In the previous episode, the Duke and Duchess had been preparing further tricks to play on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, after the latter had agreed to lash himself three thousand three hundred times in penance. When he admitted to the Duchess that he’d only managed five smacks with his hand, she offered to provide him with a suitable scourge, to ensure that he satisfied the requirements to disenchant the lady Dulcinea. She read through a letter which the squire had written to his wife, and showed it to the Duke, who was also highly amused. After lunch they all went into the garden, where three musicians led in the squire to the Countess of Trifaldi, or the Dolorous Duenna. He requested to bring her to the Duke and the famous knight Don Quixote to tell them of her plight, and when that was granted went to fetch her with the musicians.
The three musicians led two lines of duennas dressed in nuns’ habits, after which came the Countess dressed in mourning with her squire, and three pages bearing the tail of her dress.
All the women were heavily veiled, and as they approached the Duke the twelve duennas formed a corridor for the Countess and her squire to pass through to reach the Duke, Duchess and Don Quixote, who stepped forward to greet them.
The Countess then knelt and excused herself to the Duke in a coarse voice. When she had arisen, she introduced her tale of woe, asking next whether Don Quixote and his squire were present. When the knight responded by offering his services, she threw herself at his feet. She then paid Sancho Panza compliments for his devoted service, and he too responded, causing the Duke and Duchess to burst into laughter at his muddled turns of phrase.
The Countess sat down and told her story set in the distant and fabulous kingdom of Kandy, then being ruled by a widowed queen. As the queen’s longest-serving duenna, the Countess had been responsible for the care and education of her daughter Princess Antonomasia, who was beautiful and very bright. The princess had many suitors, including one of the knights of the court, who was a skilled guitarist and builder of bird cages.
In his campaign to win the hand of the princess, that knight had first won over the duenna, then used her as a means of gaining entry to the princess’s bedroom on many occasions. They managed to keep this affair secret until the princess became pregnant, forcing the duenna to arrange for the couple’s marriage.
Within three days of the Vicar-General declaring the knight and the princess to be husband and wife, the queen had died of anger and grief at their union. No sooner than she had been buried than her giant cousin Malambruno appeared. He was an enchanter who had come to avenge the queen’s death on both the knight and the princess whom he had married. The enchanter turned the knight into a metal crocodile, and the princess into a brass monkey, both beside the queen’s grave.
Malambruno then grabbed the Countess by her hair and was about to cut her head off with his scimitar, but she managed to persuade him to stop. He summoned all the duennas in the palace and told them that they were to be punished. As he finished speaking, each of them felt a pricking around their face as they sprouted a long beard. As a duenna with a beard has nowhere to go, ever since then their lives have been a misery worse than death itself.
That completes the thirty-ninth chapter of the second 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.