María de Zayas y Sotomayor Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

María de Zayas y Sotomayor 1590(?)-1661(?)

Spanish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.

María de Zayas y Sotomayor was one of the most prominent writers of the Spanish Golden Age. While Zayas's works were widely read in her own time, critical and popular attention waned during the nineteenth century. Modern critics, however, have come to acknowledge Zayas as one of the foremost feminist writers of Spain. In fact, most recent critiques of Zayas focus heavily on this aspect of her writing, citing her works as prime examples of the use of textual stylization to address issues related to gender. Zayas is particularly noted for her examinations of the role of the woman writer in a patriarchal society, especially in the area of literary expression and authorship. Today, Zayas is seen as a ground-breaking figure, foreshadowing the feminist writers of later centuries.

Biographical Information

Not much is known about Zayas's personal life and the few contemporary accounts that have survived from her time focus almost exclusively on her literary activity. It is believed that she was born in 1590 in Madrid to Doña María de Barasa and Don Fernando de Zayas y Sotomayor. Her father was an infantry captain, and eventually earned a knighthood in the military order of Santiago. There is also evidence that he served under the seventh count of Lemos, so Zayas likely spent time in Italy. She began writing verse and introductory material for other prose writers sometime between 1621 and 1639, and was active in the literary circles of Madrid. Details about Zayas's life after 1639 are few, but some scholars contend that she may have moved to the city of Zaragoza in the late 1630s, based primarily on the fact that both of her short story collections were published there. After the publication of her second novella collection, Zayas seems to have disappeared from public life altogether. Many critics argue that this lack of information suggests that Zayas entered a convent, mimicking the actions of many of her own characters. Others speculate that Zayas, who would have been almost fifty-eight years of age, may have died around this time. Upon her death, contemporary authors eulogized her as the “Tenth Muse” or the “Sybil of Madrid.”

Major Works

While there is no comprehensive list of Zayas's works available, it is known that she composed several verses during her time in Madrid, as well as one drama, La traicíon en la amistad (mid-1600s; The Betrayal of Friendship). The play was not performed during her lifetime, and only became available to readers in the early twentieth century. Zayas's literary reputation rests primarily on her two short story collections, Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (primera parte) (1637) and Desengaños amorosos. Parte Segunda del sarao y entretenimiento honesto (1647). Based partly on the courtly novel tradition of Spain, both works achieved enormous popularity during her lifetime. The novellas are collections of short stories organized by their inclusion in a greater narrative. In the Novelas amorosas, five men and five women meet during Christmas festivities at the home of a convalescent friend. While the frame narrative unfolds—wherein Don Juan courts the recovering Lisis but finds himself increasingly drawn to Lisarda—the friends tell stories about love. As the frame narrative ends, Lisis accepts Don Diego as her suitor, providing a segue into Zayas's second collection of short stories. Desengaños amorosos again features the group of friends gathering, this time to celebrate the impending wedding of Lisis and Diego. Lisis asks that only the women narrate stories, focusing on the “disenchantments” of love and the trickery of men. At the end of the tale, Lisis, based on the tales related by her female friends, decides to renounce marriage and instead retires to a convent. Throughout the collected stories in Novelas amorosas and Desengaños amorosos, Zayas speaks out on behalf of women, who she sees as being maligned. The tales focus on female powerlessness in a patriarchal society—a fact that has led many modern critics to study Zayas's works as primarily feminist in nature.

Critical Reception

Zayas's novellas were widely read in her own time, and retained their popularity well into the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, attention to Zayas declined sharply, and she was consistently disregarded in discussions of the Spanish canon. The twentieth century witnessed a critical reevaluation of Zayas's work, especially its feminist perspective. For example, Sandra M. Foa argues that, although the author's defense of women derives from a tradition that dates back to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish literature, Zayas is extremely unconventional in her treatment of gender issues—she crafts a response to both the status of women during her time and to literary traditions that stemmed from that treatment. H. Patsy Boyer notes that Zayas often uses the commonly accepted literary forms of her time, but reworks “accepted plots and literary conventions to create a new work.” Zayas's use of literary conventions to highlight socio-political themes is also a subject of interest to Lisa Vollendorf. In her study of the motif of vengeance in Zayas's works, Vollendorf maintains that Zayas focuses on the ways women are endangered by an honor code which sacrifices the feminine to preserve the masculine. She cites instances in Zayas's stories in which assaults on the female person expose the ways in which the system of honor is preserved. Twentieth century critics continue to reassess and reevaluate the power of Zayas's writings and the influence she has had on subsequent generations of Spanish women writers. An intense revival of interest in Zayas has occurred, focusing on her as an important feminist voice.