Gil Vicente Vicente, Gil - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Visitacão, or Monólogo do Vaqueiro (play) 1502

Quem tem farelos? (play) 1508?

Auto da India (play) 1509?

Auto da Fé (play) 1510

Farsa do Velho da Horta (play) 1512

Auto da Sibila Casandra (play) 1513

Comédia do Viúvo (play) 1514?

Auto da Festa (play) 1515

Auto da Barca do Inferno (play) 1516

Auto dos Quatro Tempos (play) 1516

Auto da Alma (play) 1518

Auto da Barca do Purgatório (play) 1518

Auto da Barca da Glória (play) 1519

Comédia da Rubena (play) 1521

Cortes de Júpiter (play) 1521

Auto da Fama (play) 1521-26

Dom Duardos (play) 1522

Farsa de Inês Pereira (play) 1523

Fragoa d'Amor (play) 1524

Auto da Feira (play) 1528

Triunfo do Inverno (play) 1528 or 1529

Auto de Mofina Mendes (play) 1534

Floresta de Enganos (play) 1536

Copilaçam de todalas obras (plays) 1562

Obras 3 vols. (plays, poetry) 1907-14

Obras completas 6 vols. (plays, poetry) 1942-44

Obras completas (plays, poetry) 1956; revised editions 1962, 1979

Aubrey F. G. Bell (essay date 1921)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bell, Aubrey F. G. “Gil Vicente (c. 1465-1536?).” In Gil Vicente, pp. 3-64. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921.

[In the following excerpt, Bell offers an overview of Vicente's career as a dramatist.]


Goldsmith, musician, actor, dramatist, lyric poet, Gil Vicente is one of the most interesting figures of the sixteenth century. Although the first half of his life was spent in the fifteenth century, we know nothing of him till seven years after the accession (1495) of King Manuel (1469-1521) and three years after the return of Vasco da Gama from his famous voyage to India (1497-9). Portugal for the next quarter of a century was in...

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Jack Horace Parker (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Parker, Jack Horace. “The Farces and the Comedies.” In Gil Vicente, pp. 73-98. New York: Twayne, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Parker provides an overview of Vicente's major farces and comedies.]

When in the 1508-1509 period Gil Vicente turned back with vigor from his goldsmith's activities to theater, and entered the realm of farce and comedy in general, he was entering a genre in which he would be very prolific and very successful. From the first of his farces, Who Has Bran? (Quem Tem Farelos?) and The Play of India (Auto da India), of a realistic nature, to the final Vicentine play, The Forest of Deceits...

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Thomas R. Hart (essay date April, 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hart, Thomas R. “The Dramatic Unity of Gil Vicente's Comédia de Rubena.Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 46, no. 2 (April, 1969): 97-108.

[In the following essay, Hart refutes the common critical opinion that Vicente's first romantic comedy lacks unity.]

Many readers of Gil Vicente's Comédia de Rubena would doubtless agree with the play's most recent editor, Giuseppe Tavani, that ‘la sua struttura è inconsistente, assolutamente priva di unità; l'azione è frammentaria e contravviene, si direbbe quasi programmaticamente, alle unità di tempo, di luogo e di svolgimento.’1 In particular, ‘la terza scena [potrebbe] essere...

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John Lihani (essay date April, 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lihani, John. “Personal Elements in Gil Vicente's Auto Pastoril Castellano.Hispanic Review 37, no. 2 (April, 1969): 297-303.

[In the following essay, Lihani explores the influence of Lucas Fernández on Vicente's playAuto Pastoril Castellano.]

To answer the enigma of how the influence of Lucas Fernández (1474-1542), the Spanish dramatist of the school of Juan del Encina, reached Gil Vicente (1465?-1537?) in the latter's early days as a dramatist in the Portuguese court, we can have recourse to the evidence presented by the works of Gil Vicente himself. We recall that Lucas Fernández's first Comedia (c. 1496), a marriage play, was a direct...

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Constantine Christopher Stathatos (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stathatos, Constantine Christopher. Introduction to A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes of Gil Vicente's Floresta de Enganos, pp. 9-63. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

[In the following excerpt, Stathatos discusses the textual and critical history of Floresta de Enganos.]


For thirty-four years and under the patronage of two successive kings, Manuel I (1495-1521) and John III (1521-1557), Gil Vicente served as purveyor of entertainment for the Portuguese Court. His was not an age of art for art's sake.1 His entire dramatic career, initiated with the...

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William W. Moseley (essay date summer, 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Moseley, William W. “‘O Rei do Mar’: Portugal, the Sea, and Gil Vicente.” Luso-Brazilian Review 11, no. 1 (summer, 1974): 98-104.

[In the following essay, Moseley examines Vicente's interest in the sea—an interest shared by his countrymen in the age of Portuguese exploration.]

One of the salient characteristics of the work of Gil Vicente is its variety and range of themes. Whatever may have been his place of birth and early life, a genuine popular flavor pervades much of his production. But his plays probably owe their existence to the influence of the royal court which inspired and nurtured their writing and staging. In the royal household Gil...

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J. H. Parker (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Parker, J. H. “Medievalism in Gil Vicente.”1 In Studies in Honor of Gerald E. Wade, edited by Sylvia Bowman, and others, pp. 179-86. Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, S. A., 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Parker contends that Vicente's work displays none of the features of Renaissance drama and is, in fact, firmly rooted in the medieval tradition.]

There has been a good deal of discussion in recent years as to whether Gil Vicente was completely «medieval» or whether he stood at the threshold of the new, the Renaissance, which during his lifetime was slowly entering Portugal under Italian influence. Sá de Miranda, it is to be remembered, was...

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Thomas R. Hart (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hart, Thomas R. “Characterization: Casandra.” In Gil Vicente: Casandra and Don Duardos, pp. 49-63. London England: Grant & Cutler, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Hart maintains that in the play Casandra Vicente privileges character development over plot events.]

A. A. Parker has observed that the Spanish comedia of the seventeenth century is “essentially a drama of action and not of characterization … The plot and not the characters is the primary thing” (7, 3-4). Our two early sixteenth-century plays by Gil Vicente work rather differently. Dámaso Alonso has contrasted the “lenta matización psicológica” in Vicente's...

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Cheryl Folkins McGinniss (essay date spring, 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McGinniss, Cheryl Folkins. “The Dance: A Metamorphic Symbol in Gil Vicente's Auto de la sibila Casandra.Hispanic Review 52, no. 2 (spring, 1984): 163-68.

[In the following essay, McGinniss discusses Vicente's use of dance to signal changes in scene and characterization in Auto de la sibila Casandra.]

An outstanding feature of the Vicentine theater is the dance, with which, it has been felt, the dramatist beautifies his work. The element of dance interpolation, however, surpasses mere theatrical ornamentation and contributes more specifically to the structural and conceptual coherence of the work.1 In effect, Vicente's Auto de la...

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Jack E. Tomlins (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Tomlins, Jack E. “Gil Vicente's Vision of India and Its Ironic Echo in Camões's ‘Velho do Restelo’.” In Empire in Transition: The Portuguese World in the Time of Camões, edited by Alfred Hower and Richard A. Preto-Rodas, pp. 170-76. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Tomlins discusses how the conquest of India affected Vicente's writing.]

Gil Vicente has likely given to the modern world the first literary reflection of India outside the Portuguese chronicles themselves, which—owing to their very nature—came to light after the poet-playwright's death, generally conceded to have occurred in the year 1536. The...

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Ronald Sousa (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sousa, Ronald. “‘Vos outros tambem cantai por vosso uso acostumado’: Representation of the Popular in Gil Vicente.” In Literature among Discourses: The Spanish Golden Age, edited by Wlad Godzich and Nicholas Spadaccini, pp. 116-31. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Sousa examines Vicente's depictions of both upper-class characters and peasants, as well as the language peculiar to both groups.]

The words of my title—“Vos outros tambem cantai por vosso uso acostumado” (You too sing, according to your custom)—are said by Fé (Faith), the representation of Christian belief, to the shepherds Bras and Benito...

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René Pedro Garay (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Garay, René Pedro. “The Comédia do Viúvo.” In Gil Vicente and the Development of the Comedia, pp. 173-216. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Garay studies the structure of the Comédia do Viúvo, maintaining that the play functioned as a means of conveying ideology rather than as merely entertainment.]

Gil Vicente's Comédia do Viúvo has received the most varied aesthetic opinions from Vicentine scholars. Most of these opinions censure the dramatic piece, but none, to my knowledge, has dealt in any significant depth with the structure of the Comédia...

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José I. Suárez (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Suárez, José I. “The Basic Characteristics of the Menippean Satire and Their Application to Vicentine Comedy.” In The Carnival Stage: Vicentine Comedy within the Serio-Comic Mode, pp. 73-153. Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Suárez examines the carnivalesque elements in Vicente's plays that conform to the generic characteristics of ancient Menippean comedy.]

In his study on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin lists fourteen characteristics as basic to the ancient Menippea. The purpose of this chapter is to clarify the relationship between this genre and the plays of Gil Vicente by exemplifying each characteristic as...

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Ana Paula Ferreira (essay date April, 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ferreira, Ana Paula. “Intersecting Historical Performances: Gil Vicente's Auto da India.Gestos: Teoria y Practica del Teatro Hispanico 9, no. 17 (April, 1994): 99-113.

[In the following essay, Ferreira applies the principles of postmodern literary criticism to Vicente's play.]

There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things; and more books about books than any other subject; we do nothing but write glosses on one another.

Montaigne, Essais

In “The Classical Heritage of Modern Drama: The Case of Postmodern Theater,” Patrice Pavis argues...

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José I. Suárez (essay date winter, 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Suárez, José I. “Characterization of the Elderly in Vicentine Drama.” South Atlantic Review 62, no. 1 (winter, 1997): 34-42.

[In the following essay, Suárez traces the way Vicente represented old people in his dramas; for the most part, the elderly are comic figures derided for their foolish and lecherous behavior.]

Literary characterization of the elderly may be traced to the oral tradition. By the age of Homer, conflict between young and old was already common in Greek mythology. Uranus's children castrated him and one, Cronus, so hated his own offspring that he devoured them. Zeus, god of gods, attacked and conquered his father Cronus and the Giants,...

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Anthony Lappin (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lappin, Anthony. “Introduction to the Auto da Barca do Inferno.” In Gil Vicente: Three Discovery Plays, edited and translated by Anthony Lappin, pp. 1-23. Warminster England: Aris & Phillips Ltd., 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Lappin discusses Auto da Barca do Inferno and explains its importance in any attempt to understand Vicente's early career.]


Gil Vicente found remarkable professional success throughout his life. One might conceive of his career as that of a proficient social climber. Born to a goldsmith father, Martim Vicente, in Guimarães, most probably between 1465 and...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Stathatos, Constantin C. A Gil Vicente Bibliography (1975-1995): With a Supplement for 1940-1975, pp. Bethlehem Penn.: Lehigh University Press, 1997. 187 p.

Comprehensive list of editions, translations, and modern critical studies of Vicente's work.

Stathatos, Constantin C. “Gil Vicente Studies (1985-1990).” Luso-Brazilian Review 29, no. 2 (winter, 1992): 99-111.

Annotated list of editions and critical studies of Vicente's work for the years 1985-1990.


Hamilton-Faria, Hope. “Satiric Style.” In The Farces of Gil Vicente: A Study in the...

(The entire section is 440 words.)