Apart from the many poems and letters that he wrote, António Ferreira is known as the author of three plays: The Comedy of Bristo, Cioso, and Ignez de Castro, the first two being comedies, the last a tragedy. It was common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for university students, on holidays, to produce comedies and tragedies—especially those of Seneca, Plautus, and Terence—in the original Latin. With interest in antiquity flourishing throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries in Europe, many revivals, as well as translations and imitations, of classical authors were popular. The central theme of comedies of the Greek type is almost always that of a young man who, with the aid of a sympathetic servant or friend, attains the love a beautiful slave girl, who, it turns out, is actually of noble birth and who as a child or youth was lost at sea or captured by pirates. So popular had the presentation of plays by students on holidays become that they were declared mandatory in 1546 by John III at the university of Coimbra. The first original Portuguese comedy would seem to be Os estrangeiros (c. 1527; foreigners), by Sá de Miranda, in which the typical intrigues are played out.
The Comedy of Bristo
The first comedy written by Ferreira, The Comedy of Bristo, also known as Fanchono, is the earliest remaining example of those student-produced comedies from the mid-sixteenth century in Portugal. The comic element consists primarily in the rivalry and reciprocal trickery between two boastful young men-about-town, as well as in their competition in love. The plot is eventually resolved through the devices, common to such Greek-style comedies, of recognitions and unexpected, outlandish marriages.
Cioso (jealousy) is Ferreira’s only other comedy, and it was written during the same period as was The Comedy of Bristo. The story unfolds much like a tale by Giovanni Boccaccio: Júlio, a jealous husband who is madly in love with the courtesan Faustina, ends up being doubly caught in the web of his own treachery and her tricks. More serious, perhaps, than The Comedy of Bristo, Cioso tends to present a moral character. These two works, much like many of the comedies in the same style, offer little to interest the modern reader, and they remain far inferior to similar plays by Italian dramatists. The action seems to become lost in the midst of many monologues, which appear to have no sequential place in the play, and is reduced usually to dry explanations between accomplices. The many coincidences (unexpected recognition scenes between relatives and friends, other nearly miraculous episodes) and the deus ex machina weaken plays in a genre that was already, at the time of their composition, nearly exhausted of possible originality.
Ignez de Castro
If Ferreira’s comedies are forgettable, his attempt to introduce classical tragedy into the Portuguese theater was a great success. In all Western Europe, Ferreira’s play Ignez de Castro constitutes one of the greatest contributions to the resurrection of Greek tragedy during the sixteenth century. Beginning with the production of the Italian Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s play Orbecche in 1541 and continuing through the tragedies presented in the second half of the sixteenth century by the French playwrights Étienne Jodelle and Robert Garnier, as well as those of the Elizabethans in England, culminating finally in the seventeenth century in the classical dramas of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, the classical movement played a major role in the history of the theater in Europe.
In Portugal, many translations and adaptations in Portuguese were staged during the first half of the sixteenth century. Among these were also Latin versions of Greek tragedies, some of which were rendered by George Buchanan. Most probably the first original tragedy written in Portuguese was Cleópatra (c. 1550) by Sá de Miranda, of which unfortunately only a few verses remain. Undoubtedly under the influence of his teachers, Ferreira composed his one tragedy, Ignez de Castro, between 1553 and 1556; it was published posthumously in 1587. In 1577, Jerónimo Bermudez published a Castilian version of the same play, and this fact has led to some disputes over the originality of Ferreira’s version. Evidence unearthed in the twentieth century, however, has convinced most critics of the authenticity of the work by Ferreira.
The story of Dom Pedro and Ignez de Castro had previously been published in the “Trovas à morte de D. Inês” (ballads on the death of Doña Inês) by Garcia de Resende in the Cancioneiro genéral (1516; general book of songs). In typical classical tradition, the principal characters reveal themselves successively through dialogues with their counselors/confidants.
In act 1, Ignez...
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