Yale Presents a Free Online Course on Miguel de Cervantes’ Masterpiece Don Quixote

Among the lit­er­ary works that emerged in the so-called Gold­en Age of Span­ish cul­ture in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, one shines so bright­ly that it seems to eclipse all oth­ers, and indeed is said to not only be the foun­da­tion of mod­ern Span­ish writ­ing, but of the mod­ern nov­el itself. Miguel de Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote syn­the­sized the Medieval and Renais­sance lit­er­a­ture that had come before it in a bril­liant­ly satir­i­cal work, writes pop­u­lar aca­d­e­m­ic Harold Bloom, with “cos­mo­log­i­cal scope and rever­ber­a­tion.” But in such high praise of a great work, we can lose sight of the work itself. Don Quixote is hard­ly an excep­tion.

“The notion of ‘lit­er­ary clas­sic,’” Simon Leys writes at the New York Review of Books, “has a solemn ring about it. But Don Quixote, which is the clas­sic par excel­lence, was writ­ten for a flat­ly prac­ti­cal pur­pose: to amuse the largest pos­si­ble num­ber of read­ers, in order to make a lot of mon­ey for the author (who need­ed it bad­ly).” To men­tion these inten­tions is not to dimin­ish the work, but per­haps even to bur­nish it fur­ther. To have cre­at­ed, as Yale’s Rober­to González Echevar­ría says in his intro­duc­to­ry lec­ture above, “one of the unques­tioned mas­ter­pieces of world lit­er­a­ture, let alone the West­ern Canon,” while seek­ing pri­mar­i­ly to enter­tain and make a buck says quite a lot about Cer­vantes’ con­sid­er­able tal­ents, and, per­haps, about his mod­ernism.

Rather than write for a feu­dal patron, monarch, or deity, he wrote for what he hoped would be a prof­itable mass-mar­ket. In so doing, says Pro­fes­sor González, quot­ing Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, Cer­vantes wrote “a nov­el in which there is already every­thing that nov­el­ists would attempt to do in the future until today.” González’s course, “Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote,” is now avail­able online in a series of 24 lec­tures, avail­able on YouTube and iTunes. (Stream all 24 lec­tures below.) You can down­load all of the course mate­ri­als, includ­ing the syl­labus and overview of each class, here. There is a good deal of read­ing involved, and you’ll need to get your hands on a few extra books. In addi­tion to the weighty Quixote, “stu­dents are also expect­ed to read four of Cer­vantes’ Exem­plary Sto­ries, Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote: A Case­book, and J.H. Elliott’s Impe­r­i­al Spain.” It would seem well worth the effort.

Pro­fes­sor González goes on in his intro­duc­tion to dis­cuss the novel’s impor­tance to such fig­ures as Sig­mund Freud, Jorge Luis Borges, and British schol­ar Ian Watt, who called Don Quixote “one of four myths of mod­ern indi­vid­u­al­ism, the oth­ers being Faust, Don Juan, and Robin­son Cru­soe.” The novel’s his­tor­i­cal resume is tremen­dous­ly impres­sive, but the most impor­tant thing about it, says González, is that it has been read and enjoyed by mil­lions of peo­ple around the world for hun­dreds of years. Just why is that?

The pro­fes­sor quotes from his own intro­duc­tion to the Pen­guin Clas­sics edi­tion he asks stu­dents to read in pro­vid­ing his answer: “Miguel de Cer­vantes Saavedra’s mas­ter­piece has endured because it focus­es on literature’s fore­most appeal: to become anoth­er, to leave a typ­i­cal­ly embat­tled self for anoth­er clos­er to one’s desires and aspi­ra­tions. This is why Don Quixote has often been read as a children’s book, and con­tin­ues to be read by and to chil­dren.” Crit­ics might be prone to dis­miss such enjoy­able wish ful­fil­ment as triv­ial, but the cen­turies-long suc­cess of Don Quixote shows it may be the foun­da­tion of all mod­ern lit­er­ary writ­ing.

Don Quixote will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Online Lit­er­a­ture cours­es, a sub­set of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote

Sal­vador Dalí Sketch­es Five Span­ish Immor­tals: Cer­vantes, Don Quixote, El Cid, El Gre­co & Velázquez

Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Tomo Stojanovic says:

    I read Don Quixote 8 or so times (both the Pen­guin trans­la­tion and Edith Gross­man­’s). I think Ruther­ford trans­la­tion is the best.
    After I read it 5 times I think it seemed clear to me that Cer­vantes was expos­ing reli­gion as the ‘mad­ness’ — all we need to do is replace the ‘books of chival­ry’ with the bible. I think that was his main mes­sage which had to be expressed as a metaphor so many cen­turies ago.
    I know many peo­ple who seem very wise and intel­li­gent until they start talk­ing about their invis­i­ble friends/masters (i.e. reli­gion).
    Wher­ev­er DQ is at his mad­dest — his friend the priest is usu­al­ly there and it’s obvi­ous that he makes DQ more delud­ed (while pre­tend­ing he was try­ing to help him. Cer­vantes often makes sure to show how versed the priest is at trick­ing peo­ple, act­ing and basi­cal­ly lying (but usu­al­ly in a help­ful con­text). That was one hint to me.
    I think what he was try­ing to show to us is how absurd the world becomes when every­one starts lying and pre­tend­ing they believe oth­er peo­ple’s lies — as San­cho Pan­za obvi­ous­ly does.
    The dan­ger of being so lost in lies and delu­sions is illus­trat­ed when the Duchess man­ages to per­suade San­cho that Dul­cinea is real­ly enchant­ed (“ while San­cho him­self was both the enchanter and the hoax­er..” (p.720)
    There are oth­er exam­ples like that and many illus­tra­tions of how what seems like a mir­a­cle is actu­al­ly a clever trick — like the fake sui­cide at Car­de­no’s wed­ding. There are also illus­tra­tions (like the night at the inn when every­one meets by coin­ci­dence) which illus­trate how very unlike­ly events can hap­pen in real life (stranger than fic­tion like the Bible). He also often con­trasts the real-life col­lab­o­ra­tion with real peo­ple to imag­i­nary stu­pid delu­sions (and it’s often clear that real life, real peo­ple are supe­ri­or to any imag­i­nary friends/masters.
    As if he was try­ing to tell us — you see how easy it is to cre­ate fake mir­a­cles, how stu­pid it is to be obsessed with a book, or how what seems as a divine inter­ven­tion is real­ly some­thing done by real peo­ple (often with the inten­tion to trick you).
    Anoth­er hint to me was DQ’s death — and how he admit­ted pre­tend­ing to believe what was fake, and how absurd that is and how harm­ful. He apol­o­gizes to San­cho for dis­tract­ing him from real­i­ty.
    Also the way the Duke and Duchess ‘knew’ about DQ (because they read the book about him) — which is kind of illog­i­cal and impos­si­ble ‑that also refers to the cir­cu­lar expla­na­tions of fake events from the Bible.
    There are many more exam­ples, but you get my drift: the mad­ness Cer­vantes referred to was RELIGION as described in the Bible (aka Books of Chival­ry)
    Thanks for the lec­ture
    Tomo Sto­janovic

  • Hanko says:

    Tomo, great review! It is obvi­ous that you know the sto­ry well. I have also read many trans­la­tions sev­er­al times. I will be think­ing about your analy­sis. Thank you.

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