The role of Lope’s heroines: What was the purpose of the strong female protagonist in Lope de Vegas’ Golden age Spanish Comedias?
Chapter 1: La Mujer Varonil in Context
Chapter 2: La Reina Juana
Chapter 3: Diana
Chapter 4: Castigo Sin Venganza
The first chapter seeks to illustrate the historical context in which the plays were set; the position and role of women at the time in society. It also introduces the idea of ‘la mujer varonil’, its meaning and its relevance in certain works of Lope de Vega.
This chapter analyses the play La Reina Juana de Napoles, one of Lope’s lesser known, lesser acclaimed plays but that has a strong female presence in the form of Juana. Based on a real queen, Lope depicts a struggle for power with her husband who is only on the throne through marriage to her but despite this maintains rule over her. Lope describes how she has her husband murdered and other ruthless acts to maintain a level of control of her life. Using critical analysis, I aim to examine this play closely to determine Lopes’ motives and Juana’s potential as a character.
Diana’s status and beauty should have equipped her with power over her life and her love but this failed to happen as we see her struggle between a choice of responsibility and honor, and her feelings; her more masculine demeanour and power fight against her more feminine nature, displayed in her ‘weakness’ once she falls in love. This chapter studies this fine line that Diana walks, as lead by Lope and the possible reasons for this, aside from its enthralling and dramatic effect.
Between the Dukes abuse and his son Federico’s love, Casandra is caught between two men of the family that she has married into. Her defiance of her husband in a secret affair with his son demonstrates her will and rebellion against her position; but as we have seen in the previous chapter, this is in the name of love. Her more masculine/powerful side is brought out in her this taboo affair and again we discuss the rebellion of the women that Lope brings to life. Her death at the cunning plans of the Duke ultimately rid her of that power and of her life, but what have we seen in this character that is like the other women mentioned? Does it support the idea of a commentary on women’s capacity and role in society at the time, or is it merely a daring drama?
Women, particularly powerful ones, have always been figures that have attracted both admiration and contempt. They are attractive because they are rare in a patriarchal society and they are dangerous because they threaten a carefully laid down and persistent norm that women are inferior to men. In history, women in power that chose not to submit to a man or yield to pressure to marry, such as Cleopatra VII or Elizabeth I, were branded as calculating manipulators of men or unfit to rule. Even in modern times, women in pursuit of such roles are endlessly criticised; Hilary Clinton has been called a ‘stereotypical bitch’ during her campaign to run for President of the United States in 2016.[ADD MORE IN ABOUT THIS]
Despite the prejudice against women enduring thousands of years, not all fictional women have been moulded to the stereotype of the withering damsel that has permeated much of European fairytales, like the cowering Snow White or the dormant Sleeping Beauty. Literature, in its many forms, has been used repeatedly as a means of challenging perceptions and widening the minds of those who read it. The characters within popular works of literature have the capacity to inspire a generation and as such it has the potential to be a powerful tool in the hands of those to seek to break from convention and innovate a genre.
One genre that I find interesting is the Spanish Golden Age, spanning from the 15th to the 17th century. In this piece of work, I will delve into the world of the comedia, the popular drama, rife with expression, tension, honour, love and murder. My main focus, however, is the representation of women in these plays, particularly women of influence and power.
To narrow my scope of research, I will focus on the works of Lope de Vega, as I believe that his depiction and use of female characters in his plays is relevant to the study of the powerful woman, or the more aptly titled ‘Mujer Varonil’; the meaning of which will be explained and expanded upon later on in this paper.
I have researched the canon of Lope de Vega for a number of reasons. He pushed the boundaries and developed Spanish theatre at the time, despite criticism, which he addressed in his book ‘El Arte Nuevo de Hacer Comedias‘ where he published his ideas and innovations for his preferred genre of theatre;
“…pues contra el arte me atrevo a dar preceptos, y me dejo llevar de la vulgar corriente, adonde me llamen ignorante Italia y Francia.” [ANDHC- 18]
Along with his contemporaries Miguel de Cervantes and Tirso de Molina, impacting future great playwrights like Calderon de la Barca, certain works of his have portrayed women in roles that would have been rare for them to occupy in reality at the time; some have characteristics that were more typically attributed to men. This is insight into the lives and behaviour of powerful women, as anticipated and interpreted by Lope makes his female characters in protagonist roles, so fascinating.
In this dissertation, I intend to analyse the prominent female characters, their roles, behaviours and what befalls them in an effort to identify their purpose in Lope de Vega’s comedias; is it simply a literary device to produce drama and plant intrigue in the minds of the audience or is it a clever and subtle commentary on the social morays, particularly those that pertain to women during Lope’s lifetime and before?
This paper shall be divided into four main chapters. The first chapter seeks to illustrate the historical context in which the plays were set; the position and role of women at the time in society. It also introduces the idea of ‘la mujer varonil’, its meaning and its relevance in this study of certain works of Lope de Vega. The second chapter analyses the first of the plays I have chosen: La Reina Juana de Napoles. The third chapter discusses the play El Perro del Hortelano and its protagonist Diana. The fourth chapter reviews the play El Castigo sin Venganza and the role of Casandra. Finally, a conclusion will consider all the evidence as presented in the previous chapters to conclude what, considering the evidence, was the desired role of the female protagonists in the plays and the particular implication of ‘La mujer varonil’.
To be able to analyse the roles of the fictional females in these plays, we must first focus on to reality of living women at the time. Following the ascension to the throne of Phillip II in 1556, Spain was involved in several wars in Europe and, despite the influx of silver from mines in the Americas, the continuous military and naval expenditure took its toll on the country’s resources. The burden of Spain’s struggling economy affected the lower class while the higher classes to nobility lived on in comfort. With the discrepancies between the classes so pronounced, lifestyles varied for women at this time “from the aristocratic or wealthy woman who was basically adornment in the home to the rural peasant housewife”, but there common challenges that faced women regardless of their status.
Like many other patriarchal societies in this era, women played a subordinate role to men and were the property of either their father or their husband.They were valuable mainly for their ability be married, bear children and sustain a family name. Marriage was one of the most effective institutions of social stability and it provided one of the few options of respectability open to women.Marjorie Radcliffe details the process of marriage in her article Marriage and Divorce, highlighting that ensuring one’s daughter was married was important to all families, rich or poor, as marriage, second only to feudal loyalties, formed the cornerstone of medieval society.The decision to marry and choice of spouse was determined by the father and, when the parents of the chosen groom agreed, an arras, or dowry, was arranged to ensure that the marriage would continue as planned. Often these matches were made to strengthen ties between families, many times as an advantageous political move, or the daughters could be given as gifts to reward vassals of higher classes for their loyalty; marriage to a woman of higher class was a way to climb the social ladder, earning them honour and respect. Radcliffe further explains that the reverse was also applicable in that one way to dishonour a rival was to kidnap his wife or daughter. In this way, a woman’s honour was tightly linked to that of her male relatives; any dishonour that she accrued, such as rejecting her fathers choice of husband or having pre-marital sex, would affect that of her family, not only sullying the family’s reputation but devaluing her as one of their assets. A sexually uncontrolled daughter or wife could taint the family’s lineage with “impure” blood, and so to avoid this “husbands insisted on female chastity to ensure all heirs would be legitimate offspring”.
Bearing children was one of the main priorities, as well as responsibilities, of women in this time, for which marriage provided the ideal setting. As the infant death rate was high, and the act of childbirth physically taxing, the average age of a young bride was sixteen and her husband nineteen, though often husbands were much older. Taking care of these children, and keeping her husbands house and affairs in order were the main charge of the medieval woman; education was not a priority for women, often informal and unstructured.[women and gender: 240] It was uncommon for women to be able to write as this was considered unnecessary to their role in the home.[women and gender]
Contrary to this image of the demure housewife that was a reality for the majority of women in this period, there were a few who did not conform to this idea, due to their privileged station or particular circumstance. In her book ‘Women and Society in the Spanish Drama of the Golden Age’, Melveena McKendrick introduces the term ‘la mujer varonil’, though with no direct translation, is meant here the woman who departs in any significant way from the feminine norm of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[ix] These women were those that adopted, what was considered, more masculine traits, undertook roles that were traditionally male, wore masculine dress or welded some form of power; whether that be influence, wealth or sexual autonomy.
Despite the rarity of these women varoniles, there a few famous examples that relate to Spain and undoubtably influenced and inspired the writers of the Golden Age, including Lope de Vega. The one most relevant to Spain, and this particular era, was Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England. Born in 1485 and married to Henry VIII in 1509, she is famed for being an educated woman, Queen Regent of England in her husbands absence and is attributed an important part in the victory against the Scottish in the Battle of Flodden[ref]. She was praised and revered by Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More as a ‘miracle of female learning’[mckendrick] and it is arguable that she was at the very centre of the movement for women’s education in her lifetime. She requested that Juan Luis Vives, a Valencian scholar and humanista write piece of work on the subject of female education, which he named De institutione feminae christianae and consequentially dedicated it to his Queen.