The Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) ushered in a new era in Spanish literature, art, and drama. This golden age also paralleled the dawn of the Renaissance in the rest of Europe. While the Italian inspired Renaissance concerned itself with the renewal of interest in classical Roman and Greek influences, the Spaniards decided to chart a different course.
This can be seen in the development of a Comedia Nueva, central to the Spanish predilection for artistry which honors both traditional Spanish ideals and Spanish intricacies of rhythm and meter. Calderon de la Barca, the author of El alcalde de Zalamea or The Mayor of Zalamea, is one of the principal dramatists of this golden age, the other being Lope de Vega. Both are famous for incorporating comedic and serious elements into a new type of drama, the tragicomedia. With the advent of the three act tragicomedia (in place of the classical five act productions), these Spanish dramatists pioneered a new type of drama which also infused high and low character elements into each story.
The Mayor of Zalamea is no exception. With a cast consisting of nobleman soldiers, a Spanish king, and a wealthy peasant, Calderon cleverly weaves a story replete with Counter-Reformation, Spanish-Catholic traditions of honor against a background of class conflict. Many experts classify this play a tragicomedy due to its elements of humor, romance, and conflict.
In the story, Pedro Crespo's beautiful daughter, Isabel, is raped by Captain Don Alvaro de Ataide. Grieved at his daughter's violent deflowering, Crespo, a wealthy farmer, vows vengeance on the perpetrator, although he is a nobleman. Isabel's brother, Juan, manages to wound Captain Alvaro when he hears cries for help, but he does not initially realize that his own sister is the one in danger. Later, when he realizes that his sister's honor has been compromised, Juan tries to kill Isabel. Meanwhile, Captain Alvaro thinks that he will manage to extricate himself from a court martial, if matters come to a head.
The comedic elements of the play are highlighted in Isabel's wooing by two men, Don Mendo, the impoverished nobleman-in-name-only, and the unprincipled nobleman captain, Don Alvaro de Ataide. Alvaro's ploy to catch a glimpse of the beauteous Isabel (who has been hidden in the attic by her scrupulous father) is brought to fruition with the help of Rebolledo, a soldier. While Don Mendo courts Isabel with elaborate gallantry under her balcony window, Don Alvado pretends to come to blows with Rebolledo in order to have an excuse for breaching the attic doors. The farcical aspects of this play are soon overshadowed by the tragic affair of Isabel's rape, Juan's attempted murder of his sister, and Crespo's garroting of Don Alvaro.
Likewise, the typical comedic resolution, often highlighting a peaceful alliance or marriage of sorts, finds itself strangely missing in this play. Instead, the restoration of order comes at a cost. Juan, Isabel's brother, goes away to serve in the military; because of his sister's shame, his masculine reputation for honor is forever tarnished. Isabel commits herself to a nunnery; her besmirched honor can never be fully restored within the narrow confines of Catholic morality. Crespo is bereft of both children in his old age. Don Alvaro dies an ignominious death, despite his faith that he will be tried by a military tribunal. His superior officer, Don Lope sees his authority compromised before king (Philip II) and peasantry when Philip agrees with Crespo that justice has been well served.
For more on tragicomedies, please refer to: Early Modern Tragicomedy.