Celebrating the ‘King of Wit’

This week sees the 400th anniversary of the death of two giants of literature, Miguel de Cervantes (believed to be April 22) and William Shakespeare (believed to be April 23), although Spains Gregorian calendar was 11 days behind England’s Julian calendar, but it is more poetic to think of the Bard and El Príncipe de los Ingenios (The Prince of Wits).

It is unlikely the contemporaries ever met, and there is no real evidence that either man was particularly influenced by the other, but in their respective cultures they set the literary standard.

IND119216

IND119216 Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) 1600 (oil on panel) by Jauregui y Aguilar, Juan de (c.1566-1641); Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, Spain; Index; Spanish, out of copyright

The son of a deaf surgeon, Miguel de Cervantes was born on Sept. 29, 1547 inn Alcalá de Henares, a Castilian city about 20 miles northeast of Madrid. He became a soldier in 1570 and was badly wounded in the Battle of Lepanto. He was captured by the Turks in 1575 and spent five years in prison. Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605.

The Spaniard’s influence on his language is acknowledged. In fact, Spanish has been dubbed la lengua de Cervantes (The language of Cervantes).

I shall address Shakespeare in a future blog, but Cervantes has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks. Of course, the Spaniard is renowned for “Don Quixote,” which not only formed the template for the novel, but also gave us the adjective quixotic, meaning idealistic, unrealistic or impractical, as well as the concept of “tilting at windmills.”

But my dealings with the Golden Age giant are more personal. I have recently finished a book of translations of three short Golden Age plays with my friend Catalina Castillón, which will be published early next year. One of the entremeses, “The Election of the Mayors of Daganzo” is certainly by Cervantes, but the other two are merely attributed, and, in our research, have not been translated before.

An entremes is a short satirical comedic play that would be performed during the intermission of a larger work, often a serious drama. Reading these works really shows Cervantes’ skill as a social commentator.

Even four centuries later, Cervantes’ keen observation of human nature has relevance. “Daganzo” features a group of councilmen looking to elect a representative for the village. The sitting officials each have their own agenda, and the candidates are not what one would call overly qualified.

Even the most generous of readers would find parallels in the current election cycle. Each of the candidates is earnest in their belief that they are qualified, but earnestness alone does not a qualified candidate make.

“Daganzo” and the other plays in our collection will serve to highlight once again the brilliance and wit of the Spaniard’s wordplay.

Until the book is released,revisiting “Don Quixote” would not go amiss. Four hundred years have not dulled the sharpness of his satirical pen.

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