Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003
Ignez de Castro (also known as Inês de Castro) has the distinction of being the first tragedy written in Portuguese modeled on the works of classical dramatists. In composing the play, António Ferreira consciously set out to adapt materials from the history of his homeland to the rigid formulas of Greek and Roman drama. His contemporaries would have been quite familiar with the story of the star-crossed lovers Ignez and Pedro, since their tale was the subject of earlier literary works; however, the form of the drama used by the playwright was one not seen before on the Portuguese stage. While a university student, Ferreira became captivated by the theories of literature emerging from Italy; the work of writers such as Giraldi Cinthio influenced his concept of the drama. Numerous critics have concentrated on his borrowings from the Greek stage, frequently to the exclusion of any discussion of the playwright’s originality in producing a drama that transcends its models and presents a fresh look at the central moral and political issues that Ferreira discovered in the story of Pedro and his mistress. No mere slave to his classical models, Ferreira worked hard to use his native history and his vernacular language within the classical models he adopted. While the result is not wholly successful, his accomplishments are nevertheless noteworthy.
The central conflict in the drama is a familiar one: personal passion versus duty to society. The dilemma faced by Pedro and his father is not a simple one, however. The prince is deeply in love with Ignez, and it is clear that, before the action of the play begins, he obeys his father’s wishes regarding the question of succession to the throne by taking a wife acceptable to the king and to the nobility. Her death frees him once again to pursue a union with the woman he has loved for years. Having fathered a legitimate son to inherit the throne when he dies, Pedro believes he should be free to marry Ignez, the mother of his four illegitimate children. The king sees the situation differently, of course. The possibility exists that the children of Pedro and Ignez (some of whom are older than Pedro’s legitimate son) might lay claim to the throne, casting the country into a bloody civil conflict. Hence, the king must make his difficult choice. The choice and the bloody results that follow it are common to classical drama.
Ferreira makes good use of the classical format and of a number of other dramatic techniques. Particularly noteworthy is his handling of the minor characters in the play, especially Alfonso’s counselors. When the king seems to vacillate, one or another of them stands ready to remind him that it is his duty as head of state to eliminate all threats to the body politic. Seeing Ignez as a danger, they remain insistent that only her death can secure peace in the kingdom. Although their assessment may seem cruel and their motives questionable, as representatives of the forces of society their attitude is understandable if not completely laudable. Their insistence that the king must do something if he is to prevent a civil war highlights the complexity of the central conflict. They become useful, too, as tools for carrying out the assassination while allowing the king to remain distanced from the execution. Ferreira also uses his chorus exceptionally well, in the fashion of Greek playwrights: The group offers commentary on the action while providing the audience emotional relief from the strong passions exhibited by the chief actors in the drama.
Ignez de Castro is not without its faults, however. Ferreira gives Pedro little opportunity to display his love for Ignez, relying on statement rather than on drama to convince audiences that the prince is sincere in wanting to defy his father’s wishes and marry his mistress. Many of the scenes are merely long monologues, speeches in which one character or another stakes out a political or philosophical position rather than engaging others in conversation. As a result, at times the play seems to move slowly or not at all; audiences and readers may get the sense that they are witnessing a debate rather than a drama. Nevertheless, it may be useful to remember that Ferreira was working with no contemporary dramatic models for his play; he had only the work of the theorists and the texts of classical dramas as his guides. When viewed in this light, his tragedy seems a remarkable accomplishment. Certainly his contemporaries and successors in Portugal found it to be so.
This tragedy has flaws. The lengthy exposition by Ignez in blank verse is hardly inspiring, and the simple plot allows little onstage action. In spite of these defects, moments of dramatic brilliance and scenes of suspense, emotion, and moving poetry give the drama other reasons for permanence besides its status as a pioneer effort.
This is one of history’s most famous love stories, describing “the love that endured beyond the grave.” The story is based on fact. Ignez is still remembered by the maidens of the university town of Coimbra, where the murder occurred, tradition having it that their tears formed a fountain of love around Pedro’s statue there.
Maddened by sorrow, the historical Pedro took the throne in 1357. He exercised ferocious revenge on Ignez’s killers, staking them out on stone slabs and cutting out their hearts. He then declared that he had been legally married to Ignez. Tradition has it that he exhumed her body from the grave, brought it to the palace in Alcobaca, and had her crowned with sumptuous ceremony, obliging the highest nobles of the kingdom to kiss the hand of “the Queen after death.” Pedro and Ignez are buried in marble tombs in Alcobaca, foot to foot, so that, upon arising on Judgment Day, they will see each other immediately. This tragedy has long been a favorite theme, not only of Portuguese playwrights but also of the playwrights of other literatures.