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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 


Don Quixote and Baroque Prose

The development of modern prose fiction owes a great deal to the innovations and complexities of the Spanish novel Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615) written by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). In fact one American critic, Lionel Trilling, ventures to declare that "all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote." For Trilling, Cervantes presented the inexhaustible but highly motivated inquiry undertaken by all novelists: "the problem of appearance and reality." Cervantes' long and rambling two-part novel touches myriad subjects, including frequent discussions of what literary works should contain. Yet for all its formal self-consciousness, this novel has a very human side.

Don Quixote is the story of an aging man who wishes to revive the glorious chivalric past as he tries to undo injustices and right wrongs. A creation of the late Renaissance or Baroque era, caught in the moment when the gracious world of knights and ladies has given way to expediency and self-promotion, Don Quixote rejects the sordid realities of the world in which he "really" lives. As a result, he is considered a madman.

The gracious world that he would prefer, however, is itself a fiction, a world Don Quixote knows not because he was a medieval nobleman who actually lived in such a world, but because he was a great reader of chivalric adventures that take place in a make-believe world. Cervantes shows both the attractions and the dangers of substituting an imaginary world for the real one. As Don Quixote becomes overexuberant, he ends up "misreading" both the fictional and the real situations in which he finds himself.

The selection below demonstrates the difficulty in separating appearance and reality on the one hand, and real life and literature on the other. In this excerpt, Don Quixote watches a puppet show that details a heroic battle between Christians and Spain's traditional enemies, the Moors. On the page preceding this passage, Don Quixote has just given the puppeteers advice and instruction on the performance.

Excerpt From Don Quixote (1615)(1)

Now seeing this pack of Moors and hearing such an alarm, Don Quixote thought it only right to help the fugitives. So, rising to his feet, he cried aloud:

'Never while I live shall I permit an outrage to be done in my presence on so famous a knight and so bold a lover as Sir Gaiferos! Stop, low-born rabble! Neither follow nor molest him, or you must do battle with me.'

Matching his actions to his words, he unsheathed his sword, and at a single bound planted himself in front of the show. Then with swift and unparalleled fury he began to rain blows upon the puppet-heathenry, knocking down some, beheading others, maiming one, and destroying another, and, among other thrusts, he delivered one down-stroke that would have sliced off Master Peter's head as easily as if it had been made of marzipan, had he not ducked and crouched and made himself small.

'Stop, your worship!' he kept shouting. 'Reflect, Don Quixote, that these are not real Moors you're upsetting, demolishing and murdering, but only little pasteboard figures! Look out, you're destroying me, poor sinner that I am, and ruining my whole livelihood!'

But this did not make Don Quixote stop raining down his cuts, his two-handed blows, his forestrokes and his backstrokes. In fact, in less time than it takes to say a couple of Credos he had brought the whole show to the ground, and hacked all its fittings and puppets to bits. King Marsilio was gravely wounded, and Charlemagne had his crown and his head cut in two. The crowd of spectators were in an uproar; the ape fled up to the inn roof; the student was frightened; the page in a panic; and even Sancho Panza himself in a terrible alarm. For, as he affirmed after the storm had passed, he had never before seen his master in so outrageous a temper. . . .

[Now Master Peter, the puppeteer, speaks]

. . . . 'Not half an hour ago, indeed not half a minute ago, I was the master of Kings and Emperors. My stables, my coffers and my bags were full of countless horses and fine dresses without number, and now I am desolate and abject, a poor beggar and, worst of all, I've lost my ape, for before I have him in my possession again I shall have to sweat blood for it, I swear. And all because of the inconsiderate fury of this Sir Knight, who is said to protect wards and redress wrongs and perform other works of charity. It's only in my case his generous purpose has come to grief. God bless my soul! He's rightly called the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, for he's discountenanced my puppets.'

Sancho Panza was moved by Master Peter's complaint, and said to him: 'Don't weep, Master Peter. Don't moan, or you'll break my heart. I assure you that my master Don Quixote's a good scrupulous Christian and a Catholic, and if he reckons he's done you any wrong he'll admit it and gladly pay you. He'll satisfy you too, and more so.'

'Provided Don Quixote will pay me some part of the damage he has done me I shall be satisfied, and his worship will be quiet in his conscience. For there's no salvation for a man who holds another's property against its owner's will, and does not restore it.'

'That is so,' said Don Quixote, 'but so far I am not aware that I have anything of yours, Master Peter.'

'What?' answered Master Peter. 'Look at these relics lying on this hard and barren ground. How were they scattered and annihilated but by the invincible strength of that powerful arm. And whose were their bodies but mine? And how did I support myself if not by them?'

'Now I am finally convinced,' said Don Quixote at this, 'of what I have very often believed: that these enchanters who persecute me are always placing before my eyes shapes like these, and then changing and transforming them to look like whatever they please. I assure you gentlemen that all that has passed here seemed to me a real occurrence. Melisendra was Melisendra; Sir Gaiferos, Sir Gaiferos; Marsilio, Marsilio; and Charlemagne, Charlemagne. Therefore I was stirred to anger and, to comply with my profession of knight errant, I sought to give aid and protection to the fugitives, with which proper intention I did what you have seen. If things have turned out contrariwise the fault is not mine, but lies with my wicked persecutors. But all the same, I am willing to mulct(2) myself the costs of this error, although it did not arise from malice. Let Master Peter consider what he wants for the puppets destroyed, and I will pay him for them now in good and current Castilian coin.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Explain the nature of Don Quixote's "violation" as he watches Master Peter's puppet show. Have you ever been tempted by a similar transgression?
  2. How do Don Quixote's actions highlight the nature of the literary problems of the Baroque period?
  3. How would you compare the themes or strategies of this selection with the treatment of illusion and reality in Shakespeare's plays?
  4. What do you think of Don Quixote's excuses for his actions? Do they have any validity?
  5. What does Don Quixote finally decide to do about the damage he has caused? What does this attitude imply?


(1) From Part II, chapter 26, as translated by J.M. Cohen.

(2) To charge a fine when a misdemeanor has been committed.