January 19, 2011
Statue of Cervantes at Alcala de Henares
A few weeks ago I was walking through the Avonbank Gardens, between Holy Trinity Church and the Theatre, and stopped to chat to the workman who was wiring up the new lampposts which have recently been installed along the new riverside walkway. And not just any old lampposts. These are all different and all very special. They have been donated to Stratford from all over the world. This one is from the Kingdom of Jordan, that from South Glamorgan. Here's an Edinburgh lamppost and this one is from Copenhagen.
The workman was wiring up the particularly splendid five lanterned lamppost that stands by the gate to the gardens. He felt that it had not been positioned with sufficient care, and that it needed a little low wall around it with some choice planting. I couldn't agree. It seems to me to stand sentinel magnificently at the entrance to what was once the Flower family's own garden. But it is only recently that this great black pillar of lights has had its donator label attached, so I was fascinated to see where it came from, and delighted to read, around a painted Spanish flag, the name Alcala de Henares.
Before starting on the Cardenio Project, I doubt I would have recognised the name. But now I have actually visited the place, and regard it with fond affection, for Alcala de Henares is a little town, north-east of Madrid, which was the birthplace of Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of Don Quixote.
Cervantes' statue stands on a plinth in the centre of the little town square in Alcala de Henares. He is dressed in doublet and hose, and neat ruff, and holds an inordinately long quill pen. If you did not know you were in Spain, you would assume this was a statue of his contemporary, William Shakespeare. I had come here as part of our research trip to Spain. Around the town square, La Plaza de Cervantes, white storks were nesting on the rooftops, clattering their bills at each other. They are symbols of luck and prosperity in Spain.
Cervantes seems to me to share the same spirit of compassion and humanity which is evident in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. But unlike Shakespeare, Cervantes life was comparatively full of adventure. He travelled to Italy, possibly fleeing arrest having wounded a man in a duel. He became a soldier and fought bravely in the naval Battle of Lepanto, (the great triumphant defeat of the Ottoman fleet by the forces of Christian Spain) where he lost the use of his left arm. On his way back to Barcelona, he was captured by corsairs and held prisoner as a slave in Algiers for five years. He made several escape attempts. His accomplice in one such attempt, a gardener, was hanged by the left foot for helping him.
When Cervantes returned to Spain, he married a much younger woman but seems to have abandoned her, first to become a purveyor, travelling all over Spain to requisition supplies for the Armada, and later as a tax collector. He even attempted to get a posting to the New World. Cervantes spent most of his life in debt, and suffered bankruptcy. He found himself in prison on at least two occasions. It was really only the last nine years of his life that El Principe de los Ingenios, or the Prince of Wits as the Spanish call him, that Cervantes settled to write, enjoying a period of relative ease, after the publication and immediate success of Don Quixote (the first modern novel) in 1605.
Next to Cervantes' action packed life, what we know of Shakespeare's seems sedentary by comparison. Anthony Burgess, in a short story called “Meeting at Valladolid”, imagines the two men meeting, during the visit of the Earl of Nottingham to Spain to ratify the 1604 peace treaty. And in the 1920's, in his book of essays “Apes and Angels” J. B. Priestley conjures up a picture of the two great writers looking down from heaven at half timbered Stratford and laughing at the absurdity of the whole Shakespeare industry. What would they have made of the lamppost in the Theatre Gardens?
Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date. I say date, rather than day, because the calendars of England and the rest of Europe were out of synch by ten days. If for no other reason, Cardenio is intriguing in that it represents a story written by one and adapted by the other.
by Greg Doran
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