A Tale of Two Heritages: Shakespeare and Cervantes
Both legendary writers died 400 years ago this week, but only one of them may have had a Jewish background
This week marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, so of course everyone is scrambling to find a Jewish connection. Don’t misunderstand, there are some good ones: From his maybe-Jewish maybe-muse to lots and lots and lots of discussions of Shylock. But in all the excitement, perhaps we have forgotten that it’s not only the Bard’s quadricentennial yahrtzeit.
There is historical evidence that Shakespeare actually died the same exact day as Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author of Don Quixote, widely considered one of the most influential novelists of all time. There’s no way to be sure, given Spain and England’s different calendars at the time, but the deaths of two giant contributors to their respective languages were definitely close, and they both deserve accolades.
Besides, unlike Shakespeare, Cervantes may have had Jewish ancestry.
Yes, by the time Cervantes was born the Jews had been kicked out of Spain for over fifty years, but there is some evidence to suggest that he was descended from conversos, Jews who accepted Christianity to avoid persecution. These reasons include denial of a visa to the “New World,” often the fate of members of historically Jewish families, and a name that comes from the word for “deer,” at a time when Jewish names were often taken from animals. Besides, Cervantes, the son of a surgeon, would not be the only “New Christian” to join the ranks of Spanish intelligentsia; many former “heathens” contributed greatly to Spanish culture.
Of course, Cervantes would have had a complicated relationship with his family’s former faith, at best. Descendants of conversos, as well as Muslim converts to Christianity, were constantly treated as less than authentic Christians, and forbidden religions were no cause for celebration. And yet, Cervantes makes explicit references in his work to other cultures, including a framing device in Don Quixote in which the narrator (ostensibly Cervantes) first learns the story of the knight from an Arabic text (and the translator’s name is a pun on “eggplant,” a food associated at the time with Jews and Muslims), and then refers to an “older and better language,” commonly interpreted to mean Hebrew.
There are other, sometimes fanciful ideas about Cervantes and Judaism, including possible references to Jewish texts, critiques of the Church and the Inquisition, and even kabbalistic themes.
Is Don Quixote himself a Jewish hero, a put-upon idealist, persecuted for his different beliefs? Perhaps a bit, but it’s reductive to make one of the greatest characters in literature so simple a metaphor. And for the Jews of medieval Spain, the oppression by the majority was all too real. Don Quixote’s library was burnt, much like the books (and sometimes bodies) of Jews during the Inquisition.
In any case, without comparing anything else about them, there’s a far deeper mine of Jewishness in Cervantes’s life and works than those of Shakespeare. You don’t need a conspiracy theory of hidden authorship to make a real connection.
Gabriela Geselowitz is the editor of Jewcy.com.