Don Quixote, An Ingenious Gentleman

Waterhouse Bellido

Don Quixote adapts well to radio. It was written by a playwright. This was the first modern novel and it seems right that it was written by a playwright, and, in view of the fact that he was also a man of the people, a former soldier, and most likely a "converso", meaning that he was descended from Jews who had converted to Catholicism on penalty of death, it is not surprising that it was written while its author was imprisoned over a debt he couldn't afford to pay.

We know very little about Cervantes. We know that he died on the same day as William Shakespeare. Research about him reveals more about his world and how we got "here" from "there", than about Cervantes. What led Cervantes to write the first novel had a lot to do with the Catholic-Islamic history of Europe, and particularly, Spain, a history that is relevant to our current conflict in the Middle East, and we've included some notes about this on the following page, about the contemporary political relevance of Cervantes' stories.


Unlike theater in other European cultures, the Spanish theater of the 17th century did not limit stories to people of noble or mythical stature, nor did they typically assign characters defining names as in the tradition of "Everyman", typical of English Restoration comedy. Spanish dramatists satirized each other and contemporary political figures, ethnicities, bureaucrats, peasants, foreigners of all classes, New World "savages", Africans, the clergy, Moors and members of the aristocracy. They had been living with the bizarre mental aberrations of the ruling Habsburg clan, related to inbreeding practices.

Charles II

The 17th century Spanish monarchy should be credited with inventing the "political spin" when they promoted the approbation, "King Carlos, the Hexed", to explain the young man's condition. His mother was known as Juana the Mad and he was descended from her in 14 different ways.

Juana Reina

Spanish language was shaped by Arabic. Theater, however, was imported from Italy and when it was brought into Spain, it was infused with the richer style of this mixed culture. Playwrights in all other European places at the time were constrained by classical tradition. Cervantes flounted such formality. He wrote in the vernacular and gave the diction of formal expression to his mad protagonist.

Spanish folklore recounted stories from ancient Arabic sources, and from centuries of conflict between crescent and cross that left mementos across the landscape of Iberia that are standing today.
La Alhambra

Towards the end of the 16th Century, when Cervantes and Lope de Vega were making plays, the Spanish empire was in decline. The monarchy had been exhausting the riches of the nation in wars against Islam.

The Jewish and Muslim people in Spain had been forced to "convert" to Catholicism on pain of being deprived of their property and deported or killed. This conversion produced some strange effects.

A substantial percentage of people in Spain pretended to be Christian, including those on all rungs of the economic ladder. Converted Jews were known as, "conversos"; converted Muslims were called, "moriscos". A hierarchy of caste arose, distinguishing "old" Christians from "New" Christians. New Christians were vulnerable to being denounced by their neighbors for political or simply rapacious reasons. A quasi-judicial fraternity known as the "Holy Brotherhood", operated under the aegis of a Papal bureaucracy, free to exact summary judgement. Indulgences could be purchased with money, sexual favors or military service. With a declining economy, a monarchy known for mental incapacitation and a corrupt bureaucracy in the church, patriotism was not a popular motive for heroism. The pride of honor replaced the pride of the patriot.

Fundamentalist bureaucrats who conducted the inquisition interpreted the Holy Bible as divinely inspired, and they doubtless viewed Don Quixote's as an uninspired view, no different in this respect from any of the hundreds of books of chivalry they were used to reading--that were very similar to modern comic books. Cervantes' book was therefore, a subtle subversion. The printing press made this possible just as the internet is today subverting the propagation of nationalistic myths in the mass media. Prior to Guttenberg's invention of movable type, the sacred texts of religious orders (Torah, Bible, Koran, etc.) were viewed by many as divine objects. But just a few decades after the invention of movable type, books were no longer mysterious objects. Literacy wasn't widespread, but since traditionally, books were often read aloud, the availability of books written in common vernacular with romantic imagery were very well known.

Cervantes was a mature and gifted playwright, who had fought against the Turks and spent five years in slavery, held for ransom by the Moors in Algeria. He was familiar with most of the body of chivalric fiction and classic works in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish. He was politically savvy, economically poor and philosophically compassionate.

It is impossible to imagine that someone other than Buddha, Mohammed or Christ could have articulated the precepts of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. We owe a debt of respect to the philosophers, theologians, artists, poets, playwrights and novelists who have created the metaphors through which we appreciate the miracle of life. There is a transcendent quality to books like Don Quixote. The work in progress that they describe is human life. Taken all together, the sum of past, present and future novels, in every language, are a metaphor for universal history. The message is the medium.

By some accounts, Cervantes was a scion of an aristocratic family whose name derived from a grant of land during the time of El Cid. By other accounts his grandparents were conversos and his parents were in textiles. The fact is that both accounts could be true.

When Don Quixote was published people of modest means could enjoy productions of traveling bands of actors. There was a mercantile and professional class and people who purchased titles from the church or state. The vanities of class were good material for comedy. Just as popular music influences behavior and affectations of young people today, young men in Cervantes time dressed in a style that mimed the fashions of the royal court. They recited verse declaring their love and engaged in duals over honor. When Don Quixote was published, these machismo dualists were referred to as, "Quijotes".

Cervantes wrote in his epilogue to Don Quixote that he was intent on destroying the grip that books of chivalry had on the minds and hearts of his countrymen. That he achieved this with Don Quixote is a compliment to Spanish sensibility as well as to his craft, which has something to do with how people perceive Sancho Panza as well as Don Quixote. (Would that we could accomplish the same today with respect to the arrogant hubris inspired by commercial media.)

Cervantes wrote the second book of Don Quixote's adventures to finesse trespassers and plagiarists who had attempted to spin tales of their own about Quixote and Sancho. In the way he did this, he made his greatest contribution to the art of fiction. This was the first time, and one of the few times that a purely fictional character came to be regarded in the real world just as if the character was a real person.

For more information about the characters in the pilot episode, please see the radio script.

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