When Don Quixote first sets out as an adventurer, sans Sancho Panza, his primary encounters before returning briefly home are with an innkeeper, farmer, and merchant. Each have a distinct reaction to Quixote’s presence as a “knight errant.” These reactions can roughly be equated with all further subsequent encounters Quixote has on the plains. And to critically extrapolate even further: there are 1 of 3 ways of dealing with any madman.
The innkeeper’s way
The innkeeper recognizes Q.’s madness, and knows enough about chivalric romances not to upset Quixote, and so, he is kindly, humors him (as do the prostitutes at the inn who are made into ladies) and with good-nature plays along and Q. is knighted, if only to help the innkeeper send him on his way. During his visit, two muleteers are hit on their heads who interpret Quixote’s watch over his armor as nothing but an act.
So, the innkeeper’s lesson is: There are harmful consequences in taking what seems to be fantasy to you for what is reality to another – and pleasantries if you entertain their fantasy.
The farmer’s way
The farmer recognizes no madness, but humors Q. as he would any figure that seems to be of authority – by agreeing with him outwardly, then ignoring his proscriptions. The farmer further abuses the boy who is being flogged, the injustice which first drew Q.’s attention. He gives him no wages, and implores him to go back to Quixote and tell him what was done, knowing nothing will come of it.
The farmer’s takeaway is: There are no consequences to not upholding a man’s word if you have no belief in their power (or madness).
The merchant’s way
The merchant (and gang of merchants) does not care whether Q. is mad or of authority. They see only an out-of-fashion boob, a man who takes himself seriously and so, can be taken advantage of. It’s during this third encounter which does the most harm to Q. – they demand to see an image of Dulcinea to prove to them her beauty. He rushes at the merchant, lance in hand, and Rocinante falters, he falls. He is beaten, his lance is shattered, and is left to ache in the dust, blaming his old nag.
And so, the merchant’s rebuttal is: Those who are weakened by their own fantasies will be crushed with the bleeding and bruised proof of the real.