Juan del Encina Essay - Critical Essays


Literary historians generally agree that the secular eclogues of Juan del Encina are of far greater importance than his religious playlets. The latter were written to be performed as part of the yearly festivities that were organized in the palace of the duke and duchess of Alba on Christmas Eve, on Good Friday, and at the beginning of Carnival and Lent.

The entire dramatic output of Encina is written in verse form, presenting the prosodic variety that is characteristic of early Renaissance versification in Spain. All of Encina’s eclogues are one-act plays with no scenic divisions. The only exception may be Égloga de Plácida y Vitoriano, in which the villancico, beginning at line 1192, clearly divides the eclogue into two parts or two acts.

The dramatic universe created by Encina in his secular plays is brief but at the same time profoundly enigmatic. In his pastoral world, where lovelorn shepherds express their afflictions and tribulations caused by love, no clues are provided for explaining these extreme emotional reactions other than in terms of an already established conventionalized pattern of affective behavior. This cultural-literary pattern, which was familiar to the contemporary audience of the early Spanish theater, is to be found in the lyric tradition of fifteenth century cancionero poetry. The brief dramatic universe created by Encina is carved out of the huge poetic metacontext of the cancioneros. The greatest contribution of Encina to the formation of the Spanish theater consists precisely of the fact that he adapted for the theatrical genre the theory of courtly love as it had already been worked out in the extensive love poetry of the fifteenth century—that is to say, in the thousands of amatory compositions brought together in the voluminous collections of poems that are called cancioneros. Encina himself has included in his cancionero many of this type of amorous poems. The forms and contents of these compositions are in absolute conformity with those found in other cancioneros. Thus, as a poet, Encina contributed to the lyric elaboration of a theory of courtly love that, as a dramatist, he adapted to the specific needs of the new genre he was creating at the same time. To a great extent, Encina’s theatrical production is purely and simply cancionero poetry cast in the mold of dramatic dialogue.

An essential characteristic of the Spanish conception of courtly love is the wide range of religious ideas that are associated with this concept. The poetic inspiration that runs through the amatory lyrics of the fifteenth century is guided by the intent to reconcile courtly love with Christian doctrine. In the Spanish concept of courtly love as a literary theme, the medieval idea that woman is the instrument through which the devil causes man’s perdition may still be strongly felt. This idea becomes combined in the imagination of the cancionero poets with the representation of woman as a depository of all the attributes and powers of the God of love: Woman incarnates love’s power, a power which, on an allegorical plane, functions in the guise of the God of love. The only way man can preserve his freedom of will and the use of his rational faculties is to flee from the omnipotent power of love. In the Encinian drama this flight from love, inspired by the negative conception of love as a force inimical to man, is the main theme in his three great eclogues: Égloga de los tres pastores, Égloga de Cristino y Febea, and Égloga de Plácida y Vitoriano.

Égloga representada en reqüesta de unos amores

In Égloga representada en reqüesta de unos amores (eclogue acted in a dispute over love), Pascuala, a pretty shepherdess, is courted by the shepherd Mingo, who is married to Menga. He tells Pascuala that for the love of her, he is prepared to leave his wife, and as token of his love, he gives her a rose. At this point, an escudero (squire) enters who immediately falls in love with Pascuala, declaring his feelings for her in the lofty language of courtly love. The rustic shepherd and the noble suitor now compete for the love of the shepherdess in a dispute of country versus city dwellers. The comic contrast between the two styles of courtship is enhanced by Mingo’s use of Sayagués, a rustic dialect spoken in the northwestern region of Sayago, to express his love for Pascuala. In the end, the two competitors agree to abide by the decision Pascuala will make. She chooses the squire, on condition that he pledge to become a shepherd.

This very short Eclogue VII, of only 253 lines, including the villancico at the end, is a pastourelle, a poetic genre that was abundantly cultivated in Provence and Portugal but much less popular in Castile. Its only precedents are to be found in the serranillas (“mountain-lass” poems) of Juan Ruiz, and in a few compositions of the marquess of Santillana.

Égloga representada por las mesmas personas

The same theme, as well as all the characters of Égloga representada en reqüesta de unos amores, reappears in Eclogue VIII, Égloga representada por las mesmas personas (eclogue acted by the same persons), which was performed in the hall of the Alba palace one year after the preceding eclogue. The dramatic action of Eclogue VIII takes place one year later. The squire-shepherd, now called Gil, has married his Pascuala and has adopted the dialectal speech of his fellow shepherds, but the monotony of the pastoral existence has begun to lower his spirits. He misses the palace and the pleasures of courtly life. He urges Pascuala to leave everything behind and go with him to the court. He also induces his former rival, Mingo, who has become his friend, and Menga to join them in this change of life. First Pascuala and then Mingo and Menga shed their rustic attire and help one another dress in fine robes, according to the courtly fashion. They marvel at the ennobling effect of this transformation brought about by the power of love. All four of them set out for their new life at the villa y corte. From the rustic shepherds they once were, they have been transformed into truly refined characters, eager to initiate themselves further, under the guidance of the squire (who has reverted again to standard Spanish), into the art of courtly life. In the final part of the eclogue, Gil exhorts his former fellow shepherds with the words: “A la criança nos demos” (“Let’s dedicate ourselves to the courtly education or training”).

As in the other secular plays of Encina, love is the predominant theme of Eclogues VII and VIII. What sets these two eclogues apart from the others, however, is the absence of any allegorical representation of love as a divine power. The interplay between the two male and the two female characters unfolds in a real human environment, depicted, to be sure, in the conventional colors of an idyllic Arcadian world, but without the allegorical intervention of the god of love, as happens in Eclogue X, El triunfo del amor.

While reading these two eclogues, one should remember that they were first performed, as were the rest of Encina’s plays (with the exception of Égloga de Plácida y Vitoriano), in the aristocratic setting of the ducal palace of Alba, before the duke and duchess, their noble family and friends, and the undoubtedly larger plebeian part of the audience, which consisted of an extensive domestic staff of servants and other personnel attached to the duke’s household and domains. Add to this peculiar composition of the first audience of Encina’s dramas the circumstance that the role Mingo seems to have been played by Encina himself and that the other actors as well were probably equally well-known to this mixed audience, and one can easily imagine the unique nature of the interactions that took...

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