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Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Spain's greatest literary figure, was born in Alcalá de Henares, a small university town near Madrid, where he was baptized in the church of Santa María on October 9, 1547; he died in Madrid on April 23, 1616. We know little of his early life. The fourth of seven children, Cervantes, his siblings and mother accompanied his father, an itinerant surgeon, who struggled to maintain his practice and his family by traveling the length and breadth of Spain. Despite his father's frequent travels, Cervantes received some early formal education, in the school of the Spanish humanist, Juan Lopez de Hoyos, who was teaching in Madrid in the 1560s. His first literary efforts - poems written on the death of the wife of Philip II - date from this period.

In 1569 Cervantes traveled to Italy to serve in the household of an Italian nobleman, and joined the Spanish army a year later. He fought bravely against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he received serious wounds and lost the ability to use his left hand. After a lengthy period of recovery and further military duty, he departed Italy for Spain in 1575, only to be captured during the return journey by Barbary pirates. He was taken to Algiers and imprisoned for five years, until Trinitarian friars paid a considerable sum of money for his ransom. This experience was a turning point in his life, and numerous references to the themes of freedom and captivity later appeared in his work.

His new-found freedom and return to Spain had strings attached. He was deep in debt for the ransom paid to release him. In 1584 he married a woman almost twenty years younger (he was 37 at the time), and soon managed to obtain a position as a government official in the south of Spain, requistioning wheat and olive oil for the campaign of the Invincible Armada (1588). Within two years of the Armada's defeat, he requested permission to emigrate to the New World, most likely to improve his situation, but was turned down and told to find some gainful employment "at home."

By 1590, Cervantes was already known as a promising author. In 1585 he published his first work in prose, "La Galatea", a pastoral romance which had attracted qualified praise from some of his contemporaries. He was also writing for the theater. At this time he also began to write short stories, some of which were later included in his "Exemplary Tales". His most famous work, "Don Quixote de la Mancha", was published in two parts in Madrid. Part I appeared in 1605; the second part in 1615. The novel was an immediate success. The first part went through six editions the year of its publication, and was soon translated into English and French. The fame of Don Quixote brought Cervantes to the attention of a wide audience. His final prose fiction, "The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda", generally described as a Byzantine romance - whose dedication he finished four days before his death - was assessed by Cervantes as among the best of his work.

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