The Divine Narcissus

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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The Divine Narcissus, based in part on the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, is considered Sor Juana’s masterpiece of religious theater. The characters are all allegorical. The divine Narcissus represents Christ. Human Nature appears as a woman searching for her lover, Narcissus. Echo represents fallen nature or evil and is accompanied by Pride and Self-Love. The play is written in verse and divided into five tableaux with fifteen scenes. Although there is little action, the play is notable for Sor Juana’s beautifully lyrical descriptions, as well as the imaginative use of two well-known stories.

In the introductory scene, Synagogue and Gentilism decide to stage a play in which revelation and pagan antiquity will be represented. Human Nature explains the imagery and announces that she must find a spring to cleanse her image, distorted by guilt, so that the Divine Narcissus can again recognize his image in her. Then Echo appears, telling of Narcissus’s rejection, which makes her wish to keep Human Nature from achieving a union with him. The second tableau portrays the temptation of Narcissus by Echo. In one of the best scenes of the play, Echo approaches Narcissus as a shepherd maid who pays in unhappiness for the gift of her great beauty. The association of unhappiness and beauty is a common theme of the period. The parallel is to Lucifer, the most beautiful of angels, who, in exile from God, was also the most unhappy. The temptation scene just as clearly parallels Christ’s temptation by the devil. The skillful meshing of biblical themes and pagan literature is characteristic of Sor Juana’s autos.

Human Nature appears, singing of her despair and longing for Narcissus in the style of the Song of Songs: “Worn out with searching for Narcissus,/ granting my wandering foot no respite.” Grace, sent by God, reveals the waters of a fountain that will cleanse Human Nature and that in their purity symbolize the Virgin Mary. Then, in the fourth tableau, Narcissus perceives the beautiful reflected image of himself and Human Nature at the same time and sings of his love: “What surpassing beauty is this,/ beside whose purest light/ the whole celestial sphere turns pale?”

Echo is defeated and can only repeat the last syllables spoken by Pride and Self-Love. The tableau ends with Narcissus expressing the terrible suffering of human love as he yields his spirit to death with the biblical words lamenting his abandonment by the Father. Although Human Nature grieves at first, she is assured that Narcissus lives and that she will be protected by the sacraments.

Sor Juana weaves biblical and pagan elements together to form a unique presentation of a religious theme. Octavio Paz rates it as one of the few autos having the mark of true poetry.

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