Lope de Vega Carpio Critical Essays

Lope de Vega Carpio Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The theater of Lope de Vega Carpio is so varied that it eludes generalizations. Indeed, its rich variety is probably its most defining trait, and it would seem that Lope de Vega intended this to be so. Commenting in The New Art of Writing Plays on his decision to mix comic and tragic elements in the same drama, he noted that this choice is based on his imitation of nature, which is beautiful because of its variety. Their diverseness explains why virtually all of Lope de Vega’s plays are referred to as comedias, or “comedies.” This designation does not mean that his plays are not often serious. Indeed, they frequently concern subjects (such as rape, murder, and political intrigue) that can scarcely be treated humorously. Rather, the designation “comedy” implies only that the plays are not tragedies; they usually end with a restoration of order rather than a catastrophe, and their principal characters are generally common people rather than the nobility whom classical norms deemed appropriate for tragedy. Moreover, humor is an important element in all of Lope de Vega’s plays, no matter how serious they are. Even those few that are designated tragedies include a buffoonlike character known as a gracioso (“funny one”), usually a servant, whose lack of dignity provides occasion for laughter in spite of the generally serious tone of these works.

By mixing comic and tragic elements in the same work, Lope de Vega was intentionally ignoring the classical dramatic precepts established by Aristotle and Horace. He also deliberately disregarded the classical unities, which sought to limit a play’s setting to a single place and decreed that its action should occur in a single day. For all these reasons, Lope de Vega’s drama (and Spanish Golden Age drama in general) bears a closer resemblance to the theater of Elizabethan England than to the more classically oriented theater of seventeenth century France. His theater differs from its English counterparts in other ways, however, such as following a three-act rather than a five-act format and employing polymetric verse. In The New Art of Writing Plays, Lope de Vega recommended accommodating the verse form used in each passage to the material being treated—a principle based on Spanish poetic tradition. Therefore, Lope de Vega recommended that exposition be written in one of the two standard verse forms used for narrative poetry: Normal exposition may be handled in the popular romance or ballad form, but special cases should be rendered in the more elegant Italianate octava real, used for the polished epic poetry of the day. Lope de Vega also recommended accommodating each character’s speech to his station and to the material being treated, using figurative language in key discussions, for example, while rendering everyday conversations in more prosaic speech.

In spite of its varied nature, Lope de Vega’s theater is characterized by a few constants. Among these are an interest in nature, an affection for the common people, an ability to discover poetic beauty in the everyday life of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain, a penchant for reflecting his own experiences in his drama, and—above all—an abiding interest in the theme of honor or reputation. Lope de Vega recommended this theme in The New Art of Writing Plays because of its ability to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience, and he followed his own recommendation by including this theme in the overwhelming majority of his plays, where his treatment of it ranges from the humorous to the tragic.


Probably no play illustrates all that is typical of Lope de Vega better than does Peribáñez, a drama about a common Spanish farmer who kills the noble commander of the town’s military forces in order to defend his wife (and his own honor) against the commander’s unwelcome advances—and who is pardoned by King Enrique III for this offense. Much of the play’s appeal is its poetic treatment of life in the town of Ocaña, where Peribáñez and his wife live. The play’s opening scene shows a simple and joyful wedding celebration in Peribáñez’s house following his marriage to Casilda, and other scenes concern the town’s celebration of its patron saint’s day and farm laborers who sing in the fields as they work. Not only do these scenes paint an appealing picture of rural Spanish life, but also they advance the play’s action. The town’s commander passes by the wedding celebration and—appropriately, for a man who cannot control his passions—is thrown from his horse, so that he must be taken to recuperate in Peribáñez’s house, where he sees Casilda. The scenes centering on the celebration of the patron saint’s day and the singing farm laborers similarly contribute to the play’s development. It is because of his involvement in the preparations for the festival of San Roque that Peribáñez is obliged to visit Toledo and accidentally sees there a portrait of Casilda, which the commander has ordered painted surreptitiously. He learns of the commander’s attempt to seduce Casilda and of her refusal when, on returning from Toledo, he overhears a song that the farm laborers have composed celebrating the incident.

Probably the most discussed passage in the play is a statement by a minor character, Belardo—a name that Lope de Vega frequently used as a pseudonym for himself—that he has taken refuge in the Church. Because Peribáñez was first published in 1614, the same year that Lope de Vega became a priest, some critics have believed that this passage is a reflection of that event. The current consensus, however, is that the play was written four years earlier and that this passage actually reflects Lope de Vega’s joining the Congregation of the Calle del Olivar in 1610. A far more interesting reflection of Lope de Vega’s life can be found in the play’s evocation of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba when the commander has Peribáñez sent to war (just as David did Uriah) so that he may satisfy his lust for his subject’s wife. Lope de Vega evoked the story of David in many of his works, and it is likely that he felt a special affinity for this biblical king whose great sin was lust and who enjoyed divine forgiveness for that sin. In this light, it is interesting to note that Lope de Vega has the commander, who is stabbed by Peribáñez, live long enough to receive absolution, but that the commander’s servant and Casilda’s treacherous friend Inés—both of whom are motivated by greed—are not so fortunate.

The most noteworthy aspect of the play is its treatment of the theme of honor. In the commander’s opinion, honor is the prerogative of the nobility. This view was probably a commonly held one at the time of the play’s composition. Therefore, Peribáñez is obliged to defend his slaying of the commander on the grounds that, when the commander ordered him to fight the Moors, he also made him a knight—thereby endowing him with honor and the obligation to defend it. It is clear, however, that in the author’s view, the common man possesses honor and dignity as an inalienable birthright, and it is significant that the play closes with the king’s pronouncement that his pardoning of Peribáñez is not an act of grace but of justice.

The Sheep Well

The right of the common man to defend his honor was a popular theme that reappeared in the work of Lope de Vega’s followers as well as in several other plays by Lope de Vega himself. Probably the most notable of these is his most frequently anthologized work, The Sheep Well, which is based on a rebellion that occurred in 1476 in the Spanish town of Fuente Ovejuna (“Sheep Well”). Like Peribáñez, this play dramatizes the murder of a town’s military commander. In the case of The Sheep Well, however, the commander’s offense is against the entire town. The commander believes that all of the town’s women are obligated to satisfy his sexual appetite, and it is thus appropriate that his death occurs because of the united action of the entire populace rather than at the hands of a single individual.

Initially, The Sheep Well may impress a modern reader as a rather disjointed work in which several independent episodes—the town’s vindication of its honor, the love and marriage of two of the town’s young people, and the war between Queen Isabel and her half sister Juana—are not satisfactorily united into an aesthetically pleasing whole. Closer inspection, however, reveals that Lope de Vega has established a thematic unity based on a proper understanding of love and of the relationship between love and harmony. He thus carefully develops in the play a connection between the broken political order in Spain and in Fuente Ovejuna and a perverted understanding of love as appetite, and he shows that the restoration of this broken harmony depends on a self-sacrificing love evident in the willingness of the citizens to risk their individual security because of their love for their neighbors.

As with Peribáñez, much of the charm of The Sheep...

(The entire section is 3765 words.)