The 23rd of April was world book day(1), which first celebrated by UNESCO in 1995 in order to encourage reading and to promote the publishing industry and the protection of the intellectual property rights of authors. This date was chosen because it marks the death of three major writers: William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616).
Well, sort of. Although the three authors were contemporaries, they did not actually pass away on the same day, since the United Kingdom and Spain were observing different calendars at the time: the Julian and the Gregorian respectively. In 1582, Pope Gregory XII moved the Gregorian calendar forward by 10 days. France, Italy and Spain adopted this change immediately, but England didn’t follow until 1752, keeping to the Julian calendar, which was created by Julius Caesar.
That’s why, from an English point of view, Shakespeare died on the 23rd of April but from the perspective of the Catholic countries he died on the 3rd of May. In other words, although Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date, they did not die on the same day.
And neither did their lives have anything in common. Shakespeare was able to make a living from his work and was lavished with praise, whereas Cervantes died in poverty and was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. And as for Spanish-American writer, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, well that is another story entirely, for another day… Shakespeare is considered, along with Cervantes, one of the greatest writers of all time and without a doubt the best playwright. Breaking with the classical precepts imposed during the Renaissance, both writers show an obsession with typical baroque language — insults, word play, proverbs, refrains — combining the comic with the tragic in their work, as Fernando de Rojas had already done in the Spanish classic La Celestina. The theatre of the Spanish Golden Age and of Elizabethan London have much in common, and draw on the same sources. Both writers make use of the famous stories from the East, A Thousand and One Nights.
Shakespeare’s characters have become universal symbols of a given emotion or temperament: Hamlet for doubt and indecision, Othello for uncontrollable jealousy, Macbeth for ambition and Romeo and Juliet for love.
And what about Don Quixote? He sends such universal messages, and helps the reader to develop critical thought. Don Quixote faces up to corrupt politicians, to the Church, to the outmoded aristocracy. He is idealistic and libertarian, brave and generous. So much so that he has no qualms about single-handedly fighting against social injustice and the ills of humanity, an undertaking which should be, but even today still isn’t, a collective one.
Intriguingly, it was the English Romantics who elevated the ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote to the place of honour that he deserved. They brought his adventures to a wider audience by translating them and painting them, just as Delacroix painted Hamlet in the cemetery holding a skull.
The book was initially very popular with the general public, but not with critics… that is to say, amongst intellectuals and writers. Intriguingly, it was the English Romantics who elevated the ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote to the place of honour that he deserved. They brought his adventures to a wider audience by translating them and painting them, just as Delacroix painted Hamlet in the cemetery holding a skull. In London’s Victoria and Albert Museum we see a number of paintings inspired by Cervantes’ masterpiece, such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Sir J. Gilbert, and Don Quixote and Dorotea by C.R. Leslie. It is the English imagination that brings the immortal novel the praise it deserves.
(1) Translator’s note: In the UK, World Book Day is held on the alternative date of the third Thursday in March in order to avoid clashes with school holidays and St. George’s Day.