This year we remember the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. But 1616 also saw the passing of another great writer: Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra, who we know best as the author of Don Quijote.
As Shakespeare left an indelible mark on the English language, Spanish has been referred to as “la lengua de Cervantes,” the language of Cervantes. This is due not just to the inventiveness of Cervantes’ writing, but also to its orality. To read Don Quijote is to engage deeply with the act of storytelling in many forms, from chivalric romance, folktales, and satire, to the pastoral and the picaresque. One of the great pleasures of Don Quijote comes from encountering the distinctive speech patterns of diverse segments of Spanish society. Almost any given character becomes a storyteller, through writing or reciting, dialogue, monologue, or digression.
With his ear for the spoken word, it should come as no surprise that Cervantes tried his hand as a playwright as well as a novelist. He yearned for recognition as the former, but his true fame came as the latter. Don Quijote was published in two parts, the first in 1605 to almost immediate acclaim, and its sequel in 1615, the same year Cervantes published his Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (i.e. Eight comedies and eight dramatic interludes). He also achieved success with a series of novellas, known as the Novelas ejemplares (1613), and a posthumously published Byzantine novel Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617).
April 23, 1616, is given as the death date for both Shakespeare and Cervantes, but neither man died on that day. Spanish records from that time write down the date of death as the date of burial. So we know Cervantes was buried on April 23, which means he probably died on April 22. Shakespeare actually died 11 days after Cervantes— May 3 by the Gregorian calendar that Spain adopted in 1582, but April 23 on the Julian calendar that England used until 1752.
It is reported but not confirmed that Cervantes’ remains were located just last year in Madrid, under the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians. Spain hopes the church will draw tourists like those who flock to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Why do we commemorate the deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare? Some might point to a particular story, play, or poem. Others might answer with a specific character: Hamlet or Falstaff, Sancho Panza or don Quijote. But what about the elusive figures of the authors themselves? For devotees of Shakespeare, there is a desire to draw closer to the writer who is at once so present to us and yet so unknown. Similarly, throughout Cervantes’ works, a distinctive narrative voice bonds readers with the author, even if the narrator(s) cannot be taken as Cervantes himself. Cervantes addresses the Novelas ejemplares to his “amantísimo lector,” most beloved reader, and we in turn love him back.