During the early sixteenth century, Spain was at the height of its glory. The nation was newly unified as a result of the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold, in 1492. Religious and patriotic zeal had led to the expulsion of the Jews that same year. Christopher Columbus had discovered America, and by the time Lope de Rueda was born, probably around 1510, the exploration of the New World was under way. When Rueda was only about nine, Hernán Cortés set out for Mexico. By 1532, Francisco Pizarro had begun the conquest of Peru, thereby tapping a seemingly inexhaustible source of wealth. Charles V, king of Spain and heir to an empire on which “the sun never set,” struggled against the Protestants, the French, the Papacy, and the Ottoman Turks with varying degrees of success and reached the acme of his powers by the middle of the century. It is easy to forget that, during this period of triumph and expansion, much of the Spanish population lived in poverty, ignorance, and fear, alternating between despair and wild fantasies of sudden good fortune.
The Spain that Lope de Rueda portrayed in his pasos is that of the pícaro, the street tough, the petty criminal, the student, the gypsy, the bumpkin. This was the Spain that the dramatist knew personally. He was born into a family of artisans and was by trade a gold beater (one who works gold leaf). Almost nothing is known about his early years, but it can be assumed that being of humble background, he received little formal education. Facts about Lope de Rueda’s life are sparse. One of the most significant sources of information is Cervantes.
Spanish theater was in its infancy during Lope de Rueda’s youth. During the Middle Ages, theatrical works—which were usually religious in nature—were normally performed in churches. During the early Renaissance, plays began to be performed in the palaces of the social and intellectual elite and, later, in the public plazas. The eclogues and farces of such early contributors to the Spanish stage as Juan del Encina, Lucas Fernández, and Gil Vicente were accessible to the general public. In the early sixteenth century, Italian theater groups were traveling across Spain, performing in towns and villages, and Spanish theater companies were forming. As a youth in Seville, Lope de Rueda probably saw some primitive productions and decided to become...
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