Literary Criticism

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Don Quixote and the Subversive Tradition of Golden Age Spain


R. K. Britton is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Hispanic Studies, Sheffield University, where he is also a part-time tutor in Spanish in The Institute of Lifelong Learning. His research interests are modern Latin American literature, the literature and culture of Golden Age Spain and literary translation. His The Poetic and Real Worlds of César Vallejo (1892–1938) was widely reviewed: “Bob Britton’s book brings César Vallejo fascinatingly to life”, Adam Feinstein

This study offers a reading of Don Quixote, with comparative material from Golden Age history and Cervantes’ life, to argue that his greatest work was not just the hilariously comic entertainment that most of his contemporaries took it to be. Rather, it belongs to a “subversive tradition” of writing that grew up in sixteenth-century Spain and which constantly questioned the aims and standards of the imperial nation state that Counter-reformation Spain had become from the point of view of Renaissance humanism.

Prime consideration needs to be given to the system of Spanish censorship at the time, run largely by the Inquisition albeit officially an institution of the crown, and its effect on the cultural life of the country. In response, writers of poetry and prose fiction – strenuously attacked on moral grounds by sections of the clergy and the laity – became adept at camouflaging heterodox ideas through rhetoric and imaginative invention. Ironically, Cervantes’ success in avoiding the attention of the censor by concealing his criticisms beneath irony and humour was so effective that even some twentieth-century scholars have maintained Don Quixote is a brilliantly funny book but no more. Bob Britton draws on recent critical and historical scholarship – including ideas on cultural authority and studies on the way Cervantes addresses history, truth, writing, law and gender in Don Quixote – and engages with the intellectual and moral issues that this much-loved writer engaged with. The summation and appraisal of these elements within the context of Golden Age censorship and the literary politics of the time make it essential reading for all those who are interested in or study the Spanish language and its literature.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-861-9
Hardback Price: £65.00 / $69.95
Release Date: December 2018
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-862-6
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: September 2018
Page Extent / Format: 240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface and Acknowledgements

Chapter 1Don Quixote: Its Author, its Readers and its Critics

Chapter 2 – Cervantes’ Laboratory of Literary Ideas

Chapter 3Don Quixote: A Book of Two Halves

Chapter 4 – Truth and Lies in Real Life and Fiction: Don Quixote as a Defence of Imaginative Literature

Chapter 5 –: Justice, Law and Politics. The Novel as a Vehicle for Debate in Don Quixote

Chapter 6 – Humour, Irony and Satire in Don Quixote: Public Merriment and Private Laughter

Chapter 7 – The Novel as a Mirror to Society: Women, Social Class and Social Conflict in Don Quixote

Chapter 8 – Authority and Subversion in Don Quixote: The Novel as Moral Dialectic

Afterword: Don Quixote and the 20th Century Reader




Cervantes’ (1547–1616) masterpiece Don Quixote continues to serve as a mirror to new generations four centuries after it appeared, says Britton, and he presents a study exploring two themes of recent interest. First he re-examines the underlying purpose of the novel, arguing that it is essentially a work that employs fiction as a means of social, artistic, and political criticism of Hapsburg Spain and its spiritual values. Were is not for the artistry and skill with which Cervantes masked the message, he says, the book would almost certainly have aroused the wrath of the censors. The second theme is the nature of modernity. Drawing on recorded responses of a small number of mature undergraduate students who studied the novel as part of a degree course, he suggests that that what 21st-century readers identify as the modern aspects of the novel can largely be attributed to the presence of the subversive elements of his first theme.

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