The Dog in the Manger
Season 08-09 Season

Lope de Vega:
The Impassioned Man of Instinct

In The Genius of Shakespeare, the scholar Jonathan Bate asks us to contemplate an “alternative universe” in which Spain had triumphed over Protestant England and not gone into decline after the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Shakespeare certainly would have met his match in Lope de Vega (1562–1635), whom Miguel de Cervantes called “that monster of nature” and Bate himself dubs “the Mozart of literature.” Like Shakespeare, Lope de Vega was born of humble origins; Shakespeare’s father was a glover, whereas Lope de Vega’s was an embroiderer.

Unlike Shakespeare, Lope de Vega’s life was as dramatic as that of his plays: imprisonment and exile for libel, two wives, three long-standing mistresses, seven documented love affairs, 14 children, a position as private secretary for the Duke of Alba in the 1590s, another as a love-letter writer for the Duke of Sessa and finally ordination as a priest (even as he had a child with his last mistress).

Lope: The Myriad-Minded Poet and Playwright of Spain’s Golden Age
Lope de Vega claimed to have written 1500 plays (called comedias); the authentic plays that have survived amount to 331, and almost 200 additional plays are attributed to him. Like Shakespeare, Lope de Vega wrote for a popular and public courtyard theatre, where performances were attended by all social classes from the illiterate to the cultured. 

While Shakespeare came forward after English theatre had already developed a variety of dramatic forms, Lope de Vega was the “father of Spanish national drama,” reinventing (rather than reinterpreting) material taken from sources as varied as those of Shakespeare: history, legend, mythology, chronicles, ballads, Italian novellas, town life, country life, the lives of the saints and the Bible. If Shakespeare makes abundant allusions to the art of acting—“All the world’s a stage”—Lope de Vega is more explicit about his opinions in regard to the practice of playwriting, which he encoded in The New Art of Writing Plays in Our Time (1609). In this “formal manifesto,” he stated that the stage is primarily for storytelling and attributed his own success to having violated the classical purity of genre, which 17th-century French theatre followed, but Spanish theatre rejected. The preferred form was a mixture of tragedy and comedy, called tragicomedia

Lope de Vega’s plots tend to be complicated and action-packed, emotions are intense if not exaggerated and matters of love and honor are of primary concern. Each character is defined, at least at the outset, by social or biological role, but they have complex motives and reactions in response to oppressive social pressures. The women he wrote are frequently rebellious and spirited and are wont to disguise themselves in men’s clothing in order to assert their identity and individuality. The men are habitually preoccupied with social and sexual aggrandizement.

His comedies of intrigue turn on mistaken identities and the darker ones often teeter on tragedy; his tragedies have comic interludes; and his histories influenced his own nation’s sense of its past. He mingles the high and the low, allowing for a representation of all ranks of men and women, and in doing so appeals to all. Through the gracioso, or Shakespearean fool-figure, he has someone who performs simultaneously inside and outside the action, frequently parodying the speech and behavior of the “high” or serious characters.

All in all, Lope de Vega was, as Bate remarks, endowed with a “Shakespearean myriad-mindedness.” He was a quantumplaywright who recognized the different faces of the same thing.

The Dog in the Manager (El perro del hortelano, 1613–15)
If we are to place Lope de Vega’s text within the horizon of expectations of early 21st–century English–speaking theatregoers, two other early modern plays spring distinctively to mind: John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1613) and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (c. 1601). Michael Billington, in his review of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2004 production of The Dog in the Manger, telescopes Lope de Vega’s plot thus: “Boss loves secretary: it’s an old story; it’s rather like seeing The Duchess of Malfi played for laughs.”

More particularly, the literary archetype upon which the plot of the playturns—love between social unequals—raises questions (posed by the translator David Johnston in his introduction) that make the play remain relevant almost 400 years later: “How is privilege achieved, and how is it maintained? What are the subterfuges that nobility will employ in order to maintain its privilege and its status?” And the issue that underlies it all: “Where does the principle of love, the bond of common humanity, sit with all of this?” Things do not seem to have changed all that much in public or private life.

Diana, Countess of Belflor, beset by aristocratic suitors urging marriage, becomes overwhelmed with jealousy when she finds her secretary, Teodoro, pursuing her lady in waiting, Marcela. Diana believes she cannot marry him because of their difference in status, but she is equally determined to prevent him from marrying anyone else. The comic plot is resolved by Teodoro’s ingenious servant Tristán (a gracioso figure): he persuades a nobleman that Teodoro is his long-lost son, thereby flouting the forms of hypocritical social honor upon which Spain’s early modern society turned.

Honor, as scholar Melveena McKendrick stated, depended on “both a man’s estimation of his own worth and society’s acknowledgment of that claim.” One perceives echoes here of Cassio’s self-lamentation over its loss in Othello: “Reputation, reputation, reputation—O, I have lost my reputation, I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial;” and of Iago’s cynically realistic reply, “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

The play’s resolution should also bring to mind the struggle of Teodoro’s comic servant counterpart, Malvolio, steward to the countess Olivia, in Twelfth Night. Those audience members who will have seen Twelfth Night at STC may well experience déjà vu, if Malvolio’s words “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em,” resound for them in the more serious ending Lope de Vega creates for the countess Diana’s secretary, Teodoro. 
           
If Lope de Vega’s play satisfies the dictates of external honor, it simultaneously “ridicules the demand for honor to be satisfied,” as Bate aptly puts it. The underlying question at the end—to what extent can such a vacuous conception of honor, which is itself a sham in a world that is stable and ordered on the surface only, be satisfied by a lie that has all the trappings of truth?—is clearly all too applicable in today’s world.

Susan L. Fischer is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Bucknell University.

12/23/2008

 

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