Gil Vicente c. 1465-c. 1536
Portuguese playwright, poet, and actor.
Considered Portugal's first dramatist, Gil Vicente wrote more than forty plays, seventeen of them in Portuguese, and the remainder in Spanish or a combination of the two languages. Most often intended as entertainment at royal celebrations or feast days, the plays cover a wide variety of categories from devotional works and allegories to farces, romantic comedies, and fantasies. Since he typically served not just as author, but also as actor, stage manager, and director of his works, Vicente is often called the founder of the Portuguese theatre.
Vicente was born around 1465 in Portugal, possibly in the province of Beira or in the town of Guimaraes. Nothing is known of his early life, and the details of his later years are vague at best. He began producing and acting in plays for the Portuguese Court in 1502 and did so until his death in 1536; during those years he resided in various cities: Lisbon, Almeirim, Thomar, Coimbra, and Evora. There is no evidence that he ever traveled outside Portugal. Early in the sixteenth century he became the official poet for King Manuel and the official goldsmith of the king's sister, Queen Lianor. According to contemporary public records, from 1503-06 Vicente worked on the Belém monstrance, crafted from the first gold brought to Portugal from the east. He was elected to the Guild of Twenty-Four in 1512, and was appointed Master of the Mint in 1513; at some point in his life he also served on the Lisbon Town Council. Vicente was married twice, first (c. 1484-86), to Branca Bezerra, by whom he had two sons; and after her death in 1514, to Melicia Rodrigues, by whom he had three more children, a son and two daughters. He survived the plague of 1525 and the Lisbon earthquake of 1531, and died of unknown causes around 1536, possibly in Evora.
Most of Vicente's plays were commissioned by the royal family to mark a birth, a marriage, or a death, and are generally divided into three categories: religious or devotional works, comedies, and satires. Within the first category, the pastoral Auto da Sibila Casandra (1513) is one of the more famous pieces, as are the morality plays collectively known as the Barcas, including Auto da Barca do Inferno (1516), Auto da Barca do Purgatório (1518), and Auto da Barca da Glória (1519). All three are allegories on the fates of individual souls of various social classes. Comédia do Viúvo (1514?), Comédia da Rubena (1521), and Dom Duardos (1522) are considered the finest examples of Vicente's romantic comedies. Most of Vicente's plays contain elements of satire. His favorite target was unquestionably the abuses of the clergy. In Comédia de Rubena, for example, an abbot's daughter is impregnated by a priest, and when the baby is born, a witch suggests that she might borrow a cradle from any of the local friars or priests since they all have children in violation of their vows of celibacy. The intense anticlericalism evident in the play made it the target of censors and earned it a place on the Index Expurgatorio of 1624. However, a wide range of other topics, from the limited freedom enjoyed by women to the corruption within the legal system, were also addressed in his satirical work. Vicente himself classified most of his satirical plays as farces, including Auto da India (1509?), dealing with the effects of the discovery of India on life in Portugal, and Farsa do Velho da Horta (1512), which ridicules an elderly married man's lustful designs on a young girl.
One of the most remarkable features of Vicente's work is his use of the vernacular or the combination, within individual plays, of both Spanish and Portuguese, often employed to delineate social class; characters of high rank speak Spanish whereas peasants converse in Portuguese. An exception is Quem tem farelos? (1508?), which features two servants—one speaking Spanish, the other Portuguese—discussing the shortcomings and foibles of their respective masters.
Although Vicente originally made his name as an artist and goldsmith, once at Court he quickly became famous as a poet and playwright. His works were apparently popular with the common people as well as at Court. Aubrey F. G. Bell maintains that “Vicente was recognized as one of the great dramatists of his day,” and suggests that Shakespeare may have been influenced by his work. Jack Horace Parker claims that given the hostility and contempt most of his contemporaries felt for the clergy, Vicente's strident anticlericalism assured the popularity of his work not only among the people, but with the royal family as well. The demands of King Manuel I and King John III on Vicente's work have been explored by Constantine Christopher Stathatos, who takes issue with modern critics who fault Vicente for failing to embrace the neo-classical conventions generally associated with the Renaissance. According to Stathatos, Vicente may have considered neo-classicism inappropriate for plays written for royal entertainment, or he may have preferred his own artistic vision. “At any rate,” argues Stathatos, “we should not censure Vicente because he failed to conform to the dictates of a voice which, for one reason or other, did not appeal to him.” J. H. Parker agrees that Vicente's rejection of the new Renaissance theatrical style was deliberate, but at the same time acknowledges that his reputation with later generations of scholars has probably suffered because his work was so thoroughly grounded in medievalism. Nonetheless, many modern critics suggest that Vicente was constantly experimenting with form and that he broke new ground in introducing character-types and themes to the stage. The title character of Auto da Sibila Casandra. for example, has been noted by feminist scholars for her refusal to marry not because she wishes to reject a particular suitor, but because she objects to the institution of marriage itself. Jack E. Tomlins argues that Vicente incorporated elements from Portugal's age of exploration into his work, maintaining that, in the farces Auto da India and Auto da Fama (1521-26), “Gil Vicente has likely given to the modern world the first literary reflection of India outside the Portuguese chronicles themselves.” Scholars also point to his contrasting representations of the upper class and the peasantry, defined not only by the opposition between Spanish and Portuguese, but also by the contrast between high culture references in the dialogue of aristocratic characters and the popular culture references in the dialogue of the lower class. According to Ronald Sousa, Vicente's representation of the shepherds in Auto da Fé (1510) wherein he employs “‘concrete’ diction; nonlinear, periphrasis-filled language; use of proverb, set phrase, and anecdote; ‘popular’ song—adds up to a bundle that is being presented as different from upper-class culture …” René Pedro Garay examines Vicente's “thematic blending of upper and lower or middle class individuals” in the Comédia do Viúvo, suggesting that this element appears in other Vicentine works as well. “It reflects,” according to Garay, “a preoccupation with two economic levels that Gil Vicente … wanted to harmonize.” Today Vicente's work is still so thoroughly associated with the Portuguese national theatre that his plays, particularly Auto da India, continue to be staged frequently in his native land and are part of the country's secondary school curriculum.