A talk by Professor Barry Ife in association with the Instituto Cervantes Londres
Nancy Knowles Lecture Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe
Thursday 10 November 2016
Review by Jessica Acton, MA Shakespeare Studies
Speaking at Shakespeare’s Globe 400 years after the death of Shakespeare, Barry Ilfe noted that 2016 also marks the anniversaries of the deaths of Francis Beaumont, Philip Henslowe, and Miguel de Cervantes. But he said rather than perceiving a sense of competition or rivalry between Early Modern English and Hispanic Studies, we should instead look at the two in dialogue. What did Cervantes and Shakespeare have in common, what sets them apart, and what influence might they have had on the other?
Ife illuminated the differences between the two writers’ biographies in terms of location, age, and social class amongst others, pointing out that by the time Shakespeare left school, Cervantes had already travelled widely, fought in the military, and been held hostage by pirates. By 1605, both writers had cemented their literary reputations, but Cervantes career was marred by financial instabilities to the end of his life, whereas Shakespeare died considerably wealthier than he was born. Although these biographical comparisons were interesting, the real crux of Ife’s argument was based on the comparison between the authors’ style of writing.
Cervantes initially forayed into play-writing, but his efforts were ‘received without cucumbers’, so he turned to novels and novellas as the form in which he presented his most famous work. There have been many conjectural ways in which the two writers’ paths may have crossed, but little solid evidence. Shakespeare and Fletcher did, however, write a play based on parts of Don Quixtote - the now lost Cardenio. The most likely source for this is Shelton’s 1612 translation, showing that Shakespeare did read Cervantes’ work at least in part. Shelton did not attribute authorship to Cervantes, but his translation provides an example of the cultural osmosis present in Shakespeare’s Europe.
Ife argued that Cervantes’ work, especially the stories of Don Quixote, would have captured the imaginations of early modern playwrights as it was unlike anything in English literature in existence at the time. The meta-textual qualities of the stories would also have appeal for dramatists - the anti-romance framing of romantic narratives, the shift from narrator to characters, and the ways in which Don Quixote and Sancho are actors themselves, constructing fictional worlds within the text. Cervantes’ quantifiable influence on the English stage went beyond Cardenio, with playwrights such as Fletcher and Thomas Middleton going on to adapt more material from Shelton’s 1612 translation. Ife concluded that whilst Cervantes failed as a playwright where Shakespeare succeeded, his writing retained a theatrical quality, easily adaptable to the stage, and that despite Shakespeare’s career as a popular dramatist, his plays often exceeded - and continue to challenge - the constraints of the playhouse.