The Portuguese dramatist and poet Gil Vicente (ca. 1465-ca. 1536), who wrote in both Portuguese and Spanish, ranks as one of the outstanding figures of the Iberian Renaissance.
Almost nothing is known about the first half of the life of Gil Vicente until his first public appearance as a dramatist in 1502. It is certain he was of humble birth, but his birthplace has been disputed as Lisbon, Barcelos, or Guimarães, with the last the most likely. He was probably apprenticed to Martim Vicente, a close relative and goldsmith, and it was as a goldsmith that Gil attracted the attention of Queen Leonor, who in 1495 was widowed by King John II. Her brother then became King Manuel I. At her request Vicente contributed some verses to one of the famous seroes do paço; they were later collected by Garcia de Resende in his Cancioneiro geral.
The birth of the heir to the throne, the future John III, gave Vicente occasion for his debut as a dramatist. On the evening of June 7, 1502, the day after the prince's birth, Vicente, dressed as a herdsman, recited a rustic monologue (Monologo da visitação) in the Queen's chambers. Its 114 lines are in Spanish, partly in deference to Queen Maria's birthplace (she was a daughter of the Catholic Kings) and partly because Spanish was the fashionable language of the Portuguese upper classes. Bilingualism profoundly affected the literary works of Vicente and many other Portuguese writers of that age. Queen Leonor was so pleased with the monologue, a novelty in Portugal, that she asked him to repeat it for Christmas. Vicente did not think the subject matter appropriate, and instead he wrote the Auto pastoril castelhano. It was longer and more artful than the previous piece, introducing six characters, but it too was in Spanish. Queen Leonor was again pleased and asked him to compose another work for Twelfth Night. Vicente obliged with the Auto dos Reis Magos, in Spanish, featuring some characters that did not belong to the rustic pastoral world.
Vicente's career as the unofficial court poet was launched, and for the next 34 years he entertained the courts of Manuel I and of John III with his lyrics, music, and dramas. Vicente followed the court when it moved to Coimbra and Evora, and he poetized on the occasion of national events, courtly events, and solemn religious festivities. At first he continued to write religious plays, such as Auto da sibila Cassandra (1503) and Auto dos quatro tempos (1504), but soon he tried his hand at secular drama. In 1505 he produced his comedy Quem tem farelos?, a lively farce in which various types of Portuguese society were portrayed and criticized. Its clever dialogue was written in Spanish and Portuguese. Vicente could not ignore the imperial enterprises of his country. His first effort in this direction was in the comic vein, Auto da India (1509), but soon the Protuguese expansion in the Orient inspired him to write the fervently patriotic works Exhortação da guerra (1513) and Auto da fama (ca. 1515).
Vicente's career as a goldsmith followed the ascending curve of his dramatic career. In 1506 he finished a beautiful Gothic monstrance (Lisbon Museum). In 1509 he was appointed overseer of the works in gold and silver in Thomar, and after other appointments he was named on Feb. 4, 1513, master of the Lisbon mint. It was probably at this time that he lost his first wife, Branca Bezerra. Her husband loved her dearly to judge by her epitaph and the charming Comedia do viuvo (1514). She left Vicente two sons. His second wife, Melicia Rodrigues, bore him three children, one of whom, Luis Vicente, published his father's works (Compilaçam, 1562).
After the deaths of King Manuel (1521) and Queen Leonor (1525), Vicente complained of hardships and poverty. However, his dramatic production continued uninterruptedly during the reign of John III. During this time he composed several of his masterpieces, including Farsa de Ines Pereira (1523), Tragicomedia de Dom Daurdos (ca. 1524), and Tragicomedia de Amadis de Gaula (1533). Vicente also received several pensions from the new king. The last play he wrote was Floresta de enganos (1536), with Spanish-Portuguese dialogue. Vicente probably died in 1536. Because 1536 was the year in which the Inquisition was established in Portugal, it was believed at one time that his death was related to that fact for he had vigorously defended the converted Jews.
When Vicente's son Luis published his father's works in 1562, he divided them into five groupings: religious plays (cousas de devaçam), comedies, tragicomedies, farces, and minor nondramatic works. He collected 44 dramatic pieces, ranging in structure from the utter simplicity of the Monologo da visitação to the splendid pageantry of the trilogy of the Barcas (Auto da Barca do Inferno, 1517; Auto da Barca do Purgatorio, 1518; and Auto da Barca da Gloria). Luis Vicente's classification, however, is not very satisfactory because he forced some plays into categories that do not fit them. Such is the case, for example, with Auto da Mofina Mendes (1534), classified under the religious plays; however, it is only in part a religious allegory, the rest being a charming dramatization of Pierrette et son pot au lait.
From the point of view of language, Vicente's plays can be classified into three groups: those written only in Portuguese, which number 14; those written only in Spanish, numbering 11; and bilingual plays, which add up to 19. Vicente's Spanish is an imitation of the conventional rustic jargon (sayagués) created by Juan del Encina.
Part of Vicente's greatness lies in the fact that his originality was undiminished by his imitations. He absorbed all of the main Peninsular literary traditions, infused them with lyricism, and began to dramatize at that point. His plays abound in frequent imitations and echoes of the courtly lyric, typical of the 15th-century cancioneros; in beautiful examples of songs written along the lines of the traditional lyric, such as villancicos and cantares; and in traditional epico-lyric ballads (romances) put to dramatic use, as in the Tragicomedia de Dom Duardos, which contains the ballad Enel mes era de abril. His catholic poetic attitude greatly helped him to fuse the old and the new, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the native and the alien, and to cast them all in a new mold that stamped itself firmly on budding Peninsular drama, thus making of him a major influence on the early secular theater. Although Vicente accepted in his early theatrical efforts the liturgical-allegorical drama prevalent in the Middle Ages, he vastly superseded that form in his trilogy of Barcas, with their sustained inspiration, great pageantry, and immense dramatic vistas. Then he went on to dramatize for the first time in Peninsular literature chivalric themes, such as in Tragicomedia de Dom Duardos and Tragicomedia de Amadis de Gaula. Most specially, and very significantly for the history of Peninsular drama, he recreated onstage the rich variety of Portuguese society at its moment of imperial grandeur. Many literary types of later Peninsular drama appeared for the first time in Vicente's plays.
The sound scholarship of Aubrey F. G. Bell's monograph, Gil Vicente (1921), has survived the test of time in many of its aspects. A more recent biographical study is Jack Horace Parker, Gil Vicente (1967). Valuable background information is in the early chapters of N. D. Shergold, A History of the Spanish Stage: From Medieval Times until the End of the Seventeenth Century (1967).