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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)

By Lope de Vega (1562–1635)

THE COMEDIES of Lope de Vega—of which three hundred still exist, but difficult to obtain—are worth serious study by the sociologists, and the modern maker of plays who may need to revive a jaded imagination. The material used in these dramas is enormous; it is rich, suggestive, often rare and poetical. Sismondi (‘Literature of the South of Europe’) says of Lope:—

  • “In order to have written 2,200 theatrical pieces, he must every eight days, from the beginning to the end of his life, have given to the public a new play of about three thousand verses; and in these eight days he must not only have found the time necessary for invention and writing, but also for making the historical researches into customs and manners on which the play is founded,—to consult Tacitus, for example, in order to compose his ‘Nero’: while the fruits of his spare time were twenty-one volumes in quarto of poetry, among which are five epic poems.”
  • He was called the Phœnix of Poets; and Calderón justly named him “the prodigy of nature” (el monstruo de naturalelza). The fecundity of Alexandre Dumas père is in our time a matter of wonder, in spite of the fact that he had co-laborers; the ease with which Lope de Vega turned out comedies, tragi-comedies, tragedies, moralities, autos sacramentales, interludes, and even epics, beats the very record of the author of ‘Monte Cristo.’ Lope was pressed into continuous action by the hungry theatrical managers, and a continual flood of gold poured into his caskets; but like Dumas the elder, he was generous and extravagant. It is easy to understand the non-morality of Dumas, who seems to have been a creature of emotion and imagination; and one feels that the reader who could take Aramis or D’Artagnan so seriously as to copy their moral laxity, must not only be as unstable as water, but already corrupt. In the case of Lope we find, especially in the “cloak and sword” dramas, an amazing disregard for the crime of murder, and the constant assumption that “love excuses all things.” And yet he was intensely religious and moral in those dramatic legends of the saints, and in those sacred spectacles called “autos,” which were usually performed in honor of the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi. There is in his ‘Lives and Legends of the Saints,’ and in his ‘Autos,’ the same strange mixture of mythological and Christian personages, which, even under the magic touch of his friend Calderón, shocks us; but his essential Christianity would satisfy even the most exacting. Frederick Bouterwek (‘History of Spanish Literature’), from whom Sismondi has borrowed largely, tells us that Lope, though wildly romantic in his spirit, was a realist in his method; he presented “the morals and manners of his time”: and when one has read the memoirs of De Retz,—Dumas’s “coadjutor,”—one may explain the modern king of romancers in the same way. But Lope de Vega, who was in holy orders when he did most of his dramatic work, must have either felt that he might exhibit anything on the stage in which God permitted the Devil to have a hand, or he looked upon his productions as without the teaching quality. The dramas (the term “comedy” is more elastic in Spanish than in English)—of manners, of the cloak and sword—are not constantly licentious as those of the Restoration period are; but Shakespeare is an ascetic and the sternest of moralists in comparison with Lope as a depicter of the life of the sixteenth century, with whom love always gets the better of duty. According to the law of society, a man might kill his wife for infidelity, but his intrigues with any wandering damsel might be regarded leniently, even with amusement. And the virtues of the erratic gentlewomen in many of the plays pass for perfect virtue, unless by some mischance their declension is publicly exposed. The king, in one of the heroic comedies, ‘The Certain for the Doubtful,’ resolves to kill his brother because he believes that Don Henry has possessed Doña Juana. He coolly says:—

  • “This night will I assassinate Don Henry,
  • And he being dead, I will espouse thee. Then
  • Thou never canst compare his love with mine.
  • ’Tis true that while he lives I can’t espouse thee,
  • Seeing that my dishonor lives in him
  • Who hath usurped this place reserved for me.”
  • This peculiar and delicate sense of honor, which demands a brother’s murder to keep it stainless, may well make modern men marvel. Still it is not more absurd than the Continental sense of honor, which asks a duel for a misstep, requiring blood for an injured corn!

    In analyzing some of the dramas, one is rather more surprised that the Church showered honors on Lope than that the Spanish clerics—as George Ticknor clearly points out—objected strenuously in the beginning to the secularization of the drama, which commenced as a conveyance for religious instruction. It had been in fact a theological object lesson, which in the “autos” it still continued to be. In the third part of the sixteenth century, the division of the Spanish drama into “Divine and human” was first made. The “human” comedies were either “comedias heroyeas” or “comedias de capa y Espodas”; the “Divine” comedies either “Vidas de Santos” or “Autos Sacramentales.” There were prologues called “loas,” and “intermeses,”—which were, when dance and song were introduced, called “saynetes.” “Coplas” were short strophes sung during the saraband, or other dance.

    Lope de Vega’s invention was inexhaustible, and he is seldom uninteresting. He pushes one breathless from complication to complication; he has in perfection the art of conversation; he rushes from episode to episode with the agility of Dumas. He is not above cutting with one blow of his sword the Gordian knot he has tied; and some of his climaxes are as sudden as the conversion of the wicked brother and the marriage of Celia in ‘As You Like It.’

    In fact, there is much similarity between the methods of the Spanish and the English drama. And Lope made the methods of the Spanish drama, though he did not invent them. He disregarded unities and classic traditions; he mixed up grave with gay, the horrible and the ludicrous, in a manner which afterwards horrified the French critics, and drove them to outbursts as violent as that of Voltaire against Shakespeare. The arrangement of scenes is dependent not, as in French, on the entrance of a new personage, but on a change of locality. The influence of Lope de Vega was far-reaching. France felt it upon Corneille and Molière and groups of lesser dramatists; Italy, Germany, and England were saturated with it. It has been said, perhaps with a little exaggeration, that Lope de Vega made the stage of Europe romantic by his dramatized novels; thus undoing the work of Cervantes, which was to moderate romanticism. So quickly were the dramas of Lope composed, that in diction they are often crude. Thrown together at white heat, they have the fire still in them after a lapse of centuries. Of the thirty that Sismondi read, ten or twelve are easily obtainable; and any of them will prove that Lope had wonderful talent. A study of them will not give an insight into dramatic laws, but it will greatly help the social psychologist. Complete editions of Lope de Vega’s works are very rare; the original editions most rare. He has not had the good fortune of Calderón in the way of English translators, but he deserves it. He is full of poetry and patriotism: the hastiest of his pieces answers to the description of the typical Russian noble of the time of Catharine,—“all splendor without, all squalor within;” but the lyrical splendor is always there, though the poverty of thought is evident upon close examination. Lope de Vega at his worst and best is Spain of the sixteenth century,—grand, superb in the Latin sense,—poor, glorious, coarse, faithful, and sublime. He invented an olla podrida in which one finds dropped rubies that are priceless and the herbs of the field,—all incongruities.—side by side! His metres alone are worth careful analysis: they are of Spain Spanish.

    All critics agree in pronouncing valueless his epics: ‘Jerusalem Conquered’; ‘The Beauty of Angelica’; ‘The Tragic Crown’—Mary Stuart the heroine; one on Circe and the “Dragontea,” in which Queen Elizabeth’s favorite pirate, Drake, is made Satanic. Satires, sonnets, novels (among them ‘The Stranger in his Own Country’), and compositions of all kinds, appeared from his pen, making twenty-five large volumes.

    The most characteristic of Lope’s comedies—this, however, must be said with all possible reserves—are ‘The Widow of Valencia’ and ‘The Peasant Girl of Xetalfi.’ These are well known because Bouterwek has analyzed them. The heroic comedies, ‘The Discreet Revenge’ and ‘The Battlements of Toro,’ have been analyzed by both Bouterwek and Sismondi,—to which George Ticknor in his ‘History of Spanish Literature’ has added admirable comments.

    To appreciate the amazing energy of Lope de Vega, one must glance at his biography. He—born De Vega Carpio—appeared on this world’s stage at Madrid, in 1562. He was two years younger than Shakespeare, and fifteen years younger than his rival dramatist Cervantes. His parents were poor and noble, not unusual in Spain. They began his education well, but they died early; and it was completed through the kindness of the Bishop of Avila. While secretary to the Duke of Alva, he married. A duel and exile, followed by the death of his wife, induced him to join the Invincible Armada. The Armada failed; but Lope never lost his hatred of the islanders who had defeated it. He reached Spain in safety, took up the quiet trade of secretary again, and married again. On the death of his second wife he received holy orders. Henceforth he devoted himself entirely to literature.

    Lope de Vega was certainly not the hero of Browning’s ‘As Seen by a Contemporary.’ He did not pass through his Spanish town unnoted. On the contrary, he was praised by all classes; a celebrity of the first order. Pope Urban VIII. showered every possible mark of regard upon him. Both populace and nobility hailed him as the “Spanish Phœnix.” When he died in 1635, both Church and State united to honor him with ceremonies worthy of a king.

    The main fault of modern criticism is that it lacks full sympathy. Lope de Vega and his time will never be understood until they are judged by an English writer who for the moment can put himself in the place of a man who cannot be judged by the standard of twentieth-century opinions and morals. And the critic who does this will be repaid by the gratitude of those who long for the key of that splendid civilization which gave color to the genius of Shakespeare and Corneille.