Work in Progress
I'm not a Cervantes scholar, but I play one in the classroom

This piece originally appeared as a blog post on Arcade September 8, 2009 here.


I should put my cards on the table and confess that I am not a cervantista, a specialist in Cervantes. To some extent, this has to do with my own suspicion that critical commentary on certain texts, like Don Quixote, has become saturated. Mark Bauerlein discusses this in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He argues that literary theory has provided an afterlife to an otherwise spent field, allowing young scholars to say new things about texts that have been read and reread from every conceivable angle. The trouble, according to Bauerlein, is that many of these new readings don't seem to attract much attention …

Now, I must take issue with much of what Bauerlein has to say. He wrongly extrapolates from his own perspective on the state of English studies to generalizations about scholarship in the humanities in general. "Saturation" is certainly not a problem in many foreign language fields, like my own field of Spanish, where one can still find important works by important authors that have received little scholarly attention. He also adopts a condescending tone toward theoretically-informed interpretations of literary texts, suggesting that, on the whole, they have failed to produce scholarship that can speak to a broad audience, or that will endure over time. Again, I take issue. Some of the best scholarship on Don Quixote today is being done by people interested in postcolonial studies, in issues of nation and empire.

Nevertheless, Bauerlein gets at least one thing right. Much of what is written in literary studies is not driven by the value of what is being said, but by the professional identity of the person writing it. English and foreign language departments continue to need people to teach Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, and the like, assuring that there will always be a demand (and a job) for these specialists, and that they will continue to have an institutional position from which to keep writing about these ultra-canonical authors. The trouble is that not all of these people will have major contributions to make. Many will continue to expand the bibliography—perhaps lovingly and capably—but will only add bricks to an already-existing edifice. Few will change the way we read these texts, and so few will be read by anyone outside the club of specialists.

This is why I am not a cervantista. Perhaps, if I put my mind to it, I might be able to write something about Don Quixote that is as fresh and interesting as what some of my friends have written (I am lucky to be in a field where "colleagues" are very often "friends."). But perhaps not. In any case, I think of the unexplored territories of early modern Hispanic culture, all those texts and issues that get so little attention because they have no place in the curriculum of Spanish departments, which continue to be driven by literary canons, probably more so than English departments. And I find myself writing about them. I find myself digging up forgotten maps, and little-known gems of writing. I find myself spending time with the books that my friends consider boring, trying to figure out why people liked them so much, way back when.

But I still teach Don Quixote. In fact, I'm teaching it this semester, for the sixth or seventh time. I teach it because my department needs me to, and because I think undergraduates should read this book. Ironically, this novel that has been so thoroughly picked apart, so powerfully fetishized, continues to baffle me. More than any other work of literature I'm familiar with, it places responsibility on the reader, requiring him or her to engage with it creatively, imaginatively. Yet it begs you not to reduce what it has to say to any simple formula, any conclusive answer. It breeds wonder. It induces vertigo. And it defeats exegesis. I think.

Which gets to the real reason why I am not a cervantista. Because I do not know how to explain any of this.

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Shakespeare and Cervantes Then and Now

An early modern transatlantic world in which information moved slowly could hardly have noticed the date, but 407 years later it registers for us: on April 23, 1616 in the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, about eleven natural days apart, something ended. And perhaps something else began.


Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, ages 68 and 52 respectively, died on this date. One of them covered the peninsular and Mediterranean world of his time as a chamberlain and soldier, while the other moved between his native town and the capital, only a hundred miles apart. One tried most of the avenues open to a young man of precarious social status (and perhaps converso lineage), while the other settled into a routine and increasingly prosperous existence in a new industry.  

While Cervantes was older, they belonged to a single generation of thinkers and writers born in the years around 1550: this was a group (including Félix Lope de Vega in Spain and Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney in England) for whom the religious divisions of the early Renaissance were a settled fact, who accepted the power of their vernacular languages, and who saw literary genres without classical precedents arise to represent their world. By the mid-century moment in which Cervantes and Shakespeare were born, the Renaissance is a conscious period with several phases in its past, generational differences, and at least one major episode yet to be written in the seventeenth century, to which both writers will contribute in the late phase of their careers.

What ended on April 23, 1616, and what began? This Colloquy gathers current work, formal and informal, on both figures, together and apart. Recent books by Jeffrey Masten and Zachary Lesser, excerpted here, represent the turn in Shakespeare studies toward a discursive philology grounded in textual particulars. A post by our longstanding blogger William Egginton, drawn from his book of 2016 titled The Man Who Invented Fiction, addresses the durable topic of how Cervantes built characters. Alexander Samson's article on James Mabbe's translation of the Exemplary Novels, which first appeared in Republics of Letters in 2015, revisits the question of what seventeenth-century English adaptations took from Cervantes and redirects our attention to Mabbe's work as an "intercultural agent." Several of Arcade's contributing bloggers of past years—Timothy Hampton, Ruth Kaplan, and Ricardo Padrón—are represented by their observations out of reading and teaching. And my lecture to the audience of Humanities West, a San Francisco institution that promotes the public humanities, is intended to introduce the relation between Shakespeare and Cervantes in a somewhat provocative spirit. Consider this Colloquy an invitation to think at once about these two figures, and perhaps to contribute your own work or comment.  

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