Cervantes was born in Alcala de Henares, a town 20 miles from Madrid, on September 29, 1547. He was named Miguel for Saint Michael, whose patron day is September 29. Being the son of a barber-surgeon, he traveled around a lot, moving wherever his father's services were needed. His family was large; he was only the fourth son out of what was to become seven children in total. Not much is known about his educational background. It is supposed that he studied under the Jesuits as a child and in his late teens and very early twenties, under the tutelage of the principal of a municipal school in Madrid named Juan Lopez de Hoyos. Unlike most writers of his time, he apparently did not go to university.
In 1570, he left Spain for Italy, a move usually done by the Spaniards of his time to further their careers. Once there he joined the Spanish infantry in Naples. Around this time, the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the countries in the Mediterranean were very much strained. This was due to the fact that the Ottoman Empire was quickly expanding its power over these countries. In 1571, a Turkish fleet invaded Cyprus, an island country near Greece. This move made the confrontation between the Turks and the Spanish infantries located in nearby Italy inevitable. Cervantes valiantly fought in the Gulf of Lepanto, an area near Greece. He was badly wounded in his left hand and thus earned the nickname "Manco de Lepanto" (Maimed of Lepanto). After that, he continued fighting in the Mediterranean.
Something incredible happened when he tried to come back home to Spain in 1575. His ship was captured by pirates and he was taken as a slave to Algiers, a country in northern Africa. It is believed that his life as a slave from 1575 to 1580 became the source of inspiration for some episodes in Don Quixote. In 1580, his family, with the help of the friars of a Trinitarian monastery, was finally able to raise the ransom money necessary to free him.
Spain had changed drastically during Cervantes's absence. Prices had increased dramatically and the standard of living for people like his middle-class family had fallen. As a sad consequence, Cervantes would spend the rest of his life employment-hopping and being continually short of money. But it was his return to Spain which began his career as a major literary figure. In 1585, he published his first long work, La Galatea, a prose pastoral romance. Its publication brought him success with the reading public. After this pastoral romance, Cervantes decided to try his luck as a dramatist. His plays were average in comparison to the Don Quixote which he was to write in 1604.
When the First Part of Don Quixote came out in 1605, it was an immediate success. It was such a success that it was translated into English, French, and Italian within the next twenty years. In 1615, a year before his death, the Second Part came out and was just as successful. It is believed that the Second Part is richer and more profound than the First.
Unfortunately, all of this success resulted in no profit for Cervantes, who had sold the publishing rights of his work. The other major works that he published were 12 Novelas Ejemplares (12 Exemplay Novels, 1613) and Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses (Eight Comedies and Eight Interludes, 1615). In the latter, Cervantes poignantly bids goodbye to the world in the prologue; he obviously foresaw his imminent death.
The influence of Don Quixote on later literature was astounding. The work, which is in essence a parody of the time's popular chivalric romances, had been written in a realistic style. Cervantes' use of irony came to be admired and Don Quixote came to be seen at times as a comic hero and at others as a tragic hero driven by impossible dreams. It is believed that the influence of this work can be seen in such writers as Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Benito Perez Galdos and in painters like William Hogarth and Pablo Picasso.