Deceit, disguise, and identity in Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares



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One of the most salient characteristics of Cervantes's literary production is his fascination, one might even say his obsession, with the human capacity for transformation. Nearly all of his plays, novellas, and novels feature characters that adopt alternative identities and disguise or dissimulate their true, original selves. The Novelas ejemplares (1613) encompass a veritable cornucopia of characters that pass themselves off as another. There are women who pass as men, Christians as Turks, Catholics as Protestants, and noblemen as gypsies, among many others. Identity, or at least its appearance, is represented as fluid and malleable. By creatively controlling the signs that they project in public, the characters of the novellas demonstrate a remarkable ability to adapt to innumerable contingencies. Similarly, subjects of the Spanish empire, driven particularly by ethno-religious and socio-economic motives, utilized craft and guile to conceal their identity or simulate another. On a theoretical level, both in Spain and throughout Europe, intellectuals explored the human capacity for transformation, and there emerged a new sense of interiority. As Stephen Greenblatt observes, in the Renaissance, "there appears to be an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process" (2). In this study I examine the abundance of deceit and disguise in Cervantes's collection of twelve novellas within the work's sociohistorical context. Specifically, I analyze how the novellas are embedded in two particular threads of cultural discourse on human identity: Spanish social history and early modern European intellectual history.