- Lector Ludens: The Representation of Games & Play in Cervantes by Michael Scham
Michael Scham’s book on games and play in Cervantes is divided into three over-arching parts of approximately one hundred pages each, with various subdivisions of those parts into specific sections. Part one is a clear, comprehensive discussion of multiple theories on play from Greco-Roman through Victorian times, with additional sources from twentieth-century theorists, including scholars of game theory. Scham highlights specific moments of change in concepts on play and games, from pre-Socratic expressions of power to the later separation of play from serious concerns, reviewing also admonitions and prohibitions against, as well as positive exhortations to play, from later moralists and theorists. Using Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens for its seminal definitions and principles, Scham fully contextualizes his own premise of literature, and specifically that of Cervantes, as deeply related to and engaged with these concepts on play. He sets the stage for his study of Cervantes with Roger Callois’s specific nomenclature for categories of play, offering brief examples of each type as found in early modern Spanish texts. The examples are not limited to Cervantes’s writings, and Scham includes a wonderful variety of volumes on play, from medieval and early modern European thinkers, along with medical treatises on the corporeal and psychic benefits of exercise. This impressive variety of source texts with opinions and approaches to free time is handily explained and analyzed by Scham. Specific games (chess, cards, dice) are used to exemplify categorical divisions and ethical attitudes towards play as it is practiced in each pastime. Along with the exposition and analysis of texts, at times to a very precise level of distinction (spoil-sports versus cheats, for example), Scham uses woodcuts and paintings to good effect as support for and illustration of his arguments.
Part two opens with Altisidora’s dream in the 1615 second part of Don Quijote, highlighting specifically her description of devils playing a game of ball in which the balls are books. This serves to introduce a focus on all imagery relating to books, games, and recreation in Cervantes’s masterpiece, and to suggest that the reader is a participant in this game of the book, as it were. All references to games of any sort found in the Quijote—cards, dice, chess, hunting, theatrical and narrative mimesis and role-playing—are teased out and examined for how they relate to the structural premises laid out in part one. Here, Scham offers interesting yet complex arguments for his perspective [End Page 188] that many of Cervantes’s writings can be seen as linguistic, thematic and narrative experiments with various levels of play. There is much interweaving of textual references, images, and storyline, along with a wealth of previous critical commentary. In plot details, language, synthesis and antithesis, as well as in the well-known Cervantine irony, Scham finds abundant examples to buttress his claims for the author’s literary work as an elaborate game, analyzing it alongside the (more or less) contemporary commentaries on the philosophy of games and play by Vives, Montaigne, Erasmus, and Burton.
In part three, Scham turns to Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares, noting from the start that one of the Aprobaciones (permissions) to publish, written by Fray Juan Bautista in 1612, includes the descriptor “verdadera eutropelia” for the collection of novels. Scham begins with “El licenciado Vidriera,” finding in the protagonist’s intellectual detachment from the corporeal world the source of his eventual illness: that is, Vidriera neglected physical play and was therefore prone to his eventual illness. Scham follows Ruth El Saffar to dismiss the putative poison as an “artistically deficient” reason for the character’s illness: “El Saffar is right in pointing out the superfluousness of the poison fruit[…]. Cervantes’s images of ideal recreation include the exercise of both mind and body” (218). Comparisons with Erasmus’s character Folly, with theoretical statements by Juan Luis Vives and Alonso López Pinciano, and with the sharp wit...