Formally, Tirso de Molina’s theater follows the dramatic norms established by his older contemporary, “the father of Spanish theater,” Lope de Vega Carpio . Like Lope de Vega, Tirso valued variety and thus produced a diverse collection of plays ranging from serious biblical histories to frivolous comedies about courtship. Like Lope de Vega, he violated classical decorum by including in even his most serious dramas some humor—often in the form of a stock character known as a gracioso (clown). Tirso also followed Lope de Vega’s practice of writing his plays in a mixture of verse forms and organizing the action in three acts; like Lope de Vega, he deliberately disregarded the dramatic unities of time and place, which sought to limit a play’s setting to a single place and decreed that its action should occur in a single day.
Without departing from the norms established by Lope de Vega, Tirso endowed his plays with an individual style. One notices in his works, for example, a fondness for incorporating humor based on rustics’ mispronunciation of Spanish. One also notices a surprising lack of interest in the theme of honor or reputation—a theme recommended by Lope de Vega as particularly appropriate for drama because of its power to arouse the audience. Thus, Tirso never wrote a “wife-murder play” such as Lope de Vega’s El eastigo sin venganza (pb. 1635; Justice Without Revenge, 1936) or Calderón’s El médico de su honra (pb. 1637; The Surgeon of His Honor, 1853), works that dramatize a husband’s need to kill his wife in order to protect his reputation.
Because “wife-murder plays” generally appear to endorse (at least superficially) Spain’s bloody honor code, Tirso’s neglect of the genre is significant. It is quite likely that he found plays dealing with the honor code distasteful because of his sympathy for society’s victims and his concomitant antipathy for its victimizers. Such an attitude is clearly evident in his theater, which is fond of dramatizing a victim’s recovery of his lost estate or the visitation of retribution on the proud and mighty who abuse their power. The role of women in Tirso’s dramas is particularly interesting. Rather than portray women as passive victims of an unjust social code, Tirso excels in the portrayal of female characters who act with intelligence and decisiveness in order to control their destinies in difficult circumstances.
The Bashful Man at Court
This attitude is already apparent in one of Tirso’s earliest works, The Bashful Man at Court, which (like many Golden Age plays) strikes a modern reader as a jumbled combination of rather remotely related plots. The central action revolves around the courtship of Magdalena, a duke’s daughter, and her secretary Mireno (the bashful man at court), whom both Magdalena and Mireno believe to be of peasant stock but who is actually the son of the Portuguese duke Pedro de Coimbra, who has lived for twenty years in exile after being wrongly accused of treason.
Two obstacles stand in the way of Magdalena and Mireno’s romance: his shyness and the supposed difference in their social stations. The first of these is overcome by Magdalena, who, behaving in a manner typical of many of Tirso’s female protagonists, uses initiative and ingenuity to encourage Mireno to overcome his timidity and to declare his interest in her. The second obstacle is resolved by an unexpected public announcement from Lisbon that Mireno’s father’s name has been cleared, thus allowing his father to reveal his true identity to him—and to Magdalena’s father. Although this rather abrupt deus ex machina detracts somewhat from the drama’s ending, Tirso handles it in a way that emphasizes the play’s underlying psychological intention. Thus, Mireno, who has used the more noble sounding name of Dionís while in Magdalena’s employ, discovers that his name is indeed Dionís. Through Mireno/Dionís, Tirso implies that an individual can attain his true, more noble identity only when he is able to overcome the limitations that he places on himself.
Except for the noble background of its characters, The Bashful Man at Court resembles a Spanish Golden Age genre referred to as the comedia de capa y espada, or cloak-and-sword play . These plays, which derive their name from the costume worn by the actors playing the leading male roles, have complicated plots dealing with the courtship of one or more sets of middle-class youths who devise ingenious measures to overcome the obstacles to their love. The young protagonists frequently resort to disguise and other forms of deception, which often backfire with comic results. Though there are frequent duels, they never produce serious results, since cloak-and-sword plays (seventeenth century Spain’s equivalent to the modern situation comedy) invariably end happily with at least one wedding.
Marta la piadosa
Such plays provide a natural framework for Tirso to create female characters endowed with ingenuity and initiative, and the protagonist Marta of Marta la piadosa (pious Martha) is a nice illustration of how he uses the opportunity to its fullest advantage. Marta, who is in love with Don Felipe, deftly overcomes almost overwhelming obstacles to their marriage. When her father decrees that she must marry a wealthy old man named Urbina, she circumvents this decision by feigning religious vocation. Moreover, she uses this same feigned vocation as grounds to have Don Felipe, disguised as a Latin teacher, visit her regularly. With Felipe’s help, she maneuvers her sister Lucía (who is also in love with Felipe) into a relationship with Urbina’s son. The play thus ends, typically for the genre, with multiple weddings.
Don Gil of the Green Breeches
Probably Tirso’s best cloak-and-sword play, Don Gil of the Green Breeches again centers on the clever maneuvers of a quick-witted and active female protagonist, Doña Juana, who, having been courted and abandoned by Don Martín, assumes a series of false...
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