This April 23rd, the International Day of the Book, we especially commemorate the 400th anniversary of the near simultaneous deaths of two of history’s greatest writers. While there are many reasons to honor Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, perhaps foremost is that each explored in his own and very different way, through a bewildering array of exquisitely crafted characters, the shifting limits of what it meant to be human in a world where humanity’s place was rapidly changing.
“What a piece of work is a man,” Hamlet exclaims, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” With these words Shakespeare expresses a sentiment common to his time, which was starting to evaluate anew the power and dignity of the human being. “And yet,” Hamlet pauses to protest, “to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
Those two pivotal words, “and yet,” open a window into the struggle of an individual to grasp his place amidst the explosion of humanity’s understanding and ambitions. I am a member of this great species, which gives me just enough insight to grasp how insignificant I am. Hamlet’s personal quandary is much like humanity’s: he knows just enough to undermine his sense of self, duty, and purpose, and not enough to answer all his questions with certainty. It’s enough to drive one mad, even if, as Polonius asserts, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
Where Shakespeare spent most of his life between Stratford and London and learned about history and the world through his voracious consumption of the revolutionary media of the time, print and theater, Cervantes took a front row seat on humanity’s exploding horizon. After a youth spent being driven around Spain by his itinerant father’s quest for steady work, he wounded a man in a duel and became a fugitive from a grim sentence. In Italy he joined the Papal forces and fought against the Turkish Empire in the Mediterranean, losing the use of his left hand and almost losing his life. Captured by Barbary pirates he spent five years in squalid captivity in northern Africa before returning to Spain to have his hopes of glory squashed by meager employment, stints of imprisonment, and lifelong debt.
And yet, for this quintessence of dust, buffeted endlessly by the gales of the emerging modern world, man delights, oh, how he delights! As Don Quixote rushes headlong into his most iconic adventure, Sancho Panza interrupts his enthusiastic description of the “thirty or more enormous giants with whom I intend to do battle and whose lives I intend to take” to ask, “'What giants?’ 'Those over there,' replied his master, 'with the long arms; sometimes they are almost two leagues long.’ 'Look, your grace,' Sancho responded, 'those things that appear over there aren’t giants but windmills, and what looks like their arms are the sails that are turned by the wind and make the grindstone move.'”
If Shakespeare’s greatest characters quake to their very core with the realization of what they cannot see, or lose their reason altogether when they finally grasp how little they understood, Cervantes crafted an entirely new way of writing around his characters’ limitations and the incompatibility of their different perceptions of the world. He learned to shift the point of view of his narratives from describing characters externally to portraying how they perceive and emotionally inhabit the world, as if the reader were stepping into a molded hollow in the book’s world and looking out through its eyeholes. Underlying all his characters was his fascination with how differently people might experience the same situation, and how real emotions can flow from that experience.
Where the other characters in the novel treat Quixote and his delusions as a spectacle, entertainment, or nuisance, ridiculing his madness and laughing at his mishaps, Sancho Panza responds to his failures with compassion, loyalty, and eventually, love. When a mischievous duchess accuses Sancho of being “more of a madman and dimwit than his master” for staying with Quixote despite his madness, Sancho replies: “If I were a clever man, I would have left my master days ago. But this is my fate and this is my misfortune; I can’t help it; I have to follow him: we’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I love him dearly, he’s a grateful man, he gave me his donkeys, and more than anything else, I’m faithful; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the man with his pick and shovel.”
And indeed nothing does. When Quixote dies his faithful companion is by his side, tears in his eyes and “a thousand deep sighs” in his bosom, begging the reformed knight to cling to his madness instead of leaving this world a sane man. Society would rather have the gentleman dead than insane; Sancho him would give the world to keep him, imperfections and all.
Humanity on the western tip of Europe circa 1600 was taking intrepid steps toward another undiscovered country than the one Hamlet feared. The educated individual in the midst of the age of discovery and on the threshold of the scientific revolution knew just enough to know how little he mattered. Cervantes and Shakespeare distilled this vertiginous encounter with mankind’s ever-expanding reach into their characters’ confusion, refusal and, ultimately, willingness to venture beyond their horizons. By confronting their limitations and grappling with their insignificance, their characters reveal something of the infinite worth of each imperfect soul.