Gil Vicente divided his plays into farces, religious pieces (elaborated from medieval mimes and mysteries), comedies, and tragicomedies, but his categories overlap. For example, nothing separates some of the comedies and tragicomedies from the farces, and some of the farces are religious. The tragicomedies, or aristocratic pieces, were the result of his contact with the royal court and are more often spectacular than dramatic, depending more on music, songs, and dances, and on the lyricism of their versification. It is rather in his comedies and farces that he displays his dramatic skill, his keen powers of observation, and his generous human sympathy. Brilliant character sketches, clever dialogue, and comic situations occur in the farces Quem tem farelos?, The Sailor’s Wife, Farsa de Inês Pereira, O velho da horta, and in other plays that are devoid of conventional plot, such as The Carriers and O juiz da Beira, which are more like modern revues than any dramatic genre. The vitality of Vicente’s humorous and satiric studies is especially remarkable if indeed they lacked the stimulus of popular audiences.
Most of the plays are written in the national redondilha verse of eight-syllable lines and are introduced by rubrics stating the date, the place, the audience, and the occasion of each performance. Most of them were staged at the various royal palaces, although some were played in hospitals; Aubrey Bell believed that some were also produced in private homes, but this does not appear to be documented. The liturgical plays were performed at the great festivals of Christmas, Epiphany, and Maundy Thursday. Many of the plays contain songs, either written and set to music by the author or collected from popular sources, and often the characters leave the stage singing and dancing, as in the medieval comedies. The plays of Vicente also contain a wealth of folklore in the form of proverbs, listed by Bell at the end of his Four Plays of Gil Vicente: “Nam se toman trutas a bragas enxutas” (“One does not catch trout without getting wet”), “Grão a grão gallo farta” (“Many a mickle makes a muckle”), and “A amiga e o amigo mais aquenta que bom lenho” (“A pair of lovers makes more heat than good wood”).
One of Vicente’s most remarkable skills was his capacity to portray a type so well in so few lines, a skill that Bell compares to that of a master goldsmith accustomed to setting jewels. Vicente’s gallery of priests is unforgettable: Frei Paço, who minces with his velvet cap and gilt sword “like a very sweet courtier”; Frei Narciso, who starves and studies and stains his face an artificial yellow in hopes that his phony asceticism will win for him a bishopric; the city priest who feasts on rabbits and sausages and good red wine; and the country priest who resembles a kite pouncing on chickens. Many of Vicente’s other creations are as memorable as his priests: the witch busy at night over a hanged man at the crossroads; the chattering saloia (rustic woman) who sells watered milk and overpriced eggs; alcouviteiras (procuresses) such as Ana Dias, who promises a squire the favors of a Moorish slave and takes his money without producing results; the plowman who does not forget his prayers and is charitable to tramps but who skimps his tithes; the Jew who had been prosperous in Spain but now as a new Christian is a poor cobbler in Lisbon; and the poor farmer’s daughter who is brought to be a court lady while still stained from the winepress.
Of Vicente’s forty-four surviving plays, sixteen are in Portuguese, eleven are in Spanish, and seventeen are in both languages. Although Vicente apparently never journeyed outside Portugal, the Spanish connections of the Portuguese court and the belief that the two countries would soon be united under one throne because of a series of royal marriages between their respective ruling houses encouraged his use of the closely related—but nevertheless distinct—Spanish language. His Spanish is often peculiar; he uses the Portuguese “personal infinitive” when he writes in Spanish, and his rhymes in Spanish are often imperfect (such as parezca and cabeza, based on their Portuguese cognates pareça and cabeça). In his earliest plays, his shepherds speak the sayagués “dialect” invented or elaborated by Juan del Encina and Lucas Fernández of the Salamancan school of Spanish drama. Sayagués, erroneously associated with Sayago to the north of Salamanca, is more correctly associated with the province of Salamanca itself, adjacent to the Portuguese province of Beira, possibly Vicente’s native area, which in turn allows the possibility of a childhood intimacy with a dialect very closely related to the sayagués that he placed in the mouths of his rustics.
Vicente uses language to distinguish many of his characters. While his shepherds speak sayagués, his blacks chatter in pidgin Portuguese, his Gypsies lisp, and in Auto de la fama, in which Fame is courted successively by a Frenchman, an Italian, and a Spaniard before she decides to pledge her troth to Portugal, Vicente makes an attempt to have each foreign suitor speak in his own language.
Although he picked up foreign words and mannerisms with ease, Vicente does not appear to have had much acquaintance of or even liking for fashions from beyond the Pyrenees. If he introduced a French song into one of his plays, he probably did so out of deference to the taste of the Portuguese court. Vicente was unaffected by the innovations of Giangiorgio Trissino and other Italian dramatists, and with his medieval appreciation of folkways and folk wisdom, he stood unswayed against the inevitable literary artificiality that followed the return to Portugal of Francisco Sá de Miranda with the hendecasyllabic line from Italy in 1526.
Although Vicente’s work lacks psychological depth by today’s standards, his plays reveal a grasp of characterization vastly superior to that of the medieval dramatists who preceded him. Indifferent to the rules of Aristotle, as a playwright he combined disparate elements in a way more faithful to life than to any theory of drama. Himself a man of the people, he refused to imitate the products of classical theater, choosing to absorb the critical spirit of the fast-approaching Renaissance without its erudition. In his religious toleration, he was spokesperson for the better men of his age and society. The embryonic genius in the drama of Vicente provides the modern critic with a strong temptation to hypothesize: Had he written fifty years later in the requisite Renaissance environment of freedom and sophistication, he might have surpassed Calderón and equaled Shakespeare.
After his first short plays, which were written between 1502 and 1504 in the pastoral manner of the Spaniards Encina and Fernández, several years passed before Vicente’s next work was staged. His first attempt at allegory, in which Faith, speaking Portuguese,...
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