Lope and Cervantes: the Feud

Melveena McKendrick's CervantesBack in 1980, Professor Melveena McKendrick wrote a stunning biography of Miguel de Cervantes. I went through several biographies before landing on this treasure that is written in a more lively and engaging style than most modern novels. I’m no expert, so I don’t know if the research in the book is out of date. I do know that certain aspects of Cervantes’ life which have been shown to be untrue—like the contention that he started Don Quixote while in prison—are discussed and refuted here. So any inaccuracies must be small. One certainly could not pick a book that more vividly brings Cervantes and his times to life.

Spanish Theater

One especially interesting aspect of the biography is the picture it provides of the Spanish theater scene at that time. This is the same time when the English theater was dominated by Shakespeare and all those other playwrights we no longer perform. In Spain, theater was dominated by Lope de Vega—in a way Shakespeare never did in his own time. And it just sounds like a lot more fun than what was going on over at the other side of the English Channel. One particularly telling part of this is the use of women in the theater. In England, there was no law against women performing on stage.[1] Rather, the theaters kept women from performing because they feared the government would shut them down if they did so. (Also: English boys loved dressing up as women.) In Spain, women played the female parts on stage. Sometime around 1600, the government passed a law making this illegal. The Spanish theaters just ignored it and nothing happened. Viva España!

The Feud

Lope de Vega and Cervantes knew each other and there are even indications that at one point they were close. This all came to a crashing halt when Lope came to Seville in 1602 only to be publicly attacked by three sonnets, savaging him for his work and his scandalous private life. Cervantes wasn’t there at the time, but Lope believed that he had written them. First, there is the fact that the poems seem to have been written like Cervantes had written earlier in his career. And second, there is the fact that Cervantes had always been critical of Lope’s style of drama; Cervantes was more or less unable to write for the theater because of the revolution that Lope created.

Lope fired back. He wrote a sonnet that referred to Don Quixote as “trashy” and made fun of Cervante’s damaged hand. (This wasn’t as out of line as it may appear; they played rough in those days.) Around the same time, Cervantes lampooned Lope’s efforts to appear more erudite than he was in the Prologue to Don Quixote. The whole thing reached its peak around this time when Lope wrote in a letter, “Of poets, I say nothing! what an age we live in … but there is not one as bad as Cervantes, nor so stupid as to praise Don Quixote.” In the same letter he mentions Cervantes having written that Lope’s plays were “odious.”

After this, the two men seem to have called a ceasefire. There were still publicly cool to each other, but the flaming rhetoric stopped. Nonetheless, long after Cervantes’ death in 1616, Lope continued to write critical things about Cervantes. Around 1620, Lope wrote in To Love Without Knowing Whom that Don Quixote was “extravagant” and called upon God to forgive Cervantes for writing it.

There is little doubt that there was some bad blood between the two men. This is especially true on Cervantes’ part. Lope was hugely successful and Cervantes was not. Cervantes must have felt bitter and resentful. Nonetheless, this whole feud seems to have been based upon Lope’s mistaken belief that Cervantes had insulted him rather than any real slight.

[1] I know that most people say that it was against the law for women to perform on stage. However, I remember reading from an authoritative source that this is widely believed but false. I am researching it and will come back to this. However, it doesn’t change the point I’m making.

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