The Trickster of Seville

by Gabriel Téllez
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

Acclaimed by many scholars as having created the first Don Juan in European literature, Tirso de Molina received the honor of accompanying the vicar general to Santo Domingo by way of Seville. Tirso had resided in Toledo, where, under the influence of Lope de Vega Carpio, the creator of the Spanish comedia or play, he began to compose theatrical works. Tirso, a Mercederian priest elected to several important positions in the order, prepared himself for writing plays by attending literary academies and participating in poetic competitions. Tirso showed his genius by composing more than three hundred plays—both highly animated and serious comedias.

The Trickster of Seville, derived from a libertine story and a Castilian ballad featuring the figure of a stone guest, portrays the theological theme that God punishes blasphemy. Tirso’s stylistic procedure involves varying Don Juan’s multiple seductions of women by showing the action in the middle of the episodes and then modifying the settings and types of victims. The quantity of seductions provides the rapid pace of the play, and the pace is further supported by the lively dialogue of the verse form, which is varied according to the speaker. The episodic structure of repeated seductions, culminating in Don Juan’s encounter with the stone guest, is unified by warnings of tragedy in previous scenes through continual allusions to the finality of death, the judgment of God, and the flames of hell. Don Gonzalo’s death resulting from his attempt to avenge his daughter’s lost honor in a duel with the trickster introduces the prime unifying element of the play: the statue erected on Don Gonzalo’s tomb that becomes the vehicle of Don Juan’s condemnation to hell.

Another unifying factor is Don Juan’s gracioso, or servant, who emphasizes the theme of procrastination that characterizes the deceiver. Instead of mimicking his master’s ideas as a typical gracioso would, he cautions Don Juan not to delay his preparation for the Judgment Day. Although the fearful Catalinón underscores Don Juan’s courage at the arrival of the stone guest, Catalinón assures the statue that he can trust his master’s word as a gentleman, and that Don Juan’s dishonesty extends only to his treatment of women. The servant’s posture presents an irony that shows his failure to realize that a truly honorable person would behave honestly in dealings with both men and women.

The Spanish honor code serves to define Don Juan’s character. Tirso portrays Don Juan’s motivation for deceiving his four victims, of both the noble and peasant classes, and robbing them of their worth. Doña Ana, the lover of his friend the Marqués de la Mota, attracts him because she is difficult to possess. The trickster gains access to Doña Ana and another noblewoman, Isabela, by pretending to be another person. Aminta, a peasant whom he lures away from her bridegroom on the day of her marriage ceremony with assurances of wealth and social advancement, attracts Don Juan because she is an unpossessed bride. Tisbea, a fisherwoman, is the only victim who already has a passion that he does little to ignite.

The igniting of Tisbea’s hut foreshadows the chapel that threatens Don Juan with hell fire. In this episode, Tirso illustrates the trickster’s attitude of mockery by showing him stealing his victim’s horses so that he and his servant can quickly escape. The horses, prepared for the escape in advance, symbolize two essential components of the play: speed and urgency. Since Don Juan is onstage for most of the comedia in order to unfold the plot, The Trickster of Seville contains very few pauses. The playwright’s portrayal of the rapid passage of time available for his protagonist to complete his amorous conquests contrasts with the less intense manner of executing death and judgment, producing an effective dramatic tension. Don Juan’s repeated declaration that he is going to enjoy his victim intensifies the irony of his assertion, “That is a long way off.” The trickster repeats his deceits under the cover of the darkness of night; the protagonist’s pronouncement that these are his hours prefigures the lengthy night of his damnation.

The Trickster of Seville served as an admonition to the corrupt nobility of the seventeenth century to act in a more pious manner. Don Juan is not portrayed as a sensual lover who stays to enjoy his conquest; his friend the Marqués de la Mota, who loves Doña Ana, manifests promiscuous behavior by frequenting the brothels of Seville. Don Juan is repeatedly warned to respect women’s honor, but his refusal to obey the rules leads to his defying God in his encounter with Don Gonzalo. Tirso, therefore, furnishes a superb illustration of the seventeenth century theological concept that society is basically good, but the individual, endowed by the Creator with the free will to choose between good and evil, often chooses to sin. Because the society’s structure is established by God, it is the sinner, such as Don Juan, who makes society the victim of sin. God’s representative, the king, restores honor to the victims, resolving the dramatic situation of the comedia in a pleasing manner.

The Trickster of Seville introduced a universal type that was later modified by French, German, and English dramatists as well as fashioned into Mozart’s famous Italian opera Don Giovanni. Tirso’s characterization of Don Juan from a Spanish viewpoint has survived its rivals to become one of the great literary creations of all time.

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