While reading Melveena McKendrick’s Cervantes, I became really interested in Lope de Vega, the great playwright of the turn of the 17th century. I had already been intrigued by this towering figure of Spanish drama, because of what Gray Taylor had written about how our focus on Shakespeare blinds us to other playwrights, “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.” Five hundred plays? Wait…
Five hundred plays?!
According to Melveena McKendrick in Theatre in Spain 1490-1700, this is a low estimate; he may have written over a thousand. Of course, a large number of plays doesn’t really matter if they are all poor. But Lope is known as a great writer, so his output is all the more impressive. Like Cervantes, Lope was driven to write. He did not write simply to secure his fortune, like another late 16th century playwright I could name.
I have yet to read any of Lope’s plays, although I just got a translation of Fuente Ovejuna (usually written just Fuenteovejuna). It is likely I will be writing about it soon. Until then, I will present summaries of three related Lope de Vega plays from McKendrick’s book. She calls them Lope’s “three famous socio-political plays about peasant honour.” This in itself makes them exciting. When Shakespeare wasn’t too busy sucking up to authority, he was lampooning the poor.
First, we have 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 through not condoned by the King, he is given a full captaincy and sent off to fight in the Granada campaign.
I can see why the power elite would not want the school children of the poor to read such a play. Much better would be a play about a prince who murders his childhood friends with impunity.
Second, we have Fuenteovejuna, which is even better:
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.”
Wow. That’s a lot more interesting than “Out, damned spot!” (Even if I rather like that play.)
The third play is 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.
Clearly, this play is similar to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. However, I think it is also clear that the plot is not as insipid. What’s more, McKendrick points out an interesting aspect of Lope:
The contemporary aristocratic view that social and economic superiority necessarily implied moral superiority was not one that met with Lope’s consent. In El mejor alcalde we even sense a powerful nostalgia for a more personal ideal of kingship, when kings did wear plain clothes and were involved in the processes of justice.
My point in presenting these plays is not (only) to rag on That Bard. Rather, it is to show that if we really are interested in the plays of the turn of the 17th century, we have many more interesting choices than Shakespeare’s catalog, Doctor Faustus, Volpone, and The Duchess of Malfi. Perhaps it is time to taste of the five hundred plays of Lope de Vega we have not read.
 When the Commander made Peribáñez a captain, it was as a joke. He sent him off win a unit that had toy arms. When the King makes him a captain, it is for real, and he is simultaneously making him a gentleman.
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