Bartolomé de Torres Naharro Essay - Critical Essays

Bartoloméde Torres Naharro


Unconventional in his theater, philosophical if not truly lyrical in his nondramatic verse, universal in spirit and expression, Bartolomé de Torres Naharro is one of those rare individuals who advances art to a new level of awareness and social consciousness.


Hymen is divided according to Torres Naharro’s simplistic pre-Aristotelian formula for composition: introit and plot. Following a pattern that Torres Naharro establishes for the majority of his introits—or dramatic prologues—a rustic enters speaking in Sayagués (a dialect of northwestern Spain), greets his public, and—although it is Christmas Eve—proceeds to boast of his erotic exploits with various country wenches.

The rustic in Hymen recounts his only marriage; his only child resembled the village priest, who obviously frequented their home with more than purely religious intentions. His most ardent extramarital affair was with Juana the Washerwoman, a soapmaker. The rustic describes their lovemaking in graphic and playful detail, then realizes that perhaps he is straying too far from his proposed intentions; he asks pardon for his rude and gross speech, and announces the play to be performed. The play will be divided into five acts, a comedia, though not a hilarious comedy (comedia de risadas). It will be subtle, something unexplainable, something completely novel. What Hymen is, indeed, is a tragicomedy, in which plot predominates over character, in which ethics and morality predominate over fortune or fate. It is the prototype of what was to be known as the Spanish comedia in the seventeenth century.

The introit completed, the plot begins. Act 1 opens on a night scene, possibly the first in Castilian theater. Ymeneo, a young aristocrat, approaches Phebea’s window in order to woo her. It is love at first sight for Ymeneo. He pines, laments, and suffers the severe pangs of lovesickness, for his “lady” does not answer his calls. His two manservants, Eliso and Boreas, advise him to return home, while they stand vigil over the home of the beloved. Ymeneo leaves in a crazed state, but his men are more fearful of the Marquis, Phebea’s brother, who carefully guards his sister’s reputation. The two servants then talk of love; Boreas, the selfish and astute servant, is deeply in love with Doresta, Phebea’s handmaiden. Both men depart, as the Marquis and his manservant, Turpedio, enter. Though it is still night, the presumably decent Marquis, on the alert for the suspected Ymeneo, retires to a girlfriend’s house for breakfast; obviously, he maintains a double standard for sexual behavior, prohibiting his sister from practicing precisely what he does.

Act 2 evolves later that same night. Ymeneo has returned to serenade Phebea. His love song, well suited for the occasion, tells of the glory in suffering for his belle dame sans merci. Phebea now approaches her jalousied window. She shows some compassion for Ymeneo, whose sadness would soften even the hardest of hearts. He entreats her to give him entry to her boudoir. She, in turn, attempts to protect her public reputation, rejecting such advances as scandalous and lascivious, but more swooning by Ymeneo breaks her hold, and she finally capitulates: Ymeneo can come the following evening. Content, Ymeneo offers his belongings to his men. Eliso, however, denies the favor, for he believes in loyalty to master and not in self-interest. His master appreciates the gesture and will offer brotherly love in its place. Ymeneo’s departure is immediately followed by the entrance of the Marquis and Turpedio: The Marquis vows that Ymeneo and Phebea must be killed in order to preserve the family’s “unblemished” honor.

It is late afternoon when act 3 commences. Eliso and Boreas are arguing about Eliso’s refusal to accept gifts from Ymeneo. Boreas’s philosophy is to take whatever one can whenever possible. Eliso accedes to Boreas’s line of reasoning because he knows that the worthy are often left unrewarded. Doresta enters and Boreas proceeds to woo her in cavalier fashion. She, a bit ugly in appearance and gross in expression, is convinced, like her mistress, by the courtly hyperbolic metaphors. Doresta will also open her door for new love. The exit of Ymeneo’s manservants is followed by the entrance of the Marquis’s manservant Turpedio. He too attempts to woo Phebea’s servant, who effectively parries his advances. Doresta spurns his attempt by insulting his masculinity; Turpedio hurls rough and sexual insults at her.

Act 4 is set that night, the “appointed night” for the important rendezvous. As Ymeneo makes his way to Phebea’s bedroom, the dramatic action itself develops in the street. Boreas and Eliso flee for their lives, as they fear impending death at the hands of the Marquis. The Marquis and Turpedio enter; their trap for the lovers is set, for Ymeneo and Phebea are now together. The front door is locked, however, so it will have to be broken down.

Act 5 opens with a confrontation scene between the Marquis and Phebea. Ymeneo has escaped. She is to confess her sexual sins before her death. Although accepting her brother’s authority in family affairs, Phebea makes a tearful, emotional peroration to unfulfilled love desire: Nature will turn unnatural on learning of her unfortunate and unfair death. Ready to strike the mortal blow, the Marquis is stopped by the gallant Ymeneo, sword in hand, ready to save his beloved. Phebea is his wife, he contends. Furthermore, no intermediaries were needed in this honest arrangement, because the two are in love and because Ymeneo decides for himself in such matters. The Marquis has little recourse but to bless the couple, who in turn vow to love their respective servants as family members, not as hired help. Doresta is to choose a husband, but the end is left ambiguous, for the choice is to be made in the future, outside the frame of action of this comedia a fantasía (play of invented plots).

Hymen is the quintessence of Torres Naharro’s theatrical and lyric art. In this play, elements from his previous comedias a fantasía, such as Comedia seraphina and Comedia jacinta, from his semirealistic commentary plays (comedias a noticia), such as Comedia soldadesca and The Buttery, from his farcical medieval Diálogo del nascimiento and from Comedia trophea (a type of medieval mummer’s representation in which illusion appears as reality), are blended masterfully. Elements that existed separately and in less polished form in Torres Naharro’s earlier theater, such as comic relief, repartee, lyric fluidity, foreshadowing, asides, song, the use of a gracioso (servant-confidant schemer), courtly love themes, and appropriate language for characters of differing...

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