Prospero and Persiles: Comparing the late romances of Shakespeare and Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The travels of Persiles and Sigismunda. 1619. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The travels of Persiles and Sigismunda. 1619. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In preparing for the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s and Miguel de Cervantes’ deaths, it is worth considering the writing they produced toward the end of their careers, particularly since these works bear striking similarities in setting, plot, and theme.

For Shakespeare, this group of plays, categorized as romances, includes Pericles (1606-1608), Cymbeline (1608-1610), The Winter’s Tale (1609-1611), and The Tempest (1610-1611). Cervantes’ last work, which has been dubbed a Christian romance, is Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda: Historia septentrional (The Works of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story). It was posthumously published in 1617. Cervantes considered Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda his greatest achievement, and it was well received in its day, but Don Quijote is perennially more popular with modern readers.

Shakespeare’s romances involve pivotal, often treacherous ocean voyages to cross from one kingdom to another. Much of the Persiles takes place on the sea, as the two main protagonists and numerous other characters embark on an ocean peregrination from Northern Europe to Rome, with many island stops along the way.

Various plot elements that appear in Shakespeare’s romances also crop up in Cervantes’ Byzantine novel, including pirates, witches, princes winning tournaments, sexual jealousy, schemes to coerce marriage, tested faith, religious affirmation, forgiveness, cross dressing and other disguises, jaw-dropping recognition scenes, and long-delayed reunions with loved ones.

In a way that can feel off kilter for some readers, Shakespeare and Cervantes’ late romances take a distinct departure from the preceding work that solidified their reputations for greatness. Shakespeare’s mid-career tragedies espouse a dark, even nihilistic perspective. In contrast, his later romances depict a world where, in the end, virtue is rewarded and evil is held at bay.

The Persiles likewise espouses a worldview in which good and evil ultimately receive their due. But whereas Cervantes draws from recognizable everyday sorts of people and places to create humor in Don Quijote, the Persiles features superhumanly beautiful heroes and fantastical, almost atemporal locations.

Prospero relinquishing his magic and returning to Milan at the end of The Tempest has been seen as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater and the foreshadowing of his retirement to Stratford. In a similar vein, Cervantes was acutely aware that the end was near when he was writing the Persiles. He finished the book just three days before his death and famously begins the dedication:

Puesto ya el pie en el estribo,    With my foot already in the stirrup,

con las ansias de la muerte,         in the agony of death,

gran señor, ésta te escribo.         I write this to you, great sir.

This is the second blog post in a 2016 series on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Read the first post: The Wonder of Will, The Marvel of Miguel