MADRID — Two giants of Western literature, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, are being honored this weekend in their native countries on the 400th anniversaries of their deaths.
But while Britain has gone all out to fete Shakespeare, with a yearlong slate of high-profile events, readings, concerts and stagings of his plays, Spanish officials have been accused of not doing enough to promote Cervantes, whose “Don Quixote” is considered to be a foundational text of modern fiction.
As Spain heads into its fifth month without an elected government, after inconclusive elections in December, the criticism has taken on a distinctly political flavor.
A few weeks ago, Juan Luis Cebrián, chairman of Prisa, the Spanish media group that owns the newspaper El País, paid tribute to Cervantes at his shareholders’ general assembly. But he took a swipe at “the absence and anomia of the authorities of our country in terms of everything that relates to this event.”
In January, Socialist lawmakers presented a parliamentary proposal to push the acting conservative government to improve the commemoration plans. José Andrés Torres Mora, a Socialist lawmaker, accused the government of “crossing its arms.”
Spanish officials insist that such criticism is misplaced, saying the government never sought to take full control over how Cervantes should be honored, nor foot the entire bill for the celebration.
José María Lassalle, state secretary for culture, said in a telephone interview that his aim was “to break with the philosophy” of the 1980s and ‘90s, when Spain was mostly under a Socialist government. During that time, he argued, huge cultural projects were heavily subsidized and organized from the top, with a strict hierarchy.
Instead, he said, the Cervantes commemoration should be “much more about suggesting rather than ordering.”
“It is a change of mentality that some perhaps haven’t grasped,” he added. “We have looked for something more transversal, democratic, collaborative and pluralistic.”
Nonetheless, the Culture Ministry recently added 129 projects to the official commemoration agenda, raising the total to 329. The government said it had allocated a total of 4 million euros, about $4.55 million, to finance events linked to the anniversary. Regional authorities are spending about half that amount.
In Britain, nearly every major cultural institution has planned a splashy Shakespeare event. On Saturday — the anniversary of his death — the Royal Shakespeare Company hosted “Shakespeare Live!,” a performance broadcast by the BBC. Actors in the show included Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The National Theater, the British Library, the Royal Festival Hall, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others, scheduled events for this weekend.
Spain’s comparatively low-key treatment of Cervantes has rankled more than a few of the country’s writers and intellectuals.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, one of Spain’s best-selling novelists, said in his blog that while the British prime minister, David Cameron, had written a widely published article about Shakespeare and even rattled off a series of puns in Parliament to demonstrate how the poet and playwright “provides language for every moment,” it would be unthinkable for Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s acting prime minister, to publicly pay tribute to Cervantes.
The government’s handling of the commemoration, Pérez-Reverte wrote, amounted to “the international embarrassment of the year of Cervantes.”
Still, on Wednesday, Rajoy gave a copy of “Don Quixote” to Carles Puigdemont, the new separatist leader of Catalonia — a gesture that was also politically charged, as Rajoy then warned against any Catalan attempt to break away from Spain.
Lassalle, the state secretary, said he regretted the negative reactions “in some intellectual circles.” “There is a typical Spanish spirit to consider our things worse than what is done overseas,” he said. “That is of course something that Anglo-Saxons never do.”
Darío Villanueva, the director of the Spanish Royal Academy, the guardian of the language, has expressed his concerns over the organization of the commemoration. In January, he highlighted preparation delays, warning about “time consuming the opportunity that we would have to commemorate Cervantes.”
But in a recent phone interview, Villanueva said, “I was worried, but now I’m a bit more relaxed, because I think that things are functioning and coming into place.”
That Spain is not fully united behind the Cervantes events is, perhaps, in keeping with the writer’s tumultuous life.
One of the main events, which runs until May 22, is an exhibition at the National Library. On display are nine of the 11 known letters that Cervantes wrote, mostly while working as a tax collector. The show also traces the writer’s footsteps around the Mediterranean — not always of his own will, since he spent five years in prison in Algiers after pirates captured him.
The last part of the exhibition, dedicated to “the myth of Cervantes” and his legacy, highlights how English writers followed Cervantes’ lead in fiction, including Henry Fielding and his novel “Tom Jones.”
On a recent visit, a guide told his group that Cervantes would have been better honored had he lived in London instead of Madrid, even though he lived in the same district of the city, aptly known as the Barrio de Las Letras (the literary quarter), as several other writers of the so-called Spanish Golden Age.
Developing the literary quarter as a cultural center is “the big dream that Madrid needs,” said José Manuel Lucía Megías, a literature professor and the curator of the national library exhibition.
Last year, investigators said they had found the remains of Cervantes in the Madrid convent where he was buried in 1616. Despite the media frenzy that the discovery generated, Fernando de Prado, the historian who led the search, said that “absolutely nothing” had been done since by Madrid’s new city hall administration to promote the burial site.
Overall, de Prado said, “there has been no attempt to think about how Cervantes and this special year could be beneficial for the longer term.”
Politicians, he added, “are now only interested in what will happen in the politics of Spain, so Cervantes for them is just about wanting to appear on the event photo.”
Villanueva of the Royal Academy, who is also a professor of comparative literature, said Shakespeare and Cervantes should be honored as “two absolutely complementary authors.” Cervantes, Villanueva said, “wrote theater and poetry, but recognized he wasn’t especially inspired in those fields, while Shakespeare didn’t write narrative.”
Nothing in the national library’s exhibition was translated into English, something that the curator called an institutional mistake.
“It is a complete error not to think of the public beyond people who speak Spanish,” Lucía Megías said. “I think that in this country we sometimes lack marketing vision.”
Still, Lassalle, the state secretary, argued that Madrid’s exhibition compared favorably with one in the British Library about Shakespeare. He also cited a new choreography of the ballet “Don Quixote” from the Spanish National Dance Company that has received favorable reviews, and a summer theater festival in Almagro that will be devoted almost exclusively to Cervantes.
Some government-funded efforts did not receive media and public attention but were major achievements in terms of promoting Cervantes, including a project to digitalize his works.
The official Cervantes commemoration is due to run until mid-2017. Whatever the criticism so far, Lassalle said, the evaluation of its impact “should really only be done at the end.”