Lope Félix de Vega Carpio (1562-1635), Spain's greatest dramatist, wrote so many plays that Cervantes called him "Nature's mental colossus." Among his sources were history, folklore, saints' lives, the Bible, New World travel reports, mythology, and contemporary events.
Lope de Vega was born in Madrid on Dec. 12, 1562. King Philip II had recently named Madrid capital of the vast Spanish Empire; soon it became an international center swarming with bureaucrats, diplomats, grandees, hidalgos, soldiers, poets, dramatists, actors, actresses, thugs, picaros, judges, magistrates, wild-eyed dreamers, and foreigners from nearly everywhere.
In Lope's childhood, plays were given in corrales, or open courtyards, owned by religious societies. These societies rented their courtyards to producers of plays; the income was used to care for the old and the indigent, thus early identifying Spanish drama with ecclesiastical philanthropy. By the time of Lope's young adulthood, plays at the Corral of the Cross and the Corral of the Prince were attracting eager audiences. With the increasing demand for comedias, other corrales opened in Madrid, Seville, Toledo, Valencia, Granada, Cordova, Barcelona, and Valladolid. Spanish show business grew apace, and playwrights found a ready sale for their products; but throughout Spain for several decades the favorite dramatist was Lope de Vega. The number of Lope's plays has been estimated to be from 700 to 2, 200 (current opinion favors the lesser figure).
Lope was a well-educated man, intellectually a product of the schools and universities of his day. Yet one wonders when he found time to acquire his education in view of the time consumed by his devotion to his two great passions, literature and love. From early youth—he said he wrote his first play at age 12—literature and his series of liaisons gave him a turbulent life. His first known entanglement, with Elena Osorio, lasted 4 years and ended in 1587, when he distributed scurrilous verse about her; for this he was imprisoned and banished from Madrid for 8 years. But the affair supplied him with subject matter for one of his masterpieces, La Dorotea, published 3 years before his death.
The year following his break with Elena Osorio, Lope abducted Isabel de Urbina, daughter of a distinguished Madrid family. Soon separated, they were married by proxy. There is evidence that in 1588 he also served with the Spanish Armada in its disastrous encounter with the English fleet. Still banished from Madrid, he and Isabel went to live in Valencia, where Isabel died in 1594.
In Lope's life, liaison followed liaison. He initiated an important affair with Micaela de Luján—called "Camila Lucinda" in his poetry—who bore him several children, among them Marcela, who became a nun, and Lope Félix.
Lope's second marriage, in 1598, motivated by his poverty, was to Juana de Guardo, daughter of a meat and fish wholesaler. From his new father-in-law he hoped in vain to receive fiscal relief. This loveless marriage lasted until 1613, when Juana died in childbirth. The following year Lope became a priest; he tried to live a chaste life, but his attempts proved to be ineffectual. Three more mistresses are known to have entered his life: Jerónima de Burgos in 1613; Lucia de Salcedo, "La Loca, " in 1616; and in 1617 the greatest and deepest love of his life, Marta de Nevares, his inamorata until her death in 1632.
Marta de Nevares, called "Amarilis" in his poetry, seemed to Lope to be the ideal woman he had spent his life searching for. In her middle 20s, she flattered him with the gift of her youth and beauty, and she was in turn flattered by his great fame. His letters and his verse tell how he idolized her. In one letter to the Duke of Sessa, his patron, he wrote, "At last I have found the physician for my wounds." But Marta had a husband, "a brutish man, " according to Lope, who became more and more jealous, finally bringing Lope and Marta before an ecclesiastical court. For weeks the scandal of the trial filled Lope and Marta with anguish. In his letters Lope lashed out diatribes at the man, Roque Hernández, alleging that "the hair on his body begins at his eyes and ends at his toes." Marta, fully as much as Lope, wanted to be rid of the man to whom her parents had married her against her wishes. Besides, she was pregnant with Lope's child. After prolonged labor, the child was born and baptized Antonia Clara. When, soon afterward, an unsuccessful attempt was made on Lope's life, he blamed Hernández. During the lengthy litigation Roque Hernández died. In a letter to the Duke of Sessa, Lope expressed savage joy at the news. Marta then moved with their daughter to Lope's house. In the same household lived Feliciana, daughter of his second wife, Juana, and Lopito, natural son of Micaela de Luján—a singular household for a priest.
When a string of catastrophes struck his household, Lope felt it to be divine punishment for his transgressions. The first catastrophe was Marta's blindness in 1620. Then was added the crushing burden of her temporary insanity and in 1632 her death. Two years later Lopito drowned; the same year a Madrid hidalgo abducted Antonia Clara, his and Marta's beloved teen-age daughter.
Aggressive and growing competition from younger playwrights disheartened Lope professionally. The audience's tastes were changing, leaving him somewhat behind the times. In his last days professional frustration as well as personal grief, melancholy, and remorse enveloped him. His sense of contrition was so strong that he flagellated himself regularly, following a medieval practice of atonement. He died on Aug. 27, 1635.
"The man who attempts to write according to [classic Aristotelian] rules known to so few people will fail financially. When I sit down to write a play, I lock up the rules with six keys and drive Plautus and Terence out of my study to stop their howling. I keep an eye on the box office, and because the common man pays the piper, I pipe the tune he likes." These words come from Lope de Vega's Arte nuevo de hacer comedias (1609; New Art of Playwriting). It is clear that Lope wrote primarily for the common man; and to judge by the structure and content of what he wrote, the common man ordered the three-act form; disavowal of Aristotle's rules; the presence of a comic (gracioso) to enliven the play with playful, boisterous, or farcical humor often parodying serious lines; verse rather than prose; and a rapid succession of scenes, complex intrigues, and subplots in preference to unified character development.
Lope's audiences demanded plays dealing with honor, religion, love, history (both national and foreign), and Spain's own epic and ballad material. Of all these, Lope said, plays about el honor pleased playgoers most of all. Possibly no word in the language occurred more frequently in the comedias of the period—not even amor.
In Spain custom required women to guard the family honor according to a complex and stringent set of rules which were contradictory and obscure. Even so, on the stage, honor was presented as something to be cherished as life itself; when honor was sullied, it should be "washed in blood." Duels to the death acted out on the stage were standard fare, and fencing skill was indispensable training for all actors.
The upper classes claimed exclusive possession of honor, but Lope ascribed it as well to the common man. In his best-known play, Fuenteovejuna, he exalts the sense of honor of the peasants of the village of Fuenteovejuna who rose in rebellion against an arrogant young governor (comendador) who considered peasants barely above cattle. Becoming predatory toward the young peasant women, he precipitated a violent revolt in which the villagers stormed his palace and slew him—all done in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella. When the Catholic Sovereigns sent a judge to punish the offenders, he followed the current practice of torturing witnesses to obtain evidence. The judge's question and the villagers' answer are famous in Spanish drama: "Who killed the Comendador?" "Fuenteovejuna, señor." Even women and children withstood the torture. Because the insurrection was instigated and consummated in the name of monarchy, Fuenteovejuna was given reprieve, and Lope himself evaded prosecution by the lynx-eyed government authorities, always on the alert for signs of insurgency. Many times over, Lope portrayed noble peasants in plays such as El rústico del cielo (ca. 1605; The Saintly Peasant), Peribáñez (1610), and El mejor alcalde el rey (ca. 1622; The King the Greatest Mayor).
A large number of Lope's plays were based on saints' lives and dramatic—and sometimes sentimental—stories from ancient tradition. Lo fingido verdadero (ca. 1608; From Make-believe to Reality) depicts a playwrightactor, Ginés, commanded by Emperor Diocletian to put on a play ridiculing the new sect of dissenters called Christians. In complying with the Emperor's wishes, Ginés feigns Christianity with such fervor that he is caught up in its spirit and miraculously converted, even though conversion means swift execution.
La buena guarda (ca. 1610; The Erring Nun) portrays a young treasurer of a convent who, before running away with a lover, devoutly commends herself to the Virgin Mary and leaves the treasury keys on the Virgin's altar. When the nun returns, shattered from her experience and repentant, she finds the keys where she had left them and her absence unnoticed—the Virgin Mary had substituted for her to save her from disgrace.
Because of the intimate union of Church and monarchy in Lope's day, both institutions annually sponsored one-act Corpus Christi plays called autos sacramentales in order to exalt the significance of the Last Supper. This type of play regularly made use of allegory—depicting figures such as Sin, Beauty, Wisdom, Religion—and was written principally for an unlettered audience, although everyone from the king on down shared in their performance as spectators. Every major city staged new autos every year. The form reached its fullest flowering in the autos of Pedro Calderón, but those of Lope de Vega ran Calderon's a close second.
Although the autos from Calderón's pen were predominantly theological in theme and treatment, Lope's were more earthborn: he often incorporated popular themes and folksongs and ballads; a beautiful example is his La maya, festive and lyrical, based on a popular springtime festivity; others are El hijo pródigo (The Prodigal Son) from the Bible story, intensely human, and El heredero del cielo (The Heir of Heaven), based on the New Testament parable of the vineyard.
Among Lope's secular plays built on legend, Las famosas asturianas (ca. 1612; The Famous Asturian Women) is representative. The play dramatizes a moving incident alleged to have occurred in the centuries-long war between the Christians and Moors in Spain (711-1492). An Asturian woman, Sancha, roused the Christian troops to put an end to the monstrous tribute of 100 Christian girls annually delivered to the Moors. Sancha disrobed before her military escort and taunted them by declaring that her modesty was not compromised since she was "not in the presence of men." Stung to action by this insult, the Christians once again fought the Moors and stopped the infamous tribute forever.
Although Lope customarily wrote by formula, the variety of his characters strikes one with wonder. In El remedio en la desdicha (ca. 1600; Help in Adversity) he portrays gallant, romanticized Moors in contest with equally gallant and romanticized Christians. In La hermosa Ester (ca. 1610; Esther the Beautiful) he depicts sympathetically a Jewish protagonist from the Old Testament and contrasts her with the infamous Haman. In the notoriously sensational El prodigio de Etiopia (The Ethiopian Prodigy) the author portrays a white woman fulfilling her promise "to give her hand" to the Ethiopian emperor by severing her hand and tendering it to him. Partly because of the play's repugnant sensationalism, its authorship, like that of many other plays of the time also ascribed to Lope, has been called into question.
Lope's greatest nondramatic work is La Dorotea (1632). This work, a novel in dialogue form interspersed with lyric verse, is a frank, largely autobiographical confession alternately sentimental, lyrical, extravagant, capricious, angry, and eloquent. He wrote voluminously in all genres: the pastoral novel La Arcadia (1598) presents contemporary celebrities thinly veiled under pseudonyms; the peripatetic novel El peregrino en su patria (1604; The Pilgrim in His Own Country) traces the starcrossed fate of two lovers; the devotional novel Los pastores de Belén (1612; The Shepherds of Bethlehem) revolves around a group of herdsmen gathered outside Bethlehem some weeks before the birth of Christ.
Lope wrote many pieces in the genres of epic and narrative poetry, both popular in his day. La Dragontea (1598; Drake the Pirate) distilled in verse an entire Spanish nation's animosity toward Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth I. The long poem La corona trágica (1627; The Tragic Crown) reflected strong sectarian solicitude for Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and, like Drake the Pirate, excoriated Elizabeth. Another epic poem, Jerusalén conquistada (1609; Jerusalem Regained), tells the story of the Third Crusade, pridefully including King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who never went; with this poem Lope hoped—in vain—to provide Spain with a national epic to rival Portugal's Lusiads (1572), by Luis de Camoëns.
Lope de Vega's lyric poetry is interlaced throughout his vast literary production, and on a number of occasions he anthologized it. Two such anthologies are Rimas humanas (1602; Human Poetry) and Rimas sacras (1614; Spiritual Poetry).
The most complete listing of English translations of Lope's work up to the year 1943 is in Remigio Ugo Pane, English Translations from the Spanish, 1484-1943: A Bibliography (1944). The best translation of Fuenteovejuna was made by Roy Campbell and is in Eric Bentley, ed., The Classic Theatre (4 vols., 1958-1961). The standard work on Lope in English for specialists is Hugo Albert Rennert, The Life of Lope de Vega, 1562-1635 (1904), and for the general reader, Francis C. Hayes, Lope de Vega (1967). A standard work on Spanish stagecraft is Hugo Albert Rennert, The Spanish Stage in the Time of Lope de Vega (1909). See also William Carlton McCrary, The Goldfinch and the Hawk: A Study of Lope de Vega's Tragedy, El Caballero de Olmedo (1966). Recommended for historical background are Harold Victor Livermore, A History of Spain (1958; 2d ed. 1966), and John Armstrong Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower; A History of the Civilization of Spain and of the Spanish People (1963).