Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025

Although written in dramatic form, with conventional division into acts, this work is regarded as a novel in dialogue because its excessive length and frequently shifting scenes make performance, without significant editing, impossible on any stage. In the 1499 version, the story consists of sixteen acts, which were increased to...

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Although written in dramatic form, with conventional division into acts, this work is regarded as a novel in dialogue because its excessive length and frequently shifting scenes make performance, without significant editing, impossible on any stage. In the 1499 version, the story consists of sixteen acts, which were increased to twenty-one in 1502, and at a considerably later date, to twenty-two. Some doubt has been cast upon the authenticity of certain of these additions. Although the work was published anonymously, Fernando de Rojas is generally accepted as the author, the chief evidence being an acrostic poem containing his name to which one of his early publishers first called attention, as well as several legal depositions made about 1525. The writer declared that he found the first act and amused himself by completing the story at the rate of an act a day during a two-week vacation at the University of Salamanca. Rojas was the mayor of Talavera as well as an educated lawyer who enjoyed the humanistic learning of the Renaissance.

The book has appeared in many editions and a number of translations. It was the first translation into English (originally translated as The Spanish Bawd, 1631) of any Spanish book, and it has had a tremendous influence upon all succeeding writing in Spain. Modern critics agree that Celestina is among the best novels in Spanish literature. Rojas demonstrates the tendency of Renaissance writers to refer to the texts of the ancient writers and to borrow subjects from ancient writers. The plot stems from an anonymous thirteenth century Latin poem, Pamphilus (the protagonist’s name, which Rojas converted to Calisto), which is not readily available in English translation. The Pamphilus story was also incorporated as an episode in the Libro de buen amor by the “Archpriest of Hita,” Juan Ruiz, in the fourteenth century. Rojas is known to have had access to both the original Pamphilus and the reduction in Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor, but Rojas greatly alters his source material. Classical literature also provides themes and motifs in the work. For example, there is an allusion to Pasiphae toward the beginning of the novel. This reference establishes desire as a principal theme of the work. According to Greek legend, Pasiphae mates with the minotaur because of lust. Pasiphae’s daughter Phaedra is possessed with an illicit love like her mother, but Phaedra’s passion is for her stepson. Rojas’s portrayal of Phaedra’s monstrous lust introduces Calisto’s desire for Melibea. The idea of a cord leading Phaedra’s future husband Theseus out of the labyrinth after he kills the minotaur, Phaedra’s half brother, further suggests the confusion of the thread that Celestina uses to cause Melibea to be receptive to her message. To achieve this cooperation, Celestina invokes the god of Greek and Roman mythology Pluto, who rules the underworld, urging him to wrap himself in the thread so that Melibea may buy it and entangle her heart in it, thereby causing her to become imbued with a strong and cruel love for Calisto.

Celestina also shows a Renaissance scholar’s appreciation for varieties of language. A lover in the Petrarchan style, Calisto declares himself to be unworthy of Melibea and delights in the sensual image of his beloved. She is, as one may expect, a voluptuous Renaissance beauty, with lustrous pure white skin; big green eyes highlighted by her long, thick lashes; red full lips; and shapely figure. Melibea incarnates the traditional, naïve, proud, and imprudent young woman sparked by Calisto’s wild delirium. The two young lovers, representing the upper classes, use high, periodic speech and lace their expression of sensual desire with idealistic sentiment.

Deviating from the idealism of Calisto and Melibea, the proletarian characters present the themes of unsullied greed and desire. For example, Sempronio, Calisto’s servant, connives with Celestina to profit monetarily from his master’s passion. Sempronio introduces Calisto to Celestina, a witch shrewd in evil machinations, under the pretense that she may fix the affront to his master’s honor, as well as to his ego, that occurs when Melibea initially rejects him in her garden. Celestina’s great linguistic ability in the areas of persuasion and selling is linked to the devil. Frankness, superstition, and greed enable her to manipulate the other characters. Celestina’s manipulative techniques are demonstrated in her dealings with the characters of both the upper and the lower classes. To convince Melibea to give Calisto her girdle and a prayer, Celestina skillfully uses psychology; the procurer makes Melibea feel sorry for her advanced age and for Calisto’s toothache. Celestina uses popular speech and proverbs to persuade Pármeno, Calisto’s other servant, to join Sempronio and her in extracting money from Calisto.

Celestina, not the somewhat unsympathetic lovers, is the main character of the novel. The novel’s concentration upon surreptitious matchmaking and witchcraft is, at least in part, a reflection of the interests of the times. Rojas (a Jew converted to Christianity under the threat of immolation at the hands of the Holy Inquisition) is distinctly aware of the fate of witches and other heretics. His portrait of Celestina is thus acutely sensitive and extraordinarily vivid.

Celestina has no religious identification; she could be Christian, Muslim, or Jew, for all three faiths coexisted in late medieval Spain. Her allegiance seems firmly rooted in the spirits of evil, judging from her imperious conjuration of the devil in act 3. Her affiliation with the occult is firmly established in the catalog of her pharmaceuticals detailed in acts 1, 3, and 7 and elsewhere. From her early sympathy for Areusa’s abdominal cramps to her own susceptibility to fears of death, she remains a very human and humane criminal. Celestina truly recognizes the limitations of her powers, and in that recognition, she becomes a vulnerable, credible human being with relevance to her times and to any reader’s own. Fernando de Rojas’s creation of a dialogue novel, and of a character as singular as Celestina, became significant in the development of realism. The novel is a milestone in the development of literature. Celestina influenced the novel and drama in Spain and abroad.

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