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Lope de Vega

Lope de VegaAKA Lope Félix de Vega Carpio

Born: 25-Nov-1562
Birthplace: Madrid, Spain
Died: 27-Aug-1635
Location of death: Madrid, Spain
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Iglesia de San Sebastián, Madrid, Spain

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: Hispanic
Occupation: Playwright, Poet

Nationality: Spain
Executive summary: Reformed Spanish comedy

Spanish dramatist and poet, born on the 25th of November 1562 at Madrid. His father and mother, Felix de Vega Carpio and Francisca Hernandez Flores, originally came from the valley of Carriedo in Asturias, where the hamlet of Vega still exists. Lope began his studies at the Theatine college in Madrid, and according to his admiring biographer, Pérez de Montalban, his precocity was extraordinary. On leaving college he entered the service of Don Jerónimo Manrique, bishop of Avila, and appears to have then begun the composition of his earlier dramas. He quitted the bishop's service to enter the university of Alcalá de Henares, where he devoted himself to what was called philosophy. The date of Lope's matriculation is unknown, as his name does not appear in the university books; but it seems probable that he was in residence between 1576 and 1581. He took part in the expedition to the Azores in 1582, and from 1583 to 1587 was secretary to the marqués de las Navas. In February 1588 he was banished for circulating criminal libels against his mistress, Elena Osorio, whom he has celebrated under the name of Filis. He defied the law by returning to Madrid soon afterwards and eloping with Isabel de Urbina, daughter of Philip II's herald; he married her by proxy on the 10th of May 1588, and joined the Invincible Armada, losing his brother in one of the encounters in the Channel. He settled for a short while at Valencia, where he made acquaintance with a circle of young poets who were afterwards to be his ardent supporters in founding the new comedy. He joined the household of the duke of Alva, with whom he remained until 1595. Soon afterwards he lost his wife; he was prosecuted for criminal conversation in 1596, became secretary to the marquis de Malpica (afterwards count de Lemos), and in 1598 married a second wife, Juana de Guardo, by whom he had two children (Carlos, who died in 1612, and Feliciana Felix); but she died, shortly after giving birth to the latter, in 1613. During this wife's lifetime the poet had by a mistress, Micaelade Luxan, two other children -- Marcela del Carpio, who became a nun in 1621, and Lope Felix del Carpio y Luxan, who chose the profession of arms and perished at sea about 1634. Widowed a second time in 1613, Lope sought a refuge in the church. After having been for some time affiliated to a tertiary order, he took priest's orders.

At this juncture, about 1614, he was in the very zenith pf his glory. A veritable dictator in the Spanish world of letters, he wielded over all the authors of his nation a power similar to that which was afterwards exercised in France by Voltaire. At this distance of time Lope is to us simply a great dramatic poet, the founder of the Spanish theater; but to his contemporaries he was much more. His epics, his pastorals, his odes, his sonnets, now forgotten, all placed him in the front rank of authorship. Such was his prestige that he dealt with his noble patrons almost on a footing of equality. The duke of Sessa in particular, his Maecenas from 1605 onwards, was also his personal friend, and the tone of Lope's letters to him is one of frank familiarity, modified only by some forms of deference. Lope's fame, too, had travelled abroad: foreigners of distinction passing through Madrid made a point of visiting him; papal legates brought him the compliments of their master; in 1627 Pope Urban VIII, a Barberini, sent him the diploma of doctor of theology in the Collegium Sapientiae and the cross of the order of St. John of Jerusalem (from which the poet's titles of "Doctor" and "Frey"}. His last days were full of sadness; the death of his son Lope, the elopement of his daughter, Antonia Clara, wounded him to the soul. Montalbán tells us that every Friday the poet scourged himself so severely that the walls of his room were sprinkled with his blood. His death, on the 27th of August 1635, was followed by national mourning.

Leaving out of account certain theories which in the long run greatly influenced his manner of writing, Lope belonged in literature to what may be called the school of good sense; he boasted that he was a Spaniard pur sang, and steadfastly maintained that a writer's business is to write so as to make himself understood. When brought face to face with the coterie of the précieux and quintessenciés, Lope takes the position of a defender of the language of ordinary life, the good old Castilian tongue. In the dispute which arose between the partisans of the two schools of cultos and llanos, he ranged himself on the side of the latter. In the matter of versification he refuses to admit that the long Italian verse has the advantage of the Castilian octosyllabic. Unfortunately the books that he read, his literary connections, his fear of Italian criticism, all exercised an influence upon his naturally robust spirit, and, like so many others, he caught the prevalent contagion of mannerism and of pompous phraseology. His literary culture was chiefly Latin-Italian; and, if he defends the tradition of the nation and the pure simplicity of the old Castilian against "los de la nueva poesia", that is to say, the innovators of the school of Góngora and against the jargon of the cultos, still he does not wish to be taken for an uninformed person, a writer devoid of classical training: he especially emphasizes the fact that he has passed through the university, and is continually accentuating the difference between the ingenios científicos (those who know Latin) and legos ignorantes (ignorant laymen). With what a sense of superiority, for example, does he mention that Cervantes was not to his mind sufficiently científico (preface to Las Fortunas de Diana), the fact being that Cervantes had been neither at Alcalá nor at Salamanca.

For a rapid survey of the works of Lope, it is convenient to begin with those which the Spaniards include under the name of Obras Sueltas, the title of the large collection of the poet's non-dramatic works (Madrid, 21 vols. 4to, 1776-79). We shall enumerate the most important of these, as far as possible in the order of publication. The Arcadia (1598), a pastoral romance, inspired by Sannazaro, is one of the poet's most wearisome productions. La Dragontea (1598) is a fantastic history in verse of Sir Francis Drake's last expedition and death. Isidro (1599), a narrative of the life of Isidore, patron of Madrid, is called a Castilian poem on account of the rhythm in which it is composed -- quintillas of octosyllabic verse. The Hermosura de Angélica (1602), in three books, is a sort of continuation of the Orlando Furioso, in octaves after the fashion of the original poem. Finally, the Rimas are a miscellany of short pieces. In 1604 was published the Peregrino en su Patria, a romance similar in kind to the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. Having imitated Ariosto, he proceeded to imitate Tasso; but his Jerusalem Conquistada (1609) has preserved nothing of the art shown in its model, and is an insipid performance. Next follows the Pastores de Belen (1612), a pious pastoral, dedicated to his son Carlos, which forms a pendant to his secular Arcadia; and incidental pieces published in connection with the solemnities of the beatification and canonization of St. Isidore in 1620 and 1622. It is enough to mention La Filomena (1621), La Circe (1624) and other poems published about the same date, as also the four prose novels, Las Fortunas de Diana, El Desdichado por la Honra, La Más Prudente Venganza and Guzmán el Bravo. The great success of the Novelas Exemplares of Cervantes (1613) had stimulated Lope, but in this instance at least the científico was completely defeated by the lego: Lope's novels have none of the grace, naturalness or interest which characterize those of his rival. The last important work which has to be mentioned before we leave the narrative poetry of Lope is the Laurel de Apolo (1630). This piece describes the coronation of the poets of Spain on Helicon by Apollo, and it is more meritorious as a bibliographical manual of Spanish poetry at that time than as genuine poetry. One other obra suelta, closely akin to Lope's dramatic works, though not, properly speaking a drama, is La Dorotea (1632). Lope describes it as an "action in prose", but it is rather a "romance in dialogue"; for, although divided into acts, the narrative is dramatic in form only. Of all Lope's productions Dorotea shows most observation and study; the style also is unusually simple and easy. Of all this mass of obras sueltas, filling more than twenty volumes, very little (leaving Dorotea out of account) holds its own in the judgment of posterity. The lyrical element alone retains some vitality. From the Rimas and other collections of detached pieces one could compile a pleasing anthology of sonnets, epistles, elegies and romances, to which it would be proper to add the Gatomaquia, a burlesque poem published along with other metrical pieces in 1634 by Lope, under the pseudonym of Tomé de Burguillos. But here the list would end.

It is, however, to his dramatic writings that Lope owes his eminent place in literary history. It is very curious to notice how he himself always treats the art of comedy-writing as one of the humblest of trades (de pane lucrando), and protests against the supposition that in writing for the stage his aim is glory and not money. The reason is not far to seek. The Spanish drama, which, if not literally the creation of Lope, at least owes to him its definitive form -- the three-act comedy -- was totally regardless of the precepts of the school, the pseudo-Aristotelianism of the doctors of the period. Lope accordingly, who stood in awe of the criticism of the científicos, felt bound to prove that, from the point of view of literary art, he attached no value to the "rustic fruits of his humble vega." In his Arte Nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609), Lope begins by showing that he knows as well as anyone the established rules of poetry, and then excuses himself for his inability to follow them on the ground that the "vulgar" Spaniard cares nothing about them. "Let us then speak to him in the language of fools, since it is he who pays us." Another reason which made it necessary for him to speak deprecatingly of his dramatic works, is the circumstance that the vast majority of them were written in haste and to order. The poet does not hesitate to confess that "more than a hundred of my comedies have taken only twenty-four hours to pass from my brain to the boards of the theater." Perez de Montalbán, who has a great admiration for this kind of cleverness, tells how, at Toledo, on a certain occasion Lope composed fifteen acts in fifteen days -- that is to say, five entire comedies, which he read to his friends step by step with the process of their composition. On another occasion, when pressed by a manager who wanted something for the carnival, Lope took Montalbán as a collaborator; the two friends parcelled out the comedy between them, Lope undertaking the first act, Montalbán the second, and the third, to save time, was divided between them. In two days they had finished the first two acts, and on the third Montalbán rose at two in the morning and at eleven he had finished. Then he went in search of Lope, who when questioned as to his progress, replied: "I got up at five, finished the act, breakfasted, wrote an epistle of fifty tercets, and have now finished watering the garden, and a rather tough business it has been." Nevertheless, Lope did write dramas in which the plan is more fully matured and the execution more carefully carried out; still, hurried composition and reckless production are after all among the distinctive marks of his theatrical works. Towards the close of his career Lope somewhat modified the severe and disdainful judgments he had formerly passed upon his dramatic performances; he seems to have had a presentiment that posterity, in spite of the grave defects of his work in that department, would nevertheless place it much higher than La Dragontea, the Jerusalem Conquistada and other works of which he himself thought so much. We may certainly credit Lope with creative power, with the instinct which enabled him to reproduce the facts of history or those supplied by the imagination in multitude of dramatic situations with an astonishing cleverness and flexibility of expression; but unfortunately, instead of concentrating his talent upon the production of a limited number of works which he might have brought to perfection, he dissipated it, and scattered it to the winds.

The catalogue of Lope's comedies has been drawn up by himself; and, in spite of some discrepancies in his figures, it is established that up to 1604 he had composed, in round numbers, as many as 230. In 1609 the figure had risen to 483, in 1618 to 800, in 1620 to 900, in 1625 to 1070, and in 1632 to 1500. Ultimately Montalbán in the Fama Postuma (1636) set down the total of Lope's dramatic productions at 1800 plays and more than 400 autos sacramentales. Of this number there are 637 plays which are known to us by their titles (from the lists of the Peregrino); but the printed or manuscript text of only 458 is actually accessible, besides some 50 autos and a few entremeses. Very many of these pieces were printed during Lope's lifetime, either in collections of varios autores or as separate issues by booksellers who surreptitiously bought from the actors the manuscripts of their roles or else caused the unpublished comedy to be written down from memory by persons whom they sent to attend the first representation. Such pieces therefore as do not figure in the collection published under Lope's own direction or under that of his friends cannot be regarded as perfectly authentic, and it would be unfair to hold their author responsible for all the faults and defects they exhibit. On the other hand, there exist comedies in Lope's own handwriting which have not yet been printed.

The classification of this enormous mass of dramatic literature is a task of great difficulty, inasmuch as the terms usually employed, such as comedy, tragedy and the like, do not apply here. There is not explicitness enough in the division current in Spain, which recognizes three categories: (1) comedias de cape y espada, the subjects of which are drawn from everyday life and in which the persons appear as simple caballeros; (2) comedies de ruido or de teatro, in which kings and princes are the leading characters and the action is accompanied with a greater display of dramatic machinery; (3) comedias divinas or de santos. Some other arrangement must be attempted. In the first place, Lope's work belongs essentially to the drama of intrigue; be the subject what it may, it is always the plot that determines everything else. Lope in the whole range of his dramatic works has no piece comparable to La Verdad Sospechosa of Ruiz de Alarcón, the most finished example in Spanish literature of the comedy of character; and the comedy of manners is represented only by El Galán Castrucho, El Auzuelo de Fenisa, and one or two others. It is from history, and particularly Spanish history, that Lope has borrowed more than from any other soutce. It would in fact be difficult to say what national and patriotic subjects, from the reign of the half-fabulous King Pelayo down to the history of his own age, he has not put upon the stage. But it is to the class of capa y espada -- also called novelesco, because the subjects are almost always love intrigues complicated with affairs of honor -- that Lope's most celebrated plays belong. In these he has most fully displayed his powers of imagination (the subjects being all invented) and his skill in elaborating a plot. Among the plays of this class which are those best known in Europe, and most frequently imitated and translated, may be specially mentioned Los Ramilletes de Madrid, La Boba para los Otros y Discreta pare si, El Perro del Hortelano, La Viuda de Valencia, and El Maestro de Danzar. In some of them Lope has sought to set forth some moral maxim, and illustrate its abuse by a living example. Thus, on the theme that "poverty is no crime", we have the play entitled Las Flores de Don Juan, in which he shows in the history of two brothers the triumph of virtuous poverty over opulent vice; at the same time he attacks indirectly the institution of primogeniture, which often places in the hands of an unworthy person the honor and substance of a family when the younger members would be much better qualified for the trust. Such pieces are, however, rare in Lope's repertory; in common with all other writers of his order in Spain, with the occasional exception of Ruiz de Alarcón, his sole aim is to amuse and stir his public, not troubling himself about its instruction. The strong point of such writers is and always will be their management of the plot. As has been said by Le Sage, a good judge: "The Spaniards are our masters in the art of planning and skilfully working out a plot; they know how to set forth their subject with infinite art and in the most advantageous light." It is not necessary to dwell here upon the other varieties of comedy represented in Lope's works, that is, the comedias divinas, fiestas (mythological dramas for the most part), entremeses and autos. In none of them has he produced anything of the highest order, or even comparable to the better performances of his contemporaries and successors.

To sum up, Lope found a poorly organized drama, plays being composed sometimes in four acts, sometimes in three; and, though they were written in verse, the structure of the versification was left far too much to the caprice of the individual writer. The style of drama then in vogue he adopted, because the Spanish public liked it. The narrow framework it afforded he enlarged to an extraordinary degree, introducing everything that could possibly furnish material for dramatic situations -- the Bible, ancient mythology, the lives of the saints, ancient history, Spanish history, the legends of the middle ages, the writings of the Italian novelists, current events, Spanish life in the 17th century. Before him manners and the conditions of persons and characters had been barely sketched; with fuller observation and more careful description he created real types, and gave to each social order the language and drapery appropriate to it. The old comedy was awkward and poor in its versification; he introduced order into the use of all the forms of national poetry, from the old romance couplets to the rarest lyrical combinations borrowed from Italy. Hence he was justified in saying that those who should come after him had only to go on along the path which he had opened up.



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