Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra lived from 1547 until 1616 in a period that spanned the climax and decline of Spain's golden age. All his life he shared the ideals of an idealistic national purpose that led to Spain's glory and downfall at a time when the nation was the Catholic bulwark against a reformation-torn Europe and against the ravishing advances of the aggressive Turkish power.
Imbued with heroic exploits, Spain was proud of its epic heroes, Cortez and Pizarro, who subdued entire populations in the New World and released a stream of gold that supported the military might of Charles V and Phillip II. Despite the rich American source of treasure, the defense of Spain exhausted the resources of its peasants and of its colonies until, at the defeat of the Armada, the country was too impoverished to recover. With the decline of Spanish power, England and the reformation countries of Europe began their ascendancy.
Born into penurious circumstances, Miguel Cervantes was the fourth son in a family of seven children. His father, Rodrigo, was a surgeon, one of the salaried employees of the university of Alcala de Henares, the birthplace of Miguel, and he earned very little to feed his family. Little is known of Cervantes' early life, but it is doubtful if he received much formal education.
When he was twenty, Miguel was in the retinue of the Cardinal Nuncio Acquaviva and spent his service in Rome. Joining the army with his brother Rodrigo, he participated in the battle of Lepanto where the Spanish established superiority of seapower against the Turks. Sick below decks, Cervantes insisted on joining the battle in a most exposed position. He fought bravely, receiving two shots in his chest and a wound that rendered his left hand useless the rest of his life. This lacerated hand was his glory, and the bravery he showed at Lepanto earned him a document of recommendation from Don Juan himself, the Austrian half brother of Phillip who commanded the Spanish forces. After a long convalescence, Cervantes rejoined the army to fight in the famous battle of La Goleta (mentioned in the Captive's story). He also campaigned in Tunis, Sardinia, Naples, Sicily, and Genoa, learning much about Italian culture during this period of service. Returning with Rodrigo to Spain, their ship was captured by pirates and both brothers were sold as slaves in Algiers.
The story of his incredible bravery during those five years is almost legendary, for Cervantes schemed again and again, not only for his own escape, but for the liberation of numerous fellow slaves. Each time he failed, he declared he alone, and not his countrymen, was to blame, knowing full well the atrocities reserved for punishing escaped Christians. The bloodthirsty Dey of Algiers, Hassan Pacha, however, was impressed by the audacity of the maimed Spaniard and always spared him. Although Rodrigo was eventually ransomed, it was not until much later that Miguel's ransom was negotiated.
In 1580, Cervantes returned to Spain, maimed, without any means of livelihood. Don Juan was dead and hated by the king, so Miguel could not hope for any preferment through his recommendations. Out of desperation, he began to write for the theater, but of as many as thirty or forty plays only a few have survived. During this period, Cervantes had an affair with a Portuguese girl who eventually deserted him, leaving their daughter Isabel de Saavedra for him to raise.
Still an unsuccessful playwright at the age of forty, Cervantes married the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, Catalina Salaza y Vozmediano. Little is known of his wife, but the marriage was not a successful one. At this time of life, Cervantes had to support, besides his wife and natural daughter Isabel, his mother, two sisters and the widowed mother-in-law. He applied for many civil service posts and eventually was granted a job as commissary collecting foodstuffs for the Invincible Armada. It is during this period that Cervantes learned to know the Spanish peasant, and his stored-up knowledge was to result in the creation of Sancho Panza.
Bookkeeping was a complicated and arduous procedure, and Cervantes was twice imprisoned for owing money to the treasury from a shortage in his accounts. Cervantists disagree whether or not the Seville prison was where he began to write Don Quixote. In the preface, the author hints to the reader that "You may suppose it [Don Quixote] the Child of Disturbance, engendered in some dismal prison . . . "; this line is the basis for controversy among biographers.
Misfortune continued to dog him when he was out of prison, as if to impede the composition of his masterpiece. Finally completed in 1604, the Quixote was an immediate bestseller. Running into six editions a year after that, Cervantes derived no further profit from the book, other than the money originally paid him by his publisher. The success of his work, however, interested the Count of Lemos and the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, who became his patrons, although they did not do much to improve Cervantes' miserable circumstances.
Sixty-seven years old, still dogged by poverty and with his health failing, Cervantes began the sequel to Don Quixote only to find that a pirate edition of his idea had become popular. As if to retort to this underhanded publication, Cervantes quickly completed Part II.
During this brief span of his life between the ages of 57 and 69 Cervantes published his Exemplary Novels, twelve stories of Spain which survive as perceptive accounts of the local life of that time. He also published some plays, Eight Interludes and Eight Comedies, which manifest a dramatic talent that his earlier pieces never quite achieved. His last work, The Troubles of Persiles and Sigismunda, is notable mainly for its prologue dedicated to the ungrateful Count of Lemos. Aubrey Bell, an outstanding Cervantist, considers this work to be "the most pathetic and magnificent farewell in all literature." Cervantes, writing from his deathbed, began the prologue: "With one foot already in the stirrup and with the agony of death upon me, great lord, I write to you." Cervantes died in April 1616, the same month that marks the death of William Shakespeare.
Although Don Quixote is one of the most read novels in the world, as well as one of the longest, and continues to be a bestseller, the life of Spain's greatest author is less known than the lives of lesser literary figures. What is outstanding in the scanty biographical date available about Cervantes, is the energy and warmth that radiated from the personality of this penurious, ill-fated figure. A product of the proud Catholic-inspired Spanish heritage, Cervantes believed implicitly in religious orthodoxy and military heroism. Like Don Quixote, Cervantes traveled through life with a strong sense of purpose. Meeting with misfortune and disillusion like his hero, Cervantes contributed to civilization, possibly as a result of his own life's experiences, the people and the values of Don Quixote.