To understand a religious play such as The Devotion of the Cross, one must keep in mind that Spain was a deeply religious nation, and that Pedro Calderón de la Barca truly expressed its feelings and ideas in the seventeenth century. The most popular of Spanish playwrights after the death of Lope de Vega in 1635, Calderón wrote secular and religious dramas until he took holy orders in 1651. From that time until his death he wrote only religious plays. The Devotion of the Cross is one of his early works. Since the characters and the setting are Italian, some critics assign it to the period when he was a soldier in Italy. The plot is less complicated than is usual in Calderón’s work.
The Devotion of the Cross was one of the most controversial of the Baroque dramatist’s works. First there was the problem of authorship; only in the latter part of the twentieth century was the play universally accepted as Calderón’s. Then there were the critics whose analyses, at times oriented more toward the political and the religious than toward the literary, had more to do with Catholic Spain and Protestant England than the subject matter of the text itself.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century critics were outraged at the extravagance of the plot and the fetishism of what they claimed was the play’s underlying philosophy, namely that salvation was possible through the obsessive veneration of an inanimate object. Even some of Calderón’s admirers admitted that the mature Calderón himself probably was scandalized by this early work. Most chronologies give the date of composition as 1633, one that would place it close to that of Calderón’s masterpiece Life Is a Dream (1635).
Criticism of The Devotion of the Cross, however, has now come full circle. Far from the derision of Protestant critics, or a mere mention in a footnote by Hispanic scholars, the play is now praised for its allegorical nature and is viewed as representative of Calderón’s thematic and dramatic craftsmanship.
Curcio is the character in whom the Caldernian imprint is most evident. A tyrannical father, one of a long line of the dramatist’s dysfunctional male parents, he is also afflicted by the fatal Calderonian disease, a blind self-aggrandizement that is outwardly manifested in violent spasms of honor. One such outbreak leads him to commit the deed, the murder of his wife, that has poisoned his life and that eventually causes the destruction of his entire family. Rosmira dies but not before giving birth to twins. Julia, one of the twins, is saved, however, the other twin, Eusebio, is lost. Even though Curcio secretly believes in his wife’s innocence, and no one else has even doubted her, his pride forces him to kill her. Exterior appearances, even admitted self-delusions, are what matter to him. They are his identity. This concept of self has robbed his son of his identity, a confusion that is given dramatic irony in the scene in which Eusebio...
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