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The Enduring Quest

Unit Overview


Internet Resources


Instructional Plan

Part I: The Text as a Mirror of the Late Medieval /Renaissance Era

Part II: Structure, Characterization, and Texture of the Novel

Part III: The Novel as Seminal Source

Part IV: A Holistic Assessment of the Text



Discovering Opera
Man of La Mancha


The Enduring Quest

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Length: Approximately four weeks. To reduce allotted time, consider assigning just Part 1 of the text.

10-12 (some excerpts could be used in grades 8-9)


Language Arts, Performing Arts, Foreign Language, Social Studies, Visual Arts

Subtopics: Dance, Geography, History, Literature, Music, Painting, Opera, Sculpture, Spanish,Theater
Intelligences Being Addressed: Interpersonal Intelligence,
Intrapersonal Intelligence, Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence, Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence
Dimensions of Learning:

Acquisition and integration of knowledge,
Extension and refinement of knowledge,
Meaningful use of knowledge


This unit is designed to immerse students in Cervantes's novel, Don Quixote, from several different perspectives. The primary goal is to help students understand what aspects of the novel have contributed to its standing as one of the most valued and enduring literary sources in the western literary tradition. Students will also discuss how, over many decades, the novel has been a seminal inspiration for several genres of art expression.


Access to computers; VCR; tape/CD player


Texts: Cervantes's Don Quixote (the abridged Signet Classic is a good English translation, one very accessible to secondary students), Cervantes's Don Quixote in Spanish

A world history text (suggestion: McKay, Hill, and Bucklin's History of Western Society)

Videos: The Man Of La Mancha; ballet and opera versions of Don Quixote

Tape or CD: recordings of music from derivatives of the text, for instance, "The Impossible Dream"

Prints of Spanish art, particularly landscape Spanish artifacts, if possible, depicting "The Knight of the Rueful Figure"


Hand Outs: none
Student Supplies: Materials for students who want to do related special projects in visual arts
Teacher Internet Resources:

Lesson and Extension-Specific Resources:

Cervantes Project

Cervantes Project 2001, a site in both English and Spanish, contains a wealth of information related to the life, work, and times of Cervantes.

The Cervantes Homepage world_literature/cervantes.html

This is a very comprehensive site related to both Cervantes and Don Quixote. You will find the on-line text of Don Quixote along with favorite quotes. The Cervantes society of America, The Don Quixote Exhibit from the Peabody Library, world literature and criticism, and biography of Cervantes.

General Internet Resources:

Sí, Spain

The Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs developed this site in an effort to provide information on Spanish current affairs and its historical, linguistic and cultural development.


National Standards for Arts Education:

Music 9-12, Standards 6, 7, 8, 9

Theatre 9-12, Standards 1, 8

Instructional Objectives:

To enable students to achieve the following:

  • see the novel as a mirror of the dynamic changes occurring in the philosophical, social, political, and cultural outlook of the late Medieval-Renaissance time period
  • closely examine the structure of the narrative as an archetypal pattern and as an important factor in the shaping of its impact
  • appreciate the richness of Cervantes's diversity of characterization
  • explore the complexities and "lessons" inherent in the basic nature of each of the two major players in the novel, including their adventures and interrelationship
  • examine the comic-tragic extension of these complexities and specific ways the form of the novel (plot structure, structural pattern, and texture, i.e., tone, diction, rhythm, and images) builds this extension
  • assess specific ways the novel has been transferred into other genres (ballets, opera, a Broadway musical), and explore students' vision of how they would make this transfer
  • delineate precepts of philosophical "Truths" that seem to emerge as a third-dimensional aspect of the novel
  • draw on the novel as a source for exercising and strengthening process skills (discussion skills; oral presentation; writing process; collaborative participation; research skills; computer literacy; visual literacy; visual and performing arts skills)
  • consider the impact of language translation
  • expand vocabulary of critical analysis; appreciate the fact that Cervantes' Spanish heritage, his compelling use of his native language, and his life experiences, particularly as a soldier, were vital forces in shaping the beauty and magnetic power of the novel.


Students will engage in a variety of assignments and activities that provide background material and encourage close textual study:

  • Internet and print media research in historical and critical sources
  • class discussion
  • collaborative problem-solving activities
  • formal explication of the text
  • Web design
  • viewing of film, text, and Don Quixote derivatives, including ballets, the opera, and the musical
  • listening to recordings of music scores from derivative sources
  • formal oral presentations
  • essays of critical analysis
  • creative and expository writing assignments
  • performance opportunities (dramatic vignettes; dance; instrumental music; singing; visual displays)
  • comparison of brief passages of the Spanish text with the English translation


Instructional Plan:

1. Preparation: Encourage students to start reading the text a few weeks before the actual classroom study begins. Ask them to "map" the plot structure as it unfolds, identifying the basic exposition (background) of the story, summing up the complication (the basic conflict), assessing what they consider to be the climax (high point) of the story, and delineating their perception of the resolution of the complication. Advise them to formally annotate their "mapping" in their notes so it can be used when formal classroom analysis begins.

Part I: The Text as a Mirror of the Late Medieval /Renaissance Era

Great works of classical literature can be read and appreciated on many levels. Don Quixote certainly falls in that category. It is compelling as an adventure story and a romance. It is rich in humor. It is forceful in characterization, imagery, and situational irony. It teaches many "lessons." One level that certainly evokes that "ah, yes!" response in the reader is Cervantes's ability to capture the human spirit in struggle during dramatic changes in the social, political, historical and cultural landscapes of the 16th century. It is through this level, forged from the synthesis of other levels of the text, that we are particularly impelled to see ourselves struggling with the changes of our lives and our world. The following suggestions are aimed at helping to equip students to grasp this reflector level of the text.

Ask students to:

- develop an individual list of what they already know about the general outlook and the events of the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries

- share the information in large group discussion

- gather additional information through research of Web and print resources

- work in small collaborative groups to construct brief written profiles of topics related to the time period that will help illuminate various aspects of the text

Some suggested topics:

  • chivalry and the chivalric code
  • the quest for the Holy Grail
  • demise of feudalism and the growth of towns
  • advent of printing in 1485, and the ensuing distribution of books
  • rise of the universities
  • erosion of the Medieval Church and the growth of secularism
  • developments in science and technology
  • the geography and conquests of Spain in this time period
  • the Spanish Inquisition
  • political tensions between Church and State, articulated in "wars" between Popes and Kings
  • growth of Nationalism
  • relationships between Spain and the Moors
  • the "Utopian" vision (Sir Thomas More)
  • Humanism as a catalyst feeding the Renaissance spirit
  • The Black Plague
  • the Reformation
  • the "Knight-errant" and the adventures in the New World
  • the Spanish Armada

- gather data about Cervantes' life, particularly his life as a soldier

- probe, in discussion, the implications of the fact that Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries (noting that they died on the same calendar day, April 23, 1616) as one way to highlight key aspects of the age

Part II: Structure, Characterization, and Texture of the Novel

A. Structure

The structural unity of Don Quixote emerges from several "binding" elements of theme and form (craftsmanship). The following activities are designed to help students unravel the complexity of these structural "threads."

Ask students to:

- work in small groups to identify and record as many aspects of the text as they can find that contribute to interrelating the parts of the novel into a unified whole

- share the groups' "discoveries" in the large group, rounding out the list to include such aspects as:

  • an adventurous journey
  • a quest
  • "famous" legends and texts about knights and chivalry (the embedded past)
  • the juxtaposed views of books as agents of the devil vs. catalysts of divine inspiration
  • the "sidekick" relationship of Don Quixote and Sancho
  • the relationship of Rozinante and Dapple
  • a series of encounters
  • a mock-heroic tone quality
  • illusion vs. reality
  • expectation vs. surprise
  • the geography of Spain
  • recurring images; for instance, the various "conditions" of Don Quixote's armor
  • review any previous experience they have had with the journey and "quest" patterns of structure, defining specific ways the narratives of such selections are moved forward (for instance, in The Odyssey; Gulliver's Travels; Moby Dick; Heart of Darkness)

B. Characterization

Probably the most compelling aspect of the novel is Cervantes' brilliant characterization, not only his creation of the "lanky, scarecrow" Knight and his rotund, down-to-earth "Squire", but also his creation of a wide range of personalities who catch the imagination and evoke reflective associations. The following activities are designed to help students probe and appreciate some of the techniques Cervantes uses to build this unforgettable array.

Ask students to:

  • develop a brief written sketch of the physical characteristics of a "him" or a "her" they know - (a person who is not a member of the class); try to describe the individual in as much accurate detail as possible, "recording" objectively, such properties as color of eyes, hair, size, etc.
  • add another layer to the description, this time defining the personality of the individual as they perceive it. Encourage students to highlight special mannerisms, linguistic patterns, tastes in clothes, general behavioral patterns; for instance, is the person quiet, introverted, loud, or extroverted? Is the person reflective, driven to succeed, "laid back", practical or idealistic?
  • explore the term "caricature", drawing from students' past reading and viewing experience (Dr. Seuss; cartoons, for instance) to examine specific ways ludicrous exaggeration is achieved.
  • turn the profiles they have created of the "him" or "her" into a caricature of the individual, exaggerating, in comic flavor, some of the physical and personality properties they have defined.
  • share the caricatures in the large group. Encourage students to present their sketch in different genres, for instance, to make a drawing, develop a mime, or project the caricature in dance idiom.
  • compare, in large group discussion, techniques they have used to project ludicrous exaggerations with techniques used by Cervantes.
  • align, in small groups, to craft in written form (and if time allows to present), brief "encounters" between and among the characters they have created. Encourage students to infuse dialogue into their description of the encounters or to build the encounter as a dramatic script.

C. Texture

The texture of the novel, as the term is used here, emerges from the synthesis of the diction (word choice), imagery, tone quality, internal structural patterns, and rhythm. The following activities encourage students to engage in close analysis of these aspects of the text.

Ask students to:

  • consider, in large group discussion, in what specific ways the word choice and/or idiomatic expression of the text project the hyperbolic (exaggerated) aspects of the characterization
  • consider, in small group problem-solving format, in what specific ways the diction and/or idiomatic expression contribute to Cervantes's building of differentiation in the psychological profiles and philosophical outlooks of Don Quixote and Sancho. Share the findings in large group discussion.
  • compare, if they are native speakers of Spanish language or enrolled in Spanish classes, the diction in vignettes of translation with that of the original source and share analysis with the class.
  • clarify, in what specific ways sustained and recurring images contribute to the building of the narrative and add artistic power to characterization and the building of theme in the novel. Suggestion: Give students a list of images to analyze, for instance, helmets, windmills, fulling mills, corpses, etc.; as follow-up, assign a brief in-class writing in which they have to explicate their findings of one or two of the images. Share some of the papers in class discussion.
  • as a special project, make a drawing or painting of one of the images.
  • define the word "tone". Ask them to make a list of "tone" words (for instance, respectful, satirical, formal, humorous, ebullient, melancholy, irreverent, etc.) and to define what aspects of communication, in their perception, build "tone".
  • define the term "mock-heroic", and negotiate a conclusion about whether or not the prevailing tone of Don Quixote is "mock-heroic", backing up their conclusions with specific evidence from the text. (Students arguing "mock-heroic" should include comments on the role of the narrator in building the tone.)
  • team up in pairs, with each pair exploring a separate "encounter", mapping the pattern of narrative development within the encounter.
  • share the "maps", and to consider whether or not there is a recurring narrative pattern (for instance, a sighting; explanation of the "reality" of the situation; Don Quixote's illusion; Sancho's reaction; the resolution and impact on the two figures).

Suggest the following guidelines for explicating the encounters:

  • Clarify what happens in the encounter.
  • What new figures are introduced?
  • Are there elements of hyperbole in the encounter? What builds the hyperbole?
  • How does the encounter affect Don Quixote? (For instance, does it intensify his determination or discourage him in his pursuit of his goal?) What is his "goal" in undertaking the journey?
  • How does the encounter affect Sancho? Is he discouraged or energized? What is Sancho's "goal" in undertaking the journey?
  • Is Don Quixote and Sancho's relationship affected by the encounter? If so, how?
  • Does the encounter teach a "lesson"? If so, what is it?

Share the above analysis in large group discussion, encouraging students to negotiate holistic conclusions about how the encounters help shape the internal structure of the novel (a cyclic effect of "ups" and "downs", for instance), and how the encounters contribute to the rhythm/cadence of the novel and the building of what they consider to be the primary theme.

Part III. The Novel as Seminal Source

Over many generations, Don Quixote has sustained as an enduring source of inspiration for recasting in other forms of art expression. Numerous "clones" in other genres have been developed through the centuries since Cervantes "begot" his "dry, shrivelled, whimsical offspring" in prison, and Part I of the text was published in 1605. Numerous ballets, an opera, Hollywood films, a hit Broadway musical, visual arts, and a recent TV mini-series give testimony to the lasting draw of the text. The following activities are designed to highlight this enduring magic of the text for students, and to generate creative discussion about ways the dynamic qualities of the text have been and can be transferred.

Ask students to:

  • Research background material on the following ballet productions of Don Quixote:
    • Marius Petipa's 1869 choreography (Bolshoi), music score by Ludwig Minkus
    • Alexander Gorsky's choreography (turn of the century)
    • George Balanchine's choreography 1965
    • Alexei Fadeyechev's choreography (Bolshoi) 2000

Note to teacher: A tension has long existed in classical ballet concerning whether or not narrative (plot) dramatized in self-conscious display of classical technique should dominate the choreography of a ballet or serve mainly as a springboard for choreographic design and interpretation of technique. The choreographic styles in the above renditions of Don Quixote reflect these seemingly dichotomous outlooks. The Petipa style seems to reflect the Romantic idiom of weighting narrative and display, developing a dramatic rendition that highlights portions of the text. Balanchine's work seems more abstract, the movement less self-conscious, weighting design and phraseology. The new Bolshoi Don Quixote seems to be a combination of the traditional classicism and modern interpretive modes.

Students interested in dance history and performance could be encouraged to develop special projects on the Don Quixote ballets, for instance, studies of the ways the mode of expression of the above choreographies align with the development of theme and form in other art genres of the time periods. Background on the artists who portrayed the leading characters could be another rich area of study to pursue. Suzanne Farrell, for instance, danced the role of Dulcinea in Balanchine's choreography.

  • View selections from film sources (including TV mini-series) of Don Quixote, critiquing ways the exposition, characterization, and narrative of the text are articulated.
  • Listen to music tapes from The Man of La Mancha and the Don Quixote opera; discuss what specific aspects of the text are highlighted in the music scores and through what techniques of musical composition and performance.
  • Create and share a dramatic script, a storyboard for film production, a musical vignette, a brief choreography, a drawing, painting, or sculpture based on the novel.

Part IV: A Holistic Assessment of the Text

The following questions are designed to encourage students to sum up the large view of the novel that has emerged from class discussions and the specific problem-solving activities in which they have been engaged. The questions could be used for further class discussion, formal oral presentations, or as topics for in-class and/or outside-of-class essay writing assignments.

Ask students to consider:

  • What profile of the social, political, economic, and cultural fabric of the time period is projected in the series of encounters and the novel in general?
  • What view of the Spanish landscape emerges? In what specific way(s) does the landscape contribute to the development of the text?
  • What seems to be the author's philosophical outlook on human nature and human interaction?
  • What archetypes are embedded in the characterization? (If students have read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, ask them to draw comparisons with the figures in Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.)
  • What attitude of mind or general outlook on life is metaphorically developed through the characters of Don Quixote? Sancho?
  • The term "comic spirit" is often used to describe aspects of the novel. We have discussed hyperbole and caricature as two ways the text builds this "spirit." What other aspects contribute to the "comic" aspect? Consider: is the nature of "comic" and "comedy" built only on what is perceived to be "funny"?
  • What was your favorite encounter or aspect of the text?
  • If you were developing a film, TV production, music score, dance choreography, or visual arts projection of the novel, what aspect of the novel would be your starting point? (for instance, the Spanish landscape, the mindset of Don Quixote, or a key image) What aspect of the text would you emphasize the most? What are some elements that could be subordinated in order to build your choice of emphasis? Develop a written overview of your plan for creating one of the above projections ("take-offs") of the novel.
  • Why do you think the novel has continued to be so valued through the ages and has sustained as an inspiration for creativity? Clarify your position with specifics.



Teachers should assess the following criteria:

  • contribution to class discussion and collaborative projects
  • performance in oral presentations: such aspects as relevance to topic, substance, good organization, rhetorical effectiveness, poise in delivery, voice modulation
  • performance in writing assignments: essays of critical analysis should demonstrate relevance to topic, substance, logical organization, rhetorical effectiveness, and evidence of linguistic growth; creative manuscripts should reflect serious investment in assignments and sensitive response to the novel
  • volunteer engagement in special arts projects
  • peer and self evaluation of oral and writing performance

Teacher References:

Cervantes (Saavedra), Miguel de. Don Quixote, trans. Walter Starkie. New York: Penguin (Mentor), 1957.

Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Kisselgoff, Anna. "The Stories vs. the Steps." The New York Times (Weekend), June 9, 2000.

Kaufman, Sara. "Impossibly Dreamy." The Washington Post (Style), June 3, 2000.


Author: Jayne Karsten
The Key School
Annapolis, Maryland
Submission Date: November 1, 2000

© ARTSEDGE, 2000