This Day in World History
April 23, 1616
Shakespeare and Cervantes die
The date 23 April 1616 marked the end of two eras in world literature; for on that date, two giants of Renaissance letters died (by the Gregorian and Julian calendars respectively). Poet and playwright William Shakespeare died in his home at Stratford-upon-Avon. Farther south, Spanish poet, playwright, and novelist Miguel de Cervantes also passed away.
Shakespeare, of course, is renowned as the greatest playwright in the English and arguably any language. His thirty-seven surviving plays, written from around 1590 to 1611, convey sharp insight into the human condition with unsurpassed power and beauty.
Born in 1564 to a tradesman and town official, Shakespeare grew up in Stratford but left some time in the 1580s for London where he became involved in the burgeoning Elizabethan theater first as an actor, and then as a playwright and businessman. After penning The Tempest, he retired back to Stratford, where he lived for only five more years.
Some years after his death, Shakespeare’s associates arranged to publish a collected volume of his plays. In a dedicatory poem, rival playwright Ben Jonson said Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time!”
Miguel de Cervantes was born 17 years before Shakespeare in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid. In his twenties, he fought bravely in the Battle of Lepanto, receiving three wounds in the fight, one of which made his left hand useless for the rest of his life. After the battle, he was captured by pirates and held for three years before being ransomed.
Back in Spain, he began writing plays, only two of which survive. Financial difficulties landed him in prison. During that time or shortly afterward, he began writing his masterpiece, Don Quixote. The epic novel, a satire of chivalric romances of the late Middle Ages, introduced two of world literature’s most memorable characters, the idealistic, ungainly Don Quixote, and his earthy, round sidekick, Sancho Panza.
Only in his last year did Cervantes enjoy the same esteem Shakespeare did. In his late sixties, wracked with pain, he dedicated his last work to a noble. In a letter composed four days before his death, he wrote, “With the agony of death upon me, / Great Lord, I write this to you.”