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Don Quixote’s initial reception in the Seventeenth Century was as a work of humour; Cervantes’ ability to reflect and imitate reality through the ironic juxtaposition of his two main characters played a focal role in both driving the plot and attracting the attention of his readers in the Golden Age. The existence of humour is undeniable throughout the novel, and Henry Fielding’s attempts to attract readers to his comic romance Joseph Andrews by linking it to Don Quixote, claiming that he had ‘written it in imitation of the manner of Cervantes’ places the work as an exemplary novel, from which humour can not only be taken, but utilised to inspire and promote other works. However, humour’s level of importance becomes clouded with time, as the novel’s distinct link to the circumstances in which it was created and the effects of cultural change could perhaps affect its level of significance in the modern mind. Daniel Eisenburg’s claim that ‘The humour of Don Quixote is the most understudied topic of the work’ can be seen throughout the novel’s later reception, as the emergence of Romanticism in Europe saw a radical reconsideration of the traditional view of Don Quixote as merely a humorous book. The romantics recognised the straightforward amusement that drove the plot, but viewed humour as less important than the moral values and literary instruction offered and humour was conceived as a vehicle through which Cervantes was able to satirise the overstated chivalric romances of the time and engage with topics of importance.
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The use of parody in Don Quixote becomes a literary technique that pervades the adventures and experiences of the characters, amplifying the importance of humour in the novel. Russell’s assertion that ‘Any serious study of Cervantes’ book…must start from the fact that it was conceived by its author as an extended parody of romances of chivalry’ illustrates the importance of the humour of parody in the novel. Cervantes uses the inherently humorous picaresque form as a basis from which he can explore the quest of a man of a low social class in a fraudulent society; satirising the artificial chivalric age in which he was writing. Don Quixote transforms his view of Maritornes, following the language and customs of chivalric romance, ‘her hair was like a horse’s mane, but he saw it as strands of gleaming Arabian gold’ to which Cervantes narrates, ”Neither touch nor smell nor any of the good maiden’s other attributes could make him notice his mistake, even though they’d have made anyone but a muleteer vomit’. Similarly, the ironic use of archaic language, an elevated style often used to dignify the hero in chivalric romance, is evident when addressing his Dulcinea,
‘O princess Dulcinea, mistress of this hapless heart! Great injury have you done me in reproaching and dismissing me, with the cruel command not to appear in the presence of your wondrous beauty. Vouchsafe, my lady, to be mindful of this your subject heart, which suffers each sorrow for love of you’.
Literary voice is key to humour and Cervantes’ employment of numerous voices, both depicted and defined the importance of social classes, allowing the audience to derive much of their enjoyment from the way in which the author disclosed the different voices. Sancho’s colloquial and informal speech is important in emphasising his difference from Don Quixote; his use of contractions ‘you’ll’, ‘won’t’ and ‘I’ll’ in the line, ‘You’ll be sure, won’t you, sir knight, not to forget what you promised me, about the island. I’ll be up to governing it all right, however big it is’ is set in complete contrast to Don Quixote’s high styled, formal response, ‘I would have you know, my good friend Sancho Panza, that it was a custom much in use among the knights errant of old to make their squires the governors of the islands or kingdoms that they conquered, and I have determined that such an ancient usage shall not lapse through my fault.’ However, the depth of Cervantes’ humouring of chivalric romance could be considered a moot point, and thus the importance of humour as a façade through which real topics may be discussed, is strengthened, as the allusion to one of the original chivalric epics, the Valencian novel Tirant Lo Blanch, is one of admiration, in which it is claimed that ‘As far as style is concerning this is the best book in the world’. In addition, Cervantes uses his novel in a more negative way, to explore his frustration at literature in society; the highly ironic allusion to the works of one of the most successful playwrights of the time, Lope de Vega, infers that there is further depth to Cervantes’ discussion in the book, as he uses the priest as an outlet to explore the critical view that ‘these modern plays are just mirrors of absurdity, exemplars of folly and images of lewdness’.
Cervantes’ intentions for humour in Don Quixote are illustrated in his Prologue, in which his friend reveals the book’s comedic objectives: ‘Ensure that the melancholy man is moved to laughter when he reads your story, the jovial man laughs even more’. However, one must consider that the role of humour becomes of greater significance than a mere stimulus endeavouring to invoke a humorous response; it is through the medium of humour and comedy that Cervantes is able to reveal himself as an illustrious author, through his exploration of genuine views of society and culture; Schmidt explains that Cervantes has created ‘…characters who, although funny, transcend humour in their nobler qualities. The elevation of the character Don Quixote is necessary for the ennoblement of the author Cervantes’. The basic allegory of Don Quixote is central to Cervantes’ exploration of society through humour. Cervantes attacks the conventional notion that those in high society were respectable and noble and creates disparities between worth and class. In comparison to medieval comedy, humour in Don Quixote has a significant intention to explore social function, suggesting that through the means of humorous self-imposed madness, the characters can response to the institutionalised madness of their society at the time. This seems to be a theme that Cervantes wished to discuss thoroughly through literature, as it is also explored in his novel The Glass Graduate; many parallels can be drawn between the two works, as both novels encounter men who are thought to be mad and who serve, unintentionally, as some means of entertainment. Whilst The Glass Graduate’s lunacy originates from the unfortunate ingestion of a toxic quince, Don Quixote’s madness is rooted in his literary interest in chivalric romances, a more realistic and solid source. Similarly, Umberto Eco’s later novel The Island of the Day before is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s immersion within literary works, as the protagonist Roberto becomes so captivated with fiction that he becomes unable to separate his written words from the external reality.
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The methods of humour used by Cervantes in Don Quixote are vital in reflecting, summarising and exploring the ordinary, yet inverted, world of the novel. The comedic inversion and transformations of chivalric codes are fruitful throughout the novel and Don Quixote’s imagination is expounded in ordinary terms by Sancho, who provides a second perspective on his master’s wild claims, ‘What you were attacking wasn’t armies, it was flocks of sheep’. The appearance of the characters provides the first notion of humour, as the old and physically unattractive Don Quixote provides direct contrast to the young, handsome and strong knight to which Cervantes’ audience would be accustomed. Similarly, Sancho’s role as the young assistant sees him as a middle aged man on a donkey, which is far removed from the original picture of a knight’s young aspirant. The two characters are juxtaposed in physicality; one being long and weak, and the other plump and unhealthy, yet the mental contrast is more severe, as Sancho’s traditional materialism, practically enquiring about monetary support (QUOTE) is set against Don Quixote’s idealism and imagination, ‘Consider, ladies and gentleman, the sheer impudence of this squire claiming that this is a basin and not the helmet I have specified’. Cervantes’ use of bawdy humour is reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the humour descends to the exploration of bodily functions and nudity; for example, scenes such as Absolon’s kissing a ‘naked ers’ in a practical joke in The Miller’s Tale are reinvented in Sancho’s efforts to ‘thrust two ample buttocks’ in the air in an attempt to ‘relieve himself in silence’ without waking Don Quixote, who humorously later asked ‘What murmuring is that, Sancho?’. Similarly, the bawdy humour is later evident in Sancho’s experience with the ‘precious balsam’, which Don Quixote later reveals ‘it seems to me that this liquor does not benefit those who are not knight….the poor squire began to gush at both ends’. Cervantes also employs an element of slapstick humour, which is not only scripted blatantly in the sub text of a title, ‘Which related to the amusing way in which Don Quixote had himself knighted’, but through the mockery of individual characters and creation of ridiculous scenes; the description of the proud Don Quixote in battle as ‘attacking them, chased around in circles and achieved nothing’ is evidence of the former and the scene in which ‘The barbed made a long beard from a pale oxtail’ certainly encompasses that of a absurd incident. Nevertheless, each scene does not simply serve as an effort to provide hilarity; scenes of equal absurdity such as his ‘MONK QUOTE’, could be examined as exposing Cervantes’ own biases against important topical issues, such as the mistrust of foreigners following the present of the Algerian pirates on the Spanish coast in the early Seventeenth Century.
However, despite the outrageous situations in which the characters are involved, it could be argued that the common interpretation of Don Quixote as a tender satire is mistaken and that the work is in fact an attack of viciousness on a man who is entirely ‘without malice’ and ‘trustful as a child’. Byron supports this claim in Don Juan, claiming that, ‘Of all tales ’tis the saddest – and more sad, because it makes us smile’. It is evident that Don Quixote is a parody of the romances of Cervantes’ time, yet the code of honour that both Don Quixote and Sancho follow is one that was once admired, and is perhaps an historical suggestion that could serve as an example for Spain. At a time in which the country was caught in the disorder of a new age, this could be viewed as Cervantes’ effort to place sturdy values in an ever-shifting society. Don Quixote’s naivety, believing the convicts would obey his wishes to be ‘grateful for benefits received…present yourselves before the Lady Dulcinea’ is perhaps a characteristic that Cervantes hoped would stimulate empathy, which was certainly the stance occupied by Nabokov, ‘His blazon is pity, his banner is beauty. He stands for everything that is gentle, forlorn, pure, unselfish and gallant. The Parody has becomes a paragon’. David Quint responded to this claim directly, maintaining that ‘The deficiency may partially explain Nabokov’s contempt for Don Quixote as an ‘unfunny’ work of fiction, since his preferred English translation was Putnam’s, a translation that is plain and readable, but (perhaps consciously) hardly very funny’. It is possible that as a result of its conversion to English, much of the humour Cervantes intended has been misplaced in translation; thus, our conception of the importance of humour in England could differ greatly from that of the indigenous reader. John Ormsby supports this concept in his claim that, ‘the sententious terseness to which the humour of the book owes its flavour is particular to Spanish, and can at best be only distantly imitated in any other tongue’.
In conclusion, Nabokov’s reflection that ‘Don Quixote has ridden for three hundred and fifty years through the jungles and tundras of human thought’ is of great significance when considering the importance of humour in the novel, as it is perhaps due to inconclusive translations and cultural change that all of Cervantes’ intended humour was not fully recognised. Cervantes’ exploration of humour through situation, action and description are all perfectly interwoven to produce a novel that stands in a exclusive position between the chivalric romance and the modern novel. It is undeniable that humour (however present) plays a significant role in Don Quixote, as it not only entertains, but holds a profound and liberating importance as a means of communicating issues of great social and literary significance.
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