When reading Byron’s Don Juan, I was startled by many of the similarities it shares with another tale: Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
These tales have many things in common, the most obvious being that they both take place in Spain. But the most significant similarity is that they are both mock-heroic epics. Mock-heroic is defined by Merriam Webster’s online dictionary as “ridiculing or burlesquing heroic style, character, or action”. In Don Juan, Juan is a satirical version of the older version of Don Juan; having been transformed by Byron from an active, powerful hero who delights in seducing women to a passive hero who is used by women (by his mother in particular). Don Quixote is a satirical portrait of the chivalrous romantic knight; mocking the chivalric romance stories that were popular in Cervantes’ day. Don Juan also mocks the literature of his day; but Byron even goes a step further than Cervantes by mocking his contemporaries directly, and had a particular sense of ire towards Southey, whom he referred to as a Tory and a “flying fish/ Gasping on the deck”. In terms of plot, the heroes of both stories spend their time travelling and getting into various hi-jinks.
So where do they differ? The biggest stylistic difference is that while Don Juan is written in verse, Don Quixote is written in prose. Also, the eras in which they were published were separated by a great deal of time: Part one Don Quixote was published in 1605 and part two was published in 1615 (published in english in 1612 and 1620, respectively); while the first two cantos of Don Juan were not published until 1819. So it is quite possible that Byron had read Don Quixote before writing Don Juan. The way women are treated by the protagonists differs also. Quixote goes about singing the praise of his idealized version of a woman whom he calls Lady Dulcinea, and at one point casts this image onto a barmaid he meets in his travels. In contrast, Juan is smitten with real women.
Although the ultimate fate of Juan is unknown, Quixote dies a sad and anticlimactic death at home after being tricked into casting aside his knighthood. Although it is difficult to project what kind of transformation Juan might have achieved after having only read one canto, it still makes me wonder what his fate might have been. Would he die defeated, dejected, and disenchanted like Don Quixote? Or would he be able to overcome adversity?