Cervantes’s Don Quijote is often voted the greatest novel of all time. But why is its mad hero unable to see the world as it is, charging at windmills which he thinks are giants? If reality can be so deceptive, how can we know anything for certain, and is it dangerous to try? And how can you take advantage of all this, manipulating deceit for your own ends?
Seventeenth-century Spain had the world’s most extensive empire, with the artistic and literary output to match it. Yet that status never felt secure, as the feeling that the empire was in decline played into a wider suspicion that the evidence of your senses could not be trusted, fuelled by the popularity of scepticism. The result was a set of literary masterpieces united by the conviction that things were never really as they seemed. In this module, we will explore how different authors approach that obsession with uncertainty, from Cervantes’s endlessly playful mixing of fiction and reality in Don Quijote, to the fatal consequences of doubt in Calderón’s great tragedy, El médico de su honra. We will see how uncertainty is exploited in the original play which created the Don Juan myth, and how Quevedo seeks to counter the fallen world in his brilliantly witty Sueños. We close by considering the ambiguities of life at court, the centre of imperial power: a place where presenting yourself well was essential for getting ahead, but which was also widely criticized as a hotbed of deceit.
2 x 2,500 word essay (50% each)