Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1700
First produced: 1623
First published: 1653
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Tragi-comedy
Time of work: Early years of the seventeenth century
Fernando de Azevida, the corregidor of Madrid
Roderigo, his son
Louis de Castro, and
Diego, Roderigo's friends
Alvarez de Castilla, an exiled lord disguised as the father of the gipsies
Constanza, Fernando's daughter, disguised as a gipsy
John, a young nobleman in love with Constanza
Pedro de Cortes, an elderly Spanish don
Clara, his daughter
A graceful tragi-comedy with an extremely complicated story, THE SPANISH GIPSY apparently derives most of its action and background from portions of two novels by Cervantes. There are two plots which develop side by side and are occasionally interwoven. One of them, which furnishes the play with its title, concerns a Spanish nobleman who has been exiled from his country; he returns secretly to Spain as leader of a band of gipsies who, under his influence, eschew stealing or cheating to lead a utopian, idyllic existence as popular singers and entertainers. A charming pastoral mood pervades this portion of the drama. The major plot, however, is tinged with violence and tragedy, involving Roderigo and Clara as protagonists. The opening situation is so striking as to be almost unique, and it is no small feat that after a very melodramatic first act the interest of the play can be maintained at such a high level. Some scholars contend that Middleton and Rowley had some assistance from John Ford on this play.
Roderigo, son of the corregidor of Madrid, was a pleasure-bent, reckless youth. One night, while roaming about the outskirts of the city with two young noblemen, he acted on a rash and outrageous impulse. When a pretty girl came along, accompanied by her elderly parents, Roderigo decided to have some fun; on the spur of the moment he determined to kidnap her. After a bit of urging he won the somewhat reluctant cooperation of Louis de Castro and Diego, who restrained the distraught mother and father while Roderigo carried off the protesting maiden. Taking her to his apartment in the corregidor's palace, Roderigo yielded to his lust and raped her. Meanwhile, back on the road, Louis learned to his dismay that the mistreated family was that of Pedro de Cortes, an influential Spanish don. Worse still, the girl stolen by Roderigo under the cloak of night was Clara, the object of Louis' own affections.
Clara, overcome by shame, asked Roderigo to kill her, whereupon he sullenly strode from the apartment. While he was gone, Clara examined the room for any clues to the identity of her attacker. From the window she saw below a starlit garden containing a curious alabaster fountain. In the chamber itself she discovered a precious crucifix, which she quickly concealed in her bosom as she heard Roderigo's footsteps approaching once more.
Beginning to feel repentant for his deed, Roderigo readily agreed when Clara asked him never to speak of her ravishment and to take her back to the road where he met her. Afterward, meeting the anxious Louis, Roderigo denied harming the girl. Nevertheless, he found himself falling in love with her. To avoid seeking her out again, he planned to leave Madrid for studies in Salamanca.
At an inn of Madrid, the gipsies danced and sported for their admiring following. Disguised as their leader was Alvarez de Castilla, banished from Spain in previous years for the death of Louis de Castro's father. With Alvarez was his wife Guiamara and her niece Constanza, both supposed to have been lost earlier in a shipwreck. Constanza, called Pretiosa among the gipsies, was the great attraction to their audiences. Young and very beautiful, she was a magnet for the young gentlemen of the city. Deeply in love with her was John, son of a Spanish nobleman. Constanza, half in play, told him that if he would turn gipsy for two years she would requite his love; and he immediately took steps to comply with her conditions.
When Louis tried to tell Clara of his love, she skillfully managed to parry his proposal of marriage. To her father, Louis revealed that Fernando, the corregidor, wished to pardon and recall Alvarez from banishment. To this proposal he had sought the agreement of Louis, and Louis now requested the counsel of Pedro on the matter. Secretly, Louis thirsted for revenge on Alvarez and hoped the return of the latter would bring him within reach of Louis' sword.
Roderigo found his thoughts directed more and more to the unknown girl whom he had wronged. He decided to deceive his father and friends into thinking that he had gone to Salamanca, though he would actually remain near Madrid. Meeting the gipsies, he posed as an Italian poet and joined them as a helper with their plays and entertainments. Soon afterward, when the gipsies performed for the corregidor's court, Fernando quickly detected his son among the supposed gipsies but held his peace. The gipsies presently began to engage in fortune-telling, whereupon Louis asked that Clara be sent for so that she might be diverted by the general festivity.
On her way to the palace, Clara found herself in a mob of people attracted to the scene of a street accident. In the crowding and confusion, she fainted and was carried into a chamber of the nearby palace. When she revived, she was amazed and frightened to find herself in the same room where she had previously been taken by her kidnapper. Learning that it was Roderigo's room, she decided that it was time to disclose her secret. To Fernando, who had hastened to her side along with her parents, she revealed the story of her treatment by Roderigo. Fernando was shocked and dismayed by Clara's story, but convinced of its truth because she had produced the crucifix that she had previously taken from the room. When the corregidor declared that his son's life should be forfeited for the deed he had committed, Clara convinced him that a live Roderigo, rather than a dead one, could much more effectively clear her name.
The gipsies ceremoniously inducted John into their tribe, and Constanza renewed her vow to marry him if he lived the vagabond life for two years. But from the first John encountered difficulties in his new existence. The trouble started when he fell under the eye of Cardochia, a rich heiress who had been acting as the sponsor and hostess of the gipsies. Infatuated with John, she offered him herself and her possessions. When he rebuffed her attentions, she vowed revenge. To Diego, an old suitor, she falsely accused John of improper and obscene behavior toward her.
When the gipsies performed a play for Fernando's court, the corregidor insisted that Roderigo, still in his ineffectual disguise, take the role of a debased libertine. The play was interrupted by a tumult caused by a fight between John and Diego. Diego was wounded; and, after Cardochia had aggravated John's plight by charging him with theft, Fernando angrily ordered him to prison, to be held for trial. Next, in pretended anger at finding his son among the gipsies, Fernando confronted Roderigo. When he threatened Roderigo with marriage to an atrociously ugly heiress, the young man pleaded to be allowed the alternative of paying court to a beauty whom he had glimpsed in the palace audience of the gipsies. Fernando slyly assented, knowing the lady in question to be Clara herself.
Roderigo, still unaware of Clara's real identity, courted and married her. After the ceremony Fernando told Roderigo the truth, and the young couple promised to turn their backs on the past and be true to each other. For John and Constanza, however, the path to a happy ending proved less easy. Alvarez, hearing that John was condemned to die, offered Louis an opportunity to face his father's killer in return for Louis' help in saving John. Louis eagerly accepted; but when Alvarez unmasked himself as the man sought by Louis, the latter decided that revenge was no longer important to him. John's true identity was made known; Cardochia was revealed as a liar; and gipsies and court celebrated these happy results with a lively dance.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
Swinburne, that avid lover and critic of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, has described THE SPANISH GIPSY as "one of those half-baked or underdone dishes of various and confused ingredients, in which the cook's or the baker's hurry has impaired the excellent materials of wholesome bread and savoury meat." He meant that the play is uneven; it is both "tragic" and "romantic," and its structure could have been improved by rewriting. Be that as it may, THE SPANISH GIPSY flows smoothly and to a large extent lacks the bawdiness of other contemporary dramas, such as, for example, Middleton's own A CHASTE MAID IN CHEAPSIDE. This, however, does not reduce the comic aspect of the play. Much of the humor derives from the antics of Sancho, a gentleman and ward to Pedro, and Soto, Sancho's man. Sancho and Soto join the gipsies in disguise, as do so many characters in the play; the pair act the fools throughout.
The tone of the play is jocular and pleasant enough that we never really expect it to end tragically. It is filled with songs and festivity. The tragic aspect, such as it is, has parallels to the popular revenge genre; and this is one way the two plots are tied together. Louis wants revenge on Alvarez, who killed his father. Pedro and Maria want revenge on Roderigo, the friend of Louis, who raped their daughter. Further, Cardochia must revenge herself on John because he rejected her advances. As in HAMLET, the best revenge play, THE SPANISH GIPSY employs the play-within-a-play device. Roderigo must play a character not unlike himself, and Alvarez, his father in the play-within-a-play, speaks words that express exactly the sentiments of Roderigo's actual father: "the anger of a father; / Although it be as loud and quick as thunder, / Yet 'tis done instantly. . . ." Though the plot is at first a bit confusing, we are not surprised that all returns to the comic norm at the end.