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Two Masters of Realistic Storytelling Pass Away: April 23, 1616

This text comes from our book, All Ye Lands.

Just as in the Renaissance, painters and sculptors tried to depict the world around them in a realistic but beautiful way, so beginning in the 16th century, poets and storytellers tried to make works that faithfully imitated how real men and women behave in the real world. This was the beginning of modern, realistic literature—a very different kind of storytelling from the epics that were popular in the Middle Ages and for centuries before. Two great masters of realistic storytelling were Miguel de Cervantes of Spain, who wrote a long novel called The Adventures of Don Quixote, and the playwright, William Shakespeare of England.

Miguel Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Spain’s greatest literary genius, was the author of short stories in Spanish, as well as plays, poems, and novels. Though he wrote much and is one of the most famous authors in history, Cervantes preferred to think of himself as a soldier and civil servant.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Cervantes was born in 1547. Little is known of his youth, but at age 21, he left Spain for Italy, where he worked for an Italian bishop in Rome. After a short stay in Italy, he joined Spanish troops in one of the greatest struggles against the Muslim Turks in history—the sea battle of Lepanto. Spain had joined forces with Venice, Genoa, and the papacy to stop the greatest invasion of Christian Europe since the 8th century. In 1571, the Christian fleet, commanded by the Spanish Don Juan of Austria, met a massive fleet of Turkish galleys at Lepanto at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth in Greece. Cervantes fought bravely at Lepanto and was wounded twice in the chest by gunshots and once in the left hand—“to the greater glory of the right,” he said. For the rest of his life, Cervantes remained more proud of what he did at Lepanto than of any other achievement in his full life.

When he was returning to Spain in 1575, Cervantes was taken prisoner by Muslim pirates and sold into slavery at Algiers. For five years, he was a prisoner of the Turks in Algiers. His several attempts to escape only brought him cruel punishments and torture. At last, his freedom was purchased by the Brotherhood of the Most Holy Trinity, a Catholic society dedicated to freeing Christian slaves from the Muslims.

Illustration of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by Gustave Dore
Illustration of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by Gustave Dore

When he returned to Spain, Cervantes began to try to make his living as a writer. He wrote some successful plays and, in 1585, his first novel, called Galatea. Unable to support himself by writing, however, Cervantes went to work for the royal government and took part in outfitting a fleet and troops for King Philip II’s planned invasion of England in 1588—the Spanish Armada. Yet, for over 15 years, Cervantes lived in poverty and published only poetry. Then, in 1605, he published his greatest work—and one of the greatest works of European literature, Don Quixote de la Mancha. The book was an immediate success. Ten years later he published a second part to Don Quixote.

Cervantes never made much money from his novel, but it won readers all over Europe. An English translation that appeared in 1612 was the first of hundreds of translations of Don Quixote into other languages. Cervantes died at his home on April 23, 1616.

William Shakespeare

It is a great coincidence, but on the same day that Miguel de Cervantes died, another great writer of the century also passed away—William Shakespeare of England. Shakespeare was a prolific writer of plays and poems that, like those of Cervantes, have become part of world literature.

A statue of William Shakespeare, in Leicester square, London
A statue of William Shakespeare, in Leicester square, London

Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in central England. His father, a successful tradesman and landowner in his county, was elected to several local offices. Later in his life, Shakespeare’s father lost some of his wealth, possibly because he refused to abandon the Catholic Faith in Protestant England. Although we do not know for sure, Shakespeare was probably a Catholic—something he kept secret from the authorities because it was forbidden to practice the Faith in Elizabeth’s England.

In 1582, at the age of 18, William married Anne Hathaway of Stratford, a woman eight years older than he. The couple had a daughter, Susanna; two years later they had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Stratford did not offer much chance for employment to William, and so he left his family with his father and went to London where he could practice his literary talents.

Statue of Prometheus and Ariel, characters from Shakespeare’s Tempest, by Eric Gill
Statue of Prometheus and Ariel, characters from Shakespeare’s Tempest, by Eric Gill

Shakespeare was a master of both comedy and tragedy. His first plays (Titus Andronicus and A Comedy of Errors) imitated Roman comedy and tragedy. He then wrote a series of history plays about the last years of medieval England and the birth of modern England—Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, and Richard III. Among the questions these plays ask are, what does a people lose when a king chooses to rule selfishly and cruelly? What happens to the soul of a man who chooses to rule this way? After the historical plays, Shakespeare wrote a series of romantic comedies—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. These comedies explore how love affects human behavior and show that it cannot solve all problems.

Shakespeare’s last and greatest works include both tragedies and comedies. The tragedies, which are his greatest works, are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Among Shakespeare’s last comedies, The Tempest is considered the greatest.

Successful and honored, Shakespeare retired from London to Stratford in 1610. He died in the home of his daughter, Judith, on April 23, 1616. The realism of Shakespeare’s plays and his portrayals of human character transformed European literature.

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