Gary Saul Morson in The New Criterion:
Its admirers call it “the Quixote,” as if to say “the masterpiece” or even “the universe.”
Cervantes’s novel, completed exactly four hundred years ago, established him as one of the greatest writers in world literature. In his recent book, Quixote: The Novel and the World, Ilan Stavans is even “convinced that the Spanish language exists in order for this magisterial novel to inhabit it.”1 Some praise has been even more extravagant. Ivan Turgenev, otherwise a skeptic to the core, detected a mystical significance in the apparent coincidence that the first part of Don Quixote appeared (he supposed) in the same year as Hamlet. What’s more, Turgenev noted, Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day—actually the same date, but England and Spain used different calendars—as if some angel had arranged to link them. In what is arguably the most famous essay in Russian literature, “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” Turgenev described these two masterpieces as representing opposite extremes of human nature, if not of nature itself. Together they define “the fundamental forces of all that exists. They explain the growth of flowers to us, and they even enable us to comprehend the development of the most powerful nations.”
In this reading, Hamlet incarnates inertia, Don Quixote progress. Shakespeare’s brooding hero proves relentlessly ironic, rational, and perceptive, but cannot act. Believing in nothing but his own judgment, he grows completely self-absorbed and unable to love. Don Quixote is just the reverse, all will and no sense. The man of faith, he credulously accepts an ideal of goodness without suspecting he mistakes desire for fact. To his own detriment, he lives entirely selflessly, “inherently incapable of betraying his convictions or transferring them from one object to another.” In Russian terms, Hamlet represented the aristocratic “superfluous man,” who was cultivated but lethargic, while Don Quixote recalled the idealist revolutionary, believing foolishly in an impossible, if noble, ideal.