Patriarchy and feminism in Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ – the case of Marcela

In the introduction to his translation of Don Quixote (Spanish: Don Quijote), first published by Penguin in 1950, Mr J M Cohen comments on the patriarchy of the Spain of 1600, as reflected in the work.  After condemning the “pastoral convention” of “too eloquent” shepherds and goatherds, which Cervantes appears to accept, the translator goes on to say:

Another feature of our book which takes the contemporary reader aback is what we may call its sexual morality.  This is based on a crude scale of values by which honour is preserved so long as any seduction, is covered up by marriage.

Mr Cohen refers (appropriately) to Don Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea, and his abandonment of her, followed by his abduction of Luscinda, in love with Cardenio.  (This story takes up several chapters of Book One.)

But there is more variation and depth in the work that Mr Cohen allows.  Take the case of Marcela (also in Book One).

On his travels, Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza hear the tale of the death of the shepherd Grisóstomo: allegedly, he has died of a broken heart, because the beautiful Marcela has rejected his suit.

Grisóstomo’s friends (and the man himself, in the long poem he leaves behind) go so far as to accuse Marcela of cruelty.

Marcela herself suddenly appears, and she states her case both to the dead man’s friends and to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Marcela accepts that Heaven has made her beautiful; but she argues, forcefully and eloquently, that she is in no way to blame for the shepherd’s death:

Yo conozco, con el natural entendimiento que Dios me ha dado, que todo lo hermoso es amable; mas no alcanzo que, por razón de ser amado, esté obligado lo que es amado por hermoso a amar a quien le ama….Y, según de yo he oído decir, el verdader amor…ha de ser voluntario, y no forzoso.  Siendo así, como yo creo que lo es, ¿por qué queréis que rinda mi voluntad por fuerza, obligada no más de que decís que me queries bien?  Si no, decidme: si como el cielo me hizo hermosa me hiciera fea, ¿fuera justo que me quejara de vosotros porque no me amábades?  Cuanto más, que habéis de considerer que yo no escogí la hermosura….

[Book 1, Chapter 14, Academies’ edition, 2004]

With the natural understanding that God has given me, I recognize that what is beautiful is worthy of love.  But what I don’t understand is that just because a woman is loved because of her beauty, she’s obliged to reciprocate this love….And according to what I’ve heard, true love…must be voluntary and not forced.  If that’s true, and I believe it is, why do you want to force me yield my free will simply because you say love me?  Tell me – what if Heaven, which made me beautiful, had made me ugly instead?  Would it be right for me to complain because you didn’t love me?  What’s more, consider this: I didn’t choose to be beautiful….

[translated by T Lathrop, Alam Classics (Richmond, Surrey), 2014]

And Marcela goes on to remind her listeners that beauty is only skin deep – it is inner purity that matters.  She finishes by saying that she values her own freedom above all.

Good for her!

Marcela’s arguments are persuasive; and Don Quixote himself is persuaded.  He sticks up for Marcela, and he says:

Ninguna persona, de cualquier estado y condición que sea, se atreva a seguir a la Hermosa Marcela, so pena de caer en la furiosa indignación mía.  Ella ha mostrado con claras y suficientes razones la poca o ninguna culpa que ha tenido en la muerte de Grisóstomo y cuán ajena vive de condescender con los deseos de ninguno de sus amantes; a cuya causa es juso que, en lugar de ser seguida y perseguida, sea honrada y estimada de todos los buenos del mundo, pues muestra que en él ella es sola la que con tan honesta intención vive.

Let no one [of] whatsoever [estate or condition] dare to pursue the beautiful Marcela, under the penalty of incurring my furious wrath.  She’s shown with clear words and solid reasons that she has had little or no blame in the death of Grisóstomo, and how distant she is from yielding to the desires of any of her suitors.  Far from being pursued, she should be honoured and revered by all good people in the world, since she shows that she’s the only one who lives by such virtuous intentions.

[tr T Lathrop, modified by DRH]

Good for him!

And, after the burial has been completed, the parties go their separate ways.



The return of Odysseus to Ithaca (what really happened)

When Odysseus finally returned to Ithaca, he made his way slowly to his house. On the way an old dog barred his way and barked at him, and he spurned it with his foot.

The house looked smaller than he remembered it, and it looked a bit shabby.

Odysseus knocked on the door and waited, and after a few minutes it was opened, and Penelope herself appeared.  She looked sad and careworn.

They stared at each other.

“Hullo, my love.  Have you a welcome for me?”

“Oh, it’s you!  At long last!  Where have you been all this time?”

“Oh, I was blown off course, and had to fight battles and escape from giants, and all sorts of dangers, believe you me.”

“Hm.  Did you get involved with lady friends, on your way?”

“Of course not – I couldn’t wait to get back to you!”

“And the war – how did it end?”

“Well, Agamemnon and Achilles quarrelled, so Achilles left, and then Hector drove us back to our ships – and we were forced to leave.”

“That was humiliating! A lot of effort for nothing!”

“Yes.  And Helen wasn’t worth the trouble.  But anyway, how are the family? How are my father and Telemachus?  The lad’s grown up by now, hasn’t he?”

“I’m sorry to tell you – your father is dead.  And Telemachus isn’t here – he’s gone to look for you himself!”

A pregnant pause followed, and tears could be seen on Odysseus’s cheeks.  Penelope held his hand and took him inside and sat him down.

“What have you been doing with yourself?”

“Weaving and weaving!  We need the money!”

“Have any men been pestering you while I’ve been away?”

“What do you think? With my looks?  No!  I’ve aged, as have you.”


“Anyway, now you’re back (and I presume you’re staying), I have a list of jobs for you to do – the olive grove and the vineyard need a lot of attention – and so does the house.”

Odysseus sighed, and smiled.  He kissed his wife.  She kissed him back.  He was glad to be home.  She was glad he was back home.

Finding your tongue – anthologies of Welsh literature

When, at the 2006 National Eisteddfod, I picked up a copy of Welsh Women’s Poetry 1461-2001 (edited by Katie Granich and Catherine Brennan and first published by Honno Press of Aberystwyth in 2003), I found I could not put it down.  My copy suffered from the rain as I read it on my way to the public transport that would take me home.

There is a wealth of material.  There is poetry in both English and Welsh, and the Welsh pieces are accompanied by translations, so it can be appreciated very widely.

Until the 21st century (arguably), literature has been dominated by men and women have largely been invisible (with a few exceptions, eg some great English female novelists).

My 2017 treat to myself is a new compendium of Welsh language poetry and prose, from the first millennium to the present day: The Old Red Tongue – An Anthology of Welsh Literature, edited by Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens and published by Francis Boutle (London) – nearly a thousand pages, for £30.

Unlike the Honno anthology, very nearly all the originals are in Welsh, but like the Honno one, they are accompanied by English translations.  This is excellent, as medieval Welsh is in places difficult to follow for the inexpert.  (So too sometimes is dialect.)

Many of the translations have been made by the renowned Anthony Conran and Joseph P Clancy.  Some pieces have been translated for the first time.

There is are useful introductions both to historical periods and also to individual writers.

I’ll take the liberty of quoting from the publisher’s blurb, which describes the volume as an “anthology of over 300 texts – poems, plays, memoirs, essays, extracts from novels and short stories, hymns, eulogies, elegies, medieval prose, political and theological commentaries – from nearly 200 writers”.

The book does what it says on the cover – the net is cast wide.

In the last hundred years or so, fortunately, women’s voices have come to be heard, whereas in earlier times men dominated.  The female writers are: Gwerful Mechain, Ann Griffiths, Eluned Morgan, Kate Roberts, Marion Eames, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Nesta Wyn Jones, Manon Rhys, Menna Elfyn, Christine James, Angharad Tomos, Gwyneth Lewis, Sonia Edwards, Elin ap Hywel, Mererid Hopwood and Meleri Wyn James.  (Still a small minority, but growing.)

There is an extensive bibliography at the end, useful for further reading.

I should add that The Old Red Tongue is one of a “lesser used languages of Europe” series, which includes anthologies of literature in Breton, Manx, Galician, Channel Islands Norman French, Esperanto, Maltese and Occitan.  A worthy enterprise.

(One English language anthology is: Poetry 1900 – 2000 – one hundred poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, first published by Parthian, Cardigan, in 2007.)

Here are feasts for those who love literature and for those who love Wales.