April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the deaths of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the immortal national bards of England and Spain. Their impact has been deep, pervasive, long lasting, and has long since outstripped the boundaries of England and Spain. They belong to the world, yet there is no denying that their talents and subsequent fame owe much to the fact that they were born and thrived in, arguably, Europe’s two most consequential nations. Both England and Spain established vast global empires that formed the stage for the wisdom, imagination, and ink-stained fingers of these two poets whose words still shape our thoughts in the 21st century. If you believe that “parting is such sweet sorrow” in Abilene or Adelaide, or that it’s better to be “lento con la lengua y rápido con el ojo” (slow with the tongue but quick with the eye) in Madrid or Mexicali, you were primed to think this way in the 17th century.The Divinity likes to tip His hand every once in a while to let us know that we’re not mere agglomerations of atoms, or even protoplasmic automatons. So just as political rivals Jefferson and Adams died on the same day (July 4, 1826), so too the literary giants of the rival champions of the Protestant and Catholic causes both died within hours of each other.1Both Cervantes and Shakespeare wrote of the heroic and patriotic, though from different perspectives. Their countries stood at inflection points. Cervantes’ work reflected and influenced how his society dealt with decline, Shakespeare’s with ascent. At their zenith, both empires were so vast that it was truthfully said the sun did not set on them. But by 1616, Spain’s sun had begun to set, while England’s was yet rising. Spain had already acquired every square inch of territory it would ever get its imperial hands on; it spent the next three centuries managing a protracted decay. England’s best days lay ahead. In four short years, Pilgrims would land at Plymouth Rock; India and huge chunks of Southeast Asia and Africa would be added over the next three centuries; and Britannia would rule the waves.It should hardly surprise, therefore, that Shakespeare was a promoter of English patriotism and overall vim, while Cervantes became the spokesman of a by-now deeply Spanish sardonic skepticism and resignation. To the first belongs the most famous exhortation into battle in the English language: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” To the second, the ultimate phrase of resignation when luck turns against you, “Paciencia y barajar” (have patience, and keep shuffling the cards).Americans today can use the occasion of these quadricentennials to ask important questions about their own country’s position in the world. Is the United States a 21st-century England or Spain? Who would be the more apt bard for America today: a new Shakespeare or a new Cervantes?England and CastileThe Spain and Britain of April 23, 1616, were multiethnic realms newly assembled under single crowns. In Castile, the reigning monarch’s grandfather and father, the Emperor Charles V and King Philip II, had consolidated Castile, Aragon, and Portugal on one throne. Philip III inherited these lands, as well as parts of central Europe, Italy, the Americas, and the Philippines. In England, James I had been brought in from Scotland in 1603 to join together under “personal union” the crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland.Their kingdoms were also polyglot. Gaelic, Scots, Old Norse, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish were spoken through large pockets in the British Isles. Galician-Portuguese, the related Astur-Leones, Catalan and its many dialects, and Basque dominated the counties of much of the Iberian Peninsula. Both Cervantes and Shakespeare interwove the different groups into the tapestry of their work, often giving characters telling verbal or syntactical ticks. In Henry V, Shakespeare had the Welshman Captain Fluellen, the Scot Captain Jamy, and the Irish Captain Macmorris—all fighting for the same king. Cervantes, too, sends the Quixote into Catalonia, where at one point the forlorn knight and his rustic sidekick Sancho Panza are surrounded in the countryside by bandits who speak nothing but Catalan. Don Quixote also encounters Galicians, who are stereotypically coarse, and a Basque who speaks Castilian haltingly.The regional languages began their full retreat before the triumphant advance of English and Castilian even as Cervantes and Shakespeare dipped quill into inkwell. Their work coincided with the growth of what we today recognize as a national consciousness in their respective lands. All these qualities might have helped give England and Castile the ability to conquer their foes and acquire their empires. Castile applied in the Americas the techniques it had perfected against the Moors and the other kingdoms of the peninsula—not just warring tactics, but strategic dynastic marriages and settlement patterns. England likewise practiced on the Indians what had worked in Ireland. As Paul Johnson put it in A History of the American People, “In the American enterprise, Ireland played the same part for the English as the wars against the Moors had done for the Spaniards—it was a training ground both in suppressing and uprooting an alien race and culture, and in settling conquered lands and building towns.”The turning point for each country’s fate may have been the defeat of Philip II’s Armada Invencible in 1588. Philip’s thrashing, and Elizabeth’s victory, was followed seven years later by another humiliation: the English sacking of Cadiz. The wheel of fortune had turned dramatically for both monarchs and their developing nations. Both Shakespeare and Cervantes reflected that reality and gave not just accurate but energizing accounts of the rulers and governments under whom they lived.Cervantes and the QuixoteCervantes’s work and life embody the national disillusion that followed defeat and decline. We can see this mourning for glories past in the treatment he gives his first two monarchs, Charles V and his son Philip II. Charles, who abdicated when Cervantes was seven, was a courageous warrior and a skilled diplomat who could forgive German Protestant princes their “heresy” in the interest of Christian unity against Islam. His son, however, was a religious fanatic who once boasted he would fetch the firewood to burn his own son if he became a heretic. Philip II was also a dry bureaucrat who insisted on reading every report and centralized power in himself. The nicknames Spaniards gave both kings tell the tale: the father was known as “el Rey Emperador” and the son as “el Rey Burocrata.”Cervantes reflects that verdict, praising Charles as “invictisimo” in one of a dozen mentions in the Quixote. In another book, The Works of Persiles and Sigismunda, he praises the emperor as “the terror of the enemies of the church and the fright of the followers of Mohammed.” Philip, on the other hand, comes in for rough treatment for his refusal to lead his troops in battle or even travel outside of Spain. In a poem written in 1585 Cervantes repeats five times the mocking line: “Can we expect from him anything other than works of heaven?” It was a clear reference to Philip’s obsession with building churches and sending monks to scour Europe for church relics. His lavish spending on these projects came at the detriment of soldiers deployed throughout his empire. As Michael Armstrong-Roche said of one passage in the Quixote, “the narrator is careful to distinguish between the extraordinary valor of the hapless soldiers abandoned to their fate and the effectively vainglorious motives of those responsible for putting them there.”2Cervantes also holds against Philip his Catholic fanaticism at home, combined with an inability to understand Spain’s true national interests in defending Christendom against Islam. And indeed, Cervantes knew of what he spoke. He had been one of those brave soldiers, taking part in one of Spain’s last important victories, the Battle of Lepanto, when Philip’s bastard half-brother John of Austria routed the Ottoman navy. Cervantes refused to give in to a fever and went on deck, in the process losing the use of his left arm for life and earning the sobriquet “el manco de Lepanto,” or “the one-armed man of Lepanto.”Cervantes was also one of those whom Philip abandoned to his fate. Taken prisoner at sea by Algerian pirates in 1575, he was held for ransom in Algiers and kept as a slave for five years before Trinitarian nuns raised the funds to free him. The state failed him. By the time of the Armada, Cervantes had sunk to the work of tax collecting. As literary historian Martin de Riquer notes, not only was the work “most disagreeable and humble,” but he was “collecting taxes to build those ships that would be destroyed by the storm.”Cervantes’ own life, then, paralleled Spain’s declining fortunes. As Cervantes expert Luis Andres Murillo puts it: The series of humiliations that Spain suffered “tempered Cervantes’ patriotic zeal into an ironic mindset regarding all projects, economic or military, that attempted to regain ancient glories.”The result was the massive escape from reality that is Don Quixote. In what seems to have begun literary life as a group of plays that were later turned into novels, the first volume was published in 1605, the second in 1615. Both are an allegory for what was happening to Spain. As the book begins, an aging country squire and avid hunter, Alonso Quijano, is living out his last years in his estate in La Mancha, struggling to feed himself, his niece, a housekeeper, and a farmhand. His fascination with chivalry books grows to such an extent that he gives up hunting, neglects his hacienda, and begins selling off land to buy more books. The more he reads, the more he enters the world of fantasy, until he loses his mind and decides to become a knight errant.For the following 400,000 words, the romantic knight and his practical-minded sidekick wander through Spain, suffering humiliation after humiliation, defeat after defeat, all of which the knight manages to interpret as victories. The reader knows better but still sympathizes. Even readers of his time understood the social criticism throughout the book, seeing flocks of sheep in one passage as a metaphor for the court of Philip III. Never, however, does the madman lose his idealism or sense of justice, so absent in the halls of government in the Spain of the time. The war hero Cervantes and his champion Don Quixote no doubt love Spain, or at least Castile, but the kings they labored under deserved neither love nor respect.Shakespeare’s Sceptered IsleWhile it was Cervantes’ destiny to live under undeserving kings, it was Shakespeare’s fortune to be born in the Elizabethan age, when emerging and pugnacious England braved the odds and won. And just as Cervantes shaped how Spaniards made sense of decline for centuries to come, Shakespeare defined British defiance. The Armada’s defeat, the imposition of Protestantism, and the victories of her corsairs at sea and over clan chiefs in Ireland created headwinds that Shakespeare extolled. But carefully.The Tudors being too close for comfort, Shakespeare opted instead to write plays about previous dynasties, using history to inspire the up-and-coming nation to future glory. The Duke of Marlborough, who defeated the French and the Spaniards in the War of the Spanish Succession, is alleged to have said that the only English history he knew he had learned from Shakespeare. Eight generations later Marlborough’s descendant Winston Churchill borrowed liberally from Shakespeare to rally his nation against the Germans in World War II.In Richard II, written around 1595, Shakespeare offers one of the most famous paeans to England ever written:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
Henry V, known as “the National Anthem in Five Acts,” comes replete with rousing lines, from the St. Crispin’s day speech at Agincourt to the equally famous exhortation:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
The ascension of James in 1603 brought an entirely new set of issues, encapsulated by Viola’s question in Twelfth Night—“What country, friends, is this?” From the start, the Scottish James set out to sell the idea of “Britain,” and Shakespeare’s ardent English patriotism duly becomes British. According to Columbia University’s Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, the words “England” or “English” appear 356 times in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays. That diminishes to 39 in the Jacobean era. “Britain,” however, a term that appears only twice before 1603, appears 29 times afterward.3 Thematically, too, there’s a case for union. King Lear—significantly, the “King of Britain”—drives home the horrors that befall kingdoms torn asunder, by echoing James’ first speech to parliament: “Hath not God first united these kingdoms?… What God hath conjoined then, let no man separate.”It is Macbeth, however, that is most frequently associated with James. Set in James’s birth country of Scotland, this tale of regicide and intrigue relates to the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and other Catholic plotters came close to blowing up the new king, his family, and most of parliament. Shakespeare uses the play to denounce “equivocation,” the art of lying about one’s Catholic religion, as well as treachery. Shapiro notes that Shakespeare himself had been suspected of being a closet Catholic. The fear of ending up in the Tower, it seems, made him all the more willing to reflect the needs and wants of his new patron, the self-styled King of Britain, James I.So as with Cervantes, Shakespeare’s life and times affected what he wrote. It was one’s destiny to live during the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages, the other’s to explain to Spaniards how to mix idealism with resignation.America’s Bard?Which brings us back to the question, what sort of bard do we deserve, or need, at this juncture?The American literary canon certainly has had a range of writers who intuited America’s promise. From James Fenimore Cooper to Melville, Emerson, Whitman, and Mark Twain, the writers of America’s first hundred years understood the nation in the making. “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world,” wrote Melville.The World War I writers also were interested in and captured the essence of the country. Wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald:
France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.
These writers were hardly propagandists. As the Civil War was about to breakout, Melville described America as “the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.” Alas, since America became a global hegemon, our culture has overemphasized the latter part of Melville’s observation while willfully ignoring his inspirational opening line. Thus we have in 1966 this salvo from Susan Sontag, no Melville or Fitzgerald, to be sure, but a writer who was tellingly fawned over and who typified much of what was to come:
Today’s America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy in California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing. The main difference is that what’s happening in America matters so much more in the late 1960s than it did in the 1920s.
Does this mean that America in the 21st century is doomed to be devoid of patriotism in its letters, betraying a nation on the wane? The declinist school may point out that not since the Imperial Japanese government surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri has the United States decisively won a war—excepting marginal conflicts like Panama or Granada. However, to paraphrase Twain, reports of the demise of our patriotism and national fortunes may be exaggerated. While the two Iraq wars deserve asterisks, there’s no question that U.S. soldiers behaved effectively and, Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, deserve the praise of bards.Shakespeare and Cervantes have met the test of time, but they were also very popular in their own time. Their contemporaries recognized themselves and their leaders in Quixote, Sancho, Henry V, and Lear. If this is a consideration, it is important to bear in mind that American Sniper was the highest-grossing movie of 2014 and the highest-grossing war movie of all time. Millions of Americans saw themselves, their values, and their character in its hero Chris Kyle, his wife Taya, and those with whom they mingled.Kyle was patriotic, plainspoken, faithful, stoic, excellent at his job, and simple in tastes and attitudes, but he was no simpleton. He embodied virility in a way that may make Manhattan metrosexuals nervous, but which men (and women) in West Texas, Queens, or Colorado Springs get at gut level. It was an empathetic virility, too, as we see in Kyle’s work with veterans suffering from PTSD. The movie is silent about the rightness of the war in which he served but clear on the fact that, right or wrong, the war demanded the ultimate sacrifice from Kyle and his family. He did right by his country and government, and suffered psychological scars as a result.Writing for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi channeled Sontag when he wrote, “Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism…. It’s the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that’s the problem.” But as the credits rolled at the end, theater crowds remained in their seats quietly and respectfully, almost in awe. They were the ones who spoke for America; this was their portrait.Walter Russell Mead calls the people who related to Kyle “Jacksonian” Americans. They fight our wars and shed their blood to wrest cities like Fallujah from the enemy, only to see feckless politicians all but give them back to groups like ISIS. They live in a country as multiethnic as was Cervantes’s and Shakespeare’s, but with one big difference: Today’s leaders and elites are trying to make our differences deeper and permanent, increasing the Jacksonians’ feeling of alienation.As Charles Murray has documented, Jacksonians have been on the losing side of our economy and culture for decades, and have watched their social and human capital fray. And yet, as Mead put it 17 years ago, our leaders “cannot wage a major international war without Jacksonian support.” The day-to-day vagaries of our politics and culture aside, it is to America that the rest of the world looks when freedom is threatened. So a present day American bard would do well to ignore Sontag and Taibbi and tell the tale as director Clint Eastwood did in American Sniper. The real Kyle was Cervantes at Lepanto and in Algerian captivity. Yet what comes through, for those open to the movie’s message, was a modern echo of Agincourt: “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother.”
1Curiously, however, they didn’t die on the same day. Rather, their days of death became the same date a century and a half later, when Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar. Some scholars also think that Cervantes may have died before midnight, and thus on April 22.2Armstrong-Roche, “Imperial Theater of War: Republican Virtues under Siege in Cervantes’s Numancia”, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies (July 2005).3Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (Simon & Schuster, 2015).