Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240

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The Gardener’s Dog has often been called Shakespearean in the style and manner of its seriocomic treatment of love. Indeed, this play is, perhaps, Lope de Vega Carpio’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600). A dreamlike quality suffuses the action, as love turns into hate and back into love, affection turns to scorn, indifference turns to desire, sweet heroines turn vindictive, courtly lovers turn would-be murderers, lovers change partners, and confusion reigns supreme. Both audience and characters wonder what will happen next.

If, however, the treatment of love is Shakespearean, the treatment of illusion versus reality is closer to Luigi Pirandello. The play’s conclusion hints that perhaps Teodoro becomes an actual count because everyone believes him to be one. The situation is an interesting reversal from that in Pirandello’s Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV, 1923), where a character in his madness believes he is a king, while everyone around him, knowing him for what he really is, simply humors him. In Vega Carpio’s play, only Teodoro, Tristan, and Diana know the facts of the matter, while the rest of the world believes it is paying court to a true count. The practical result in both cases is the same, however, whereby Vega Carpio may perhaps be suggesting that nobility is nothing more than a social convention and has no other basis than that people agree to honor its credentials, no matter how spurious.

This proposition may be self-evident to later ages, but in early seventeenth century Spain it was an assumption that struck at the heart of the social order, though admittedly, in not quite so revolutionary a manner as Vega Carpio’s Fuenteovejuna(written 1611-1618, published 1619; The Sheep-Well, 1936). In fact, Teodoro’s instant pedigree may have been less a social statement than simply a convenient dramatic device to bring Diana, the countess of Belflor, and her secretary together at last. For centuries, writers of comedy and romance have solved the problem of love between highborn and lowborn by revealing that the lowborn hero or heroine is actually highborn (having been, like the baby in Tristan’s story, stolen in childhood by pirates, or else inadvertently mixed up with another baby). Vega Carpio’s dramatic resolution is an interesting variation of this theme; nevertheless, he seems to accept the underlying premise that highborn and lowborn must not marry in defiance of convention.

For all the intriguing questions of reality and appearance in the play, the main focus is on the nature of love, on just what this universal yet incomprehensible phenomenon is. In the first act, Marcella sighs that love causes people to mount as if to heaven; in the second, she calls love “god of envy, god of hate!” As the play progresses, it dramatizes the often-asked questions as to how love originates, how it is affected by jealousy, how it causes people to behave, how it is affected by absence, what happens when it is frustrated by power or social convention, and how it affects a person’s natural temperament.

The air of questioning and confusion that pervades the work is set at the very beginning of the first act. The second line of the play, “Who’s there?” echoes the first line of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), a play also suffused with doubt and ambiguity of motive. Roused in the middle of the night by a mysterious noise, Diana and her ladies-in-waiting dash in and out and scurry around the stage, with only shadows and feathers as solid evidence of intruders. Was the disturbance a dream? Two figures are seen on stage on some unknown mission at the outset, but they disappear after breathlessly delivering only four short lines.

As the action progresses, more questions press for answers. Is it possible that Diana has no inclination at all toward Teodoro until she learns that he loves and is loved by Marcella? How much of Teodoro’s love for Diana is based on true passion, and how much on his greed for wealth and station? If the latter is his predominant motivation, then how much sympathy does he deserve? Teodoro complains at great length of the extremes to which Diana’s passions run and of her cruelty to him, yet his own treatment of Marcella is crass and heartless. He adores her at the beginning, shifts his love to Diana when the countess suggests her interest in him, comes whining back to his first love when Diana’s attitude seems to change, and then unfeelingly spurns Marcella a second time when the wind of love once more blows his way. When, at the conclusion, Diana expresses some concern that her former secretary may have some lingering feelings for Marcella, the “count” loftily assures her, “Noblemen know no maidservants.”

To help him develop his ideas on the range of love, Vega Carpio uses an unconventional dramatic device: a series of sonnets interspersed through the action and spoken by either Diana, Teodoro, or Marcella. Each sonnet develops a different aspect of love: Diana’s first sonnet deals with the passion, jealousy, and frustration of love; Teodoro’s deals with the nature of new love and with the conflicting feelings of affection, ambition, conscience, and cynicism it arouses; Marcella’s deals with the constancy and permanency of love, despite all barriers and reverses. Other sonnets treat love’s violence and cruelty, its cautions and terrors, and its black moments of despair. Counterpointed to these sonnets are other set speeches on love. In the Marquis Riccardo’s speech to Diana, for instance, there is the conventional high-flown rhetoric of courtly love, as splendid as it is artificial: “Did I command gold . . . or the frozen tears of heaven . . . or mines of oriental gems whose gleam has ploughed a furrow through the heaving hillocks of the sun, I would lay them at your feet, and delve beyond the confines of the light.” Earlier in the play, Teodoro reveals that his love for Marcella is based on an idealized view of woman: “pure serenely crystallized, transparent like glass.” Tristan, who often acts like Lear’s fool in throwing the cold water of common sense on these romantic illusions, responds with a more realistic picture of women, one that emphasizes their defects instead of their glories. (Like many a fool, Tristan is resourceful, shrewd, and basically decent—he rebukes Teodoro for his treatment of Marcella—though he ultimately lacks the nobility that elevates his master at the end.)

In its overall conception, The Gardener’s Dog is a highly mature example of dramatic art. Unlike the majority of contemporary plays, including Vega Carpio’s own, it does not rely on villainous antagonists for its plot complications, but rather on the vagaries of love and the effects of this ennobling and exasperating passion. All of the important characters are drawn with a high degree of sympathy, though the playwright is not afraid to look unflinchingly at their defects. As long as the focus remains on love, the play remains a work of art. The quality begins to decline markedly in the third and final act when character development begins to slacken and the standard mechanics of plot contrivance take over. However, it would be charitable to forgive the prolific Vega Carpio for the absurdities of his dramatic resolution, for seldom have the many faces of love been presented so subtly and at the same time so entertainingly.