The King, the Greatest Alcalde, which Lope de Vega Carpio wrote in 1620-1623, belongs, along with the earlier Fuenteovejuna, written 1611-1618, to the best work of one of the most remarkable literary men of all time. Like Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and the composer Franz Liszt, Vega Carpio is as much of a “personality” as he is an artist. Born of humble parents, he became a soldier, a sailor in the Spanish Armada (taking part in the ill-fated expedition of 1588), a duelist, an exile, a lover of innumerable ladies and the husband of two, a priest of passionate if temporary convictions, an arbiter of the theater, and reputedly the writer of about eighteen hundred plays and other dramatic works, less than one-third of which have survived. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is often compared to the English bard for his breadth of vision, his vitality, his role in the creation of a national theater, and the similar innyard-type theater (the corral) for which he wrote. As is perhaps inevitable for such a prolific dramatist, however, his artistry falls short of Shakespeare’s. It cannot be said of his role in Spanish dramaturgy, as Johnson said of John Dryden’s influence on English poetry, that he found it brick and left it marble; perhaps, however, it can be said that he found it sand and left it brick.
Vega Carpio wrote with a disdain for classical precedent and an open appeal for popular approval. “When I set out to write a play,” he observed, “I lock up all the rules under ten keys, and banish Plautus and Terence from my study. . . . For I write in the style of those who seek the applause of the public, whom it is but just to humor in their folly, since it is they who pay for it.” The Spaniards called him monstruo de la naturaleza, or “the freak of nature,” for his plays have the vices of their virtues: Bubbling with inventiveness, energy, and variety, they are also often careless in their construction, shallow in their characterization, and uneven in their poetic power.
The King, the Greatest Alcalde exhibits both the virtues and the vices and exemplify Vega Carpio’s dramatic outlook. The play, a tragicomedy, is a mixture of love story and realism. Sancho and Elvira are closely related to the Corydons and the Phyllises of pastoral tales in their rustic, idealized love for each other and in the miseries they must endure before they are finally reunited. They are, however, observed with a realism and a pessimism that take due note of the branding power of evil in the world. “There is no interest beneath the sun by which an honest woman may be won,” Feliciana assures Don Tello, underestimating the savage determination of her brother. In the standard pastoral tale, the honest woman would remain chaste to the end, despite all temptations and menaces, but Vega Carpio realizes that life is not like that, and Elvira is raped before the king can restore her to Sancho. The primary interest of the play, however, is Vega Carpio’s treatment of social forces, especially the interaction among the peasants, the feudal lord Don Tello, and the king.
In The King, the Greatest Alcalde, Vega Carpio reveals an unalloyed admiration for the peasant class unlike that in any other dramas of the time, including Shakespeare’s. In the twentieth century, Marxist critics seized on such plays as this one and Fuenteovejuna as examples of Vega Carpio’s “proletariat” theater, which portrays an oppressed and hearty peasantry struggling against a corrupt and depraved aristocracy. There certainly is a discernible tendency toward idealization of the peasants. Sancho’s opening paean to nature and his elevated sentiments throughout mark him as a noble character...
(The entire section is 1536 words.)