Not only does uncertainty exist involving the authorship of two plays considered to be the masterpieces of Gabriel Téllez (known best as Tirso de Molina), but also his life is shrouded in mystery. The identity of his parents is unknown, and even the date of his birth is uncertain. An eighteenth century portrait indicates that he was born in 1572. The same portrait, however, indicates that he died at the age of seventy-six years and five months on March 12, 1648 (for which he would necessarily have been born in 1571). On the other hand, a royal authorization for a party of monks to travel to the West Indies in 1616 lists his age as thirty-three years, suggesting a 1583 birth date, and in a deposition made by Tirso himself in 1638, the dramatist listed his age as fifty-seven, so that most scholars assume he was born in 1580 or early 1581 and died in February, 1648.
A fourth alternative—and a dramatic theory concerning Tirso’s parentage—has been suggested by Blanca de los Ríos, the editor of the standard Spanish edition of Tirso’s complete works, who bases her conclusions on the 1584 baptismal record of a child named Gabriel. Three lines of this document have been heavily crossed out, but Ríos believes that she has deciphered the obliterated words as reading: “Téllez Girón, son of the duke of Osuna.” Such a reading would indicate that Tirso was the illegitimate son of one of the most important men in sixteenth century Spain, and it might also explain the many puzzling vicissitudes in Tirso’s career as well as his fondness for underdogs and his antipathy toward noblemen who abuse their power. The reading suggested by Ríos, however, has not been accepted by a majority of Tirso scholars.
The scant factual material available on Tirso’s life must be gleaned from his own writings and from the records of the Mercedarian order, which he entered in 1600. Following his profession, he studied for a time in Salamanca, Toledo, Guadalajara, and (possibly) Alcalá de Henares before residing briefly in Soria, Segovia, and Madrid, where he presumably wrote and saw staged his first plays. From there he moved to Toledo, where he enjoyed the company of the local aristocracy (leading him to comment later in Los cigarrales de Toledo that he was more generously received by the citizens of Toledo than he had been in his own native town, Madrid). In 1616, he was sent with five other Mercedarian monks to Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic), where he served for almost two years as a member of the order’s governing body and as a professor of theology before returning to Spain in 1618. In 1620 or 1621, he was sent again to Madrid and enjoyed several years as a successful dramatist in the capital before a 1625 edict censured him for writing profane plays and ordered his superiors to remove him from Madrid and to forbid him, on pain of excommunication, to write any more dramas. Because other priests of the period (notably Lope de Vega) were also accustomed to writing highly secular plays but were never bothered by the authorities, the edict is a bit puzzling. Ríos has used it—along with the dramatist’s complaint that he was unfavorably received by the natives of his own city—as evidence to support her theory of Tirso’s illegitimate birth, suggesting that his presence in the Spanish capital was an embarrassment to his father or to his father’s family. Other critics, however, believe that Tirso’s banishment is attributable to his attack in several of his dramas on the institution of privado (royal favorite) and to the resulting wrath of the count-duke of Olivares, the favorite and chief minister of Philip IV. Whatever the reasons for the edict, Tirso apparently continued to enjoy the esteem of the leaders of the Mercedarian order, who appointed him in 1626 to the position of comendador (commander) and in 1632 named him chronicler, charging him with writing the order’s history. The order allowed him to continue the...
(The entire section is 1,550 words.)