In the previous episode, Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the goatherd listened to the story told by the young nobleman, Cardenio, explaining how he’d come to be making penance in the mountains. When he inadvertently mentioned a book of chivalry, Don Quixote interrupted him and they argued, quickly coming to blows. Don Quixote was knocked down by Cardenio, who then disappeared again, his story incomplete. The following night, Sancho’s donkey was stolen, and his master decided to lament and feign madness for his Lady Dulcinea. Don Quixote wrote a warrant for his squire to be provided with three replacement donkeys, and Sancho Panza then rode from the mountains on Rocinante to obtain those animals, and deliver his master’s letter to the Lady Dulcinea.
Don Quixote continued his mad antics, somersaulting alone, then ascending a rocky peak. He maintained an internal debate as to whether he should feign madness with the anger of Orlando, or the melancholy of Amadis of Gaul. In the end he opted for the latter, tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and turned it into a makeshift rosary with which to say Ave Marias. He started writing poetry, and calling on woodland nymphs and Echo to reply to him.
Meanwhile Sancho Panza had found his way back to the inn on the highway where he’d been tossed in a blanket, which filled him with fear of a repetition. But who should have emerged from it and recognised him than the priest and barber of his home village. As Sancho was riding his master’s horse, the pair demanded an explanation, which he gave them. They then asked to read Don Quixote’s letter to Lady Dulcinea, and it was then that Sancho realised that he didn’t have the notebook in which his master had written both that letter and the warrant for the three donkeys. He tore at his beard and punched himself in the face when he recognised this calamity.
At first Sancho thought he could remember the words of Don Quixote’s letter, but what he recalled was mere gibberish, which led the priest and the barber to suspect that Sancho’s master was dragging him into madness too. Still fearing the consequences of entering the inn, Sancho at last ate a hot meal outside. The priest devised a plan to rescue Don Quixote with himself posing as a damsel in need, and the barber as a squire, by which they would lure the knight back to their village and get his madness treated.
They were helped by the innkeeper’s wife, who lent the priest a frock and head-dress in exchange for his new cassock as security. In the course of this, the innkeeper and his wife learned the whole story of Don Quixote’s madness, which encouraged their assistance. When the priest, the barber and Sancho left the inn, the first was dressed as a woman with his normal broad-brimmed hat and the barber sported a red beard to his waist. Soon after their departure, the priest had second thoughts, and decided that it was inappropriate for a man of the cloth to go about in women’s clothes, so thought the barber should wear them instead until they were closer to Don Quixote.
The following day Sancho realised that they were already drawing near to Don Quixote. He proposed riding ahead, with an imaginary reply from the Lady Dulcinea, which might prove sufficient to persuade the knight to leave the mountains. Once he had left them, the priest and the barber waited in the shade, only to hear a voice singing poetry. When those verses ended, it sighed deeply then sobbed and groaned softly. This, they discovered, was the Cardenio whose story Sancho had relayed.
The young nobleman was surprised to see them, and being temporarily free of his madness he offered to tell them the story of his misfortunes. The young man not only told as much as he had previously, but completed his account as this time he wasn’t interrupted.
Cardenio had found a letter in the book of chivalry, in which his love Luscinda encouraged him to ask for her hand in marriage, and explained this to Fernando, who promised to raise the matter with Cardenio’s father in the hope that he could persuade him to speak to Luscinda’s father. But in truth Fernando had another plan, and found a pretext to send Cardenio away for a few days. When Cardenio went to bid farewell to Luscinda that night, she became strangely tearful.
The following day Cardenio left on his mission, but once he arrived there was told to wait a week. Just four days later, a letter arrived from Luscinda announcing Fernando’s treachery: in his absence, Fernando had asked Luscinda’s father for her hand in marriage, and the two were to be wed in just two days time.
Cardenio returned home immediately, recognising the trick which had been played on him. When he arrived, he spoke to Luscinda, who was already in her wedding dress and about to be married. She told him that she had concealed a dagger with which to kill herself if necessary.
Cardenio entered the house unnoticed, in time for the ceremony. When the village priest asked Luscinda whether she took Fernando to be her husband, she whispered affirmatively, and their wedding proceeded. She fainted in her mother’s arms when her husband went to embrace her, and when her mother loosened her dress to help her breathe, a letter fell out, but Cardenio didn’t wait to see the conclusion. He returned to his mule and rode out of the city, cursing both Luscinda and Fernando for their treachery.
He rode on, intending to end his life in the mountains. When he reached them, his poor mule dropped dead in a stream, from exhaustion and starvation; since then he had been roaming alone, and suffering bouts of mad rage.
As Cardenio ended his story, the priest prepared to speak words of comfort to him.
That completes the twenty-seventh chapter of the first book of Don Quixote.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, trans John Rutherford (1604, 2000) Don Quixote, Penguin, ISBN 978 0 140 44909 9.
Roberto González Echevarría (2015) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 19864 5.
Roberto González Echevarría (ed) (2005) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, A Casebook, Oxford UP, ISBN 978 0 19 516938 6.