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Majesty and Humanity: Kings and Their Doubles in the Political Drama of the Spanish Golden Age


In the Golden Age of Spanish Theater, an age of highly dramatized coronations and regal spectacles, Alban Forcione has discovered a surprising but persistent preoccupation with the disrobing of the king. In both the celebrations of majesty and the enthrallment with its unveiling, he finds the chilling recesses in which a culture struggled to reconcile the public and the private, society and the individual, the monarch and the man. 

In brilliantly reinterpreting two of Lope ...

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In the Golden Age of Spanish Theater, an age of highly dramatized coronations and regal spectacles, Alban Forcione has discovered a surprising but persistent preoccupation with the disrobing of the king. In both the celebrations of majesty and the enthrallment with its unveiling, he finds the chilling recesses in which a culture struggled to reconcile the public and the private, society and the individual, the monarch and the man. 

In brilliantly reinterpreting two of Lope de Vega’s plays, long regarded as conventional royalist propaganda, Forcione places his texts in the context of political and institutional history, philosophy, theology, and art history.  In so doing he shows how Spanish theater anticipated the decisive changes in human consciousness that characterized the ascendance of the absolutist state and its threat to the cultivation of individuality, authenticity, and humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

Renaissance Quarterly

"Beautifully written and magisterial in its luxurious intertwining of literary, cultural, social, and political analysis, Majesty and Humanity is a must for all scholars of the Baroque."--Ariadna García-Bryce, Renaissance Quarterly

— Ariadna Garc�a-Bryce

David Quint
"An impressive, exciting work of criticism and scholarship."—David Quint, Yale University
Diana de Armas Wilson
“In its complex engagement with institutions of kingship, this massively original work enlightens readers on what it meant to be king of Spain from the Visigoths down to the Golden Age.”—Diana de Armas Wilson
1650-1850 - Babara Mujica
"Through a brilliant analysis that incorporates his readings in history, political science, theology, and theater, Forcione offers a fresh view of two complex and paradoxical plays."—Barbara Mujica, 1650-1850
Renaissance Quarterly - Ariadna García-Bryce
"Prodigious, both in terms of its erudition and analytical depth, Majesty and Humanity brings our reflections on the political imagination of the antiguo regimen to a new height. . . . The distinctiveness of this study, I would emphasize, lies in its relentless avoidance of simplification, in its utter command of Baroque multiperspectivism. . . . Beautifully written and magisterial in its luxurious intertwining of literary, cultural, social, and political analysis, Majesty and Humanity is a must for all scholars of the Baroque."—Ariadna García-Bryce, Renaissance Quarterly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300134407
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/13/2009
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Alban K. Forcione is Walter S. Carpenter Jr. Professor of the Language, Literature, and Civilization of Spain Emeritus at Princeton University, and Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Emeritus at Columbia University. He lives in Princeton, NJ.

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Read an Excerpt

Majesty and Humanity

Kings and Their Doubles in the Political Drama of the Spanish Golden Age
By Alban K. Forcione

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13440-7

Chapter One

King and Philosopher: El villano en su rincón

Una misa del poder que es un ceremonial de corte. -Marcel Bataillon

The various studies that exist on Lope de Vega's El villano en su rincón, one of his most puzzling political plays, have focused on its confrontation of king and peasant-philosopher in a way that fails to do justice to the complexity of its engagement with the problematics of royal power. They have seen the play as a kind of ritual, a static enactment of power, or, in Marcel Bataillon's words, a "political mass"-"a Mass of power that is a court ceremonial"-a "morality play dedicated to the glory of the monarchy," and a "lesson in monarchical devotion." They have emphasized the king's triumphant and "punitive" resolution of his conflict with the peasant, who stubbornly refuses to come to the court to gaze upon his sovereign, and the dramatic power in the climactic banquet in the palace-its display of the immense expanses of the royal domains to the villano, who is so content within hisrincón, suddenly dramatically shrunken by comparison; its brilliant unveiling of the awesome emblems of regal authority; and its concern to reveal the terror that they strike in their beholders.

El villano en su rincón is, among other things, a play about the fearsome character of royal power; its uncompromising demands for obedience; its unquestionable enactments of justice; its control of its subjects through a ceremonial of fear; and its inescapable presence in the ubiquitous icons, emblems, and regalia of the charismatic king. At the end of Act I, as the disguised king prepares to enter the secluded world of the villano (Juan Labrador), shielded as it were from the electrifying field of royal charisma, Finardo, a gentleman of the court, expresses his amazement at the "barbaric" villano's apparent defiance. "?A un Rey de tanto valor/que tiemblan sus flores de oro/el scita, el turco feroz!" (a king of such might/that the Scythian and the fierce Turk/tremble before his golden fleurs de lis!). For José de Valdivielso, Lope's friend who subsequently rewrote the play as a religious auto sacramental, the process of divinization and the concentration of all the frightening aspects of the epiphany of authority in the allegorical figure of Rigor, God's justice, who demands the harshest of punishments for a recalcitrant villano, a rebellious "rey pequeño de sus labradores" (small king of his farmhands) symbolically transformed into the fallen Christian Everyman, obstinately incapable of raising his gaze from the enthralling visibilia of this world to look upon his Creator's face, were all too easy.

The play's ceremonial character and its easy adaptability to the untroubled schemas of representation and mystification of the religious autos and their theological master text are deceptive. In the climactic scene the monarch tells another frightened witness to his theatrical activities, this time an aristocrat, "Nunca al poder tengas miedo/cuando es discreto el poder" (Never be afraid of power/when power is wise) (194). The fleeting comment resonates oddly and elusively amid the events of the rapidly unfolding spectacle of absolutism's authority, but the possibility of a challenge that it raises is impossible to overlook. Does it perhaps point to a qualification of royal power? Is it an admonition to king and subject alike? Might it in fact represent an admonition to understand the spirit lying beneath its representations, whether in the king's official body-the universally vivifying face of monarchism-or in his frightening insignia? Is the play a "lesson in monarchical devotion" that in its critical disclosures was perhaps far more profound and reflective than Bataillon and his numerous followers realized? The fact is that although El villano en su rincón concludes with a theater of power-a theatrical spectacle put on by the king himself-I would argue that it is itself not a spectacle of power. The play is obsessed with seeing and probing the dynamics of royal visibility in the theatrically constructed absolutist state. But its deeper purpose is to bring its audience to reflect critically on and truly understand what it is that it is seeing.


At this point it is useful to consider the familiar historical-folkloric anecdote that appears to have given Lope the idea for his plot. It describes Francis I of France losing his way while hunting and at nightfall finding shelter in the forest hut of a peasant-a charcoal burner-who fails to recognize him but generously offers him his hospitality. According to a Spanish version written by Antonio de Torquemada in his pastoral dialogues between "dos caballeros llamados Leandro y Florián y un pastor Amintas sobre los excelencias de la vida pastoril" (two gentlemen, named Leandro and Florián, and a shepherd Amintas concerning the excellences of the pastoral life), the peasant is a model of courtesy, insisting both that his guest must occupy the place of honor at the head of the table and that he, as "king of his own house," has the power to compel him to do so. The peasant is later rewarded for his exemplary courtesy when the king reveals his identity, invites his host to share his table in the palace, marries the latter's two daughters to gentlemen of the court, and in a culminating act of magnanimity exempts all charcoal burners from royal taxation.

Bataillon argues that Torquemada's account "beyond any doubt inspired" the creation of Lope's figure of the villano and his encounter with the king. This may well have been the case, but there is, in fact, more to the story than Torquemada's version reveals, and Renaissance moralists and political philosophers could easily invest this "historical" confrontation of the orders of artifice and nature with other ranges of significance. Another version of the story is extremely suggestive, and it casts an interesting light on dimensions of the play that Bataillon does not care to integrate into his monarchist interpretation. It is articulated by a man who, unlike Torquemada's courtly shepherds, whose dialogue frames the anecdote, is fascinated above all else with the realities of power and with courtesy only insofar as it is a strategy for the successful enactment of power: the cold and brilliant Baroque moralist Baltasar Gracián. In his analytical panegyric of the model political man, Fernando el Católico, Gracián emphasizes a king's difficulty in achieving self-knowledge ("no tiene espejo un rey"-a king does not have a mirror) and praises the intelligence of leaders, such as Tacitus's Germanicus, who in disguise solicited the judgments and criticisms of their subordinates. As an example he describes Francis I's encounter with the anonymous peasant subject.

Perdido en la caza Francisco Primero de Francia, desde entonces Grande, hizo noche en casa de la sencillez, y, entre unos villanos, le amaneció el sol de la verdad; y solía repetir el discretísimo prícipe: "yo me gané perdido, porque mudé de rumbo."

(Having lost his way in the hunt, Francis the First of France, henceforth known as Francis the Great, spent the night in a house of simplicity, and among several peasants the sun of truth dawned and awakened him. And this most discreet of princes was, from that moment on, accustomed to repeat: "Having lost myself, I won myself, because I changed my course.")

In Graciás depiction of the event, the focus is entirely on the king's experience-a moment of crisis, an awakening to truth and discreción, a profound alteration in the direction of his life; a discovery of an authentic self that had been lost (the discovery of a mirror); a paradoxical victory in defeat, the decisive moment in his development-"desde entonces Grande." The philosophical direction is even clearer in Gracián's great philosophical narrative El criticón. Here his protagonists, the questing pilgrims Critilo and Andrenio, are granted an allegorical vision of the spectacle of political power-an unchanging circle of men capriciously tossing the world, a ball stuffed with rags and air, from one to another. Gracián's characteristic epiphany of nothingness culminates with the discovery of an empty throne, abandoned by a man who would truly be king. The pilgrims suspect that "se habría perdido en la caza (que no será el primero), que en casa de algún villano habría hecho noche, despertando de su gran sueño y cenando desengaños el que tan ayuno vivía de verdades" ([that] he probably lost his way in the hunt [for he would not be the first to have done so], that he spent the night in the house of some peasant, and that he who had lived fasting, abstaining from all truths, awakened from his deep sleep and feasted on desengaños [disenchantments]). They are amazed when they discover that he has departed to seek the only possible monarchy, that over oneself, and wonder "como un prícipe de tan alto genio ha podido humanarse a conversar con tan vil canalla" (how a prince of such an exalted nature has been able to descend to the human level [humanarse] to converse with such base canaille). The encounter with the villano is recast as an awakening to truth; a recognition of the insubstantial nature of the nocturnal world of the court, power, the affairs of state, and the ceremonial reality of royalty; and a discovery of one's humanity and, of course, one's mortality. As a vision of desengaño, it might recall the age's most memorable depiction of a fruitful encounter of a lost king-one who as yet "but slenderly knows himself"-and a philosophical "peasant": King Lear.

In his appropriation of the historical anecdote, Gracián, it must be said, fails to individualize the peasants or to define the alterity of their world in any specific or extensive philosophical or moral terms that would elicit critical reflection on the world that they oppose. His interest lies entirely in the king's experience of desengaño, humility, self-discovery as a mortal human being (humanarse), and conversion-an experience that he describes in the conventional metaphors of sleeping, dreaming, and suddenly awakening to reality. The experience and the metaphors were, as is well known, ubiquitous in the literature of the seventeenth century. The most familiar comic version is, of course, Sancho Panza's sleep and awakening to self-knowledge; his renunciation of his throne; his solemn processional entry, in the silentium mysticum of court ceremony, into the stable to embrace his ass and gaze on his most reliable mirror of self-knowledge; his return to his vineyards; and his repossession of his authentic being.

Certainly less familiar to the modern reader are the resonances that the term humanarse had in seventeenth-century writings on the "double" nature of the monarch. Philip IV himself provides an interesting commentary on the implications of Graciá's perception of the originary anecdote and on the experience of descent, transformation, and education of Lope's French king in the other world of Juan Labrador. In justifying his modest efforts to translate Guicciardini's History of Italy, he reminds his reader that kings too are subject to human ignorance and other limitations ("comunes a todos los otros hombres") and that they should occasionally divest themselves of their divine being in order to educate themselves morally and philosophically. He notes that the laws themselves exempt the king from such "humanity," assuming that he is privy to the most arcane truths through the mysterious powers of his royal dignity:

humanidad de que hasta las mismas leyes nos excusan, presumiédonos sabios de lo más escondido por sola la dignidad y caráter real. No llegando decir que sé sino que voy sabiendo, desnudádome de la divinidad por afectar más la filosofía y moderación y sobre todo la rectitud y verdad.

(the humanity from which the very laws excuse us, presuming us, through the royal dignity and character alone, to be wise concerning things that are most hidden. Without going so far as to say that I know, but only that I am beginning to know, taking off my robes of divinity in order to pursue more intensely philosophy and moderation and above all rectitude and truth.)

Applied to the mystery that Gracián discerns at the root of the parable of the lost king and his peasant host, Philip's words might suggest that the issues raised by the king's transformation in the forest are far more profound than the simple lessons in respect, courtesy, precedence, and refined social sensitivity that Torquemada's version expounds. More revealing, however, is the nature of his elaboration of the process of a king's humanization: on the one hand, the descent from a divine order above; on the other hand, the metaphorical conception of that descent in terms of the concrete rituals of robing and disrobing that were so essential to a monarch's existence, from the ceremonies of crowning to the daily awakenings and the endless ceremonial activities of rule, a process continuing until the final veiling in the constructed effigies of the royal body at death. From the opening scenes, where we learn that a "seraphim" has chosen to "humanarse en una aldea"-"become human in a village"-to the king's concluding display of his quasi-divine regalia, we discover that the world of El villano en su rincón is one of restless movement upward and downward and that the action is marked by continuous changes of clothing. At the heart of movement and counter-movement, disrobing and rerobing, laying aside and recovering-uncrowning and recrowning-is a process of authentication of the monarch through his education in humanist values and his imaginative assimilation to the classical sage.


It is perhaps worth noting that of the four plays by Lope that Gracián praised in his Agudeza y arte de ingenio, one was El villano en su rincón, a work that he described as a "moral fable." Whether he found in it a dramatic articulation of the insights that he was to condense into the laconic antitheses of his version of Francis I's encounter with the peasants is impossible to know, but two things are clear: The play emphasizes the desengaño of the French king at the conclusion of his nocturnal experience in the other world. Moreover, it depicts a decisive and astonishing change in his speech and actions following his return to the palace. It is also worth noting that whatever Gracián may have meant by the designation fábula, Lope, as so often was the case, designed his drama according to the conventions of romantic comedy. The work has far more in common with the folktale than with a historical or political drama or with a hypothetical theatrical celebration of the specific historical circumstances to which Bataillon links its genesis, the double royal marriage, in 1612, of Louis XIII of France and Philip III of Spain, and the contemporary political ambitions of Lope's patron, the Duke of Sessa.

In its action and imaginative frame of reference, magical metamorphoses of the type insinuated by its folkloric germ proliferate. Kings become philosophers, peasants become nobles; a princess appears to possess a double identity of the historical princesses of Spain (Ana) and France (Isabel). Olive trees strangely mingle with acorn and hazelnut trees in what is presumably a French landscape. The trees themselves are metaphorically transmuted into trees of glittering gems, which through intertextual allusion in turn assume the forms of beautiful enchanted maidens. In its continuing imaginative evocations, radiant Moorish youths emerge as if by magic to woo them and assist them in their harvesting activities in a world that is momentarily illuminated by an exotic light that might conjure up in its seventeenth-century audience romantic visions of medieval Granada. Musical harmonies and the universalizing dream language so prominent in folk songs embellish the proceedings with a kind of lyrical intensity discernible in none of Lope's other "political" plays. In fact, as Alfredo Rodríguez has pointed out, the quantity of sung verses is matched by only nine-nearly all religious in subject-of the hundreds of other comedias by Lope. Such elements are particularly pronounced in the arboreal world of Act II, in which the king's visit to Juan's house, near his hunting estates in Belflor (an imaginary location that characteristically at another point of the play turns into Miraflor-familiar to Lope's audience as the delightful site of the castle near London where Amadís de Gaula and Oriana secretly consummate their love) suggests a mysterious initiatory passage into a world of confusion, erotic pursuit, lost identity, disguises, dreamlike encounters of doubles, fateful thresholds, and dangerous metamorphoses.


Excerpted from Majesty and Humanity by Alban K. Forcione Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgments....................ix
Introduction. Removing the Royal Frame: Ghostly Images or Stately Illusions?....................1
ONE King and Philosopher: El villano en su rincón....................24
TWO King and Warrior: El Rey Don Pedro en Madrid o El Infanzón de Illescas....................101
Epilogue. Refractions and Disintegrations of the Majesty: The King as Statesman and Martyr....................183
Appendix 1: Synopsis of El villano en su rincón....................201
Appendix 2: Synopsis of El Rey Don Pedro en Madrid o El Infanzón de Illescas....................205
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