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Don Quixote Part II

Dear Readers,

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Honoré Daumier, 1855, bringing out the comic aspect of Cervantes's work

In Part II of my intro to Don Quixote, I will cover some of the themes and “illusions” that make the novel so unique.  The historical context within which the work takes place is significant in understanding that appearances cannot be trusted.  Even the novel itself suffers from an unreliable authorship as I will explain.  So, since things are not as they appear, the key is attempting to look beyond the surface to what is really happening.  For instance, the Edict of Exile of 1492 banished from Spain all Jews unwilling to convert to Catholicism and the Edict of 1499 effectually did the same to Muslims.  Thus, both Jews and Muslims who chose to remain in Spain, did so only as conversos or Morenos.  In reality, most of them kept faith with the religion of their fathers, but in public appeared as Catholics.  This made for confusing cultural dynamics which Cervantes alludes to in humorous ways.

In regards to the authorship of Don Quixote, (Part I, Chapters 8-9) Cervantes sets up a complex literary conceit by claiming that the story of DQ ends abruptly and that he is at a loss as to where to find the “rest of the story.”  But as he was walking one day “on the exchange of Toledo” he runs across a boy selling old papers with Arabic writing on them.  Now this is significant, since during the Inquisition of Ferdinand and Isabella, both Hebrew and Arabic were outlawed.  Books in these languages were burned (thus the scene of the book burning which opens the novel), and though Arabic had been the lingua franca during the Golden Age of Spain, it had now been outlawed for nearly a century and no one spoke it openly any longer.  So while Cervantes knows the Arabic script, he is unable to read it.  He therefore finds a “Moorish rabbi to read them” and low and behold, this is the very story of Don Quixote of La Mancha!

There are so many things going on in this scene that it is difficult to cover them all.  First of all, Toledo was the center of the intellectual renaissance in Spain.  It was there, that Brother Raymund de Sauvetot began his school of translation in the 12th century that brought together Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars to translate the classic works of Greek antiquity into Latin, Hebrew and Arabic from the original Greek.  The Arab scholars brought the works of Persian authors in mathematics, science and medicine to be translated from Arabic into Latin.  These three Abrahamic faiths worked side by side in tolerance and mutual respect. Now in the scene depicted by Cervantes,  Toledo is nearly bereft of anyone who even speaks Arabic and the Golden Era of Spain is at an end.  Not only that, but many of the texts painstakingly translated during this Golden Era were systematically burned on Inquisitional fires.

In the novel when the “Moorish rabbi” begins to read the text, he bursts out laughing because of notes written upon the margin.  Cervantes questions him and he says, “This Dulcinea del Toboso [DQ’s lady love], so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand at salting pork of any woman in La Mancha” (68).   The reason the Arab is laughing is because Dulcinea must have been a secret Jew, as Jews were forever trying to prove their authenticity as conversos by their willingness to handle pork, and become quite skilled at it.

Also, Cervantes ascribes authorship of Don Quixote of La Manchato an Arab historiographer–Cid Hamet Ben Engeli.  But

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Having a Rest under a Tree by Honoré Daumier

as Cervantes notes, “if any objection lies against the truth of this history, it can only be, that the author was an Arab, those of that nation being not a little addicted to lying” (69).  So even while he lays out the complex way in which the story of DQ comes to light, (by way of proving its veracity) at the same time he calls into question the reliability of the text by virtue of the fact that Arabs are somewhat known for their lack of honesty.

By using these complex conceits of reality vs. illusion, truth vs. honesty, and fact vs. fiction, Cervantes sets up a world where nothing is just as it seems. In this world, what DQ wants is the restoration of a better, more virtuous, kinder, and just world. Ironically, though, what Don Quixote imagines to be true he often inadvertently brings about.  As Harold Bloom notes in his Modern Critical Interpretations: Cervantes’s Don Quixote,

Miguel de Unamuno says of Don Quixote’s loss of his wits: “He lost them for our sake, for our benefit, so as to leave us an eternal example of spiritual generosity”.  That is to say, Don Quixote goes mad as a vicarious atonement for our drabness, our ungenerous dearth of imagination” (Bloom 150).

Enjoy this novel for the ways in which it can deliver us from our lack of imagination, our spiritual drabness and selfishness, and be inspired, like Don Quixote (as crazy as it may seem) to live life with joy, inspiration, imagination, and even a bit of foolishness.

Don’t forget to check out The Man of La Mancha with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren.  Please preview before watching as a family. A number of artists have depicted Cervantes’s work with beautiful imagination.  Don’t miss the woodcut etchings of Gustave Doré (featured in my last post) and also the oil paintings of Honoré Daumier.  Also check online for images of the memorial sculpture in Madrid that honors Cervantes and his immortal characters from Don Quixote.

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Studying Don Quixote by Cervantes

Dear Readers,

I have been thoroughly enjoying reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the first time.  I am fairly dismayed and shocked that while I was earning my degree in English I was never introduced to this amazing work since it is considered the very first modern novel.  Consider what a few of the brightest literary critics say about this remarkable work:

Don Quixote is to the Spanish language what Shakespeare is to English, Dante to Italian, and Goethe to German:  the glory of that particular vernacular.  Perhaps Cervantes’s masterwork is the central book of the last half-millennium, since all the greater novelists are as much Don Quixote’s children as they are Shakespeare’s. –Harold Bloom

Don Quixote in his library reading works of chivalry.–Gustave Doré

We state his achievement somewhat more concretely when we say that he created a new form by criticizing the old forms” (Harry Levin, Cervantes’s Don Quixote).

As much as we may mediate on Don Quixote, as the Greeks meditated on the Homeric poems, or the English on the dramas of Shakespeare, we cannot consume all the marrow of the wisdom that it contains.  –Miguel de Unamuno

In losing myself in this remarkable work, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the above sentiments.  Don Quixote is a treasure trove of wisdom on every aspect of life–so much so that while I am a habitual marker of texts (I highlight, post-it note, and underline continually), I have had to stop. The reason is that the text is so rich, so ironic, so satirical, so funny, so full of double-meanings and real-life wisdom that I would literally have the entire work underlined.  Now, in studying this with your student, here is the caveat.  Most translations for children are mainly plot driven.  They follow the humorous and hilarious antics of this crazy knight-errant and his loveable squire Sancho Panza, but with little of the philosophy included.  This diminishes the text considerably and can make the text somewhat frustrating as students will begin to wonder what the point of DQ’s and Sancho Panza’s continual beatings is anyway.  So here are a few suggestions to help make the text more meaningful when using an abridged and edited version:

Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

1.  Don Quixote turns the notion of the archetypal hero on its head.  In other words, the heroic figure we are used to is strong, handsome, young, brave, (think Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus) and has a beautiful maiden for whom he performs his deeds of honor, courage and valor. DQ is the antithesis is many ways because he is (like his horse Rosinante) rather broken-down, old, not much to look at, and crazy.  Despite all of this, he is determined to perform valorous deeds and all he does is basically wreak havoc wherever he goes.

2.  Due to DQ’s distorted perceptions of reality, he causes trouble in countless situations.  This results in continual beatings, deprivations, and humiliating calamities to himself and Sancho Panza. Ironically, the very fact that they are being continually beaten further verifies in DQ’s mind the intrinsic veracity of his knight-errantry. So, one way to make this clearer to your students is to read passages from the original that will particularly strike your funny bone and make sense of the text.  Free texts can be found online at a number of sites.

3.  Since the novel itself turns the notion of knighthood and chivalry on its head, it subtly exposes the fallacies of so much of what we take for granted regarding chivalry, knighthood, and medieval notions of virtue and honor. Don Quixote exposes the ways in which chivalrous works (think Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, El Cid etc.) neglects essential aspects of life in view of painting a picture of chivalry so ethereal and inspiring that it is virtually unattainable by mortals.  Here are a number of aspects inherent in the works of Medieval chivalry that Cervantes (through the character of DQ) exposes using satire and irony:

Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré
Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré

1.  Knights never carry money: “Don Quixote replied, he had not a farthing, having never read in the histories of knights-errant, that they carried any.
2.  Knights never complain of pain: “If I do not complain of pain, it is because knights-errant are not allowed to complain of any wound whatever, though their entrails come out of it.”
3. Knights are never accused of a crime or brought to justice, no matter how many people they kill: “Peace,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘for where have you ever seen or read of a knight-errant’s being brought before a court of justice, let him have committed ever so many homicides?”
4.  Knights never eat: “If you had read as many histories as I have, you would have known this; for though I have perused a great many, I never yet found any account given in them, that ever knights-errant did eat, unless it were by chance, and at certain sumptuous banquets made on purpose for them.”

Cervantes applies this same kind of irony and satire to not only chivalry, but also to the many foibles of life and human nature as well.  As you begin to recognize these, your appreciation for this marvelous work will only increase.  In the meantime, for those wishing to study this work with their youngest readers, Margaret Hodges work is probably the best.  For middle and upper readers the latest edition by Martin Jenkins, and illustrated by Chris Riddell will provide not only a well-written abridgement, but also a visual feast. Also, don’t miss the marvelous etchings of  Gustave Doré, a few of which I’ve included here and can also be found online.  Jennie Ruzicka also provides a book of them in her Gustave Doré Illustrations to Don Quixote.    

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Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Dear Reader,

Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be a delightful experience for those wanting to incorporate a bit more of the Bard into their studies of the Reformation and Renaissance era. The themes are not difficult in this play and unlike many of Shakespeare’s other works, the plot sequence is rather simple and easy-to-follow, even for young students. For the youngest reader there are two delightful approaches to take which should make this an enjoyable experience for all!  Marcia Williams in her Tales from Shakespeare has done an adaptation that will provide a worthy introduction; her detailed and colorful illustrations will hold the attention of the youngest reader.  Her well-selected passages retain the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.  Those introducing The Tempest to the youngest readers will be delighted to learn that the BBC produced an animated edition (though an abbreviated 30 minutes–it is well worth watching) which covers the main plot and themes for the youngest student of the Bard.  Though it isn’t readily available for purchase, it can be watched on YouTube in 3 ten minute parts. You can access Part 1 here.

For middle readers, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb remains the classic revision of the Bard’s most beloved tales, and while it was originally published in 1906, it is still popular today.  Charles Lamb, a nineteenth-century essayist and his sister Mary, understood the importance of retaining the intricate twists and turns of the play’s plot while retaining the beauty of Shakespeare’s language as often as possible.  For any reader who needs an introduction, or even a refresher, these delightful re-tellings will not disappoint.  Many editions of this title include the illustrations of Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliot.  I am partial to the work of nineteenth-century children’s illustrator Arthur Rackham, who did some of the earliest illustrations for the Lamb’s edition.  At left, note his delightful depiction from The Tempest of Ariel teasing Caliban.  When Prospero relates to his daughter Miranda the story of her birth and upbringing,  she recalls a time when she had nursemaids to care for her (see at right).   And below, Rackham depicts Miranda’s lovely lines to Ferdinand, “Alas, now, work not so hard, I pray you.”

Another of my favorite nineteenth century illustrators is Edmund Dulac.  You can see here two of his illustrations from The Tempest.  His vision of Miranda and Ferdinand is stunning and his fairies conjure up all the mystery of this fantastical work.  Hunting down either of these extraordinary artists will enhance and enrich your literary experience with some of the finest art ever produced for children.  In my next post, I will provide a simple overview of the plot, themes, and fun historical facts that will, hopefully, make studying this delightful work even more enjoyable!  So, good night, and as good Prospero says,

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on;

And our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

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Medieval History Through Literature

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...
Book of Kells

Dear Readers,
As many of you know, I also write for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine (TOS) on topics related to history, literature and the Charlotte Mason Approach.  For the first time, TOS is offering a free digital link to their magazine, so that you can read the entire issue online!  So I am posting this by way of providing the link to you to read my latest article on “Teaching Medieval History Through Literature.”  This is great timing for those of you planning to teach this historical period in the fall!   Here is the link.

I have two additional postings on Medieval History that might be of interest.  For those interested in Shakespeare’s Hamlet I’ve provided some background notes which you may find helpful here.   Also, some insight into King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table here.  Study of the Medieval period should offer each and every student and teacher/parent a delightful journey into the past full of character lessons, adventure, pathos and insight into our cultural heritage.

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Studying Hamlet

There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, “I don’t see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.”             –Issac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare

Studying Hamlet in the grammar school years can be a tremendous boon to a young person.  The themes that Hamlet presents are so timeless and profound that only by repeated readings over many years can one truly come to appreciate the depth of richness and pathos which this work of art holds. Indeed the various seasons of life will lend even more understanding to life issues presented in this play. Children who have a head start are truly fortunate.

Those who have read Beowulf in their studies of Medieval History, will find it interesting to note that Hamlet derives its original story from Norse myth. Indeed much of the plot comes from the Norse myth Ameleth–and one can easily see how Shakespeare merely transposed the “h” at the end of the word to arrive at Hamlet. While in Beowulf there is a very clear mix of Norse superstition with emerging but primitive understandings of Christianity, one will not see monsters like Grendel in Hamlet. Of course, the ghost of Hamlet’s father plays a key role in this tale, but clear understandings of Christian notions of morality are evident in Hamlet’s constant wrestling with his conscience.

Cover of

It might be helpful to note that while there are adult themes in this play, Shakespeare’s version is significantly sanitized from the original Norse. It is also important to note that our American Puritanical heritage often makes us uncomfortable with the plain and frank approach to issues like sexuality, brothels, incest, cuckoldry, and so on.  If parents are sensitive to these issues, (and understandably so for younger students), the Marcia Williams edition of Tales from Shakespeare and the Beverly Birch edition Shakespeare’s Tales, does not include these elements.

Harold Bloom in his scholarly, dense, but thrilling (to English majors) analysis of Shakespeare’s works in The Invention of the Human, defines Hamlet as

the prince without the play, unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature.  Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and perhaps Mr. Pickwick approximate Hamlet’s career as literary inventions who have become independent myths.  Approximation can extend here to a few figures of ancient literature: Helen of Troy, Odysseus, Achilles among them.  Hamlet remains apart. [. . .] Rare in secular literature the charismatic is particularly (and strangely) very infrequent in Shakespeare. . . Hamlet, first and last vies with King David and the Jesus of Mark as the charismatic of charismatics.

Hamlet is the quintessential tragic hero, but a tragic hero blessed (or cursed) with a keen intellect and an exceedingly tender conscience.  Hamlet’s struggle is with fate, but is also a moral wrestling, the struggle of one  who has been dealt an unusually cruel hand.  Bereft of a beloved father, tied devotedly to his mother and his love, Ophelia, Hamlet loses everything when his father’s ghost visits him in the night and reveals to him the circumstances of his death–murdered by his brother Claudius who now reigns in his father’s stead and has married Hamlet’s mother, not even two months after his father’s death.  Hamlet’s conundrum is that his father’s murder demands retribution yet Hamlet is torn by his own unanswerable questions, his deeply penetrating and intellectual mind, and his reluctance to act, as he continually second guesses himself and others. As Hamlet laments, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right” (I.5.188-189). Bloom notes:

Whoever Shakespeare’s God may have been, Hamlet’s appears to be a writer of farces, and not of a comedy in the Christian sense.  God, in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Job, composes best in rhetorical questions.  Hamlet is much given to rhetorical questions, but unlike God’s, Hamlet’s does not always seek to answer themselves.  The Hebrew God, at least in the Yahwist’s text, is primarily an ironist.  Hamlet, certainly an ironist, does not crave an ironical God, but Shakespeare allows him no other.

Hamlet has four soliloquies–each worth visiting with students, and each marking a particular point of torment in his mind.  His most well-known is of course the “to be or not to be speech” which occurs in Act III.i.55-88, and is actually his third soliloquy.  These lines powerfully display Hamlet’s rhetorical questions to himself about the nature of life, its toils, pains, and heartache, and how tragedy can tempt one to quit this life (lines 74-75) with a “bare bodkin”–i.e. a mere dagger. Hamlet knows that only the fear of the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn (boundary)/ No traveller returns” makes us “bear those ills we have,/ Than fly to others we know not of?/ (76-81).  Suicide is not far from his thoughts as is true of his first soliloquy as well.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.ii.129-159) is another worth visiting with students. It takes place just after his mother’s wedding, but before he is visited by his father’s ghost.  It is a penetrating view of Hamlet’s state of mind, his weariness with life–”Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst  [self] slaughter! O God, God/ (131-132). Even before Hamlet learns the truth of his father’s murder we see the depth of his grief over this loss, and his agony over the “wicked speed” with which his mother has married Claudius, “Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes” (154-156).

Hamlet’s second soliloquy reveals his agony regarding his reluctance to act in avenging his father’s death.  After viewing the actors playing the fall of Troy and the death of Priam, he is overwhelmed with self-loathing “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”(II.ii.550). He feels ashamed that players can work themselves to tears in the parts they play while he has a “dear father murthered” whom he cannot bring himself to avenge .  He cannot trust himself that the ghost he saw was truly his father, and wrestles with the fact that it could be “a devil” assuming “a pleasing shape” in order to deceive him into murdering his uncle and thereby bringing “damnation”  upon himself (II.ii. 599-603).  Thus, Hamlet determines to present a play that will catch the king if he is guilty–”the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (604-605). This is the “framed narrative” that occurs within the play and of course, provides a play within a play.

The love story between Ophelia and Hamlet is one of tender pathos and tragedy.  They are the star-crossed lovers who, caught in the swirling whirlwind of events beyond their control become its most innocent victims.  Hamlet and Ophelia’s most heart-rending exchange comes just after Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech.  It is a subtle exchange with double meaning, turns of phrase, and enigmas.  I can not get through it without a tear springing to my eye!  The tender nature of this young couple’s love for each other is intertwined with the intrigue and rottenness of the Danish court and ultimately succumbs to it.  The tragedy of Ophelia’s ensuing madness and death is compounded by her burial in unsanctified ground, due to the “doubtful” nature of her death.  Death by suspected suicide meant burial in graveyards not blessed by church prefects. Hamlet’s agonized cry at the grave site “I lov’d Ophelia.  Forty-thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” brings a close to the tragic love affair (V.i.269-271).

Abraham Lincoln was a constant reader of Shakespeare and the plays Hamlet and Macbeth were two of his favorites.  While most literary critics consider Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy his finest, Lincoln felt that Claudius’s lament over his inability to repent deeply moving. “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murther.  Pray can I not / Though inclination be as sharp as will” (III.ii.36-39).  The entire soliloquy (to line 72) is a powerful reflection of the murderer’s heart and his inability to find a place of repentance and forgiveness.  This would be a fine study for memorization and recitation.

Finally a brief monologue that Hamlet recites to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the “What a piece of work is a man” and reflects the humanism of Shakespeare’s Renaissance era (see II.ii.303-310).  I also love Hamlet’s lines when he uses the metaphor of music to describe how Guildenstern is trying to play Hamlet like an instrument.  Shakespeare’s use of each aspect of music–frets, stops, plucks, voice, organ, notes, pipe, instruments, all combine to create a moving passage that powerfully describes his false friend’s attempts to manipulate him (see III.ii. 345-372).

There is so much here in Hamlet, that this brief overview only provides a place to start.  A recent interview with Ben Kinglsey on NPR reminded me of why studying Hamlet is so important. Kingsley notes,

I think it’s very important to embrace tragedy as a real part of our lives. David Mamet in his book Writings in Restaurants [says], ‘Western civilization is a civilization determined to outlaw tragedy.  If you remove the interpretation of tragedy and the presentation of tragedy, you’re telling the tribe nothing of real life, and it doesn’t prepare us as adults. It infantilizes us, it doesn’ t prepare us for real life.  All great mythology that we love and respect has included loss and tragedy as well as great moments of salvation.  It’s braided in.

Aids to help:  For mature audiences, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, I think most closely approximates the great Bard’s original masterpiece. It is a full length version (4 hours) which is rare.  It is rated PG-13 for brief nudity and violence.  These parts could be easily skipped by previewing beforehand. Mel Gibson also played the role of Hamlet in a Franco Zeffirelli production which is rated PG.  This is an abridged version.  Listening to audio editions in the car also help students to grasp the beauty and poetry of the language.  Remember that since this is a play it is meant to be read aloud!  John Gielgud’s audio edition is a classic and many others are available as MP3 downloads.  Enjoy!