Miguel de Cervantes was a Spanish writer who is considered to be the greatest writer in the Spanish language of all time as well as the writer of one of the world’s first novels. Cervantes is best known for his masterpiece Don Quixote which has been translated into more languages than any other book on earth except for the Bible.
Cervantes was born in Spain in 1547 near the city of Madrid. He received a Jesuit education for boys in Madrid. His parents were not wealthy and his father often struggled with debt. He had six known siblings but not much more is known of his childhood.
In 1570, Cervantes enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Marines and left Spain. He traveled to Italy, Malta and other Spanish territories often being required to fight even while in ill health. He distinguished himself and received numerous commendations from the king. At one point he was shot in the arm and chest leaving him with lasting injuries. After recuperating for six months in Italy, he set sail for Spain but before reaching his destination his ship was intercepted and he was taken prisoner by Ottoman pirates. From 1575 to 1580 he was kept as a captive in Algiers. These experiences help lay the foundations for some of the details found in Don Quixote as well as his two plays set in Algiers.
Upon his eventual return to Spain, Cervantes began writing about his experiences but worked in other positions such as banking to support himself. In 1584, he married a much younger woman. It is said that her uncle, a man by the name of Alonso de Quesada y Salazar was the inspiration for the character of Don Quixote.
Over the following 20 years, Cervantes continue to write on and off while living in numerous Spanish cities before settling in Madrid in 1606. After publishing the first volume of Don Quixote in 1605, someone wrote an unauthorized continuation of the story prompting Cervantes himself to write a second volume published in 1615.
Don Quixote is arguably the first European novel. The story takes place contemporaneously in Spain as an older gentleman by the name of Alonso Quixana, roams the country as a self proclaimed Knight-errant. He travels under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha (his home region) after reading too many stories of chivalry from the medieval period and falling in love with a local girl he would like to impress. The moral of the story is that humans cannot fight modernization as exemplified by a famous scene in which he charges at windmills, a new technology of the time, in an attempt to destroy them.
Luckily for students of Spanish, the language used in Don Quixote is quite similar to modern standard Spanish and therefore can be read by upper level students of Spanish without the notes generally reserved for works such as Shakespeare, his contemporary. The book is still widely read today in Spanish literature courses with often a full semester being dedicated to it. Today the two volumes are generally published as one long novel.
Cervantes died in Madrid on April 22, 1616 after having suffered briefly from diabetes in an age in which there were no treatments for this disease. In addition to Don Quixote, Cervantes also wrote numerous plays that are still performed today. His works have a special type of comedic element that influenced later writers particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Numerous films, ballets and operas have also been written about his story of Don Quixote.