Against Chivalry: The Achievement of Cervantes and Shakespeare

Paul A. Cantor, “Against Chivalry: The Achievement of Cervantes and Shakespeare,” Weekly Standard, May 2, 2016, 24-28—on the relation of Shakespeare’s comedies to his histories


April 23, 1616 — a date which will live in infamy. At least in literary circles. For on that date both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died. To be sure, they did not die on the same day. At the time, Spain had adopted the new Gregorian calendar, while England was still on the old Julian calendar. That meant the calendars in Spain and England were out of sync in 1616, and in fact Shakespeare and Cervantes died 11 days apart. Complicating matters further, most scholars now insist that Cervantes actually died on April 22 and was buried on April 23.

So let’s just say that literature suffered a bad two weeks in spring 1616. In any case, the world is now commemorating the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare. They had more in common than just the sheer greatness of their literary achievements. Cervantes did not know Shakespeare’s work, but Shakespeare almost certainly knew Cervantes’s most famous work, Don Quixote. There is solid evidence that in 1612-13 Shakespeare wrote a play called Cardenio (probably in collaboration with John Fletcher). The play has been lost, but the title was recorded in contemporary annals. If Shakespeare did write a Cardenio, it was very likely based on one of the interpolated tales in Don Quixote, one that features an unfortunate lover named Cardenio.

We can only hope that someday a text of Shakespeare’s Cardenio will be found in a dusty attic somewhere— stranger things have happened. What a thrill it would be to see one genius re-creating the work of another, and to get a concrete sense of Shakespeare’s relation to Cervantes. In the absence of such a find, we can only speculate on the subject. I will argue that Cervantes and Shakespeare did have much in common and that in many respects the two greatest authors of the Renaissance were pursuing the same literary program. They wanted to break free from what they both perceived to be the baleful heritage of the Middle Ages.

The target Cervantes and Shakespeare attacked was the grandest myth of the Middle Ages: chivalry. It was a noble ideal and at its best it did much to refine an otherwise coarse and brutal world, but it rested on shaky foundations and had many unintended and disastrous consequences. Chivalry was a way of life, a distinctive mode of conducting both war and love. In its purest form, it tried to reconceive war as in the service of love. In literature, the chivalric ideal was embodied in figures such as Sir Lancelot, who, in his noble devotion to Queen Guinevere, always fought on her behalf and in her name.

Chivalry was an attempt to give a religious dimension to all aspects of life — to saturate the world with Christianity. The famous chivalric romances sought to civilize war, to temper its savagery with Christian notions of mercy. As chivalric romance developed, the Quest for the Holy Grail became one of its dominant motifs, giving a spiritual and deeply Christian goal to the knights’ striving. Chivalry was bound up with courtly love. A knight was supposed to worship his lady from afar and undergo a spiritual discipline, a quasi-religious purification, in his quest to perfect himself for his mistress’s sake. In chivalric romance, the earthly sexual impulses that ordinarily fuel love between man and woman are redirected in a heavenly direction.

All this sounds very elevated and uplifting to us today. Why did Cervantes and Shakespeare feel a need to criticize the medieval idea of chivalry? By demanding so much of human beings, by holding them to an impossibly high standard of conduct, chivalry lost touch with reality. It threatened to distort the common-sense understanding of down-to-earth human affairs and to unleash the dark side of human nature by pretending that it did not exist. In the Middle Ages, chivalric warfare was linked to the idea of the crusade. War became holy war. The attempt to spiritualize warfare turned it into something more brutal by making it fanatical. Cervantes in Don Quixote and Shakespeare in his English history plays call the crusader ideal into question and show the catastrophic results of mixing religious and military motives — more generally of mixing religion with politics.

Similarly, the ideal of courtly love— as developed by the troubadour poets of France and their successors, Dante and Petrarch, in Italy — sought to fuse erotic and religious experience. These authors introduced a new range of emotions into love poetry and opened up spiritual depths never before explored in literature. But by demanding so much of love — no less than spiritual and even divine perfection — they made the ordinary relations between men and women, on which the future of the human race depends, seem crass and base by comparison with the poetic ideal. The dream of a perfect love left men and women dissatisfied with conventional forms of romance, particularly the commonplace institution of marriage.

Courtly love was hostile to marriage and any conventional satisfaction in love. It celebrated infinite yearning and thus called for suffering in love — intense, prolonged, agonizing, hopeless, tragic suffering, since reality can never measure up to the poetic ideal. Cervantes in Don Quixote and Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and his comedies portray what goes desperately wrong when lovers take their idea of love from books, when they chase after the windmills of poetic romance rather than settling down to the business of falling in love with real people, founding families, and thereby taking their place in society.

Cervantes and Shakespeare saw that chivalry was one area of life where they, as authors, could make a difference — because chivalry was a literary ideal, formulated and propagated in books. An ideal that grows out of books can be defeated in books. Medieval chivalry is perhaps the greatest example in history of life imitating art, with predictably disturbing results. If a real King Arthur ever existed, he bore no resemblance to the courtly figure who emerged in chivalric tales from Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes all the way to Thomas Malory. Ideal knights like Lancelot and Tristan appeared first in fiction, and only then were imitated by people in the real world, primarily in forms of courtship, but even in forms of combat. Knights were jousting in tournaments in books long before they ever pointed lances at each other in the real world… [Read more below]

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