Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shakespeare and Cervantes

William Shakespeare was born on about this date in 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon, and died in Stratford on this date in 1616. On the very same day in 1616, Miguel de Cervantes died in Madrid. The greatest playwright and poet of any age and the greatest novelist. The two never met and probably never knew of each other.

Shakespeare appears eight times in A Book of Ages, which is remarkable considering how little we know about his life. What we do know comes down to us in the form of anecdotes, gossip dressed up as history, the kinds of stories retold in the taverns described in the various plays, the places haunted by Falstaff, in which writers hung about then as they do now. Shakespeare was the son of a glovemaker and never went to University. He stole his plots from other authors. He was a fierce man of business by all accounts, which is why some prefer to think the plays were written by someone more aristocratic.

It was on April 23, 1597 that Falstaff reappeared in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor in a performance before the Queen.

Cervantes's father was a surgeon, and Cervantes spent his early career not as a poet or novelist or courtier or a knight errant but as a valet in Italy, a servant. He became a Spanish foot-soldier, was captured by Algerian pirates, became a tax collector and spent time in prison like Señor Quixote. Cervantes was no aristocrat, small gentry perhaps, but like Shakespeare he observed life sharply from every side and wrote about it in a way nobody had before him. It's no surprise Quixote and Falstaff bear a family resemblance. Cervantes also appears eight times in A Book of Ages.

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