The pappagalli were looking decidedly bedraggled, the yellow and red banding on their knee breeches smeared with dirt, sweat or, still worse, blood. The once fine plumage proudly displayed by this eclectic mix of Spanish soldiery now bore little resemblance to that of its ornithological namesake. The ships with their human cargo of battle-worn men were on the verge of dropping anchor in the sweep of Messina’s sickle-shaped harbour. The Spanish contingent, fresh from the victorious scenes at Lepanto, had reached their home port. The Messinese spared nothing in giving the troops a rapturous welcome. Crowds gathered on the quay jostling for position as the ships regrouped for a more formal entrance, with banners and pennants to the fore. The soldiers on board strained to meet the gaze of friends amongst the mass of humanity on the dockside. They steadied themselves as the fleet loosened off a celebratory volley from the weary canons.
Below decks, the scene had descended a few circles towards Dante’s vision of hell. The wounded lay in disorganised groups, amid the stench and filth caused by the conflict and its aftermath. Men driven by infection and fever cried out in delirium, with little prospect of relief or cure. The injured weren’t atop the list of priorities; the ships had to complete the processional entrance with the wash of the tides and reverberation of the guns only adding to their nausea.
In one corner, a man sat propped against the bulkhead holding his left arm. The experiences of the recent past were etched on his face, his eyes cloudy with a haze of feverish anxiety. He was too tired and too ill to process much of the unfolding drama, his only coherent thoughts focused on his impending demise. His skin bore the sallow look of a corpse, accentuating his aquiline face and Roman nose. His brown hair was matted to his scalp with blood and his beard had long since lost its trim appearance. Miguel de Cervantes was sure of one thing, his own mortality.
A mortar round finally signalled the evacuation of the wounded. Awaiting on the quay were stretcher-bearers who carried those unable to walk through the clamorous throng. Their final destination was the Grand Hospital appropriately cited next to the church of Santa Maria degli Alemanni. In fact, Cervantes was gaining more comfort from the proximity of the church than the prospect of an extended stay in the hospital which he suspected would end fatally; the number entering such an institution always far exceeded those who were strong enough to leave. A breeding ground for infection and disease in the already weakened, the well-intentioned 16th century hospital was no place to be ill.
Cervantes briefly surfaced from his sea of pain to notice the grey sheets of his bed and the desperate bandaging of his neighbours. There was little he could do but to succumb to the state of torpor his body imposed and to let his mind drift to a safer place.
To the surprise of his carers, the feisty man from Alcalá de Henares refused to die. Washing and dressing his wounds day after day, they were witness to the subsidence of his feverish nightmares and a gradual return of the strength that had upheld him during the bloody battle. The enforced bed rest gave the poetically inclined Miguel a chance to compose the occasional rhyme and give reign to his imagination. Already a recognised versifier and would-be playwright, he was keen to engage with anyone who was happy to listen to his stories and exchange ideas.
Out of immediate danger, Miguel was moved to a quieter room where he could convalesce in more peace and tranquillity. He was regularly attended by Doctor Giovanni Florio whose obvious academic credentials sparked the writer’s need for intellectual sustenance. If he had chosen to be a soldier, partially out of economic necessity, then he was now sure he would chose to be an author out of spiritual need. After all, what else could a man of such talents do with a withered left arm?
Giovanni was happy to let his young son accompany him on visits to the less seriously ill patients. Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza was a bright, precocious young boy who took a particular interest in the stories of Cervantes. On one occasion, his father had to drag him away from the Spaniard’s bedside after he had been transfixed by Miguel’s tale of Cardenio, the wild man of the Sierra Morena. Once an aristocrat, this now ragged hermit had fled the noble halls of his would-be wife, Luscinda, after witnessing her perceived betrayal during an enforced marriage ceremony to the evil Don Fernando. Little Michelangelo was less enamoured of the romantic entanglements, but loved the images of dashing knight errantry conjured by Cervantes’ colourful mind.
The appearance of young Crollalanza and his father brightened the day of a world-weary soldier. Cervantes could escape his surroundings and he delighted in the reactions of such an avid listener. Stories that had been dammed by years of penury and conflict now flooded from his otherwise idle mind. Recuperation nearly complete, his future remained uncertain, but literature beckoned.
The unlucky Miguel had battled to survive his wounds and fever, only to suffer five subsequent years of captivity in the harsh Berber prisons of Algiers. Imprisoned by corsairs, he was eventually released upon payment of a ransom. Such time to think gave life to his masterwork, Don Quixote, which was long in the gestation and eventually appeared in 1605.
Meanwhile, Michelangelo’s life was to prove no less eventful. The doctor’s son fled Sicily before his family became embroiled in the machinations of the Inquisition. Intellectually incapable of accepting established dogma, the family would have been considered heretics. Via the north of Italy, Crollalanza made the momentous decision to emigrate to England where he already had family. It was easier to integrate if he anglicized his name and some say he became ‘Shakespeare’.
The playwright was always a magpie when it came to plots for new plays, borrowing from the likes of Ariosto and the Latin greats. In a tavern on Bankside near London’s Globe theatre, Shakespeare was given a copy of the new translation of Don Quixote, a book which was causing a storm of appreciation across Europe. Leafing through the pages, one name lept out: Cardenio. His mind raced back to that hospital room and the man he always knew as Miguel.
The tale was just as he remembered it and he realised he had to pen his own version. With enthusiasm, he retold the story to his collaborator, William Fletcher who understood they would have to strike while the iron was hot.
Cervantes and Shakespeare both died in 1616 and, quite probably, on the same day. The real Shakespeare did write a play, partially lost to the modern reader, based on the story of Cardenio in Don Quixote. Shakespeare conspiracy theorists have added Don Giovanni’s son, Michelangelo Crollalanza, to their list of possible authors of the Bard’s work. Unless our fanciful fiction above actually happened, the two greats of Golden Age literature never met.
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards