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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Early English Comedy

§ 9. Calisto and Melebea

A still nearer approach, in more than one aspect, was made by A new cmodye in englysh in maner of an enterlude, generally known, from its hero and heroine, as Calisto and Melebea. This work was published by John Rastell, probably about 1530. It was an adaptation of the earlier part of the Spanish dramatic novel Celestina, issued, probably, first at Burgos in 1499, of which Fernando de Rojas was the chief, if not the sole, author. Celestina originally contained sixteen acts; but these were increased in 1502 to twenty-one. A work of these proportions, and containing long narrative and descriptive passages, was evidently not intended for the stage, though written in dialogue form. But, in spite of its hybrid character, it took Spain and Europe by storm, through its union of a romantic love-story with realistic and intensely vivid pictures of the lowest social types. The first four acts, which alone are adapted in the English version, tell of Calisto’s passion for Melebea, who will not listen to his suit; his appeal, at the suggestion of his servant, Sempronio, to the noted bawd, Celestina, to use her arts to soften the heroine’s heart; the misgivings of Parmeno, fellow-servant of Sempronio, as to Celestina’s aims; and her success, when she has been sufficiently bribed, in wiling out of Melebea her girdle, to be carried as a token of goodwill to Calisto, whose fictitious toothache it is to cure. The author of Calisto and Melebea shows masterly skill in his transformation of the earlier part of the Spanish work into an interlude. With unerring instinct, he selects from the prolix original salient points of character and action, and condenses into narrative form, as in Celestina’s opening tale of Elicea and her two lovers, episodes of minor significance. He manages the rime royal, which is used throughout, with such dexterity that, even in broken passages of dialogue, it is sufficiently supple and flexible for his purposes. His power of turning the prose of Rojas into verse, with the minimum of verbal change, as in Calisto’s rhapsody on his mistress’s charms, anticipates, in humbler fashion, Shakespeare’s marvellous transmutation of the prose of Holinshed and North in the English and Roman history plays. Had he but carried out his work to its natural close, he would have enriched English drama with its first romantic love-tragedy. The later pages of his original offered him splendid material in the clandestine meetings of the enamoured couple, the accidental death of Calisto after one of these meetings, the suicide of Melebea and the murder of Celestina by her accomplices. Here, a truly tragic nemesis overtakes passion and crime; but the English playwright could not be satisfied without a more obviously edifying ending. So he substituted a glaringly incongruous and abrupt finale to the interlude. After Celestina’s interview with Melebea, the father of the heroine appears with an account of a dream, in which he has seen her lured by a “foule roughe bych” to the brink of a foul pit. Thereupon, Melebea interprets the dream, and repents aloud of her sins, while her father points the moral in a long discourse upon the efficacy of prayer, the importance of youthful training and the remedial function of wise laws. There is no Tudor play in which the romantic and the didactic tendencies meet in such violent collision as in Calisto and Melebea. At the very moment when the interlude seems developing into a full-grown comedy or tragicomedy, it is strangled by a hostile reactionary force.