While Vega Carpio’s genius extends to all literary genres, he is most recognized as a dramatist. One of his main achievements was to bring all the diverse elements of preceding Spanish theater together and unify them under a few basic guidelines. Although he had been writing plays since the 1570’s, it was not until 1609 that he published his poem of practical guidelines for dramatists, The New Art of Writing Plays. In this work, he stresses unity of action in a three-act play written in polymetric verse. Whether a comedy, tragedy, or tragicomedy, the drama should have one gracioso, a witty servant, either male or female, who parodies the actions and lines of the main characters and who delights the audience with puns and anecdotes. He also states that language should be appropriate to the individual characters and that verse should be appropriate to the scene that it describes. Suspense, however, is important; the audience should not know the ending until the ending. Vega Carpio’s major theme, honor, is usually revealed through a conflict between the court and the town, between new Christians and old Christians, or within love triangles. For him, the most important part of the play was the audience’s enjoyment, but, at the same time, he never disregarded the didactic importance of his plays. These specifications remained the defining elements of Spanish theater well into the eighteenth century.
After Vega Carpio’s death, his protégé, Juan Pérez de Montalbán, attributed 1,800 comedias and more than 400 autos sacramentales, one-act plays with a religious theme, to his master. Since the 1960’s, however, most critics accept that there are 314 plays that are definitely by him and some 187 that may be his.
Vega Carpio’s dramatic works can be divided into various categories: plays of capa y espada (cloak and sword), which deal with an intriguing love affair usually ending in marriage; religious and mythological plays; and those based on another literary work or a historical event. The cloak-and-sword plays are characterized by a plot that includes jealous lovers, a woman who is covered up or disguised in some way, and some sort of duel. Some examples of this type of drama are La dama boba (pb. 1617; The Lady Nit-Wit, 1958), Madrid Steel, and Las bizarrías de Belisa (pb. 1637).
The most celebrated of this group of plays, however, is The Gardener’s Dog. In this play, he deals with the conflict between honor and love. Doña Diana, the countess of Belflor, falls in love with her secretary, the commoner Teodoro, who does not know his heritage. Her dilemma is a real, modern-day one because the code of honor does not allow the different economic classes to intermarry, She is, like the dog in the proverb that forms the play’s title, “the gardener’s dog who neither eats nor stops eating.” Teodoro’s servant, Tristán, convinces everyone but Diana that his master is a real count. Yet Teodoro, disgraced by the lie, insists that he must leave Diana. She immediately responds that his sense of honor proves his nobility, and, thus, they can marry, and he can become a real count. With spectacular characterization and intrigue, Vega Carpio addresses the conventions of modern-day honor. He insinuates that because honor, in the sense of public reputation, is satisfied by the lies of Teodoro, then the whole concept of honor is a sham.
Vega Carpio’s religious plays were important in teaching Christian principles to seventeenth century Spain. Besides the church and public storytellers, plays were the only way for the commoners, almost all of them illiterate, to learn about the Bible. He created many plays that dramatized incidents from the Old Testament. His interpretation of the Book of Esther, La hermosa Ester (wr. 1610, pb. 1621; beautiful Esther), is perhaps his most beautiful biblical drama. Stories from the New Testament were strictly supervised by the church and limited to those dealing with Christ as an infant; it was considered indecent to portray Christ’s adult life in the playhouses. Vega Carpio wrote numerous biblical comedias, as well as comedias de santos, dramas that interpreted the life of a saint. The mythological plays, written for the court, included spectacular visual effects that the regular playhouses could never have afforded.
Vega Carpio also enjoyed basing his plays on historical events. In this way, history itself would serve a didactic end in the theater. One of his earlier dark tragedies, El duque de Viseo (wr. 1604-1610, pb. 1615; the duke of Viseo) is based on Portuguese history and deals with the difficulty of administering justice. The Sheep-Well is based on an actual fifteenth century uprising. A villainous commander abuses his villagers to such an extent that they finally revolt and kill him. When the monarch tries to extort evidence of the guilty party, the village unites, and the whole community takes the blame. Finally, they are pardoned by the king. Vega Carpio brings to the stage the themes of justice, loyalty, and harmony within the state....
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La dama boba [The Silly Lady] Audio Libro por Lope de Vega
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