Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
The Mayor of Zalamea is Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s reworking of a play by his illustrious predecessor, Lope de Vega Carpio. Calderón, who was himself a soldier, delineates in this play the military life of seventeenth century Spain. He also portrays with sympathy the proud and independent farmer of the provinces. In the tradition of Spanish theater, the play blends comedy and tragedy; the jokes and song at the beginning of the play yield to the terrible crime and punishment at the end. A point of comparison is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597), which, one may argue, begins as a comedy and ends as a tragedy. The Mayor of Zalamea has achieved a place in the first rank of the world’s dramatic masterpieces.
The play displays a perfect harmony and unity of thought and style. The work, generally assigned to the category of costumbristic drama—that is, drama based partly on history or popular tradition—has become, however, one of Calderón’s most popular plays. The theme of The Mayor of Zalamea is honor, particularly in the first two acts where it is sharply contrasted with dishonor, as personified in the deeds of Captain Alvaro. The principal cause of the conflicts that drive the plot is the lodging of troops in a house where there is an unmarried woman, Isabel, and the captain’s curiosity concerning a beauty he is forbidden to see. The effects of these situations are predictable, and the resultant action is fast moving, with an abduction, a rape, a garroting, and a jurisdictional battle that is resolved by the king. The incidents are structured on a ladder arrangement in that each one develops from the preceding one both logically and psychologically, which escalates into a tide of mounting tension by the end of each act. The play is perfectly constructed.
The conflict is depicted on two levels, exterior and interior. Each level involves a question of jurisdiction. The exterior conflict revolves around the clash between Crespo and Lope over the question of whether the king’s justice is to be administered by the military or the civilian authorities. The external conflicts are set forth as debates or arguments and encompass the theme of honor. It may be difficult for the reader to comprehend the importance that honor had in Spain in the seventeenth century. One may find it simply abhorrent and incomprehensible, for example, that a brother may intend to kill his sister, after she has been raped, to preserve the family’s honor. Honor as a theme in Calderón’s work has manifold faces—honor ranges from a matter of the highest religious principle to a parody of social convention. One should read the play, therefore, with attention toward the importance that honor has in the play, from the first moments (when a starving gentleman discusses the proper way to woo a rich peasant) to the last (when the king decides whether Crespo and the other villagers, whose lives are at stake, have acted honorably).
The interior conflict also evolves from the concept of honor. The internal problem centers on the decision Crespo must make as to whether he should act in his capacity as a father or as the newly elected mayor of Zalamea. He finally chooses the latter because it embraces a broader sphere of justice than does the personal. The author’s style, like the action, is simple and direct. The argumentative aspects of the style are borne out in the aforementioned debates over the concept of honor, but the quaint patter of the lower characters reveals an aspect of Calderón’s style that adds a high degree of realism and naturalness to the dialogue. If the debates on honor seem artificial to today’s reader, the oaths of Rebolledo, a raw recruit, who curses the officer who forces the troops to march without rest, are timeless bits of dialogue.
Like the style, the characterizations are significant for their attention to variety and detail. A case in point is Crespo, who represents justice and prudence but, at the same time, while being symbolic of virtue, is very much a flesh-and-blood character, with human defects. The soldiers think of him as vain, pompous, and presumptuous. He is proud of his lineage, and he has a sense of honor and personal dignity. Calderón’s technique of revealing aspects of one character through the eyes of another is a strong factor in making the character more human and balanced in the eyes of the reader.
The Mayor of Zalamea is an allegory: The Spanish king, as representative of God, finally recalls all of the players to their fixed and rightful positions within the social order. Thus, while Crespo, for example, has an identity as a human being, on another level he is representative of the abstract virtue of justice, while Captain Alvaro is the embodiment of several dishonorable traits.
The Mayor of Zalamea is Calderón’s most popular drama. In critical discussions of this work, it is common to read that it is unlike any of the author’s other works. Some critics call it a revolutionary play, while others refer to it as a social drama, or Calderón’s only drama of character. In truth, the play does not necessarily occupy an exceptional place in the playwright’s canon. It is Calderón’s usual kind of play, and it is unusual only in that the protagonist is a common man. Calderón was primarily a man of the theater, and the most significant argument in his selection of material was that of its applicability to the stage. The Mayor of Zalamea’s plot is perfectly suited to dramatic presentation. Since its first performance in the seventeenth century, it has perhaps never been out of production.