On this day in 1562, the greatest playwright of all time, Lope de Vega, was born. Of course, most people wouldn’t think that because Lope didn’t write in English and he was not used as the cultural sword of the expansion of a major empire the way that Shakespeare was. But Lope did not only write great plays, he wrote a lot of plays. As Shakespeare scholar Gary Taylor wrote, “We assume that Shakespeare’s thirty-odd plays contain more of humanity than the five hundred plays of Lope de Vega we have not read.” That’s right: 500 plays. In fact, it might be more than that.
The Shakespeare apologists, of course, will claim that this is why Shakespeare is so great. He took his time. He didn’t write so many plays. But this is always the way it is with Shakespeare. However he did something is the best. For example, scholars have claimed that Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is better than Plautus’ Menaechmi. Why? Because Shakespeare has two sets of identical twins. Of course, if the situation were reversed, these scholars would argue the opposite: that two sets of twins is needlessly silly. So just the same, if a playwright wrote fewer plays than Shakespeare or more plays, it just goes to show that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever. Because everything shows that.
Lope de Vega is the literary equivalent to Mozart. Although born into a working class family (his father was an embroiderer), Lope was writing plays by the time he was 12-years-old. Many people helped him out during his teen years, because his genius was so clear to everyone. But for most of his 20s and early 30s, he was focused on chasing after women. This is an avocation that got him into some trouble: jail, exile, and eventually an assignment with the Spanish Armada, which he was quite lucky to survive.
And then he started to write in earnest. By his count, he had written over 200 plays by the age of 40. By the age of 60, he had written a thousand. There is no doubt that Lope was something of a hack. People wanted a play about X and Lope would spit one back at them in a couple of days. But they weren’t fluff. The average Shakespeare play is about 20,000 words. His comedies are shorter: about 17,000 words. The only play of Lope’s I’ve been able to read, Fuenteovejuna, is roughly 12,000 words. It runs roughly two hours. So it’s shorter, but not terribly so.
In addition to this, Lope wasn’t slavishly committed to holding up the ruling class as the savior of the world. Let me just present three synopses taken from Melveena McKendrick’s excellent Theatre in Spain 1490-1700:
Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña (Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña)
[S]et in the fifteenth century, [it] portrays the idyllic marriage and life together of the prosperous and ambitious young peasant Peribáñez and his lovely bride Casilda, and the attempts made by their overlord to seduce her. When Casilda remains impervious to his blandishments, the Commander makes Peribáñez a captain and sends him off to fight the king’s war. He enters his house at night intending to take Casilda by force if necessary, but aware by now of his intentions Peribáñez returns in time to prevent the rape of Casilda and the destruction of their lives by killing his lord. His action is subsequently pardoned though not condoned by the King, he is given a full captaincy and sent off to fight in the Granada campaign…
Like Peribáñez, Fuenteovejuna also deals with the relationship between honour and noble birth by presenting sexual aggression in the context of class relationships. Here, however, the conflict is not the cat and mouse game played by the Commander in Peribáñez, but open confrontation from the start between a brutally predatory overlord and the entire village of Fuenteovejuna which he tyrannizes in the name of his seigneurial rights; the tension is created not so much by how he will be stopped but by whom. The village’s sense of impotence and fear is encapsulated in its name, Fountain of the sheep: the men are emasculated, almost dehumanized, by their overlord’s grotesque abuse of power and privilege and it is a woman, Laurencia, who eventually shames them into action in the play’s major speech. In the name of their communal self-respect the men and women of Fuenteovejuna kill the Commander and, when tortured for the truth by the King’s men, answer only “Fuenteovejuna did it”…
El Mejor Alcalde, el Rey (No Greater Judge Than the King Himself)
The Galician peasant hero, Sancho, does not take the law into his own hands but invokes the law’s majesty by appealing to the King himself for aid. The noble, for his part, don Tello, not only transgresses against the principles of duty and responsibility on which the social contract is founded but defies the King himself, refusing to accept his monarch as ultimate arbiter of law and justice on earth. The play is set in the twelfth century, when seigneurial rights were only just beginning to yield before monarchical power and this gives credibility to don Tello’s reckless anarchy. The King in the guise of a judge travels to the village and hears for himself don Tello’s defiance. Revealing his identity he marries don Tello to Sancho’s bridge-to-be, whom he has raped, and then executes him so that Elvira, now a rich widow, can marry the man who loves her. Justice is done not by meeting force with force but by recourse to the processes of law. The play, therefore, marks in a sense a more mature and a more serene state in Lope’s exploration of the theme of power and its relationship to justice.
Lope de Vega is a writer that everyone should know a whole lot more about. I think we have all seen enough Shakespeare for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of plays of Lope’s that have never even been translated into English. It is a shame.
Happy birthday Lope de Vega!