Lope is like ten brilliant minds inhabiting one body. An attempt to enclose him in any formula is like trying to make one pair of boots to fit a centipede.
—Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance
Any gathering of the world’s greatest dramatists must find room for the over-sized and voluminous Lope de Vega, the foundation figure of Spanish drama who established the comedia nueva, the full-length Spanish secular play, and initiated the flowering of a century of Spanish Golden Age drama from the 1580s to the 1680s. As Ezra Pound once observed, “Lope de Vega gave Spain its theater, and Spain in turn gave her theater to Europe.” Called by Miguel de Cervantes “un mónstruo de naturaleza” (a monstrosity of nature) for his superhuman productivity and extravagant, profligate imagination, Lope de Vega has been described, again by Pound, as “not a man, he is a literature.” Essayist José Martínez Ruiz has asserted:
Lope is the real world. Everything is to be found in Lope. The four corners of the earth . . . and the nations of Europe in particular; and Greek antiquity; and Roman antiquity; and Christianity; and the lives of saints; and the most haloed heroes in the universe; and the mountains; and the rivers; and the forests; and the cities. Lope’s genius has fluttered around over everything on earth. Neither time nor space has held secrets for him. His strength is pliant, light, smooth: an immense poet’s strength, prodigious, titanic, yet appearing as simple as a child’s.
It is easy to understand Martínez Ruiz’s sense of Lope as boundless and all-encompassing simply by considering his astonishing output. “No other writer in the world’s history,” literary historian George Tyler Northrup has claimed, “even remotely approaches his record of productivity.” Lope’s first biographer calculated 1,800 three-act plays to his credit. Lope’s own reckoning went as high as 1,500, claiming that many of them, with their complex plots and varied metrical forms were completed in 24 hours or less. As critic Francis C. Hayes summarizes, “He tapped almost every literary source known to seventeenth century Spain and wrote enough dramas, considered quantitatively, for a whole nation of playwrights.” It has been estimated that Lope created between 17,000 and 20,000 characters and produced 1.5 million lines of verse dialogue. About 500 of his plays survive, and if we conservatively accept 600 plays as a likelier number of his completed full-length plays, to reach even that number he would have had to produce a new play every month over his 50-year career. These astounding numbers become truly staggering when you consider that his dramatic output was almost equaled by his nondramatic writings—epics, lyrics, ballads, romances, short stories, and thousands of letters—over a turbulent lifetime with enough reversals and romantic adventures to fi ll one of his most sensational cape-and-sword dramas.
Born Félix Lope de Vega Carpio in 1562, the son of a Madrid embroiderer, Lope de Vega was a literary prodigy who was said to have translated Latin poetry at the age of five and produced his first play at 12. After a Jesuit education in Madrid and possibly study at the University of Alcalá de Henares, he worked in the household of the bishop of Ávila, where he is thought to have composed his earliest plays. In 1583 he both began his career as a professional dramatist and joined a two-month naval expedition to quell a rebellion in the Azores. On his return to Madrid he gained notoriety as a brawler and a philanderer and had an affair with a married woman whose family objected and denounced him to the authorities. In 1588 Lope was arrested and banished to Valencia under a sentence of eight years of exile from Madrid. Within a few months, however, he illegally returned to the capital and eloped with the 17-year-old Isabel de Urbina. A few days after his marriage he joined the Spanish Armada and, after the Spanish defeat, returned to exile in Valencia with his wife to begin his most productive period of literary work, which continued until his wife died in 1595. Finally pardoned, Lope returned to Madrid where he had an affair with an actor’s wife and married the daughter of a rich butcher. After she died in 1613 Lope was ordained a priest, but his multiple affairs with married women continued. It is said that he fathered 11 offspring by his two wives and some of his many lovers. One of them, Marta de Nevares, became the love of his life and bore him a daughter in 1617. However, when Marta’s husband died in 1620, Lope refused to marry her because of his vow of celibacy. Despite declining health, Lope continued his remarkable creative vigor and literary productivity until his death in 1635.
The Spanish theater that Lope transformed during his lifetime had barely emerged from its medieval and crude folk traditions when he began his dramatic career. Classical drama, introduced by the Greeks and the Romans to the Iberian Peninsula, gave way to the liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages with secular theater barely kept alive by traveling entertainers and performers in short farces. Spaniards traveling to Italy brought back the comedias humanísticas of the Renaissance, and performances of classically inspired dramas were supplemented by Italian theatrical troupes that came to Spain in the mid-16th century. Plays were performed at the royal court, in aristocratic households, and in open courtyards (corrales). The first permanent open-air theater was established in Madrid in 1579, when Lope was 17. Performances were given by daylight with a stage ordinarily representing the two-story facade of a house with balconies on a Madrid street. As in the Elizabethan theater there was a pit for the groundlings, and the upper windows of the surrounding houses served as boxes. Women spectators were segregated in an area known as la cazuela (the stewpan), but onstage women’s parts were played by actresses.
It was Lope who formulated a new dramatic form, the comedia nueva, that broke with the Aristotelian formulation of the classical dramatic tradition as interpreted during the Renaissance, which dictated a strict separation of comedy and tragedy within a five-act structure and a restricted number of dramatic characters and situations. Lope instead pioneered a flexible and varied dramatic form aimed at appealing to his audiences. In his dramatic treatise Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609; The New Art of Writing Plays) Lope declared his artistic independence from the established rules of dramatic decorum and expounded a liberated dramaturgical method. Lope insisted that his plays were based on an assimilation and refinement of classical rules and the Spanish popular tradition. According to Lope, the action of the comedia should be confined to three acts encompassing exposition, complication, and denouement, with a premium of sensation and suspense. He eschewed a highly stylized and allusive poetic style and narrow, prescribed subjects, preferring an expressive method aimed at capturing the richness of everyday life. “When I set out to write a play,” he observed, “I lock up all the rules under ten keys, and banish Plautus and Terence from my study. . . . For I write in the style of those who seek the applause of the public, whom it is but just to humor in their folly, since it is they who pay for it.” If art imitates nature, Lope asserted, the variety of nature is infinite and so should be the subjects represented onstage. To supply the variety his audiences demanded Lope mixed the comic and the tragic, allowed noble characters to interact with the humble, and violated the unities of time and place, asserting that a Spanish theatergoer grows impatient if he is not shown in two hours “all human history from Genesis to the Last Judgment.”
Unapologetic in his catering to his audiences’ often unsophisticated taste, Lope viewed his plays as inferior to his other writings, dashed off for money. All show signs of haste and repetition, and if few of them rise to the level of Shakespearean depth and profundity in the complexity of their characterization or ideas, they still serve an important liberating function in the history of Western drama. To reach his audience Lope turned drama into a stirring vehicle for embodying an age’s values in a form flexible enough to incorporate stories from ancient mythology, the Bible, the lives of the saints, legends, ancient and Spanish history, and the social life of contemporary Spain. On Lope’s stage kings mix with commoners, and both are entitled to comic or tragic treatment. Lope transformed the often crude Spanish dramatic folk tradition with a new artistry, while he expanded the rigidly prescribed neo-classical drama by his genius and the breadth of his vision into an all-purpose entertainment that could both give pleasure and mount an effective criticism of life. As literary historians Richard E. Chandler and Kessel Schwartz summarize, Lope’s eminence “derived from the fact that he breathed the essence of national life into his drama, identified totally with the popular mind, adapted folk poetry to the stage, dramatized ballads, and wrote what the audience wanted. He was the voice of the people and the echo of a dynamic, proud, vigorous, active nation.”
Lope propagated for the theater of his day multiple new genres and refinements of older forms, producing religious plays, pastoral dramas, mythological plays, historical dramas derived from past and contemporary events, and plays of intrigue and adventure turning on jealousy and revenge. Of the several of Lope’s plays that have entered the canon of world dramatic literature, including El acero de Madrid (Steel in Madrid), Peribáñez y el comendador de Olmedo(The Knight from Olmedo), El castigo sin venganza (Punishment without Revenge), El perro del hortelano (The Dog in the Manger), and Fuente Ovejuna, El mejor alcalde, elrey (The Best Mayor, The King) is the best choice to illustrate both the strengths and the limitations of the playwright’s art. It is an example of Lope’s historical comedia, set during the 12th-century rein of Alfonso VII. Sancho, “hidalgo born, though humbly poor,” is in love with the beautiful peasant Elvira. On the eve of their wedding Sancho seeks the approval of the region’s overlord, Don Tello de Neira. The nobleman is at first gracious and generous and insists on seeing the bride to seal his approval of the nuptials. However, overwhelmed by her beauty, Don Tello stops the wedding and has Elvira kidnapped to his castle, ignoring Sancho’s heartbroken pleas for her release. As Elvira struggles to protect her honor from Don Tello’s lustful advances, Sancho seeks justice from the king and travels to his court in León. After sympathetically hearing Sancho’s story the king reprimands Don Tello and orders that Elvira be immediately restored to Sancho, but his command is ignored. As Don Tello asserts, “I reign here, and here I do my will as the king does his in his Castile. My forebears never owed this land to him—they won it from the Moors.” Alfonso next decides to go himself to render justice, declaring that “The king’s the best magistrate.” Arriving in disguise he first verifies Sancho’s story, is abused by the haughty nobleman, and then confronts Don Tello as the king only to find that he is too late. Elvira, dramatically coming on stage with clothes torn and hair disheveled, reveals that she has been forcibly taken, and she recounts her disgrace in moving verse. The king responds by ominously ordering a “priest and a hangman.” He commands Don Tello to marry Elvira, restoring her honor, and immediately after has Don Tello executed. As his widow Elvira now has a rich dowry for her second husband, Sancho. Justice is served on the level of the state, in which the duty of a liege lord to his king is affirmed; in the community, in which the rights of the victims of the powerful are protected;, and at the personal level, in which mutual love is shown as the basis of marriage. Alfonso displays the ideal quality of kingship in the responsibility he takes on to serve the interests of even the most humble of his subjects.
The play is a tragicomedy, mixing a romantic love story and intrigue with realistic details of Spanish peasant life. It incorporates as well standard elements of the pastoral with the historical. Despite Sancho and Elvira’s idealized love for each other, their less-than-naturalistic speeches, and the poetic justice of the play’s conclusion, there is a striking realism to the plot in Lope’s refusal to preserve Elvira’s chastity, as she is raped before the king can restore her to her proper lover and redeem her honor. Moreover, the play’s pathos surrounding the entitlement of love over class deference and its moral about the proper working of justice are firmly set in the wider context of new social forces operating among the peasants, a feudal lord, and the king. If depth of character generally gives way in Lope’s plays for the demands of plot, it is the thematic purposes that the plot serve that make his dramas more than trivial entertainments and give them relevance that transcends their culture and time. For all its sensational circumstances and suspense the play enacts the breakup of a feudal society, its replacement by a nation-state, and its core values of love, charity, and justice. Don Tello’s supremacy as a feudal lord is replaced by the peasant’s protection under the law of the state as represented by the monarch. The gratification of the lust of the powerful is bested by the triumphant passion of the humble. Commoners, who previously were depicted onstage as comic clowns, here claim the moral and emotional high ground, worthy of a king’s respect. Lope’s persistent advocacy on behalf of the claims of the lower class and the poor has caused many to see in his plays one of the earliest instances of a proletarian drama. An additional strong case can be made that Lope de Vega in Spain, like William Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists in England, played a crucial role in widening the reach of Western drama to consider the claim of monarch and commoner alike.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time