Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón's Spain

Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón's Spain

by Dian Fox
Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón's Spain

Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón's Spain

by Dian Fox


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Hercules and the King of Portugal investigates how representations of masculinity figure in the fashioning of Spanish national identity, scrutinizing ways that gender performances of two early modern male icons—Hercules and King Sebastian—are structured to express enduring nationhood. The classical hero Hercules features prominently in Hispanic foundational fictions and became intimately associated with the Hapsburg monarchy in the early sixteenth century. King Sebastian of Portugal (1554–78), both during his lifetime and after his violent death, has been inserted into his own land’s charter myth, even as competing interests have adapted his narratives to promote Spanish power.

The hybrid oral and written genre of poetic Spanish theater, as purveyor and shaper of myth, was well situated to stage and resolve dilemmas relating both to lineage determined by birth and performance of masculinity, in ways that would ideally uphold hierarchy. Dian Fox’s ideological analysis exposes how the two icons are subject to political manipulations in seventeenth-century Spanish theater and other media. Fox finds that officially sanctioned and sometimes popularly produced narratives are undercut by dynamic social and gendered processes: “Hercules” and “Sebastian” slip outside normative discourses and spaces to enact nonnormative behaviors and unreproductive masculinities. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496212153
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 01/01/2019
Series: New Hispanisms
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 324
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Dian Fox is a professor emerita of Hispanic studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Refiguring the Hero: From Peasant to Noble in Lope de Vega and Calderón and Kings in Calderón: A Study in Characterization and Political Theory

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Honor, Gender, and (Spanish) Nation

Terms like honour, patriotism, cowardice, bravery, and duty are hard to distinguish as either nationalistic or masculinist, since they seem so thoroughly tied both to the nation and to manliness.

— Joanne Nagel, "Masculinity and Nationalism," 119

The notion of Spanish identity is defined as a lineage.

— Alexander Samson, "Florián de Ocampo, Castilian Chronicler," 344

Western structures of power are infused with masculinist perspectives. Barbara Weissberger has shown the acrobatics of masculinist ideological positions necessary when a female, Queen Isabella (r. 1474–1504), rules in a system of discourse and practice established by and for male domination. Prominent men who practice non-normative masculinities similarly challenge narrators of nationhood. Among instruments that regularize Hercules and King Sebastian for iconic status on the Iberian Peninsula is the rhetoric of honor: perceived adherence to normative gender roles can be measured in terms of honorability. A related requirement for positive public distinction, and definitive in post-Reconquest Spanish communication of authority, was ethnicity measured in terms of blood purity.

The rhetoric of honor was a fundamental adhesive in patriarchal structures of late-medieval and early modern Europe. As nation-states were consolidating, honor became "increasing[ly] associate[ed] with larger social groups." More and more, if individuals had honor, so also did nations, centered in and conferred by the monarch. A well-developed honor system reinforced accumulated power: "The quest for the honours of the court, the network of kinship and alliance stretching from the capital into the provinces, all these were important ingredients in the forging of the 'absolute monarchies' of the seventeenth century, less 'absolute' in practice and more dependent on working by agreement and on the cooptation of local elites than once thought."

During this time, a man's personal honor was inflected with virility — that is, manliness and reproductivity. Early modern males, exquisitely attuned to the esteem of others, were assigned a level of honor through birth and defended it through competition with socially equal males, establishing hierarchy. Potency was central to the integrity of the male subject in both the personal and public spheres. "Failure to perform ... was a threat not only to a man's maleness but to society. Potency came to be not only the way in which a male defined himself, but how he was defined by society." Of course, reproductivity was demonstrated circumstantially, through evident control of a female's sexual behavior that would result in legitimate progeny — or for unattached males, the positive anticipation of such an outcome. Honor was a sign of meeting this condition or creating its expectation.

Speaking homosocially, male control over females is undergirded by men's control over other men. In early modern Spanish fictional texts, when a woman uses the term "honor" with respect to herself, that she will do whatever necessary to protect her honor, it is an exercise in ventriloquism. "Her" honor is actually a subsidiary of the man's who is responsible for governing her. A wife's faithlessness, or an unmarried daughter's or sister's loss of virginity, could pose an especially grave threat to a male subject's bloodline, legacy, and honor. Women were thought to have voracious sexual appetites, always on the verge of straying, and the very secrecy of illicit sexual activity heightened anxiety. A man unable to control his wife was himself regarded as weak and defective in his gender performance. The assumption was that he failed to satisfy her, by default encouraging her to seek satisfaction elsewhere, and exposing his lineage to adulteration. Therefore, it was important continually to reaffirm one's masculinity. A man must preempt any public suggestion of his wife's infidelity; but in the event of such talk, he must respond quickly and aggressively, sometimes violently. Dopico Black discusses the legal background to uxoricide in medieval Castile and sixteenth-century Spain, which sympathetically addresses a husband's murder of an unfaithful wife. Further, "the fact that the Inquisition directly concerned itself with matters of wifely fidelity suggests a closer relation than has been supposed between limpieza de sangre and the preoccupation with female sexual immaculacy, a relation in many respects grounded on the invisible (and hence all the more dangerous) threat that a wife's adultery posed to a 'pure' bloodline."

At the same time, recourse to physical force in response to an assault on marriage was at odds with newly centralizing states' shifts toward monopolizing violence and controlling the distribution of honors. Early modern monarchies institutionalized the right to wage war, and to settle disagreements among subjects. Rather than an individual's policing his own honor, with violence against an offending party, legal judgment and punishment were supposed to enforce order. By extension, wandering female sexuality threatened the national political body. A subject's honor or dishonor, and by implication, his virility, had become a matter of official concern and national consequence. Across early modern Europe, one result of this concentrating monopoly of power was prohibition of dueling to settle interpersonal disputes.

If control over the allocation of honors contributed to centralization, it also reified difference. Among the systems that organize social relations to delineate hierarchy, historically in Hispanic cultures structures of honor have been significant. In the last century influential anthropologists Julian Pitt-Rivers, Julio Caro Baroja, and Pierre Bourdieu studied the commonalities of honor systems that developed in Mediterranean cultures. In closed, clan-based social formations, exposure to outsiders might give rise to defensively strong identification with the group, one's worth and belonging conveyed through inherited and acquired privilege — accoutrements of honor. Other social factors have been found to encourage great valuation of this commodity. Concern for esteem is especially pronounced in societies with wide disparities in the distribution of wealth. Times of turmoil or expansion animate ethnocentrism, making communal and personal reputation exaggerated social values.

Mediterranean traffic reaching the Iberian Peninsula over the centuries subjected its economies of esteem to a variety of influences and intercultural tensions. Contact zones along the coasts exposed populations to exploration, commerce, conquest, and settlement. Iberians, Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Goths left their traces in Iberia's demographic and cultural formations, as did centuries of Muslim occupation, and relative to northern Europe, a large Jewish community. For periods of time under Moorish rule, Spain's Christian, Muslim, and Jewish populations lived in relative peace (Américo Castro's [now somewhat contested] convivencia). As Christian forces gradually worked their way south during the Reconquest, however, the dynamics of relationships among the different ethnoreligious populations were also changing.

David Nirenberg's work on conversion and displacement on the Peninsula elucidates the power of Jewish identity for the self-fashioning of the Christian community — and vice versa — during the late Middle Ages. Although waging the lengthy Reconquest against Muslim infidels, Christians traditionally defined themselves against Jewishness. Fourteenth-century sermons taught Christians that such calamities as plague and famine were divine punishment for too-close communion with Jews, and the influential theologian Vincent Ferrer (1350–1419), canonized in 1455, preached the need to segregate the populations. Natural and manmade disasters fed into anxieties of proximity, and in the 1391 pogroms thousands of Jews were killed or displaced. Multitudes of others converted to escape the violence. Ferrer approved, his goal being to cleanse the land of non-Christians altogether. A second round of concerted anti-Jewish violence took place from 1412 to 1415, resulting in more deaths, dislocations, and conversions.

Such late-medieval upheavals repositioned the Peninsular Christian and Jewish communities with respect to each other, requiring new ways of managing their relationships. At first Christians generally welcomed and facilitated the mass conversions, accepting the converts (conversos, or New Christians) as equals. But the conversions also created confusion, as old categories were upset by new social realities. Not every member of Jewish families converted. Many New Christians remained in their traditional homes and continued to consort with Jewish relatives and friends, sharing as they did cultural frames of reference. Sustained extensive contact and affinities among converts and Jews were seen to threaten recidivism, and made it dangerously difficult to distinguish one from the other — a circumstance that troubled everyone, Old Christians, Jews, and conversos alike. Furthermore, resentment grew as New Christians began to compete with Old in professions and privileges that were prohibited to Jews. "Confronted by these displacements, problems of intermediacy and crises of classification," Nirenberg writes, "Jews, Christians, and conversos turned more or less simultaneously to lineage as one means of reestablishing the integrity of religious categories of identity" (18). Blood purity became the crucial test for belonging to the Old Christian community. In newly developed legal theory this attribute, invisible to the naked eye, required identification by other means, primarily testimony and documentation. Nirenberg summarizes, "over the course of little more than a century, previously marginal logics of lineage had moved to the centre of Jewish, converso, and Old Christian communal identity and memory in Iberia" (40).

Therefore, by 1492, bloodline had become a specially weighted factor in the distribution of honor. In that year the Reconquest ended as Christian forces under Isabella and Ferdinand took the Moorish Kingdom of Granada. With the final victory, the Catholic Kings endeavored to impose strict religious orthodoxy: all remaining Jews were expelled from Spain or forced to convert to Christianity, as were all Muslims within a few years. (Portugal expelled the Jews and Muslims in 1496.) Concurrently, honor was coming to be experienced in a particularly narrow way, as the monarchy successfully arrogated power to its own central authority, in part by claiming the right to define honor. With blood purity now a central consideration in the allocation of the esteem that accompanied power, Isabella and Ferdinand formulated policies to dispel rivalries among Old Christian lineages, and stigmatized generations of conversos. In public discourses and practices, converts to Christianity and their descendants were socially marked. Members of prominent Old Christian families who could be shown to have intermarried with Jews or Muslims at some point, or with New Christians, were prohibited from serving in high positions and were denied honors. James Casey describes local variations on this dynamic, relating the Reconquest to conceptions of honor in Andalusia. On the importance of descent in social relations, "[a]s the Moorish frontier moved south, memory of lineage gave those with whom one came in contact a measure of one's reliability." Tracing one's ancestry became "a guarantee of honour in a mobile and turbulent society."

Spain's emergence from the Reconquest into nationhood and empire roughly coincided with state formation and religious reformation in the North. National or protonational collectivities were breaking away psychologically from earlier ties and imagining for themselves unique pasts and futures. They began to attend to geographical boundaries, and defined themselves by subordinating the "foreign" in various ways, internally and externally. For the dominant Old Christians in Spain, conversos, Muslim converts (moriscos), and New World indigenous served such a purpose. Just so, from the late sixteenth century a significant element of the process for England involved othering Iberia. Popular culture and learned discourse tainted the Spanish and Portuguese with base character and the very Jewish and Moorish blood that these southern states treated so unforgivingly in their own processes of political consolidation. Eric J. Griffin demonstrates the currency in England of hybridity as a Spanish stereotype. The picaresque novel La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes), first published in 1554 and in 1586 translated into English, highlights miscegenation in the protagonist's mulatto half-brother. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, in Griffin's analysis, dramatizes Shylock as a Sephardim in the end unable to elude conversion, while Othello caricatures Catholic idolatry in the African protagonist as well as Hispanic ethnicity in the villain Iago (159–66 and 201–5).

On the Peninsula, a problem for state and religious authorities, as well as for family patriarchs, was identifying suspect blood before a potential official or matrimonial affiliation could invalidate a claim on privilege. Since "hybrid subjects" might not be visually discernible, the ability to "pass" challenged the grand narrative of purity that Spanish authorities were trying to promote. Empowering the undeserving could destabilize categories of difference on which honors were based. In groups where physical features might not reliably indicate provenance or relationship, how could exclusivity be effectively upheld: how to maintain difference? In late-medieval Spain, sumptuary laws helped distinguish Jews and Muslims from Christians. Citing fifteenth-century efforts by St. Vincent Ferrer, Lope de Vega memorializes this strategy in the seventeenth-century play El caballero de Olmedo (The Knight from Olmedo), in a conversation between King Juan II of Castile (r. 1406–54) and his favorite, the Condestable don Alvaro de Luna about

Condestable: [l]a razón de diferencia que pones entre los moros y hebreos que en Castilla han de vivir.
Rey: Quiero con esto cumplir,
Condestable, los deseos de fray Vicente Ferrer,
que lo ha deseado tanto.
Condestable: Es un hombre docto y santo.
Rey: Resolví con él ayer que en cualquiera reino mío donde mezclados están,
a manera de gabán traiga un tabardo el judío con una señal en él,
y un verde capuz el moro.
Tenga el cristiano el decoro que es justo: apártese dél;
que con esto tendrán miedo los que su nobleza infaman.
— Act II, lines 585–98

(Con[de]stable: ... the kind of dress you want adopted by The Moors and Jews still living in Castile.

King: This is to meet the wishes of Our Brother Vincent Ferrer. He's long demanded it.

Constable: A holy and learned man.

King: I saw him yesterday, and we agreed that anywhere in my kingdom, where Jews and Moors are found, the Jews must wear a tabard with a sign on it, the Moors a cloak and hood green in color. By such a measure shall all Christians be forewarned and keep that distance which prevents contamination.)

Other means of classification lay in reputation and documentary proof of pure descent. The Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478, underlined and enforced uniformity and difference, with judicial mechanisms ferreting out impure lineage and secret judaizing. Whether in cases of elevation to honors or of accusations of heresy, historical records were scrutinized and interviews conducted to investigate the subject's origins. Inquiries into blood purity included examining community and parish records of births, deaths, marriages, and so forth, as well as canvassing locals about the past and reputation of the person and family in question. Behavior was scrutinized for "Jewish" habits (such as unwillingness to eat pork, engaging in certain professions, and high regard for learning). Nirenberg translates a complaint in a 1533 letter from Rodrigo Manrique, son of the inquisitor general, to converso exile Luis Vives in Flanders: "'[N]ow it is clear that no one can possess a smattering of letters without being suspect of heresy, error, and Judaism.'"

That institutional intervention was deemed necessary further testifies to the fear of miscegenation burgeoning in the fifteenth century. That into the seventeenth century Lope de Vega appears to cite such regulation approvingly shows, at least in a fictional text, the unrelenting currency of anxiety over blood contamination. Albert Sicroff offers an instance of nonfictional alarm generated in 1636 by a potential lack of limpieza de sangre. At that time, if a man sought "un oficio de honor" (a position of honor), he and his relatives ran the risk that inspection of the family line could lead to devastating practical consequences. Sicroff describes the crisis that befell the bishop of Cuzco don Fernando de la Vera in October 1636, when he learned that his nephew in Spain wished to apply for a knighthood. The nephew, don Jacinto de la Vera, was a colonel in the cavalry. For the honor he sought, he had not just to be an Old Christian with pure blood, but to demonstrate that purity. That is, his limpieza de sangre was not a simple condition or state of being, but had to be performed, in a production of oral and written testimony. The bishop sent his nephew money to scour away evidence of a certain possible problem, warning him that in his aspiration for a knighthood he was opening himself up potentially to "daño irreparable" (irreparable harm). One may speculate that the bishop worried that his own position of power, his honor and all the privileges it entailed, would also be on the line. "La decisión sobre el hábito militar solicitado por don Jacinto," according to Sicroff, "podría quedar en suspenso indefinidamente, o se podría acabar concediéndoselo con una dispensa especial, compromise que sería intolerable para un caballero de su calidad" (The decision about the military habit for which don Jacinto applied could remain indefinitely delayed, or it could be conceded to him by special dispensation, a compromise that would be intolerable to a nobleman of his high status).


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1. Honor, Gender, and (Spanish) Nation,
Part 1. Hercules,
2. Hercules Hispanicus,
3. The Deaths of Hercules,
4. Hercules Redux: Transvestism and the Hombre Esquivo,
Part 2. King Sebastian,
5. En Route to King Sebastian,
6. The Once and Future King: Sebastian and Sebastianisms,
7. Staging Sebastian: The Body that Mattered,

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