“The solitude of the hero is a sad thing!”

Along the prairie trail this past weekend.

This week’s reading delivers what must be one of the novel’s most poignant moments: “It is recounted that as soon as Sancho left, Don Quixote felt lonely for him, and if it had been possible for him to revoke the squire’s mandate and take the governorship away from him, his master would have done so” (p. 739). Theirs may be, in contemporary terms, a somewhat toxic co-dependency, but the sparring knight and squire are one another’s person – or, perhaps more accurately, the squire is the knight’s person. After all, what is Don Quixote sans Sancho Panza? What happens when a knight confronts a lion and survives, but his squire is not present to witness (and potentially retell) the adventure? 

From the edges of painful absence, the Knight of the Lions begs leave of the Duchess – “he withdrew to his chamber alone, not permitting anyone to come in to serve him…” (p. 741) – and promptly ruins his stocking. Readers have been aware of Don Quixote’s material poverty for nearly eight hundred pages, but this bitter blend of need and loneliness hurts, doesn’t it? In Our Lord Don Quixote, Miguel de Unamuno asks, “How indeed could he have avoided feeling his solitude, since Sancho was the whole of humanity for him, and it was in Sancho that he loved all men? How could he not feel lonely, when Sancho had been his confidant […]? Was not the mysterious secret of his life something between the two of them alone? Without Sancho, Don Quixote is not Don Quixote, and the master has greater need of the squire than the squire of the master. The solitude of the hero is a sad thing!” (pp. 223-224) Yes, it is, and if Cervantes has somehow failed to appeal to our better natures prior to Sancho’s departure, he handily succeeds in Chapter XLIV. 

This week, I have been reading Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy (Paula Marantz Cohen; 2021). Cohen builds on Harold Bloom’s assertion that Shakespeare “‘invented the human’ – a reference to the rich interior lives of his characters” by arguing, “[T]his human dimension also involves an intimate connection to us, who study him. Shakespeare invented complex individuals who elicit empathy,whom we, audience or readers, feel for even when they fall outside the realm of our experience” (p. 3). Perhaps because the Grossman translation of Don Quixote includes Bloom’s introduction, or perhaps because I have read the plays so often, I have been a bit obsessed with the idea that Shakespeare and Cervantes were, at the same moment in history, (re)writing the characters whose names alone now serve as shorthand for aspects of human experience (e.g., Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Romeo, Falstaff, Brutus, Don Quixote). The passage “Don Quixote felt lonely for him” elicited in me the same throat-lump empathy as “I know thee not, old man” (Prince Hal – now King Henry V – to former companion Falstaff in Henry IV, Act V, Scene 4); “O, reason not the need!” (Lear to Regan in King Lear, Act II, Scene 4); and “[T]he rest is silence” (Hamlet to Horatio in Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2).

Speaking of Hamlet, Don Quixote’s advice to Sancho Panza (Chapters XLII and XLIII) reads like a nuanced version of Polonius’ speech to Laertes in Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, beginning, “And these few precepts in thy memory – Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, any unproportion’d thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.” And still speaking of Shakespeare, the manner in which the Duke and Duchess toy with the knight and squire initially reminded me of the laughter and sport Theseus and Hippolyta and the two couples enjoy at the expense of the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but when I reread Act V, Scene 1, I realized that, in fact, Theseus leans more toward Don Diego than the manipulative Duke and Duchess; he demonstrates tolerance and patience in accepting their performance. So, what motivates the Duke and Duchess, anyway? Does the idea of Sancho beating himself entertain them? Do their machinations represent a bid for immortality – that is, are their antics an attempt to insert themselves into the sequel of a popular novel? 

Two other notes:

(1) Is it sloppy reading on my part, or did Sancho Panza dispense with the assorted petitioners pretty handily?

(2) Near the conclusion of Chapter XLII, Don Quixote says of the squire’s tall tale about the ride on Clavileño,“…[E]ither Sancho is lying, or Sancho is dreaming.” Coupled with the chapter’s conclusion about what the knight wants Sancho to believe about his adventures in the cave, this statement admits doubt about the nature of truth in this narrative. If they build consensus around a single narrative, is it true? Even if it only occurred in their dreams or their imaginations? 

One thought on ““The solitude of the hero is a sad thing!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.