garters and embroidered cloth. Some dukes went around accompanied by 100 lackeys dressed in silk. Even army officers appeared in public dressed in rich doublets and jackets decorated with ribbons, jewels and plumes.

In spite of the outward veneer of religious piety, many nobles flirted publicly with young and attractive nuns whom they encountered in the streets. It is said that Velazquez’s famous portrait of Christ was given as a gift of penitence by Phillip IV for one of his innumerable sexual adventures. The ladies of the nobility were no better than their men. When the duchess of Najera and the countess of Medellin had a quarrel, they first heaped upon each other a stream of insults that would have made a fishwife blush, and then resorted with relish to the more penetrating argument of cold steel.

Corruption was the rule, honest officials the exception. Church and state were staffed with a veritable army of parasites and hangers-on, all striving to make their fortune out of the public purse. Many officials lived a precarious existence and were ready to sell their grandmother for a few reals. The sale of offices was the norm. Particularly corrupt ministers were lampooned in scurrilous verses, but as a rule nobody paid much attention to a phenomenon that was so common as to be regarded as normal.

The Great Armada

Phillip II inherited a fabulously wealthy empire but one that was based on unsound foundations. He then helped to undermine it further by foreign adventures and wars. El Escorial was a monument to his soulless bureaucratic regime. Here the spirit of narrow-minded bureaucratism was mingled with that of religious fanaticism: part palace, part monastery, part mausoleum, it was the administrative centre for a vast empire. Behind the high walls of El Esorial, Phillip II indulged his imperial fantasies, constantly building, repairing and rebuilding his royal palaces, using marble and other costly materials.

The nobility hastened to imitate the example of their monarch, building palaces of their own. The explosion of building soon decimated the rich woodland that had covered the sierra around Madrid from time immemorial. These grandiose schemes in the end led to bankruptcy. That is the central irony – that at the peak of its power and wealth, Spain was falling headlong into decline and impoverishment. A century later the proud hidalgo with holes in his cloak, an empty wallet and a family tree as long as the list of his debts was already a literary commonplace.

Although Spain was the dominant power in Europe, its social development lagged behind that of England, where capitalist relations in agriculture were already well advanced after the shocks of the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt of the late 14th century, as Marx explains:

“In England, serfdom had practically disappeared in the last part of the 14th century. The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer.” (Capital, vol. One, chapter 27)

At the beginning of the 16th century, capitalism already developed both in Spain and in England. However, paradoxically, the discovery of America and its wholesale plunder by Spain served to suffocate Spanish capitalism at birth. The flood of gold and silver from the slave mines of the new world undermined the development of Spanish agriculture, commerce, manufacture and industry. It stoked the fires of inflation and created misery instead of prosperity.

“The new discoveries had converted the land trade with India into a sea trade; and the nations of the peninsula, who had hitherto lain remote from the great highways of commerce, now became the factors and carriers of Europe.” (Prescott, History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, p. 740)

The rising power of English capitalism necessarily clashed with the might of the Spanish empire. The English crown, initially by piracy, and then more openly, challenged the Spanish supremacy of the seas. Gradually the English and Dutch began to establish footholds in the Caribbean, laying the basis for new colonial empires. The conflict between Spain and England came to a head when the English sent military aid to the Dutch Protestant rebels who had risen up in revolt against Spanish rule. This inevitably led to war.

The power of Spain received a heavy blow and its pride a rude shock when in the summer of 1588 the Great Armada was defeated by a deadly combination of the English fire ships and rough weather. Overnight Spain found itself humiliated by the upstart power of England. This defeat had a symbolic character – the old world of feudal Catholicism was being rapidly displaced by the rising power of capitalist Protestantism in northern Europe.

The last years of Phillip II were years of severe physical decline, bitterness and anxiety. The bloody wars in Flanders dragged on with no end in sight. He died in 1598, eight years after the defeat of the Armada, and with him died the age when Spain was master of the world’s destinies. His son Phillip III was a worthless buffoon, more interested in the pleasures of the chase (either of wild boars or pretty actresses) than affairs of state. Shortly after the death of his father, he was approached by one of his secretaries with the question “what shall we do with the correspondence, Sire?” he answered “Put them in the hands of the Duke of Lerma”.

Thus, the absolute monarch became an absentee monarch. All real power was in the hands of his valet, the Duke of Lerma. The internal decay of Spain was further accelerated by the incompetence and degeneracy of its royal house. But the real causes of the decline were elsewhere. The royal rulers of Spain were fitting characters in this tragic-comedy of senile decay, nepotism and corruption.

Spain, which was the first united nation state in Europe, and its leading economic and military power, was defeated by those nations – starting with England and Holland – which had most decisively entered the capitalist road, and where the bourgeoisie was striving for political power.

The immense riches that had been wrung from the life-blood of an entire continent were rapidly squandered by the court and its attendant army of aristocratic drones. Beyond the walls of the court was a turbulent sea of misery, impoverishment and despair, which periodically flared up in violent riots and disturbances.

El Siglo de Oro

In this period Spain was a hive of activity. Things were going on at home and abroad that fired the imagination of all men (and some women) of spirit. This was the social backdrop of Spain’s siglo de oro (golden century). Never did Spanish letters reach such dazzling heights as at this time. In this period the kings and nobles of Spain took under their patronage a large number of poets, novelists and painters of the highest quality. The world has rarely seen such a galaxy of literary talent, with names such as Miguel de Cervantes, Felix Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, Pedro Calderon de la Barca and Tirso de Molina. It is worth remarking on just the most important names here.

The outstanding figure of the age was Lope de Vega. Although descended from an aristocratic family in Santander, Lope, like Cervantes, was almost always in economic difficulties. He was a man of his times, and shared in its triumphs and tragedies. He participated in the disastrous adventure of the great Armada. He fought a fatal duel and was banished from Madrid as a result. Twice married, he took Holy orders after the death of his second wife. Having amassed considerable wealth, he died in 1635.

From this information we see that his life, like that of Cervantes, was full of adventures, love affairs and travel. So full was this life that we ask ourselves when he had the time to write anything at all. Yet he wrote a vast amount – 2,000 plays that have never been equalled in Spanish literature. Of these only about 430 still exist. Among them are such classics as Fuenteovejuna, El major alcalde, el Rey, and Fuenteovejuna (based on a real event), and Perribañez o El Comendador de Ocaña. He also wrote poems, epics and prose romances, as well as religious works.

In some of these works we see important social and political elements. Fuenteovejuna was based on a real event involving a popular insurrection and Perribañez o El Comendador de Ocaña exposes the tyranny of feudal relationships in rural Spain. Here the common people are shown in a state of rebellion against the feudal lords, but the monarchy is depicted as the ally and defender of the people. In other words, what we have here is a literary expression of the concept of absolutism. The absolutist monarchy in Spain, like everywhere else, increased its power at the expense of the nobility by balancing between the classes.

Lope’s contemporary Pedro Calderon de la Barca was a dramatist, philosopher and theologian who wrote among other things, La Vida es Sueno (Life is a Dream) and El Alcalde de Zalamea (The Mayor of Zalamea). He was equally popular if less prolific than Lope. Born in 1600 into a well-off family, his father was secretary to the Treasury, and he was educated in the prestigious universities of Salamanca and Alcala de Henares. He later participated in the campaigns in Flanders and in the suppression of the Catalan uprising of 1640. It is reported that he had at least one illicit love-affair and an illegitimate child. But in 1651 he expressed the wish to enter a monastery and was only stopped by the personal intervention of Phillip IV.

Calderon’s plays have a strong moralising element and his characters suffer from it. They are written in a baroque style. In El Alcalde de Zalamea and El Medico y su Honra the main theme is honour. It is the feudal ideal of a courtly society that had never existed and most certainly did not exist at that time. No wonder Phillip IV, that prince of whoremongers, was a fervent admirer! His most famous work Life is a Dream is a most appropriate title for the age in which it was written. The Spanish ruling class was living in a dream from which it was to receive a rude awakening.

The name of Francesco de Quevedo is less known outside of Spain, but he was another great writer of the Siglo de Oro. His name is associated with satire. He left behind a vivid picture of Spain at that time in his masterpiece of what is known as picaresque literature, El Buscon. His works are characterised by their subtle humour and critical spirit and is clearly rooted in the events of the tragic period in Spanish history in which he was destined to live and write.

Quevedo saw that the decline of Spain was linked to the degeneration and corruption of the court. The gang of parasites that occupied the Alcazar of Madrid was well known to him from his experience as a young man at court. At the age of 31 he decided to move to Italy to occupy a post in Naples as secretary to the Duke of Osuna, but when the latter fell into disgrace Quevedo suffered prison and exile. He was rescued by the Duke of Olivares, the future aide to Phillip IV with whom he maintained a curious love-hate relationship all his life.

His book El Buscon is probably the finest picaresque novel of the 17th century. In his work Dreams (Suenos) he describes the life of the court and the aristocracy. This did not go down well and he was later imprisoned for his criticism of the ruling circle and the Duke of Olivares. When the latter fell into disgrace, Quevedo was released from prison, but died in oblivion just two years later in 1645.

The list is a long one, but we will mention just one more author of the period: Tirso de Molina. This was the pseudonym of Fraile Gabriel Tellez – who a priest left us the immortal story of one of the most immoral (or rather amoral) characters in world literature – Don Juan, the central character of The Jester of Seville (El Burlador de Sevilla). Interestingly, this priest was well acquainted with the psychology of women. In his “Comedias de Enredo” (eg., Don Gil de las calzas verdes and El amor medico) the protagonist is always a woman

The picaresque novel

The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this “free” proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working-class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.” (Marx, Capital, vol. one, chapter 28.)

This was the period that gave birth to that most Spanish of all literary genres – the picaresque novel. The picaro is a cheat, a rogue and an adventurer living off his wits since he has nothing else to live off. He is a product of a definite socio-historical period: the period of transition produced by the decay of feudalism. Here we have the flotsam and jetsam of a world in full process of dissolution. The decay of the old order gave rise to a chaotic situation in which the old morality is breaking down but there is nothing to take its place: hence the cheerful moral nihilism of the picaro.

Spanish society at this time presents us with a rich mosaic of scoundrels, thieves and tricksters that is probably without equal in world history. The philosophy of this layer can be summed up in one word – survival. Life is a mad scramble to secure the means of existence by any possible methods. Their motto is: “Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindermost.”

By the second half of the 15th century Madrid was already established as the “very noble and loyal city” (muy noble y leal) capital city of Spain. The population began to swell with an influx of outsiders attracted to the court like bees to honey or flies to less pleasant substances. The picaresque novel reflected the actual state of affairs in the period when Spanish feudalism was in decline. The trickery of the merchant, the brutality of the soldiers, the fanaticism of the priests and the corruption of the courtiers – these were simply facts of life.

This complicated kaleidoscope was, in fact, an expression of a society in a process of disintegration where no synthesis is possible. Alongside the aristocracy with its high-sounding titles and empty purses, there was a mass of declassed elements, mercenaries and adventurers. The streets of the capital were full of criminals, army deserters and bravados of all sorts and sizes, carrying swords and daggers. They would pick a fight or a pocket with equal relish. Gangs of robbers were active and at night it was not a good idea to be on the streets in the hours of darkness. One contemporary chronicler lamented: “There be not any rebel, cripple, one-handed, one-legged or blind man in all France, Germany, Italy or Flanders who hath not descended on Castile.”

This is the true soil out of which sprang the Lazarillo de Tormes, the Buscon and last but not least Don Quixote. As a literary style the picaresque novel arises from the degeneration of the romance of chivalry, just as the human prototypes arose from the degeneration of feudalism – it is just another way of expressing the same idea. The decay of feudalism inevitably produced a reaction against the values, morality and ideals of feudalism. This reaction expresses itself in the form of irony and ridicule; an outmoded outlook, which has outlived itself, is ridiculous by definition, and therefore a source of humour.

These pages teem with all kinds of life and people with strong and colourful characters. The kind of anti-hero of the picaresque novel, such as the Lazarillo de Tormes is a caricature of the heroes of the chivalric romance. Instead of a knight in shining armour, he is a rascally young beggar – a familiar figure in Spain at this time.

Here we have the true genesis of a recognisable literary type that reappears later in Gil Blas by Le Sage, Fielding’s Jonathan Wilde and Thackaray’s Barry Lyndon. The pages of Quixote are full of personalities and situations taken from the great book of life itself. The spirit of this book, with its earthy realism and cheerful optimism, is quite clearly that of Renaissance humanism, and not at all that of the Counter Reformation. Here our eyes are directed not upwards to heaven but downwards to the earth and all its riches. Its motto is “I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

There is a strong national element in Quixote. This is a quintessentially Spanish book. It could not have been written anywhere else. Here we have all the sharp contrast of sun and shade so characteristic of the Spanish landscape which is also reflected in Spanish life and the character of the Spanish people. But this explanation, true as it is, does not by any means exhaust the question. One cannot fully explain the richness of Cervantes’ characterization in purely national terms. In order to understand Cervantes correctly, it is necessary to place it in its social, economic and historical context.

It was Marx who pointed out that periods of great historical transition are particularly rich in “characters”. This is as true of Shakespeare as Cervantes. The England of Shakespeare, like the Spain of Cervantes, was in the throes of a great social and economic revolution. This was a very turbulent and painful change, which thrust a large number of people into poverty and created in the towns a large class of dispossessed lumpenproletarian elements: beggars, thieves, whores, deserters and the like, who rubbed shoulders with the sons of impoverished aristocrats and defrocked priests to create an endless reserve of characters like Sir John Falstaff and the Lazarillo de Tormes.

The bawdy scenes of tavern low-life in Don Quixote give the novel life and colour while highlighting the central contradiction of the historical period. The common Spanish people are as alive and vivacious as the nobility is dead and absurd. The central theme of Quixote contains a fundamental historical truth about Spain in the period of feudal decadence. The ideals of chivalry now appear as ridiculous and antiquated eccentricity in the nascent capitalist economy, in which all social relations, ethics and morality are dictated by the naked cash nexus.