From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
13.2 (1993): 130-34.
Copyright © 1993, The Cervantes Society of America
Cervantes's play and his novelette, the first set in the Ottoman court in Constantinople and the second in Cypress immediately after the Turkish invasion, are the focus of this colorful and energetic yet somewhat oddly reductive cataloguing of incidental plot details that the author shows to be consistent with historical fact. The central point is that an unsuspected substratum of realism runs through La Gran Sultana and El amante liberal, works which are generally considered to be much more frivolously Byzantine and to deviate quite freely from concerns for verisimilitude. The reader of Ottmar Hegyi's study is left with the impression that Cervantes was well informed where Ottoman culture and customs were concerned and even that Cervantes had considerable journalistic talents. But Cervantes the immortal artist, whose works reveal carefully-designed broad perspectives (subtle though these may be) and hence have important purpose and value, receives negligible or inconspicuous attention. Hegyi states that it is not his purpose to get into the question of possible deep meanings or symbolic interpretations, being concerned rather with the realistic substratum hidden by the conventions of the Byzantine genre (215-16). This reluctance to address broader semantic issues is widespread among today's critics. One can only suppose that the conviction of some that it is impossible to understand a work in broad terms through interpretations of its intended meanings has become a bed in which we all must lie in one way or another. In addition to Hegyi's own candid statements, the ultimately formalistic character of his critical interest is evidenced not only in his choosing the isolated issue of verisimilitude as his central focus but in his concentrating his concluding remarks concerning La Gran Sultana on Cervantes's preference in that work for an open as opposed to a closed plot structure (200-11). The central theme of the play is mentioned only peripherally and is understood by Hegyi as inhering in Cervantes's recognition of the appropriateness and
real occurrence of instances of religious tolerance, acceptance, compromise,
and accommodation. Cervantes is thus seen as departing from the more rigid
and traditionalistic conventional literary alternatives of martyrdom, apostasy,
or escape (213-14). Similarly, in El amante liberal the examination
of which occupies less than a fourth the space dedicated to La Gran
Sultana Hegyi associates Cervantes's moving away from stereotypes
in his characterizations of Muslims (as compared to his somewhat more
conventional treatment of Algerian subject matter in earlier works) with
a preference for the complexity of non-ideological, paradoxical,
and ambivalent elements of characterization and plot resolution (271-76).
Thus Hegyi justifies his own repudiation of prescriptive criticism,
which insists on a work's coherence at the expense of its contradictory elements,
in favor of factual analysis and a descriptive approach
The methodological premises of Hegyi's study raise fundamental questions concerning the nature and significance of literary art and of its relation to historical reality. One that is central is whether or not it is possible to justify a systematic critical examination that minimizes the significance of what it is that the work examined seems to communicate. Surely (as Hegyi argues), the circumstance that creative authors may draw their raw material from real life does not entail any obligation on their part to reconcile life's chaos and contradictions by forcing them into the simplistic categories of a neatly organized doctrine. Serious authors avoid being trite. On the other hand, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that the particular way in which an author chooses to reorganize life's phenomena aesthetically will attain its ultimate justification in some sort of coherent meaning. Certainly the title Cervantes and the Turks leads one to anticipate emphasis on an interpretation of Cervantes's broad views concerning the Turks and a discussion of the relationship between those views and the themes of the works studied. Hegyi's consideration of La Gran Sultana and El amante liberal and his notice (43, 119, 90-91, 68-69, 203-04, 262-63) of the instances in them of averting brutal executions and crossing religious barriers, often on amatory grounds, could have only been enhanced by his placing those works in the cultural-historical context of Renaissance humanism's vigorous advancement of love-idealism the elevating and synthesizing powers of the authentic love of the sexes and the ideal of universal peace that developed under the influence of Reform evangelism. Furthermore, romantic comedy and Byzantine comic romance are by nature semi-fantastic. How important can verisimilitude be in them? However, what might be viewed as Hegyi's implied point is well taken: even in Cervantes's romantic, primarily mythopoeic, fiction he contributes to the process of rendering all literature more significant by bringing it closer to real life, thus advancing that evolutionary triumph known as modern fictional realism. It is also the case that much of the information that Hegyi brings to light is interesting both in its own right and in its general relation to Cervantes. For literary criticism, a valid and rigorous methodology is highly desirable, but for historically-oriented literary scholarship it is not always of primary importance.
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Chapter I, which deals with prior criticism
of La Gran Sultana, introduces two camps of critics, those who disparage
that work on the basis of its failure to be true to historical reality, i.e.,
Schevill and Bonilla and Lewis Smith (who tend to see in the play a
medley of unlikely events, improvised by an author ignorant about Constantinople
and the seraglio atmosphere, 138), and those who are inclined to seek
a basis in reality for Cervantes's play (Cotarelo y Valledor, Mas, Canavaggio).
Some of the considerations on which these critics base their views are discussed.
Chapter II offers an overview of a wide variety of the play's possible sources.
Chapters III through VIII are devoted primarily to contradicting the numerous
premature and arbitrary objections on the basis of which La Gran
Sultana's more intolerant critics have made it a butt of irony.
Chapter III discusses issues and details of historical authenticity surrounding the figure of Catalina de Oviedo, the Christian captive whom Cervantes represents Sultan Murad III as falling in love with and marrying while allowing her to remain a Christian. Some of the longer quotations here (and elsewhere) belong in footnotes, and occasionally only a paraphrase in the text and a reference would suffice. Interesting points made here are that in Ottoman culture slavery did not bring with it a stigma, a hereditary blemish. Slaves could rise to the highest rank; consequently, even non-Muslim women of adequate beauty would allow themselves to be sold into slavery in the hope of being accepted into the sultan's harem and perhaps even of becoming either a royal favorite, an official concubine/wife, or even the mother of a future sultan (89, 63-4, 98). The seraglio, which included a Palace School of Pages (where boys of Christian origin were trained for important administrative posts) and its counterpart, the Imperial Harem, was part of the Ottoman Ruling Institution, a small city where slaves were carefully selected partly on the basis of talent and educational accomplishments and trained for high offices of the state. The number of female members of the harem under Murad III was about 1200, and they were guarded by 600-800 black eunuchs. White eunuchs guarded the gates. The chief of the black eunuchs was the liaison between the sultan and the members of the harem and between the sultan and the outside world. He was the most feared and bribed official of the whole Ottoman Empire (62-3, 65, 139). There was a relatively high degree of religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire, and even today both Jesus and Mary are highly venerated by Muslims (68, 71). The failure to understand such details has been the source of much confusion among critics of these two works.
Chapters IV and V concentrate on characters in subplots: Clara and Lamberto (captive lovers) and Madrigal, a relative of the gracioso. Much historical detail is brought to bear in relation to these characters, their fictional antecedents, and their experiences in the play. Chapter V concerns scenes in which the Persian ambassador is received by the sultan, members of the divan discuss Turkish policy towards the Persians, and the Persian ambassador is forcibly ejected. The focus here is on Cervantes's consistency with historical reality. Chapter VII addresses miscellaneous topics, such as the
Greek presence in Constantinople, a historical counterpart for the spy Andrea,
Cervantes's increasingly tolerant portrayal of renegades and even of an agnostic
(Salec), details concerning Catalina's father and the Sephardic population
in Turkey, and the accumulation of large numbers of foreign captives with
manual skills for purposes of shipbuilding (some 12-14,000 in 1570). Chapter
VIII, conclusions on La Gran Sultana, has been mentioned above.
Discussion of El amante liberal is limited to Chapter IX. Here, attention is directed specifically to that work's historical and geographical context and to the extent to which details in that work can be matched with parallels in historical reality. What emerges is not only a surprising glimpse of how closely the world of fabulous adventure in the Byzantine romance approximated factual events but also much interesting information relating to the colorful world of imperial wars, captivity, and privateering in the eastern Mediterranean. Hegyi reminds us, for example, that just as the waters and coastal areas of Spain and her possessions were harassed by turco-barbaresque privateering [coldwar actions of armed ships commissioned by belligerent governments], so was the eastern Mediterranean by Christians (267).
Any reader who has been under the impression that Cervantes wrote La Gran Sultana and El amante liberal on the basis of a superficial knowledge of Ottoman mentality and society will finish Cervantes and the Turks with quite a different perspective. If there is a limitation in this book (as there is in every book), it is that Hegyi does not seek to establish more than an incidental relation between his synthesis and the larger tradition of Cervantine criticism. The idea that the same author who wrote El cerco de Numancia realistically (with uncritical neutrality) condones an ethics of compromise and accommodation (terms that border dangerously on unheroic self-accommodation and opportunism) is made plausible by Hegyi, but it is not enough of the whole story to stand on its own; and defending Cervantes from Américo Castro's notion of Cervantine hypocrisy (275) does not adequately compensate for such a potentially implied impugnation of Cervantes's profound and philosophical idealism. The point in romantic fiction generally relates to an affirming of higher values. Also, in spite of Hegyi's claim that, for example, he refers to historical sources to illustrate the spiritual and intellectual background that sheds light on El amante liberal's relevance to Cervantes's contemporaries (221-22), he actually ignores the broad context of cultural and intellectual history and its possible relation to the works studied and restricts his interest in history to the realm of the empirical and the examination of documented factual minutiae (occasionally reminding one of the expression Stupid as a fact). Cultural and spiritual history (to cite the term used by Bataillon) approach historical reality (words in Hegyi's subtitle) in a way that is just as historical and real as is an approach based on a reality consisting of actions, incidents, and detail that are considered without reference to broader implications. The historico-philosophical study of cultural values, moral psychology, and
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psychological sentiment is essential to an understanding of the active role
that individual works of literary art have assumed in a given historical
Still, the original character of the contribution that Cervantes and the Turks makes to Cervantine studies is undeniable. Through systematic, cumulative presentation of actual accounts and historiographic detail, and with sensible and lucid reasoning, Ottmar Hegyi reveals to us that Cervantes's literary interest in the Ottoman world is far more serious and objective than previous critics have realized.
|BRYANT L. CREEL|
|University of Tennessee, Knoxville|
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