The female world in Don Quixote

By Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

Instituto Universitario de Investigación Miguel de Cervantes

This exhibition depicts the main female characters that appear in the great work of Cervantes. The quixotic world of women covers a broad spectrum of the society of his time that includes peasants, princesses, prostitutes, shepherdesses, duchesses, men disguised as women, serving wenches or landladies with beards.

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote DoreLIFE Photo Collection

1. Don Quixote I (1605)

In the first part of the book, published in 1605, Cervantes focuses on life in the inns of forests and along the roads. Don Quixote chooses Dulcinea as the lady of his heart and as a result she lives though all his adventures. He encounters such endearing characters as the party wenches who transform into Doña Tolosa and Doña Molinera, the shepherdess Marcela, already a feminist of her time; Maritornes, the Asturian wench; Dorotea, who attempts  to shape her own destiny and rediscover her lost love, or Zoraida who manages to escape from Algiers, and...

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

The housekeeper and the niece

"In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived, not long since, one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.... He had in his house a housekeeper past forty, a niece under twenty". (Don Quixote I,1).

Lit Cervantes 2 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Dulcinea or Aldonza?

"Oh, how our good gentleman enjoyed... when he had thought of some one to call his Lady!... there was... a very good-looking farm-girl with whom he had been at one time in love... Her name was Aldonza Lorenzo, and upon her he thought fit to confer the title of Lady of his thoughts; and after some search for a name which should not be out of harmony with her own, and should suggest and indicate that of a princess and great lady, he decided upon calling her 'Dulcinea del Toboso'—she being of El Toboso—a name... musical, uncommon, and significant". (Don Quixote I,1).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote Alken 1832LIFE Photo Collection

The party wenches transformed...

"At the door were standing two young women, girls of the district as they call them, on their way to Seville with some carriers who had chanced to halt that night at the inn;... he made for the inn door, and perceived the two gay damsels who were standing there, and who seemed to him to be two fair maidens or lovely ladies taking their ease at the castle gate". (Don Quixote I,2).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

...into Doña Tolosa and Doña Molinera

"Don Quixote said in reply that she would do him a favour if thenceforward she assumed the 'Don' and called herself 'Doña Tolosa'. She promised she would... and of her likewise Don Quixote requested that she would adopt the 'Don' and call herself 'Doña Molinera', making offers to her further services and favours". (Don Quixote I,3).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote HogarthLIFE Photo Collection

The Sheperdess Marcela

"...for on the summit of the rock where they were digging the grave there appeared the shepherdess Marcela, so beautiful that her beauty exceeded its reputation....: —Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you.... I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields". (Don Quixote I,14).

Lit Cervantes 2 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection


"There was besides in the inn, as servant, an Asturian lass with a broad face, flat poll, and snub nose, blind of one eye and not very sound in the other. The elegance of her shape, to be sure, made up for all her defects; she did not measure seven palms from head to foot, and her shoulders, which overweighted her somewhat, made her contemplate the ground more than she liked". (Don Quixote I,16).

Lit Cervantes Don QuixoteLIFE Photo Collection

Las historias cruzadas de Dorotea y Luscinda

Alborotáronse todos con el desmayo de Luscinda, y, desabrochándole su madre el pecho para que le diese el aire, se descubrió en él un papel cerrado, que don Fernando tomó luego y se le puso a leer a la luz de una de las hachas (Quijote I,27).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote DoreLIFE Photo Collection

Lela Zoraida

"Behind him, mounted upon an ass, there came a woman dressed in Moorish fashion, with her face veiled and a scarf on her head, and wearing a little brocaded cap, and a mantle that covered her from her shoulders to her feet.... "He said to her in Arabic that they asked her to take off her veil, and thereupon she removed it and disclosed a countenance so lovely..." (Don Quixote I,37).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote VanderbankLIFE Photo Collection

The daughter of the innkeeper

"At these signals and voice Don Quixote turned his head and saw by the light of the moon, which then was in its full splendor, that some one was calling to him from the hole in the wall, which seemed to him to be a window, and what is more, with a gilt grating, as rich castles, such as he believed the inn to be, ought to have; and it immediately suggested itself to his imagination that, as on the former occasion, the fair damsel, the daughter of the lady of the castle, overcome by love for him, was once more endeavoring to win his affections”. (Don Quixote I,43).

Lit Cervantes Don QuixoteLIFE Photo Collection

The women of the inn

"But before the cart was put in motion, out came the landlady and her daughter and Maritornes to bid Don Quixote farewell, pretending to weep with grief at his misfortune; and to them Don Quixote said:
—Weep not, good ladies, for all these mishaps are the lot of those who follow the profession I profess". (Don Quixote I,47).

Lit Cervantes 2 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

2. Don Quixote II (1615)

In the second instalment of the book, Cervantes writes that in spite of the attempts of housekeeper and niece to prevent Don Quixote from departing, the good knight finally manages to escape with Sancho, in search of new adventures. On his path he encounters none other than Dulcinea, who, initially Don Quixote fails to recognise given that, according to Sancho, has been bewitched. The gentleman finds himself with a beautiful Duchess, which with the reader having read the first part of the book, Cervantes decides to play several jokes on our protagonists. He goes on to generate other encounters with enamoured landladies and maidens, such as Altisidora, or enraged ladies, such as the daughter of Doña Rodriguez. The action thus moves from the roads to her palace.

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote DoreLIFE Photo Collection

Dulcinea Enchanted

"And things turned out so luckily for him that as he got up to mount Dapple, he spied, coming from El Toboso towards the spot where he stood, three peasant girls on three colts, or fillies, for the author does not make the point clear, though it is more likely they were she-asses, the usual mount with village girls... —replied Sancho—: that your worship has only to spur Rocinante and get out into the open field to see the lady Dulcinea del Toboso, who, with two others, damsels of hers, is coming to see your worship". (Don Quixote II,10).

Lit Cervantes Don QuixoteLIFE Photo Collection


"And as Sancho saw the bride, he exclaimed:
—... Whoreson baggage, what hair she has! If it's not a wig, I never saw longer or fairer all the days of my life! See how bravely she bears herself, and her shape! Wouldn't you say she was like a walking palm tree loaded with clusters of dates? For the trinkets she has hanging from her hair and neck! I swear in my heart she is a brave lass, and fit to pass over the banks of Flanders". (Don Quixote II,21).

Lit Cervantes 2 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

The Puppet Melisendra

""Do you not see that Moor, who silently and stealthily, with his finger on his lip, approaches Melisendra from behind? Observe now how he prints a kiss upon her lips, and what a hurry she is in to spit, and wipe them with the white sleeve of her smock, and how she bewails herself, and tears her fair hair as though it were to blame for the wrong". (Don Quixote II,26).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote Shirke (1700/1710)LIFE Photo Collection

The Duchess

"Coming closer, he distinguished among them a lady of graceful mien, on a pure white palfrey or hackney caparisoned with green trappings and a silver-mounted side-saddle. The lady was also in green, and so richly and splendidly dressed that splendour itself seemed personified in her. On her left hand she bore a hawk, a proof to Don Quixote's mind that she must be some great lady and the mistress of the whole hunting party, which was the fact..." (Don Quixote II,30).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

The Palace Maidens

"Don Quixote finally grew calm, and dinner came to an end, and as the cloth was removed four damsels came in... The barber damsel, when she had him a hand's breadth deep in lather, pretended that there was no more water, and bade the one with the jug go and fetch some, while Senor Don Quixote waited. She did so, and Don Quixote was left the strangest and most ludicrous figure that could be imagined". (Don Quixote II,32).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote VanderbankLIFE Photo Collection

The Exploited Woman

Señor Governor of my soul, this wicked man caught me in the middle of the fields here and used my body as if it was an ill-washed rag, and, woe is me! got from me what I had kept these three-and-twenty years and more, defending it against Moors and Christians, natives and strangers; and I always as hard as an oak, and keeping myself as pure as a salamander in the fire, or wool among the brambles, for this good fellow to come now with clean hands to handle me!" (Don Quixote II,45).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection


"But as he passed through a gallery, Altisidora and the other damsel, her friend, were lying in wait for him, and the instant Altisidora saw him she pretended to faint, while her friend caught her in her lap, and began hastily unlacing the bosom of her dress. Don Quixote observed it, and approaching them said:
'I know very well what this seizure arises from'.
'I know not from what' replied the friend, 'for Altisidora is the healthiest damsel in all this house, and I have never heard her complain all the time I have known her!..." (Don Quixote II,46).

Lit Cervantes Don QuixoteLIFE Photo Collection

Doña Rodríguez

"...he saw coming in a most venerable duenna, in a long white-bordered veil that covered and enveloped her from head to foot. Between the fingers of her left hand she held a short lighted candle, while with her right she shaded it to keep the light from her eyes, which were covered by spectacles of great size...

Don Quixote kept an eye upon her... he concluded that it must be some witch or sorceress that was coming in such a guise to work him some mischief, and he began crossing himself at a great rate". (Don Quixote II,48).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Teresa and Sanchica

“—Come out, mother Teresa, come out, come out; here's a gentleman with letters and other things from my good father.

At these words her mother Teresa Panza came out spinning a bundle of flax, in a grey petticoat (so short was it one would have fancied "they to her shame had cut it short"), a grey bodice of the same stuff, and a smock. She was not very old, though plainly past forty, strong, healthy, vigorous, and sun-dried; and seeing her daughter and the page on horseback..." (Don Quixote II,50).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

The Daughter of Doña Rodríguez

"The conditions of the combat were that if Don Quixote proved the victor his antagonist was to marry the daughter of Doña Rodriguez; but if he should be vanquished his opponent was released from the promise that was claimed against him and from all obligations to give satisfaction". (Don Quixote II,56).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

3. Costumes

Cervantes likes to play with the reader and often disguises his characters so that the lies seem like reality, in a glow of mirrors that will amaze us. Thus he begins disguising the curate as a Princess, although she will eventually be Dorotea —by which the curate and the barber are on the road, wearing the clothes of a serving boy—, who will become the Princess Micomicona. The Dukes also have fun playing jokes on Don Quixote and reversing roles: to fool landladies, they dress from shepherdesses to maidens... There is also a more serious reason for the mask: women, when travelling alone, pretend to be men to avoid bad experiences.

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote HogarthLIFE Photo Collection

The Curate Disguised as a Princess

"Finally the landlady dressed up the curate in a style that left nothing to be desired. She put on him a cloth petticoat with black velvet stripes a palm broad, all slashed, and a bodice of green velvet set off by a binding of white satin, which as well as the petticoat must have been made in the time of king Wamba..." (Don Quixote I,27).

Lit Cervantes 2 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Dorothea Dressed as a Wench

"The youth then took off the montera, and shaking his head from side to side there broke loose and spread out a mass of hair that the beams of the sun might have envied. By this they knew that what had seemed a peasant was a lovely woman, nay the most beautiful the eyes of two of them had ever beheld... She now used her hands as a comb, and if her feet had seemed like bits of crystal in the water, her hands looked like pieces of driven snow among her locks". (Don Quixote I,28).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Dorotea as Princess Micomicona

"Dorotea... dismounting with great ease of manner advanced to kneel before the feet of Don Quixote;
and though he strove to raise her up...:
—"From this spot I will not rise, valiant and doughty knight, until your goodness and courtesy grant me a boon [...]
—"Your worship may very safely grant the boon she asks; it's nothing at all; only to kill a big giant; and she who asks it is the exalted Princess Micomicona, queen of the great kingdom of Micomicon of Ethiopia". (Don Quixote I,29).

Lit Cervantes 2 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Countess Trifaldi and the Bearded Landladies

"Here the Distressed One and the other duennas raised the veils with which they were covered, and disclosed countenances all bristling with beards, some red, some black, some white, and some grizzled, at which spectacle the duke and duchess made a show of being filled with wonder. Don Quixote and Sancho were overwhelmed with amazement, and the bystanders lost in astonishment". (Don Quixote I,39).

Lit Cervantes 1 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Las pastoras fingidas

“… al improviso se le ofrecieron delante, saliendo de entre unos árboles, dos hermosísimas pastoras: a lo menos vestidas como pastoras, sino que los pellicos y sayas eran de fino brocado, digo, que las sayas eran riquísimos faldellines de tabí de oro. Traían los cabellos sueltos por las espaldas, que en rubios podían competir con los rayos del mismo sol, los cuales se coronaban con dos guirnaldas de verde laurel y de rojo amaranto tejidas. La edad, al parecer, ni bajaba de los quince ni pasaba de los diez y ocho.” (Quijote II,58).

Lit Cervantes 3 (1800)LIFE Photo Collection

Ana Félix

“—What are thou, then? —said the viceroy.
— "A Christian woman," —replied the youth.
—"A woman and a Christian, in such a dress and in such circumstances! It is more marvellous than credible. […]
—"This, Sirs, is my daughter, more unhappy in her adventures than in her name. She is Ana Felix, surnamed Ricote, celebrated as much for her own beauty as for my wealth". (Don Quixote II,63).

Lit Cervantes Don Quixote VanderbankLIFE Photo Collection

The Fake Death of Altisidora

"...white wax tapers burned in more than a hundred silver candlesticks. Upon the catafalque was seen the dead body of a damsel so lovely that by her beauty she made death itself look beautiful. She lay with her head resting upon a cushion of brocade and crowned with a garland of sweet-smelling flowers of diverse sorts, her hands crossed upon her bosom, and between them a branch of yellow palm of victory". (Don Quixote II,69).

Credits: Story

Comisario de la exposición:
Elisa Borsari

Organizado por:
Instituto Universitario de Investigación "Miguel de Cervantes" (UAH)

Actividad que se inserta dentro del proyecto I+D+i del Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad:
DHuMAR. Digital Humanities, Middle Ages & Renaissance. 1. Poetry 2. Translation (FFI2013-44286-P)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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