Published on
7 November 2007

A Question of Conscience: The Modern Relevance of Cervantes and Shakespeare

By: Dr Fernando Cervantes


Dr. Fernando Cervantes is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Bristol Seminar on Wednesday 7 November 2007

First of all, my apologies for bringing two great minds together in less than an hour. I wonder what Lady Bracknell would have said. ‘To tackle one great mind in less than an hour could be considered ambitious; to tackle two seems like carelessness.’

Not wanting to disagree with Lady Bracknell, I should nonetheless declare that I speak here as a historian with no credible literary qualifications, or even pretensions, but as one who, over the years, has read and re-read some of the many works of both authors, growing ever more aware of a remarkable set of coincidences. Now, it seems to me that, from the perspective of the history of ideas, these coincidences have not often been given the attention they deserve. That is what makes this somewhat tentative, or seemingly careless, exercise in comparative intellectual history worth a try.

As I have said, I am a historian. So I shall begin, as is appropriate, with a date, a very significant date: 23 April 1616. It was, of course, the feast of St George, but it was also the date when both Cervantes and Shakespeare happened to die. This, you will agree, is a truly remarkable coincidence. But I have stressed the word ‘date’ because in 1616, as you will know, 23 April was not the same day in Spain as in England. England was still using the Julian calendar while Spain had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582. That year lost ten days in Spain and in most other European countries by the decree that the day after 5 October should become 16 October. Cervantes died, in fact, ten days before Shakespeare.

Yet the fact that the date is recorded in both cases as 23 April remains a remarkable coincidence, and the way in which this came about would most certainly have amused both writers in very similar ways. What was more important, to die on the same day or on the same date? One can readily imagine what Cervantes might have made of such a question in the light of what he made of Don Quixote’s alleged origins. He writes: ‘Some say that he was called Quijada or Quesada; concerning this, there is some discrepancy among the authors who have written on the subject, although through some credible conjectures we can infer that he was called Quijana’.  Please notice the ironic tone here: Cervantes is poking fun at pedants. But then he changes the register; the pedantic tone disappears and a very serious joke follows: ‘This does not really matter much as far as our story  is concerned, so long as in the telling of it the writer does not stray in the slightest detail from the truth’. That sounds much more pointed in Spanish: ‘Basta que en la narración dél no se salga un punto de la verdad’.  He really is being quite insistent on the importance of ‘the truth’. Truth is absolutely fundamental.

But you might be thinking, ‘Hold on a minute!’. What kind of truth are we dealing with here? Cervantes has just told us that among the experts, the ones who should know better, some say one thing and others say another, but that it really doesn’t matter – so long as the truth is not in the least compromised? What kind of truth are we talking about? Surely he was not serious. We tend to struggle here, but I am sure Shakespeare would have had no problems at all understanding the seriousness of the joke. Take that famous passage in Love’s Labour’s Lost where Berowne complains about the programme of study imposed by the King:

All delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchas’d, doth inherit pain:
As painfully to pore upon a book
To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light seeking light, doth light of light beguile;
So ere you find where light in darkness lies
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.    
(I.i.72-79 )

The bit that everybody loves is, ‘Light seeking light, doth light of light beguile’. It is an exquisitely formal play on four different senses of the word ‘light’. In pedestrian English it means something like: ‘The mind, seeking knowledge, diverts the eye’s attention from the object that it is looking at’. The message is plain: words are no match for things; theories that are not rooted in reality lead to blindness; art is vain where nature is supreme. Shakespeare shows here exactly the same impatience with pedantic learning as Cervantes, and he bursts the bubble of illusion with the use of exactly the same technique: hauling pedantry into the light of Lucianic wit to be drenched with humour and laughter.

Can you imagine the fun these two would have had musing over the significance of 23 April? You can almost hear Cervantes saying: ‘Some say it is the date and some say it is the day: concerning this, there is some discrepancy… although through some credible conjectures we can infer… But it does not really matter… so long as we do not stray in the slightest detail from the truth’. For his part, Shakespeare would have no doubt remembered the fun he poked at the Puritan faction in Parliament that prevented England from signing on to the international agreement on the Gregorian calendar in 1582. You will remember that in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare has Petruchio command Kate to call the sun the moon (IV.5.1-27). Coming in the wake of Petruchio’s words as he announces the wedding, ‘Here she stands’ (an unmistakable echo of Luther’s famous, ‘Here I stand’, in front of the Emperor Charles V), the scene is a clear satire against the intransigence of Protestant England on this issue. It is worthy of Voltaire’s famous remark that, ‘The English… preferred their calendar to disagree with the Sun rather than to agree with the Pope’.

As far as the date is concerned, there is no doubt both authors would have agreed that the significant fact, the truth of the matter, is that each died on 23 April 1616. If they had died on the same day, this would not have been the case. But there is more: if they had died on the same day, their respective deaths would not have shared in the profound ritual associations and liturgical symbolism of the feast of St George, who happened to be the patron saint of England as well as of Don Quixote’s beloved Catalonia; the patron saint of lovers and of idealists; a dragon slayer and a martyr; a saint of the Church about whom so little is known that some have doubted his existence – although we can almost hear Cervantes saying that, ‘through some credible conjectures we can infer’ that he might have existed. The fortuitous replay of the thin boundaries between illusion and reality, so close to the heart of both authors, is simply too delicious. But the fact remains that in regard of the truth that concerned them – that rooted in a reality which can be known only through contingent social relations and human experience –, it was much more important to die on the same date than on the same day.

I have been using a date, a definite date, something historians as a  rule regard as implicitly objective, to point to two quite different days that nonetheless came to share a profound symbolic significance in a way that would have been a source of great amusement to both authors. This shared humour needs to be understood with reference to a shared vision of the world and a number of deeply shared intellectual preoccupations. The problem here is that we know very little indeed about the lives of Cervantes and Shakespeare (a little bit more about Cervantes, in fact, but still very little), so it is risky to make daring comparisons. Today, nonetheless, I am going to take the risk. I am going to try to persuade you that the little that we do know actually sharpens the significance of the coincidences to which I have alluded.

To begin with, I shall ask you to consider their fairly comparable upbringing and formative years. Both spent their childhood in the provinces; both were born into families with some aspirations to nobility or gentle status, but whose fortunes had declined; and although there exist no records, they seem to have attended fairly comparable schools.

It has often been noted that the Jesuits arrived in Córdoba in the same year as the young Cervantes, setting up their first school there in 1553.  Years later, Cervantes was to praise Jesuit education in the mouth of Berganza, the loquacious dog of one of his most popular Exemplary Novels. How does this square with Shakespeare’s school? Well, it just so happens that Stratford Grammar School, which Shakespeare most probably attended in the 1560s and 1570s, also had some strong Jesuit links. Thomas Jenkins, who would have been Shakespeare’s principal teacher, had been associated with the famous Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion at St John’s College, Oxford, and another, John Cottom, had a Jesuit brother arraigned together with Campion and martyred in 1582. Shakespeare, of course, never openly praised the Jesuits – he was not, after all, a suicidal maniac. But there are unmistakable coded messages throughout his work that suggest close association with them. I shall here offer just one example: Edgar disguised as poor Tom in King Lear. He is undoubtedly one of the most intractable of Shakespeare’s characters. His nonsensical ravings, his grotesque treatment of Gloucester, and his unpredictable actions, which seem completely at odds with his grave soliloquies, repeatedly confound critics. Yet, his ravings are carefully punctuated by domestic prayers recommended by Jesuits to the recusant community. He uses also many of the phrases that Samuel Harsnett attributed to the Jesuits Weston, Campion and Persons; and his various privations as a wandering beggar are unmistakably reminiscent of Robert Southwell’s portrayal of imprisoned Jesuits. More pointedly, the episode of the attempted suicide of Gloucester uses to conjure up the Dover cliff exactly the kind of intense visualisation that St Ignatius recommended in his Spiritual Exercises, complete with the image of the soul poised between a good and an evil spirit.

Of course, too much can, and has been, made of such coded messages. Recent attempts to reassess Shakespeare as a closet Catholic in close collaboration with the recusant community and the underground Jesuit mission are unlikely to carry much conviction. In fact, in much of his work Shakespeare writes as if the Reformation has not even happened. As Anthony Nuttall observes in his recent book, Shakespeare the Thinker, what we find in Shakespeare is not, of course, ‘the missionary Catholicism of a Campion’; but neither is it ‘strenuous evasiveness’. It is, he writes, ‘something else’. I agree. But the Jesuit connection might still provide clues, and this because the kind of Catholicism Shakespeare and Cervantes might have been placed in contact with by the Jesuits was, equally, ‘something else’.

What do I mean by this? Here we must pause a little, remembering that the common inherited image of the Jesuits as undisputed champions of the Counter-Reformation can be very misleading in trying to assess their early achievements. During the formative years of Cervantes and Shakespeare, the Jesuits were committed to the project of displacing what they referred to as the ‘barbarous’ style of late medieval scholasticism with the good rhetorical style of classical antiquity. They thought the turgid and obscure language of the schools placed difficult hurdles between intellectual speculation and moral action. It deprived eloquence of its raison d’être, which was to persuade: to lead from intellectual assent that comes from acceptance of the truth to willing application of the same truth, not to human understanding only but also to human experience and moral action.

One of St Ignatius’s close friends and collaborators, Fr Jerome Nadal, described what the Jesuits called their ‘way of proceeding’ as ‘acting in the Spirit, from the heart, practically’. By this he meant that, while everything should be referred to God, it was essential to bring the feelings, the emotions and the passions to bear on one’s actions in order to avoid acting ‘only speculatively’. Even after he had recommended the study of Aquinas, he expressed reservations about his dry style. So it seems that the respect the early Jesuits showed for scholasticism had much more to do with its perceived usefulness for clarifying issues of doctrine – what St Ignatius referred to as ‘utility for our times’ – than with any clear predilection. This did nothing to minimise their commitment to humanistic reform, which had so virulently criticised the depraved morals and vices of corrupt and ignorant ecclesiastics. In 1557, for example, in the middle of the deliberations of the Council of Trent, the eminent Jesuit, Diego Laínez, stood in front of a lay audience in Rome and said quite candidly: ‘I am not a Lutheran’ (of course he was not) ‘but I believe that we have given occasion for this trouble by our pomp, sensuality, avarice… and by usurping for ourselves the goods of the Church’.

Now if this is true of one Catholic religious order that had specifically taken on the mission of countering Protestantism, how much more true would it have been of the average educated person in Spain and in England. After all, both countries had been exposed to the criticisms of the humanists for at least half a century? So it would seem that much of Cervantes’s and Shakespeare’s social criticism, and even their occasional sharply anti-clerical satires, have roots in a well-established tradition. It is very unlikely that their probable contacts with the Jesuits would have done anything to discourage this.

There is another early coincidence of interests upon which the Jesuit connection might shed light. It is well known that drama was something at which the Jesuits excelled, and both Cervantes and Shakespeare were completely enthralled by the theatre from a very early age. It might be retorted that such an interest was likely to have thrived anyway. Both were born playwrights. Moreover, in both Spain and England the second half of the sixteenth century witnessed a marked growth in literacy among a rapidly increasing urban population. The growing taste for elaborate display and rhetoric that came to characterise the vibrant and restless intellectual life of both countries created highly competitive markets for new plays that must have proved enormously tempting to anyone not attracted to the Church, the legal profession or medicine (the only routes for those wanting to attend university to take). That neither Cervantes nor Shakespeare ever expressed the slightest regret at not having gone to university might indicate that they had made up their minds about becoming playwrights at an early stage.

My point, however, is that contact with Jesuits would have made them particularly perceptive of an older medieval tradition of morality plays that were still popular in the sixteenth century, particularly in rural areas, and upon which Jesuit plays consciously drew. As Stephen Greenblatt has observed, ‘These plays had little or no interest in psychological particularity or social texture’, but they nonetheless had ‘the canniness of folk wisdom along with a strong current of subversive humour’. Additionally, their peculiar ‘blend of high-mindedness and exuberant theatrical energy’ would have appealed to a wide range of people. It was probably here that Cervantes and Shakespeare became convinced that the spectacle of human destiny is vastly more compelling when bound up with ordinary, mundane, human experience, rather than with allegories or generalised abstractions. In the process, they both saw clearly that the boundaries between the tragic and the comic were perhaps more porous than their predecessors had thought.

It was, of course, Erich Auerbach who first noticed this shift in the work of Shakespeare. He saw it as a triumphant culmination of what he called ‘the Platonic anticipation or demand’ that the ideal poet should be master of both comedy and tragedy. This is in fact what Socrates tells Agathon and Aristophanes at the end of Plato’s Symposium. Auerbach’s thesis is that such an ideal ‘could mature only by way of the Christian-medieval conception of man’ but would be realised ‘only after that conception had been transcended’. Shakespeare’s achievement, in other words, no matter how staggering, is still, according to Auerbach, ‘rooted in popular tradition’, and above all in ‘the cosmic drama of the story of Christ’. What Auerbach calls ‘the creatural view of man’, something he describes as ‘the loose construction with its numerous accessory actions and characters, and the mixture of the sublime with the low’, could in the last analysis come only from medieval Christian theatre, ‘in which all these things were necessary…’.

So it might well be from this tradition that Cervantes and Shakespeare derived an overwhelming awareness that the best kind of writing needed two dimensions: on the one hand a transcending vision, and, on the other, a solid, ordinary, and contingent earthiness. This became almost second nature to them. It provided the best foundation for a truly staggering ability to absorb words from the widest possible range of experiences and pursuits, and to transform them into the most memorable intimate registers. They could both plunge into unfamiliar worlds and make themselves almost immediately at home, quickly mastering the new complexities. Everything they encountered, even tangentially and in passing, seems to have stayed with them and remained readily available throughout their writing careers.  Fragments of conversation; royal proclamations; learned sermons; anecdotes overheard on roads or in taverns; insults exchanged by muleteers, shepherds, fishwives or inn-keepers; a few pages at which they might only have idly glanced at a bookseller’s shop, or words, as Cervantes wrote, found on a scrap of paper in the street – all was somehow stored away in their memories.

It is fascinating to observe that what principally excited Shakespeare about London was exactly what most excited Cervantes about Seville and Madrid: that which seemed most sinister and, from a provincial perspective, disturbing – the demi-monde of shoemakers, shopkeepers, watermen, petty criminals and prostitutes. When in a tavern or an inn they encountered a loudmouthed soldier, a drunken bore or a salacious prostitute, Cervantes and Shakespeare seem to have seen them through the lens of characters they had read about in fiction, but at the same time they adjusted their image by means of the actual persons standing before them. To read an exemplary novel like Rinconete y Cortadillo is almost an olfactory experience, as though one had been privileged to walk into one of those wonderfully realistic early Sevillian paintings by Velázquez such as ‘The Old Woman Frying Eggs’ or ‘The Water-Seller’. Likewise, in every Shakespearean tavern we can almost smell beer and sack in the midst of Shakespeare’s undisguised fascination with the whole business: the amiable nonsense, the general indifference to decorum, the self-induced erasure of worldly anxieties, all of which he depicted without the slightest moralising hint. These were undoubtedly places of disease, vice, and disorder, but they also satisfied basic human needs, bringing together men and women, aristocrats and commoners, learned and ignorant, young and old, in a fellowship rarely found elsewhere in the highly stratified societies of early-modern Spain and England.

What is striking in both authors is the manner in which this extraordinary inability to show the slightest sign of boredom at the small-talk and foolish trivia of the demi-monde seems never to have distracted them from a deep interest in that other aspect of great literature: the transcending vision. It is truly remarkable that they do not keep the two aspects going in parallel. There is in fact no discernible tension between them. It is precisely in the ordinary, and in the contingent, solid earthiness of their characters that transcendence is most successfully achieved. Don Quixote’s greatest, noblest, most convincing moments are his most ordinary and pedestrian ones, like the advice he gives Sancho about cutting his nails and controlling his belching just before he goes off to govern his island, or the candid way in which he tells the Duke, who has just tricked him into believing this, that it is wonderful how the poor and the afflicted come to him, rather than to letrados, village sacristans, gentlemen or courtiers. I quote: ‘For the remedy of distress and the relief of poverty, the protection of maidens and the consolation of widows, are in no kind of person more readily to be found than in knights errant; and for being one such I give infinite thanks to heaven’.

This is the same spirit in which King Lear utters those unforgettable words, ‘Aye, every inch a king’, from the depth of his insanity and humiliation; yet his royalty seems only the greater and more indestructible in the process. Or take Brutus in Julius Caesar, a character whose Stoicism renders him pathologically subject to degeneration into detachment. As Nuttal explains, this is not the detachment of the ‘Olympian observer’ but rather that of the ‘frightened fugitive’. Shakespeare saw this quite clearly and yet, without a hint of irony, still styled Brutus ‘the noblest Roman of them all’. Or think of Coriolanus, ‘a figure of pathos’; ‘psychically stunted, undernourished, deprived’ by his mother; and yet Shakespeare nevertheless grants him ‘the instant of final anagnorisis’ in that exceptionally powerful scene just after Volumnia has shattered him outside the walls of Rome. It is rather like the moment when, in Richard II, the King realises that he has not in fact become ‘nothing’ after being deposed.  ‘Nothing’ is a key word, as we shall see. It does not just mean just ‘dead’, but rather nothing, a seriously disturbing notion – to which I shall return.

But it is not just the famous or the great that merit this Shakespearean ability to maintain sympathy with pathos, humiliation and even mediocrity. The playwright does it again and again, even with the most appalling characters: Bertram at the end of All’s Well that Ends Well, Bessanio in The Merchant of Venice, Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing, and Angelo in Measure for Measure.

A similar trait is not unknown in Cervantes. In one of his exemplary novels, La Fuerza de la Sangre (translated as The Power of Blood) Cervantes recounts the brutal story of Rodolfo’s rape of Leocadia. Years after the incident, Rodolfo’s father takes pity on a little boy who has been badly wounded by a cart in the street. The little boy happens to be issue of the brutal rape and Cervantes leads the story to the reunion and subsequent happy marriage of the boy’s parents. Of particular significance is Cervantes’s description of Leocadia as Rodolfo sees her for the first time since the rape, ‘as if she was a heavenly thing’, he writes, ‘that had there miraculously appeared’. Rodolfo’s reaction is a common target for modern critics who see this novel as one of the author’s weaker efforts. Cervantes writes: ‘If only half this beauty were possessed by the woman my mother has chosen for me to marry I would consider myself the happiest man in the world. Heavens! What is this I see? Is it perchance a human angel that I look upon?’. Now, the interesting thing in allusions to Leocadia as a quasi-supernatural force is that it has the power of ennobling Rodolfo with whom she also falls deeply in love. It is immediately reminiscent of Dante’s Beatrice in her role as the voice of Christian wisdom who rescues the poet from his previous error, sensuality and servitude – a clear statement of the belief that God always brings good out of evil. This is only the most dramatic instance among a whole host of examples where Cervantes emphasises the power and dignity of human sexuality by being surprisingly lax with the sins of the flesh, even in cases when these were of the most despicable kind. Modern critics tend to focus attention elsewhere. How can Leocadia possibly love Rodolfo? For heaven’s sake! Who’s going to believe that?

Now let us turn our attention back to Shakespeare. Are modern critics not often confounded by what seems a rather forced defence of an outdated morality? How can Hero love Claudio of all men? How can Helena love Bertram? How can Portia love Bassanio? For goodness sake! Do not tell me that Shakespeare believed that nonsense… Are these weak or unconvincing efforts? That seems an easy way out of the difficulty. The fact is that both Shakespeare and Cervantes do it often, and they so it so consistently that I think they are manifestly doing it on purpose.

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare comes closest to providing an answer when Portia explains to Shylock that love has absolutely nothing to do with what people deserve. Love goes with mercy, and the whole point of mercy is that it removes humans from the sphere of compulsion and throws them in at the deep end of the moral freedom of love. Mercy, she says, ‘is twice blest. It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes’. (IV.1.183-4) Yet, amazingly, Portia’s words, which must be one of the most powerful and persuasive arguments ever penned in defence the absolute transcendence of love, fail to persuade Shylock. If any transcendence is achieved, it comes through, once again, in the contradictions and limitations of fallen humanity. Even salvation and redemption are moved away from a supernatural frame of reference. When Hermione’s statue moves in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, for example, Paulina’s expression, ‘Dear life redeems you’, is charged with all the supernatural power of the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet, it is not God, but a warm, living body that has made redemption possible. This is no longer Dante’s world. Providence might well exist, but when it works it works through human agency and, characteristically, through human agency at its weakest and meanest.

Here we have the real novelty and originality of Cervantes and Shakespeare. The drama of Christ, which was the point of confluence in the medieval tradition, fades into the background, leaving the door open for an autonomous human tragedy which, as Auerbach puts it, ‘has a specific human action as its centre, it derives its unity from that centre and finds its order within itself’. Even philosophical judgements seem to grow ‘directly out of the speaker’s immediate situation’ and remain ‘connected with it’. Auerbach illustrates this very aptly by recalling the moment when Macbeth is told about his wife’s death and the news ‘plunges him into somber brooding’. These are rightly famous lines:

To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  …
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.  

Auerbach comments that the passage is full of ‘hopelessness, heaviness, and despair; yet it is heavy with humanity and wisdom, too’. Macbeth has become ‘heavy with a self-acquired wisdom which has arisen for him from his own destiny’. From deep interiority ‘he has grown ripe’ – note that favourite Shakespearean notion, ‘ripeness is all’ – ‘he has grown ripe for knowledge and death’. So, yet again, we notice that ‘it is from the grotesque and ridiculous’, from the contingent reality of human folly and madness, that this final ripeness arises, that we can know Macbeth as the man he was intended to be, just as Don Quixote’s descent into heaviness and despair, after finding out that only Sancho has the power to disenchant Dulcinea, gradually leads him to grow ripe for sanity and death. Just like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Don Quixote attains his final completion, his final ripeness, in the contingent here and now, heavy with destiny. In order to transcend reality, in other words, both Cervantes and Shakespeare opted to embrace reality, even in its most trivial and insignificant aspects, and in a myriad of mixtures, combinations and refractions.

Here, surely, we have something radically new and exciting: ‘The invention of the human’, to use the subtitle of one of Harold Bloom’s studies of Shakespeare. Consider also Lionel Trilling’s striking view that just as it has been said that ‘all philosophy is a footnote to Plato’, it can be said that ‘all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote’. After all, what we are faced with here is a strikingly new form of interiority, one which is at the basis of modernity and with which few of Shakespeare’s or Cervantes’s contemporaries, and practically none of their predecessors, would have had any sympathy.

How can we explain their otherwise quite inexplicable privacy? Where, for example, are their personal letters? Why is it that, from these supremely eloquent and passionate men, there have been found no love letters, not even to their wives, no signs of shared joy or grief, no words of advice, not even any financial transactions? Why have scholars, ferreting for centuries, failed to unearth the books they must have owned – or rather, why did they choose not to write their name on them, unlike many of their contemporaries? Why, in the prodigious body of their writings, is there no direct access to their thoughts about anything? Why is everything they wrote – even their poetry – couched in a manner enabling them to hide their innermost feelings and thoughts?

Well, it would tempting to dwell on such questions and to convince ourselves that Cervantes and Shakespeare were aware of the subversive qualities of their message and of the dangers of expressing it too candidly – that they were aware, in other words, that they had broken with the medieval tradition.

But, I am not happy with this idea. I have always had a suspicion that Cervantes and Shakespeare were much more comfortable with the medieval tradition than the bulk of their modern critics think. This is what you might call a ‘hunch’, a gut feeling, something entirely subjective, which is not, I know, the most convincing position to take. But the more I read them, and the more I read their critics, the stronger the hunch seems to become.

Let me give you an example. In his Shakespeare the Thinker – a book I have already cited more than once, and one of the most intelligent of recent studies about Shakespeare – Nuttall notes that modern commentators repeatedly get Shakespeare wrong. On the question of perception, for instance, he writes: ‘It is one thing to say that the eye cannot see itself but by reflection or that Narcissus can never gaze directly at his own beauty and another to say that there is no such thing as a truly intrinsic quality – that the question, “But what is it like, in itself?”, is a doomed, unanswerable question’. Nuttall is right, of course. Shakespeare could never have thought like that. Nor could Cervantes who, as we saw, starts his great masterpiece by emphasising that in the telling of it the writer will not stray in the slightest detail from the truth (having just put readers on their guard about the difficulty of getting at the truth).

Exactly the same idea lies behind Hippolyta’s reply to Theseus, just after the latter’s eloquent diatribe about the imagination in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hippolyta’s words are nowhere near as eloquent or as memorable as Theseus’s, but they hit the nail squarely on the head. She says simply:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy 

She is saying to herself: ‘Something tells me that these things, however, fanciful they might seem to you, my dear Theseus, are, somehow, true’. The key word is ‘constancy’, meaning consistency or coherence. We know that something is true not just if different witnesses give separate accounts that cohere, but also (and especially) if our own personal experience, our critical common sense, our sociability, tells us that they do cohere. So for Hippolyta truth is not a Platonic entity or ‘form’. Truth can only exist in relation to our perception of reality. We cannot know it but through the senses, just as we cannot have an identity without it being nourished and, indeed, constituted by relationship: ‘Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo’, as Mercutio memorably puts it in Romeo and Juliet.

I find this really quite exciting, but now listen to what Nuttall makes of it. He suggests that Shakespeare seems close to the ‘structuralist intuition that context is not posterior to identity but on the contrary [that it] confers identity’. Now it seems to me that anyone with the slightest interest in medieval philosophy will immediately ask: is structutralism really so original on this? Did not practically everyone in the middle ages take this more or less for granted? Or take this other example: Shakespeare’s clear conviction that good and evil are meaningful. This, Nuttall observes, makes it clear that Shakespeare rejected nihilism; but interestingly, this did not carry him as far as transcendentalism. If there is any transcendence in Shakespeare, it is always a ‘this-worldly’ type of transcendence, one that effects ‘a profound transformation of Platonism, fusing it with the physical’.

Do you see the source of my discomfort? It seems that whenever modern readers find something in Shakespeare or Cervantes that either agrees with them, or anticipates subsequent philosophical fads, they are only too ready to stretch their philosophical originality beyond recognition. In the two examples I have given you it seems to me much more obvious that they have deep medieval roots. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer had all very convincingly already ‘effected’ a ‘profound transformation of Platonism by fusing it with the physical’. In the process they drew on Aristotle and his
medieval scholastic interpreters.

By ignoring this tradition modern readers repeatedly miss the unmistakably medieval ontology at the heart of the writings of Cervantes and Shakespeare. They both had a marked interest in the intuition of being – not modern understandings of being, but the peculiarly medieval, scholastic intuition of being as the only meaningful answer to the most radical of all questions: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’. Before we can know anything, we have accepted that what we are trying to know already is, it has being. It is precisely this that gives the ‘nothing’ that Richard II feared so much, as well as Cordelia’s ‘Nothing’ in King Lear, or Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’, the vertiginous ontological potency that is so alien to modern thought. The whole perspective is not just pre-Cartesian; it seems also to be pre-Ockhamist. It is an ontology where being leads to transcendence, but it is a transcendence that must fuse with the physical, not because it anticipates modern thought but because it is ultimately rooted in two basic Christian doctrines: the goodness of creation, and the mystery of the Incarnation.

Once we accept this, then those difficult or ‘weak’ moments in their writings – those moments that trigger off the reaction, ‘Who’s going to believe that, for goodness sake?’ – begin to fall into place. Our scepticism about them is the result of seeing Cervantes and Shakespeare as conscious precursors of modernity, as possessors of the kind of ‘interiority’ that would lead to the development of the primacy of the individual conscience. Well, they were nothing of the sort. Their insistence that human beings can attain to the truth in their earthiness, in the contingent foundations of their being, does not mean that they were trying to identify the human conscience with a subjective self-awareness. Quite the reverse: they would have seen no contradiction between the individual subjective experience and the claims of traditional morality; and this is because they both saw truth as the intermediate concept that held the two together. Conscience was central to their thinking because truth was at the heart of everything. Conscience did not mean that the subject could have the final word against the claims made by authority. Rather, conscience signified the perceptible presence of the voice of truth in the subject. That was the moment when characters became ‘ripe’. That is, in fact, the real meaning of the word ‘conscience’, con-scientia, a ‘knowing with’ truth. Truth was at the centre of conscience.

So it is important to distinguish two levels in Cervantes’s and Shakespeare’s understanding of conscience. Firstly, what we might call an ontological level where truth is not imposed on the subject by an extraneous force but is understood as a constitutive element of human rationality. Truth, in other words, is integral to the very foundations of human existence. The characters of Cervantes and Shakespeare were never seen as the owners of their selves. In fact, nothing belonged less to them than their ‘selves’. Their selves were in fact precisely the place where transcendence was most profoundly needed – the place where their characters were touched by truth, which was the ultimate origin and goal. That is why Cervantes was dead serious in his joke.

Secondly, we have a more practical level, where we see conscience in action. This is the level upon which the attention of modern audiences seems to focus, and with good reason. Not only do Shakespeare and Cervantes never moralise, they both agree that at this level, that of action, conscience always obligates, even when it is clearly mistaken. When their characters become convinced that they must act in a certain way, that conviction is, in conscience, naturally binding at the moment of the action.

But what we must not lose from sight is that neither of our authors ever separated this level of conscience from the ontological level. So the problem with those who followed a mistaken conviction – like Shakespeare’s Iago or Cervantes’s jealous Extremaduran – was not the act itself, but the way in which they had allowed themselves to arrive at such perverse convictions by trampling down the ontological level, the voice of their being. It was, in other words, the neglect of being that dulled humanity to the voice of truth, that prevented characters from ripening.

So you see, it seems that what most attracts modern readers to Cervantes and Shakespeare, what gives their work that enduring, universal quality, seems to be, paradoxically, what was most medieval about them. Of course, their real achievement, their truly staggering achievement, was the way in which both managed to create a literary genre capable of preserving a traditional image of the world in the new climate of dogmatic redefinition and in a language that the modern world would be capable of understanding. More than any other writer or thinker of their generation, they were aware of inhabiting two worlds. For too long we seem to have willfully ignored the significance of one of those worlds, but it seems to me that the time is ‘ripe’ to begin to redress the balance.


Dr Andrew Hegarty: Let me pick you up on the absence of moralising. Do you think that a moralising tone and an adequate understanding of conscience are compatible?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: My hunch is that if you adopt a moralising tone you do not really understand conscience because you are trampling on someone else’s liberty, trampling on the level of conscience in action which always obligates us, as both Cervantes and Shakespeare agreed. Moralising is always getting away from the interplay between conscience on the ontological level and conscience at the acting level. It is always, in my opinion, a kind of immature understanding.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: So how does this relate then to the older ‘morality plays’? Shakespeare probably knew the morality plays at Coventry, and perhaps elsewhere, which sometimes continued to the late 1570s.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Yes, but these dealt with allegories rather than human characters. So this is not moralising in the sense of being judgmental about the actions of someone from the supposedly objective perspective of conscience. I do not think you can have an objective perspective of the actions of a human being. There is always a subjective element there that you need to respect, and a moralising tone always tramples on that. I would say that someone who moralises does not have a correct understanding of conscience.

Dr Brendan Smith: Was a shared approach something for which there was much less room in the Europe of 1616 than there would have been in the 1580s, indeed for which there would have been even less room from 1620 onwards? In other words, are Cervantes and Shakespeare representative of a moment in the history of the understanding of the person: a swan song, if you like, for a medieval understanding of the person?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: I think they were both firmly convinced that the medieval understanding of the person was correct, and felt at home with it. From the time of the Council of Trent onwards, boundaries were clearly established and alarm bells started to ring so that people became more wary of being free with the level of actions. That is when you begin to get more moralising coming in. It is not really until the 18th Century that people began to go back to find something that made sense in both writers. Now, of course, they do it from a very different perspective, one I do not think either Cervantes or Shakespeare would have shared. As I suggested, both of them still wanted to live, as it were, in both worlds.

This is, indeed, one of the reasons why their work has been so enduring and has remained so relevant right up to today – because there is a need for it. The fight against the Enlightenment from Alasdair Macintyre’s perspective – the desire to return to virtue ethics – agrees with a certain instinct in the modern world. It is not necessarily a retrograde step: to take it one need not deny the advantages in some aspects of the Enlightenment. Am I making myself clear?

Dr Brendan Smith: You are, but I am probably asking a more specific question, one of historical context.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Because you referred to 1580 and 1620 onwards…

Dr Brendan Smith: With the heat turned up, if you like, in the Catholic-Protestant conflict throughout Europe. My understanding is that it starts to heat up in the 1580s but from the 1620s onwards there is very little room any more for not taking sides: one had to declare where one stood. If I understood, at least in part, what you were saying, both Cervantes and Shakespeare were determined not to take sides because they did not believe in such a dichotomy. Do you get any sense in their writings that they were latterly beginning to feel the pinch, or to feel a little beleaguered in their views?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Well, they were obviously aware that the situation was not the same before the 1550s and that there was a rising trend of moralisation on both sides of the confessional front. There was the incredible influence of Calvinism in Protestantism and likewise in the Catholic world that of Jansenism which amounts in the end to the same kind of exaggerated or rigid Augustinian morality. I think both would have found that very unattractive.

Yes, I think they probably sensed that that was the point but it does not really begin to happen seriously until the middle of the 17th Century. We are heirs to a moralising tradition that results from a sense of insecurity in view of the threat not just of the Reformation but also of all the other difficulties emerging from the discovery of the New World and the Copernican Revolution.

Russell Wilcox: It emerged very strongly from what you have been saying that these two ‘bards’ were exemplary communicators. That may seem rather facile but it was their great gift. It brings to my mind – speaking of Macintyre – that we need not just another St. Benedict in the area of virtue or a St. Thomas in that of philosophy, but also perhaps another Cervantes or Shakespeare. What can we today learn from their capacity for communication? Clearly they were effective communicators in their own time, but, given all the misunderstandings you have catalogued they may no longer be so, working as they do from a completely different world view.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Yes, that is more or less what I was trying to say. Modern readers tend to focus on aspects that agree with what they want to see. They want to see these authors as precursors of modernity and as heralds of the ‘individual conscience’ and interiority. In fact, if you read what they are saying in the context of an understanding of conscience – as it seems to me, a rather medieval one – then you have a completely different message often wholly missed today.

In the absence of writers of a similar calibre – perhaps I have missed them, not being an expert in modern literature – to keep the balance between the ontological and the practical I think we have here a great challenge to modern novelists. García Márquez actually approaches that kind of understanding but I think his is more an instinctive than a philosophical approach.

Russell Wilcox: Do you think there might be something structural, or inbuilt, in our society that makes that level of communication almost impossible today?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: I think it is becoming more and more likely that it will happen; I really do hope it will!

Russell Wilcox: Why do you think so?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: We do seem to be moving away from individualist prejudices and towards a more communal understanding. More and more people are becoming convinced that truth is not something private; that, so to speak, it actually happens when people relate to each other. It is something that was really rather commonsensical for any writer of the medieval period but we have been infected ever since Descartes turned things on their head. It is rather difficult to escape the notion that I have an inner voice telling me what the truth is.

Russell Wilcox: You seem to be talking of our approaching a synthetic phase, in a process of effective philosophical synthesis. Do you think the ontological dimension, as we begin to get it right, that will liberate the voices of great artists?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: I have great hope that this will happen. I do think it is the way things are moving. There are all sorts of signs – outside, that is, English philosophy departments!

Kiko Mitjans: To change the topic, if I may… You mentioned a connection between education by the Jesuits and interest in the theatre. Do you know of any relations between Shakespeare and Jasper Heywood who translated the plays of Seneca and became a Jesuit?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: I have not come across any link. But I should be very surprised if Shakespeare did not know of any such work in the public domain, because he had a knack for finding out about everything that interested him.

Kiko Mitjans: Can we speak of some Jesuit connection with Shakespeare’s education in Stratford?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: It is certainly very likely that he attended Stratford Grammar School because it was the only such institution then existing in the town.

Kiko Mitjans: And that school had some connection with the Jesuits?

Dr Andrew Hegarty: Well, some modern scholarship suggests that one early Master of that School became a Jesuit, but that is probably based on a misunderstanding. It is certainly true that had Shakespeare attended the School in the appropriate years he would have been taught by one Thomas Jenkins, a married man and certainly no Jesuit, but very likely identifiable with one of those names who had been a Fellow of St John’s College Oxford at the same time as Edmund Campion, later the most celebrated of English Jesuits.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Did not his brother become a Jesuit?

Dr Andrew Hegarty: No, it was the brother of another Master of this period who joined the Society of Jesus.

There are other rather circumstantial and ambiguous bits of evidence to which one might appeal for a later link between Shakespeare and Campion in Lancashire. The most one can claim with any surety is that one of the men who taught Shakespeare had probably one been a near-contemporary of Campion in his Oxford college and that there seem to be certain echoes of Campion in Shakespeare’s writing. Some recent work on Shakespeare has sought to claim rather more than that, but the extant evidence is to my mind flimsy.

Kiko Mitjans: But were not the Jesuits running schools at that time?

Dr Andrew Hegarty: Certainly not formally in England. Yes, Jesuits were acting as tutors to boys in noble and gentle Catholic households. It depends what you mean by ‘that time’, and by ‘schools’.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: But you would go along with an underlying Jesuit influence in his writings?

Dr Andrew Hegarty: Well, I think that perhaps you need to widen the terms of reference. There was a Jesuit influence felt over time everywhere, including England. By the end of the sixteenth century publications by Jesuits had appeared in English translation, and that not only by the work of Catholics. Protestants, too, were translating key books and offering them to the public after some bowdlerisation. To put this in context, I think one would have to add that there was a minor industry of translation from Spanish, and from the Latin works of Spaniards, certainly in both England and France. Luis de Granada’s spiritual writings appeared everywhere in all sorts of forms.

Kiko Mitjans: What is evident is that a number of students at the two English universities later joined the Society of Jesus.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: I would add that I think it generally agreed now that the most influential philosopher in early- to mid-17th-century England was the Jesuit, Francisco Suárez.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: I think there is little question about that – and not only in England among Protestant lands. By the 1650s a senior Fellow of an Oxford college, in writing of what young students of divinity should be reading, declared that Aristotle, of all people, was useless for metaphysics and that the only worthwhile guide to the subject was the Jesuit, Suárez. By about the same time Suárez’s metaphysics had replaced the standard text of Luther’s disciple and successor, Philip Melancthon, at Wittemberg. That is more than a little astonishing. The influence is pervasive, but somewhat late to play much part in Shakespeare’s formative reading. Shakespeare would certainly have heard of him, but more for the political implications of his work which so exercised King James I.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: The irony there, of course, is that both Cervantes and Shakespeare would have disagreed with Suárez’s metaphysics!

Russell Wilcox: Why is it, then, that Shakespeare and Cervantes got the medieval vision so right and Descartes, who was trained by the Jesuits, got it so very clearly wrong?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: It was, of course, a later generation of Jesuits who had read Suárez and got it wrong! The Jesuits to whom I pointed as influential were working in a much more humanistic tradition.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: You mean the very early Jesuits, those who in some cases had studied in Paris?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: That is right. What we think of as the humanistic tradition is in fact deeply medieval. I am not sure if Brendan would agree with this, but you might claim it had started in the 12th century.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Might I pick you up on the subject of mercy? That struck me as especially interesting. After all, Shakespeare’s England, where some extremely un-medieval ‘Poor Laws’ were put into effect, seems to produce a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor. It was thought ‘sturdy beggars’ should not be supported. That seems to me, in many ways, a rather modern outlook.

The idea of giving to beggars without asking too many questions, by acts of mercy so to speak, is an older Catholic and medieval idea which seems to survive, at least in the 17th century, in those parts of Europe that were not notably affected by the Reformation. This all sprang to my mind as you were speaking of the quality of mercy. What link is there between mercy and conscience such as you have explained it this evening?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: The way in which Shakespeare treated the issue in The Merchant of Venice had absolutely nothing to do with what people deserved. It was much more linked to the question of mercy. That was the argument presented, an extremely strong medieval argument, but it did not convince Shylock who somehow represented a modern mercantile community that was beginning to separate things out and to show mercy only to the deserving. Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, specifically disagrees with that on the basis of a very strong argument. I would see that as proof that he was much more rooted in medieval morality than in a more modern one.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: In a sense, such a merciful approach is one that leads to easier and greater understanding of the demi-monde to which you made reference, and a refusal to dismiss its denizens as simply ‘sturdy beggars’.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Yes, Shakespeare was absolutely fascinated by these people, and so was Cervantes. Both loved visiting places where the ‘low life’ of the city was to be seen. They understood that world from the inside. It is one of the things that make their work attractive from a modern perspective. They were able to do what they did without scandalising anyone. They offer descriptions of vice, corruption and the varied mechanisms of survival to be found in the changing societies of early-modern England and Spain. We find here indications of the beginnings of a modern proletariat.

Russell Wilcox: Something just struck me as you were speaking. I suppose that perhaps, having as it did a more robust metaphysics, this society did not need to protect itself in the same way as more modern societies. The more subjective one becomes, the more subjectivist one’s ontology becomes, and this in turn leads to greater insecurity in the absence of social props. Developing the idea further, this might lead to a more judgmental society, looking to support only the deserving: Shylock’s mercy, in fact, rather than Portia’s. Do you think there is anything in that?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: I do think so. Shakespeare, and in his own way Cervantes, were keen to stress the mercy of a Portia rather than that of a Shylock.

Russell Wilcox: It is not, of course, that either necessarily embraced the sinfulness of the bawdy tavern, but rather that they had a much greater capacity to deal with that world.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: That is right. I was not saying that they were necessarily active participants! They might have had a few encounters but…

Russell Wilcox: On one level, then, if your ontology is stronger, you are protected from the inside and do not have a need to be protected from outside. Consequently you can be much more comfortable inter-acting with the fallen-ness of the human condition.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Yes, and I suppose that is central to the Gospel, is it not? Jesus scandalised the Pharisees by mixing with the demi-monde. It is no big surprise.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: I, too, was taken with your emphasis on ontology and the link with education. I do not, however, think you need posit a systematic pedagogy inculcating the traditional ontology to imagine a world in which men like Shakespeare and Cervantes could have grown up accepting it. Many might have done so without ever having articulated it or having needed to do so. Do we need to look closely at the education of such men if they grew up in a world in which such an ontology was almost second nature to anyone who read and thought at all?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: That is roughly the point I was trying to make, perhaps not so explicitly. In the end, it seems to me necessary to look closely at the educational background and implicit understandings of the time in order to counter critics who think wrongly that they can see an individualist modern outlook in these authors. I do not think that it was necessary for Cervantes or Shakespeare to understand these issues as explicitly as their modern readers need to do in order properly to understand their message.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: Tom Pink, you are a philosopher. What do you make of all this?

Dr Tom Pink: I am wondering if there was something about England and Spain that led to these two remarkable men appearing in them at that time, or could it have happened elsewhere? I think, perhaps naïvely, of England and Spain going in two different directions at that time and in some ways quite opposed to one another. Why not France?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Well, in France there was Montaigne with very similar views. Cervantes and Shakespeare are, of course, utterly different in their styles. One was a playwright and the other much more a novelist. Cervantes was, it must be allowed, a playwright of sorts, but not a very successful one. Where he really excels is in novelistic prose-writing. Montaigne was an essayist but if you read his essays, what he is saying there is very similar and also rooted in medieval tradition. Modern critics stress always the scepticism, individuality and forward-looking attitude of Montaigne, but he seems to me, if anything, backward-looking. The more I read the essays the more I sense that his real heroes were Boccaccio and Dante. He should not be seen as looking forward to Descartes.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: What about the scepticism with which Montaigne is usually credited?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: That is, I think, a tradition we have inherited. Many modern critics see Cervantes and Shakespeare as forward-looking because of their interiority, but I find that the interiority you may view in them has parallels with the supposed ‘scepticism’ of Montaigne. In fact, it is just a way of expressing old things in a new context.

I do not know about Germany and Italy, but I certainly believe England, France and Spain to be very comparable in that era. The channels of communication in the humanistic tradition long remained strong.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: You mean they remained open in the post-Reformation era?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Certainly until the 1620s the communication carried on, and only then did they begin to part ways. When Philip of Spain was married to Mary Tudor and Spaniards arrived in England there was plenty of anti-Spanish propaganda. It was, however, at a political level. If you read what was going on at grass-roots level, Spaniards felt relatively at home in England, and Englishmen likewise in Spain: despite the Inquisition!

I think that is a very unexplored area. We have become used to the idea that, because of the Reformation and the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth, Spain and England became two different worlds. In fact, at the cultural level, they were very, very similar.

Andrew: were there not all sorts of channels of communication between early-modern universities?

Dr Andrew Hegarty: Certainly. You mentioned the great debate about the means of salvation – De auxiliis, as it was known – between Jesuits and Dominicans, above all in Spain. That was being followed closely in Oxford, because, in a sense, the same dispute existed among early-17th-century English Protestants between Calvinists and Arminians. Many Oxford theologians were interested in knowing what was going on in Salamanca. Had one been living in the 18th-century the cultural centre would have been for many effects Paris. It is often forgotten that in the late 16th and first half of the 17th century Spain was in many respects the cultural superpower. Early-17th-Century French religious and spiritual life was in many ways dependent upon Spanish antecedents.

Many Spanish authors, as I indicated earlier, were translated into English, French and other languages. That communication was open at all sorts of levels, quite apart from the fact there were many people moving back and forth at the time. Although Philip II of Spain had forbidden his Spanish subjects from attending universities outside his realms, that of course did not exclude the Spanish Netherlands – roughly modern Belgium – with which England and France had good communications, nor the large part of Italy over which he held sway.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: And, of course, the Spaniards in Spain were happy to utter their classic formula in such matters, too: ‘I obey but I do not comply’.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: An astonishing diary was kept up by a patrician Italian student of Salamanca over three years or so in the first decade of the 17th century. This has been published: the author was Girolamo da Sommaia. There are notes there about what he was reading and doing, about the plays and bull-fights he attended, and about the people with whom he spoke. Also there are notes preparatory of his confessions. From his reading lists and the notes for confession it is clear that he was reading many forbidden books, books that had been placed on the Index, some of them passed from hand to hand in manuscript copies. Many of these were of a quasi-political nature. He seems not, however, to have been reading the books of dangerous heresiarchs which might have brought him swiftly within range of the activities of the Spanish Inquisition. His world was hardly a closed one. A number of scholars have made us more aware in recent decades of a whole world of manuscript circulation in the early 17th century.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: And his reading was very wide?

Dr Andrew Hegarty: Absolutely, and also quite cosmopolitan. It was, indeed, not only a matter of reading. The people he encountered in the university, and with whom he discussed the pressing issues of the day, included Englishmen, Irishmen, Germans, Danes, Flemings, and other Italians, beside Spaniards. There is even mention of an Ethiopian slave. Spain was far from closed in those years, although one has to admit that the great University can hardly have been typical. It was, as I say, quite a cosmopolitan society.

Russell Wilcox: Lukacs (if my memory serves me correctly) argued that the novel form was highly individualist. How would you deal with that particular suggestion in relation to what you have said about Cervantes?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: You are thinking of those constantly trying to say that he was the first novelist, and therefore the first modern man – and so on?

Russell Wilcox: Yes, and who was if he was not?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: He does not develop the psychology of his characters in any modern way. He is certainly no modern novelist. I agree that he is the first recognisable novelist, but his work was not like the 18th-century English novels in which modern novels have their roots.

Russell Wilcox: So you think the claim about the novel being the form of individualist literature is overblown?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Well, admitting first of all that I have not read Lukacs on the subject, I must say that it does seem to me a very exaggerated notion. Nonetheless, it must be allowed that novels certainly do thrive in a very individualistic world.

I suppose the big influence of Cervantes on modern literature has been the manner in which the character of Don Quixote has been interpreted at different stages. In the 18th century he was a comic figure; in the 19th century, a tragic figure; while in the 20th Century he has been somebody who rejected the values of contemporary society and formed his own little world – the idealisation of madness, if you like. In fact, Cervantes puts all those things, and more, into Don Quixote. He is turning everything on its head, and that does not seem to me particularly individualistic. That would be my answer, but I could carry on thinking about that question for the next two centuries!

Dr Ludek Rychetnik: You have spoken of the shared vision of the world held by these two, and you have spoken of some common Jesuit influence. Might there not be something there also from an older medieval unity of culture, of high culture? Meanwhile, the two countries of England and Spain gradually grew apart. Can something of that more modern difference be seen also in the different outlooks of Cervantes and Shakespeare?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: In response to your first question, I agree. At the same time I should like to state that I do not want to exaggerate Jesuit influence. It is a remarkable coincidence that both seemingly, albeit in varied ways, had some exposure to what humanistic Jesuits were doing in the earlier or formative years of the Society. That was very different from the Jesuit outlook of the late-16th and early-17th centuries when they became much more philosophically-minded and conscious of the imperative of defending Catholicism against Protestantism. Earlier on they were still very much part of the medieval unity of Christendom. The early Jesuits were extremely receptive to all sorts of cultural traditions. It might have been through them, but in fact Shakespeare and Cervantes were both in any event immersed in a humanist culture that was ecumenical rather than confessional. Their Christianity was much less apologetic than it might later have become.

Remind me of your second question.

Dr Ludek Rychetnik: I asked about differences between England and Spain. There were apparently already some differences. Is any of that reflected in differences between Shakespeare and Cervantes?

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Well yes, Shakespeare is as unmistakably English as Cervantes is Spanish. The points I have made, I think, are that humanist culture was very similar in the two countries and that there were plenty of channels of communication still open. But Spain at that time seemed more cosmopolitan. The trajectory of Cervantes was, therefore, more cosmopolitan than that of Shakespeare. We know very little about Shakespeare, although some believe he must have travelled in Italy because of all the references to Italy in his writings. Clare Asquith would like to believe he might have studied in Oxford.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: I strongly suspect that short of her making a miraculous documentary find somewhere, both Italy and Oxford are going to be impossible to prove in any Shakespeare itinerary.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Cervantes spent a long time in Italy and in other places; he fought at Lepanto; he was a prisoner in North Africa. His outlook and his Mediterranean world were very rich.

Dr Andrew Hegarty: I think there is a difference between the cultures of the time. If one looks at late-16th- and early-17th-century Spanish portraiture, of men in particular, there seems to exist a strong predilection for dressing in sober black. Compare that with 19th-century portraits of Englishmen, usually portrayed likewise in sober black. In both cases it seems to me at least simply part of the self-image of an imperial people. The great men of an imperial age seem to dress in a particular way, with an almost Roman sobriety. There is no doubt that Spain had that imperial vision in the era of Cervantes, but England not yet, I think.

Dr Fernando Cervantes: Similarities between Dickens and Cervantes have been noted!