- Lector Ludens: The Representation of Games and Play in Cervantes by Michael Scham
Cervantes’s address to his “desocupado lector” in Part One of the Quijote is the starting point for Michael Scham’s engaging study of game imagery in the author’s most important literary works. This intriguing book is a rigorous, detailed, and carefully documented analysis of the social and literary dimensions of leisure, recreation, pastimes, games, and play considered thoroughly in the philosophical, social, and political contexts of early modern Spain and, more specifically, through the lens of the Counter-Reformation’s interest in controlling recreation (5). Citing Cervantes’s invocation to the idle reader of the Quijote as well as his characterization of prose fiction as a “mesa de trucos” in the prologue to the Novelas ejemplares, Scham demonstrates a consistent Cervantine fascination with ludic spaces that evinces a humanistic interest in the role of recreation and play in the development of the early modern individual and the pursuit of self-knowledge (3). Analyzing not only the representation of games of chance in Cervantes’s works, but also the deployment of authorial deceit and the problematic role of the narrator in his interaction with readers, Scham’s study makes a persuasive argument for considering fiction books themselves as objects of entertainment that engage the reader in a critical process of self-education and preparation for social interaction. Fiction, according to Scham, is play, but it is an instructive kind of recreational activity that fosters moral and social development in the reader, as reflected in the early modern concepts of eutrapelia and serio ludere.
One important contribution of this book is the extensive and diverse corpus of contemporary and historical critical sources and extra-canonical texts that provide a comprehensive theoretical framework for the analysis of games and play in Cervantes. Scham’s first chapter, “Leisure and Recreation in Early Modern Spain,” could stand alone as a concise monographic study on early modern cultural, moral, theological, legal, and even medical attitudes towards play, considered in the context of play theory as proposed by Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, Eleni Papargyriou, Jacques Ehrmann, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, and others. Both Schiller and Montaigne dismissed the idea of “mere play” to propose a symbiotic relationship of sorts between play and seriousness in contrast to prevailing Enlightenment thought that subordinated play to more useful or constructive activities (13). Complementing these modern theoretical approaches to games and leisure, Scham also analyzes topologies of play composed by Cervantes’s contemporaries, including Cristóbal Méndez’s Libro del ejercicio corporal y de sus provechos (1553), [End Page 548] Rodrigo Caro’s Días geniales o lúdricos (1626), Fray Alonso Remon’s Entretenimientos y juegos honestos, y recreaciones christianas (1623), and Pedro de Guzmán’s Bienes del honesto trabajo y daños de la ociosidad (1614), in order to develop an early modern concept of exemplary play that might train the player in virtue and redirect away from vice. This initial chapter, some 100 pages in length, is not so much an introduction to modern game theory as it is a careful consideration of various theoretical and cultural attitudes about games, leisure, entertainment, and jokes—framed historically—that manifest themselves in early modern literature, including the works of Cervantes.
The two chapters that follow, also each about 100 pages long, specifically analyze the Quijote and the Novelas, respectively, with frequent comparative sallies among and between these works. Analyzing Don Quijote as a man of leisure, Scham identifies multiple levels of play in the novel, from overt references to cards, chess, Altisidora’s game of pelota, hunting, and even garden landscaping, to the broader idea of complicity between player and spectator, or between author/narrator and reader in the case of prose fiction. The importance of play as a critical or educational process that intrinsically informs self-actualization and social interaction is, in many ways, a primary unifying concept that permeates Cervantes’s text thematically and structurally. Through his revealing analysis of the Quijote, Scham persuasively argues that...