Legend says that English playwright William Shakespeare and Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes died on the same date of the same year: April 23, 1616. The date April 23 has since been named the International Day of the Book, despite the fact that due to differing English and Spanish calendars at the time, the two writers do not actually share a death date.
“It’s still a great reason to get together and talk about literature,” Associate Professor of Modern Languages Fernando Gomez announced at the start of this Monday’s Shakespeare and Cervantes Celebration.
Professor Gomez introduced Cervantes and his most famous work, “Don Quixote,” and Visiting Professor of English Valerie Billing introduced William Shakespeare at the celebration on Monday, April 24. The students from the English, Spanish and Theatre departments read and recited excerpts from the works of Cervantes and Shakespeare. Through these performances, the student presenters sought not only to honor the history of Shakespeare and Cervantes but also carry messages which ring true today.
“What Cervantes is really doing is showing us we’re all Quixotes, in a wayÉ He saw that we are idealistic people,” said Gomez while introducing Cervantes to the gathered students Monday evening. “But we have to remember to keep idealism grounded in reality, because reality is unforgiving.”
Gomez emphasized the continuing importance of Cervantes’ realism using the example of Don Quixote meeting and freeing galley slaves who later try to kill him.
“His whole duty as a knight is to free people from oppression, which sounds good, but Don Quixote is going to take this to the ideal level, which maybe has resonance with the American public today,” Gomez said. “‘Everybody should be free,’ is this great ideal, but then, oops! Maybe not everybody should be free.”
“Shakespeare is not at all into realismÉ but he still criticizes ideals,” Billing said. She drew a parallel between Shakespeare and Cervantes in that they both drew attention to unrealistic images, particularly patriarchal standards of beauty and the paragon of masculinity.
Concerning patriarchal beauty, sophomore Peter Rule mentioned Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. The sonnet begins, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” and criticizes common imagery associated with the ideal woman by describing a mistress who has many imperfections but whom the speaker continues to love.
Other students read from “Don Quixote,” specifically the confrontation between the beautiful shepherdess Marcela and the other shepherds. Marcela outlines the double standards applied to men and women in the areas of beauty and love. “She doesn’t just say ‘You’re stupid.’ She really goes down on ‘You’re really stupid and these are all the reasons why,’” said Gomez.
Addressing the dangers of masculinity, junior Sarah Lowe performed a monologue from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. In this monologue, Lady Percy mourns her husband, recently lost in battle, and demands that her father-in-law not go to war to die in the same way. “Looking at it through a modern lens, through queer studies, feminist studies, it definitely speaks to the toxicity of hyper-masculine ideals, and this idea of honor that can get you killed,” Lowe said.
Peter Rule read an excerpt from a paper outlining the similarities between Leontes from A Winter’s Tale and Othello, noting how both were falsely convinced that their wives were adulterous. “This kind of deals with this masculinity too, with this honor,” Rule said.
Lowe, however, cautioned against assuming too much about the intended message of the work. “I don’t think I can say in good conscience that that’s what Shakespeare meant, because authorial intent is always weird,” she said.
Lowe said she focuses on the broader, human connections that Shakespeare’s characters have with a modern audience. “It’s unfair to say that there is no truth in the plays because there is no realism. I’m enamored by the truths in plays. A grieving wife begging her father-in-law not to go to the war that killed her husband is such a fundamentally human thing.”
As the celebration came to a close, the participants transitioned from looking back to looking forward. They hoped the event can continue even though both senior Ian Tully, one of the event organizers, and Professor Billing will leave Knox after this year.
“I’d love for this to become an annual thing that people can look forward to. What I’d like to do is to include all types of literature from all over the world, maybe highlighting one or two at a time like we do Shakespeare and Cervantes,” said Gomez. “It’s the International Day of the Book. Hopefully this inspires you to keep reading.”