Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (sərvăn´tēz, Span. mēgĕl´ dā thĕrvän´tās sä´ävāŧħrä), 1547–1616, Spanish novelist, dramatist, and poet, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, b. Alcalá de Henares.
Little is known of Cervantes's youth. He went to Italy (1569), where, in the service of a cardinal, he studied Italian literature and philosophy, which were later to influence his work. In 1570 he enlisted in the army and fought in the naval battle of Lepanto (1571), receiving a wound that permanently crippled his left arm. While returning to Spain in 1575 he was captured by Barbary pirates and was sold as a slave; he eventually became the property of the viceroy of Algiers. After many attempted escapes, he was ransomed in 1580, at a cost that brought financial ruin to himself and to his family. As a government purchasing agent in Seville (1588–97), Cervantes proved less than successful; his unbusinesslike methods resulted in deficits, and he was imprisoned several times.
His first published work was an effusive pastoral romance in prose and verse, La Galatea (1585). Between 1582 and 1587 he wrote more than 20 plays, only two of which survive. He was 58 when Part I of his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605; Part II, 1615), was published. As a superb burlesque of the popular romances of chivalry, Don Quixote was an enormous and immediate success. A spurious Part II was published in 1614, probably spurring Cervantes to complete the work.
Don Quixote is considered a profound delineation of two conflicting attitudes toward the world: idealism and realism. The work has been appreciated as a satire on unrealistic extremism, an exposition of the tragedy of idealism in a corrupt world, and a plea for widespread reform. Whatever its intended emphasis, the work presented to the world an unforgettable description of the transforming power of illusion, and it has had an indelible effect on the development of the European novel.
Don Quixote is a country gentleman who has read too many chivalric romances. He and the peasant Sancho Panza, who serves as his squire, set forth on a series of extravagant adventures. The whole fabric of 16th-century Spanish society is detailed with piercing yet sympathetic insight. The addled idealism of Don Quixote and the earthy acquisitiveness of Sancho serve as catalysts for numerous humorous and pathetic exploits and incidents. Its panorama of characters, the excellence of its tales, and its vivid portrayal of human nature contribute to the enduring influence of Don Quixote.
In later years Cervantes wrote other works of fiction, including Novelas ejemplares (1613), 12 original tales of piracy, Gypsies, and human passions, drawn from his own experience and molded by his mature craftsmanship. Some of these stories in themselves prove him to be one of the world's great literary masters.
Among the most acclaimed translations of Don Quixote are those by S. Putman (1949), J. M. Cohen (1950), and E. Grossman (2003). See biographies by L. Astrana Marín (in Spanish, 7 vol., 1948–58), F. Díaz Plaja (tr. 1970), and W. Byron (1988); studies by L. Nelson (1969), A. K. Forcione (1982), J. G. Weiger (3 vol., 1979–88), and C. B. Johnson (1983); bibliography by D. B. Drake (1980).