HISP20048 The Theatre of the Spanish Golden Age

The Golden Age of Spanish Literature

The following material is an extension of the first-year introductory lectures on the Literature of the Spanish Golden Age.  It belongs to Dr Lewis-Smith and may not be reproduced, though you may take notes from it.


  1. Poetry in the GA
  2. Drama in the GA
  3. Aristotle's Poetics
  4. The GA and Early Modern Europe
  5. Continuity: the GA and the Middle Ages
  6. Major Mathematical, Scientific and Technological Discoveries in Post-Classical Europe before 1700
  7. Science and Philosophy; the Scientific Renaissance
  8. The Direct Impact of Scientific/Technological Progress on Imaginative Writing 1500-1700
  9. Printing as a Moral Issue

1. Poetry in the Golden Age

The poetry of the GA is plentiful and varied.   There is religious poetry and there is secular poetry; there is Christian mystical poetry (that of San Juan de la Cruz: St John of the Cross) and Christian devotional poetry; there is secular lyric poetry, narrative poetry, moral poetry, satirical poetry, jocular poetry, poetry that uses medieval forms of versification, poetry that uses Renaissance forms adapted from Latin and Italian, poetry that is indebted to popular oral traditions, poetry written for reading, poetry written to be read aloud, and poetry written to be sung. 

There is also dramatic poetry, for the period's major dramatic forms are verse plays which deploy poetic techniques.  Golden Age dramatists were generally referred to as poetas in their day.  Some of them were great poets in the non-dramatic as well as the dramatic forms.

Two Major Golden Age Poets: Garcilaso (c.1501-36) and Góngora (1561-1627)

Although there are other world-class poets, there are two key figures in the development of Golden Age poetry.  One is Garcilaso de la Vega (c. 1501-36) and the other is Luis de Góngora (1561-1627).  Both were responsible for major reforms in Spanish poetry and their achievements affected the poetic style of drama.

Garcilaso de la Vega

Garcilaso de la Vega was a nobleman, courtier, and soldier in the army of Charles V.  He spent part of his life in Italy.  He died of battle wounds in 1536 when he was about 35 years of age.  By courtly standards Garcilaso was the ideal man: courtier, soldier, refined man of letters.

It was he who established Renaissance poetry--sometimes called Italianate poetry--in Spain.  He drew his inspiration from Classical poetry and from the new Italian poetic tradition which had been founded in the 14th century by the Italian humanist and love-poet Francesco Petrarca, whom we now call simply 'Petrarch'.

He was not the first Spaniard to experiment in the Italian style (the Marqués de Santillana was probably the first, in the 15th century) and his own work continued that of a friend, a Catalan nobleman called Juan Boscán.  Garcilaso was the more talented of these two poets and it was his example that achieved the breakthrough, establishing a new poetic fashion. 

The basic technical breakthrough was the introduction of the Italian eleven-syllable line, a ponderous metrical form that Garcilaso handled more gracefully than earlier Spanish poets who had experimented with it.  This was the metre used in the Italian or 'Petrarchan' sonnet, and Garcilaso's own success with this compact, highly disciplined type of poem established it in Spain, making it the major vehicle of the new poetic style.

A sonnet is easily recognizable.  It consists of fourteen eleven-syllable lines divided into two quatrains (two 4-line stanzas) and two tercets (3-line stanzas) the second of which delivers a memorable conclusion, often a kind of punch-line.

Below are two sonnets by Garcilaso and Góngora respectively.  Garcilaso's sonnet is a version of the 'Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may' theme derived from the Roman poet Ausonius.  Góngora's is a more novel, philosophical, and shocking version of the same theme.  Both poems are 'intertextual'; i.e. they call to mind other poems on the same theme and beg to be compared with them.  Góngora's poem is more boldly intertextual, for it is implicitly accusing earlier versions of understating their own significance.  Góngora transforms the theme of ageing into a shocking meditation on extinction--the extinction of the woman's beauty, and by implication the extinction of the self.  In the final tercet he implicitly associates the woman's sense of her own identity with her physical/sexual beauty.  His poem belongs to a more disillusioned, hard-hitting age than that of Garcilaso.

Garcilaso de la Vega

En tanto que de rosa y azucena
se muestra el color en vuestro gesto,
y que vuestro mirar ardiente, honesto,
enciende el corazón y lo refrena,

y en tanto el cabello, que en la vena
del oro se encogió, con vuelo presto,
por el hermoso cuello blanco, enhiesto,
el viento mueve, esparce y desordena;

coged de vuestra alegre primavera
el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado
cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre.

Marchitará la rosa el viento helado,
todo lo mudará la edad ligera,
por no hacer mudanza en su costumbre.

'Whilst the colours of rose and lily reveal themselves in your face, and whilst your burning, chaste glance inflames and restrains the heart,/and whilst the sudden wind stirs, scatters, and disarranges your hair, which was gathered in a golden strand, as it blows on your fair, white neck;/pluck the sweet fruit of your happy Spring, before angry Time covers your fair brow with snow./For the frozen wind will wither the rose; light-foot Age, to make no change in his own customs, will alter everything.'


Mientras por competir con tu cabello
oro bruñido el Sol relumbra en vano,
mientras con menosprecio en medio el llano
mira tu blanca frente el lilio bello;

mientras a cada labio, por cogello,
siguen más ojos que al clavel temprano,
y mientras triunfa con desdén lozano
del luciente cristal tu gentil cuello;

goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente,
antes que lo que fue en tu edad dorada
oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente,

no sólo en plata o víola troncada
se vuelva, mas tú y ello juntamente
en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.

'Whilst, in competition with your hair, the sun, like burnished gold, gleams in vain, whilst your white brow gazes with scorn on lilies fair amidst the plain;/whilst more eyes follow each lip, to catch it, than follow the early carnation, and whilst your fine neck triumphs with gentle disdain over lucent crystal waters,/enjoy your neck, hair, lips, and fair brow before what was, in your golden age, gold, lily, carnation, crystal,/not only turns to silver or to plucked violet, but you and it together become earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing.'

Garcilaso's contribution to the development of poetry was not simply metrical.  The Italianate poetry was richer in its range of rhetorical figures (stylistic devices), had a broader vocabulary, and was more influenced by the themes, imagery, and mythology of Classical poetry.  It had a broader and more subtle emotional range.  It also introduced the natural world into love poetry, both as a source of imagery (metaphor and explicit comparison) and as a setting.

Its most conservative aspect was its predominant theme, love.  Garcilaso, like Petrarch and his Italian followers, was primarily a love-poet who drew his personal inspiration from his relationship with Isabel Freyre, a Portuguese member of the Court of Charles V who died in child-birth after marrying a man whom she probably did not love.  Garcilaso himself was a married man and both he and she appear to have been victims of the un-sentimental marriage customs of their period, without which love poetry would have been very different and possibly less abundant.

Garcilaso is one of the best poets of the European Renaissance, and had he not died at an early age he would doubtless be as famous today as the great poets of Renaissance Italy.  Today he is possibly less well known than Góngora.

One of the reasons why Góngora is better known is that his reformist poetry is more sensationally poetic: it is further removed from spontaneous discourse.  We speak of gongorismo to talk about Góngora's more distinctive poetry, whilst few people talk about garcilasismo.  (That said, a group of 20th century Spanish poets who imitated Garcilaso are called garcilasistas.)

Luis de Góngora (1561-1627)

Góngora created a poetic language which made literary as distinct from popular poetry more different from ordinary speech and thought than it had ever been before. 

The most noted aspects of this effort were those which were labelled cultoCulteranismo is a kind of poetic humanism which consists of imitating the syntactical structures of Classical Latin, using latinate words, coining words from Latin, and using many Classical allusions.  Góngora's stated purpose as a culto poet was to distance poetry from the ignorant.  We must take this claim seriously.  In principle, poetry was the most refined and noble form of writing.  (Cervantes likened poesía to a beautiful, precious woman.)  But Góngora's poetry has other purposes  which we now find more respectable.  These include renewing the power of Spanish poetry to startle its public, and increasing its flexibility, expressiveness, and auditory sensuousness.

The most typical result of the imitation of Latin syntax is a structural feature known as hyperbaton.  This occurs when conventional sentence-structure is disturbed, the parts of speech being ordered on lines which breach the conventions of Spanish sentence-structure.  The syntactical surprise of Góngora's poetry is greater now, in our less Classical age, than it was in his own age.  On the other hand, the power of his latinate vocabulary has waned.  This is because many of the culto  words which startled his contemporaries have long since been assimilated into normal educated Spanish.  In this sense Góngora contributed to the making of the present-day language.   Examples are the words purpúreo, meaning purple, or nocturno, meaning nocturnal, or crepúsculo, meaning twilight or dusk.  None of these words was normal in Góngora's day.  His poetry made them part of the language.

Note, however, that Góngora does not conserve his distinctive style for high subject-matter.  One of the things this poet does is to dignify simple natural things, like, for example, milk, or fowl, by describing them in culto and other ways that allow us to see them from extraordinary points of view.  In this sense Góngora's poetry marks the early rise of the ordinary--what Cervantes called 'common reality'--as subject-matter in serious, dignified poetry.  In this respect it is a landmark in the development of modern poetry.

Gongorismo is more than the use of an extremely culto language.  It also involves more frequent and extreme uses of standard rhetorical figures.  Of these, Góngora especially likes paraphrase, metaphors, and conceits.  All of these are indirect ways of describing the world which allow the writer to manipulate perspective.  All of them were essential aspects of Renaissance poetic technique, but in Gongoran poetry they are used more frequently and more boldly.

In poetry, paraphrase is the description of things, people, scenes etc in terms of their attributes or associations.  Metaphor is inexplicit analogy--not saying, for example, that the evasive limbs of a beautiful woman are comparable to water, but actually using a water image as a way of naming them; or not saying that her white breasts look like apples of snow, but actually calling them that.  See the following extract from Góngora's mythological poem, the Fábula [Mythic tale, Fable] de Polifemo y Galatea, where Galatea's limbs are described as 'fugitivo cristal' and her breasts as 'pomos de nieves' (apples or pomes of snow):

Entre las ondas y la fruta, imita
Acis al siempre ayuno en penas graves:
que, en tanta gloria, infierno son no breve,
fugitivo cristal, pomos de nieve.

Amidst the waves and the fruit, Acis resembles the one who ever fasts in grievous suffering: for, in such a paradise, a hell without end are fugitive crystal, apples made of snow.

The same passage illustrates paraphrase.  In this case the paraphrase involves a mythological allusion: 'el siempre ayuno en penas graves' ('the one who ever fasts in grievous suffering') is a paraphrase reference to the mythical Tantalus, from whose legend we get the word 'tantalize'.  Look him up in Everyman's Classical Dictionary if you want to find out more.

An important aspect of Gongoran style is wit, or agudeza, a gift much prized in 17th century Spain.  Wit was understood as a surprising manipulation of conceptos: ideas or mental images.  A modern term for it, when referring to the 17th century, is conceptismo.  Agudeza or conceptismo is found in any correlation which surprises commonsense.  It may consist of an antithesis (contrast) but it normally consists of what English calls a conceit.  A conceit is a surprising likening of two or more things which would normally be regarded as very unlike each other.  The analogy may be explicit, metaphorical, or, in extended conceits, a mixture of the two.

The logic of a conceit can be very abstract, and in the hands of 17th moralists the logic can be moral.  But most conceits appeal to the senses in some degree and Gongoran conceits tend to do so powerfully.  See the following extract from his Soledades.  In this passage he likens the bow-wave on a fishing-boat (a simple, ordinary thing) to pearls around the neck of an Inca princess.  This is witty because we would not normally associate the two things:

el mar . . . cuya espuma cana
su parda aguda prora
resplandeciente cuello
hace de su augusta Coya peruana,
a quien hilos el Sur tributó ciento
de perlas cada hora.

the sea . . . whose hoary foam makes its sharp dark prow the glittering neck of an illustrious Empress of Peru, to whom the Southern sea a hundred strings paid of pearls in tribute every hour.

For a conceit to achieve the maximum impact, it has to be original.  Góngora was very good at devising original conceits.  One mark of lesser poets who imitated the Gongoran style is their lack of originality.

Góngora's most ambitious work is his unfinished Solitudes or Soledades.  He probably conceived them as four long poems loosely based on a four-part journey of personal discovery undertaken by a young, shipwrecked courtier (shipwrecked literally and metaphorically), the four parts corresponding to four different settings: the countryside, the coast, woodland, and wilderness.  It is a kind of unfinished symphony: he completed only the first poem and part of the second before he died.  What he wrote is a meditation on the beauty, permanence, and innocence of nature.  It is also at times an explicit meditation on the vanity and greed of advanced (urban, civic) civilization.  One of its more political passages is a jaundiced view of the transatlantic voyages of discovery:

The salient themes of Góngora's poetry are the transience of the man-made world, the instability of human affairs, the inevitability of death, the superiority of simple and humble pleasures, and the permanence and beauty of the natural world.  The intellectual traditions which are most apparent are the Court and Country theme, Neo-Platonism, and Neo-Stoicism.

In the Soledades he is the first great poet of Nature.  Garcilaso had celebrated Nature in his Eclogues, but on nothing like the scale of Góngora in his Soledades and with nothing like Góngora's descriptive interest in it.  Garcilaso's natural world is more hazy, more intellectualized, and is essentially a setting and sounding-board, not a subject in its own right.

Below is an extract from the scene-setting lines of Garcilaso's third Eclogue, followed by the opening lines of Góngora's first Solitude.  Comparison will give you some measure of the difference between the two poets when Góngora is writing in full-blown Gongoran style.  Both poets are referring to Spring:

Peinando sus cabellos de oro fino,
una ninfa, del agua, donde moraba,
la cabeza sacó, y el prado ameno
vió de flores y de sombra lleno.
Movióla el sitio umbroso, el manso viento,
el suave olor de aquel florido suelo. . . .
En el silencio sólo se escuchaba
un susurro de abejas que sonaba.

Combing her hair of finest gold, a nymph, from the water, where she lived, appeared, and saw the pleasant meadow, full of flowers and shade.  The shady place, the light breeze, the gentle scent of the flowered earth, moved her. . . . In the silence, all that was heard was the buzzing sound of bees.

Era del año la estación florida
en que el mentido robador de Europa
- media luna las armas de su frente,
y el Sol todo los rayos de su pelo -,
luciente honor del cielo,
en campos de zafiro pace estrellas.

'It was of the year the season of flowers in bloom, in which the dissembling raptor of Europa - half-moon the arms he bears upon his brow and the whole Sun the radiance of his hide - bright glory of the sky, in sapphire fields, grazes upon stars.'  The sun is in Taurus.  Góngora is describing the constellation, and also its zodiacal sign.  The Classical allusion is to Jupiter's abduction of Europa, transformed into a bull.

2. Drama in the Golden Age

The development of the theatre

The history of Spanish drama begins in the Middle Ages but it is not until the second half of the sixteenth century that drama is put on a modern footing, with public theatres in all the major urban centres and plays being regularly staged.  The public theatres appear to have been built on sites which were already used for improvised performances by touring companies of actors, the earliest of whom were Italian.  The earliest theatres date from the 1560s.  They were called corrales, which literally meant 'yards' or 'enclosures'.  They got this name partly because they were open-air.

The public theatres did not have picture-frame stages and did not normally use scenery, though they did use special effects (they had trapdoors and various sorts of machinery).  The stage was rectangular, projected into the audience, and did not have a front curtain.  It actually had a back curtain behind which there was a dressing area that could double up as a small inner stage.  By drawing sections of the back curtain, it was possible to represent inner scenes when needed (e.g. events being seen through an open door) or events taking place in locations other than that of the action being shown on the main stage.  It was also possible to represent action on elevations by using the one or two galleries which ran around the back and sides of the stage.  Big theatres had two galleries, one above the other.  Sometimes ramps were used to connect the gallery with the stage, thus allowing actors to enact ascents and descents between different levels of an imaginary space, like, for example, a mountain. 

Audiences were socially mixed.  Throughout the period they were probably dominated by the non-aristocratic classes, but less so in the 17th century. 

Many of the spectators stood to watch the play.  They occupied the patio, or pit.  This was the area to the front and sides of the stage.  Its occupants were called mosqueteros.  Other spectators sat on benches arranged along the sides of the corral and sometimes on the sides of the stage.  All spectators in these two groups were male.  Women could officially occupy only two zones: a women's gallery at the back of the corral, and private boxes (aposentos) on the sides.  These were not boxes in the modern sense but were the balconied rooms of private houses which overlooked the corral.  (Corrales were enclosed between blocks of houses.)  The aposentos were the most expensive parts of the theatre.  They were hired out to the upper classes and were the only parts of theatres in which men and women could mix.

Above the rear gallery from which other women watched plays was another gallery that was reserved for the clergy.  This clerical gallery was called the tertulia.  The women's gallery was called the jaula (cage) or cazuela (stewpot).

Audiences expressed their feelings.  A disappointing actor or play might be pelted with fruit. 

The 'comedia'

The main form of drama was the comedia.  Its basic conventions and thematic range were fixed in the 1580s.

In some ways the comedia is an anti-Classical form of drama.  It caters to a public for whom drama is further removed from ritual than it was in Classical Antiquity and which is easily bored by plays which are slow-moving, very predictable, and unvaried in tone.

Since staging methods were not naturalistic, and since the public preferred eventful plots, it did not make sense to obey the neo-Classical unities of time and place.  These were neo-Classical 'rules' or 'precepts' of dramatic art which had some basis in Classical dramatic theory and practice, and which had been formulated in 16th Italy.  Their stated purpose was to make plays more lifelike.  They required the represented events to be located in a single place and to be capable of happening in a short period of time.  The strictest of the Italian theorists actually expected a perfect illusion of reality: the represented events had to take place in a space exactly the same size as the stage, and their duration had to be identical with that of the performance.  Spanish dramatists had little sympathy with such thinking. 

They also rejected strict observance of the neo-Classical unity of plot.  This was a 'rule' of structural unity which, if strictly observed, produced plays with single-stranded plots.  Comedia-writers preferred plays with a main plot and at least one secondary plot, i.e. plays with double-stranded plots or plays with multiple plots (a bit like modern soap operas).

They also rejected the strict Classical separation of tragedy from comedy.  In contemporary discussions of drama, the word comedia can mean comedy in the strict Classical sense, i.e. drama that is light-hearted and funny, ends happily, and deals with the lives of socially ordinary people; in contrast to tragedy, which, in the Classical sense, is uniformly solemn, ends sadly, and deals with the lives of great and famous people.  However, in dramatic practice  comedia means only full-length drama in verse.  Whilst many comedias are updated forms of Classical comedy, most of them are tragicomedies.  In other words, they are neither comedies nor tragedies--not by present-day standards and still less by Classical standards--but are fundamentally serious plays which end happily whilst accommodating elements of humour, and disobeying the Classical requirement that serious drama deal only with the great and famous.

A significant minority of plays have tragic endings, but even these have humorous elements and they are not necessarily set in the highest social classes.

The comedia takes its subject-matter from a wide range of sources: the dramatist's imagination, secular history and legend (Spanish, foreign, ancient, modern), recent events, works of fiction (Spanish, foreign), religious history and the Bible, mythology, proverbs, and ballads.  It often introduces three other performing arts: song, dance, and instrumental music (to accompany song and/or dance, or just as a special effect). 

The major debt of Spanish drama to Italian drama was to the commedia dell'arte.  This was a popular form of Italian comedy that was taken to Spain by Italian actors in the first half the sixteenth century.  The Italian companies provided inspiration and guidance for the formation of Spanish troupes of actors whose leaders wrote plays which imitated the commedia dell'arte.  The success of these early Spanish companies led to an expansion of dramatic activity.  This in turn initiated the construction of the permanent theatres.


Some comedias are forms of tragedy.  G.A. tragedy is metaphysically Christian in the sense that it is human beings who mess things up: it is not an evil or absurd universe which creates life's tragedies; it is Man (individuals, groups, whole societies), through his moral and intellectual failures.  Today, the tragic plays of Calderón are normally regarded as the most profound and poignant.

The endings of some plays are probably conceived as ambivalent.  They bring different values into conflict.  Some spectators might have seen them as tragic, others might have seen them as happy.

Lope de Vega

The man who did most to make the comedia distinctly Spanish and to settle its basic characteristics was Lope Félix de Vega Carpio.  Lope was active from about 1580 till his death in 1636.

Lope was a man of common birth who did not have a university degree and for whom writing plays was a crucial source of income.  He was a prodigy, like Mozart.  In the course of his long career he probably wrote some 800 plays.  He also wrote a large body of poetry and a number of narrative works.  'Es de Lope' was a popular saying, meaning: 'It must be good'.

Drama after Lope de Vega

The national  drama which  Lope created survived without fundamental revision into the 18th century, but it did undergo development.  In the reign of Philip IV it becomes more didactic and it tends to be more polished and sophisticated.

This probably owes much to growing moral criticism of it and to the austere outlook of Philip IV's government, which attempted to reverse the decadence of the reign of Philip III.  It also reflects the closer association of drama in the 17th with the Court.  Philip III and Philip IV were keen on the theatre and their interest in it helped to make it fashionable in high society.

It also helped to make the comedia a more political form, since it now made regular contact with the ruling classes.  Kings had comedias performed in their palaces and Philip IV also saw plays in the corrales of Madrid (and had an affair with an actress, despite the relative austerity of his government).  Some plays caused political offence and many plays contained political messages.  The famous Spanish character Don Juan originates in a semi-political play: Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla: The Trickster [or Joker] of Seville, which is critical of both the aristocracy and the monarchy beneath the veil of a medieval and partly foreign setting.  It probably dates from the reign of Philip III.

From the1640s the Court had a modern theatre.  This was a theatre with a picture-frame stage and greater technical resources than were available in the corrales--more complex machinery for staging special effects, and moving flats (movable painted scenery).  It was located in El buen retiro, the new palace of Philip IV, but was open to the public, and had a major impact on the kinds of play which were written by the leading playwrights in Madrid.  It was also home to experiments in opera.

The greatest dramatist after the death of Lope de Vega is Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-81), a minor nobleman who abandoned a university degree in order to be a dramatist, quickly became a Court dramatist as well as a popular dramatist, and was awarded a knighthood.  In some ways he is more impressive than Lope, and in his own eyes he was probably a dramatic reformer.  He constructed his plays with greater care than earlier dramatists, and unlike Lope he always wrote didactically: he consistently pursued the proper 'end' of dramatic writing as Golden Age theory understood it: deleitar enseñando, 'to give pleasure whilst providing instruction'. 

Calderón's more serious plays are complex works which tend to produce tragic or tough endings.  They are a fine balance of human drama and 'drama of ideas'.

Other kinds of drama

Calderón was the foremost writer of another important dramatic form that emerged in the later 16th century: the auto sacramental

This type of drama was mainly performed on movable stages in public spaces and was funded by municipal authorities.  It is the classic genre of the Counter-Reformation.  It is an allegorical type of religious drama  which always ends by celebrating the importance of the Eucharist (Communion).  It was performed during Corpus Christi week and was the major form of Christian festival drama.  In Calderon's hands it is the most sophisticated form of European religious drama.

It has characterization and plot, yet is fundamentally a drama of ideas which works on a metaphorical level that affects everything: the characterization, the plot, the poetry (it is written in verse), and the dramatic spectacle.  This is a genre which always uses scenery, but its scenery is symbolical, not naturalistic.

Calderón's most famous auto today is El gran teatro del mundo: The Great Theatre of the World, which is one of the simplest.  This play is an example of what is now called metatheatre: loosely used, this means drama which directs attention to its own status as drama; used more rigorously, it refers to philosophical or theological drama which represents life itself as dramatic in some sense.  El gran teatro develops an analogy between between birth, life, and death and the staging of a play.

The same metaphor is also developed on a secondary level in Calderón's most famous comedia, La vida es sueño.  The perspective here is philosophical (rational), not theological (entailing an appeal to faith, which transcends the power of reason).

The Golden Age also produced some miniature dramatic forms whose normal function was to refresh the audience at public performances of comedias.  The most important of these miniature forms was the entremés, a short farce of which Cervantes's El viejo celoso is an example. 

Performance as banquet

A dramatic performance in a public theatre was structured like a banquet.  The main courses were the three separate acts of the comedia.  The subsidiary courses were short entertainments which  were stationed before and after the play, and between each of the acts.  In a full-scale performance the following could be expected: first music, then a loa--a short, spoken introduction delivered by an actor; then Act I of the comedia; then an entremés; then Act II; then further entertainment, probably consisting of dancing; then Act III; then a kind of dessert course made up more dancing and/or the performance of another entremés--or perhaps a mojiganga, another boisterous form of  entertainment.

This banquet-like structure is one facet of the extraordinary suppleness of public taste in theatrical entertainment. 

3.  Aristotle's Poetics

This work is also known as On the Art of Poetry and On the Art of Fiction.  It was rediscovered in the 15th century and became known in Spain in the 16th century, though it was only in the following century that it was actually published there.  In the sixteenth century Spaniards learnt about Aristotelian literary theory by reading Italian works, studying in Italian universities, and studying in Spanish universities which had imported Italian knowledge.

The rediscovery of Aristotelian literary theory was the major 'event' in the history of literary theory in the Renaissance.

Aristotle's influence leads to use of the term 'poetry' to mean 'imaginative writing'.  This is because, for Aristotle, the essence of poetry is not verse, but mimesis--the imaginative 'imitation' of life.  The Poetics is not about writing poetry in the popular modern sense of the term.  It is about writing imaginatively; the Greek word poesis literally meant 'making'.

Aristotle's was not a new idea of 'poetry'; it actually came from Plato.  Aristotle, however, unlike Plato, had a positive view of the imitative imagination and he developed this view in two important ways:

(1) He laid the foundations of a philosophy of imaginative writing that helped to defend it against the charge that it was inferior to history or that it was, in fact, morally bad because imaginative works were not true.  In neo-Aristotelian theory, imaginative writing, if it is good, is itself a form of truth.  Its truth is not historical truth, but the truth that lies behind historical truth.  History depicts 'particulars'; that is to say, it records what has actually happened in the world.  Poesis, in contrast, depicts 'universals': it explores the realm of the probable and possible, which overlaps with the ideal: what 'ought to be', as Aristotle put it.

(2) Aristotle's exposition of his theory of mimesis ensured that lifelikeness came to be seen as a basic condition of good fiction and good drama, assuming that the fiction or drama reinvented life in the normal, literal way implied by the word mimesis and was not a special case, like, say, allegorical fiction and drama.  (Allegory had barely existed in Classical times, except in the superstitious form of Classical mythology.)

Lifelikeness was known as 'verisimilitude' (verosimilitud).  It could be understood in different ways.  From a moral viewpoint it was a formal quality that went hand-in-hand with exemplariness (instruction: illustrating life by means of imaginative 'example').  From an esthetic viewpoint it was pleasing: (a) it gave pleasure as good 'imitation', and (b) it was a condition of the credibility or plausibility that works needed in order to capture the public's imagination.  It was chiefly understood in the second of these ways.  As Cervantes explains in a discussion of fiction in Don Quijote (Part I, Chapter 47),  'lying stories [= fiction]' need to be ?wedded to their readers' intelligence', or need to 'suspend their spirits [i.e. elicit imaginative belief]' and this cannot be achieved by writers who 'flee from imitation [= verisimilitude]'.

For the neo-Aristotelian, then, fiction needs to be credible, and it cannot be credible if it appears to depict things which are not possible in the real world.  If it does do this, it repels the intelligence.  Developing Cervantes's metaphor, the 'wedding' breaks down.  There is evidence that the Spanish public increasingly shared these rational sensibilities from the mid sixteenth century onwards.  The extraordinary success of Don Quijote does not denote their absolute triumph, but it is a landmark in the evolution of tastes. 

4. The Golden Age and Early Modern Europe


Spain is a united monarchy with a subordinate aristocracy.  From 1561 it possesses a metropolis (a fixed capital or 'Corte'): Madrid, briefly replaced by Valladolid early in the 17th century.  Rise of nationalism.  Centred on Castile.  Sustained in Aragón by royal respect for Aragonese privileges (fueros).  A single national language: 'Castilian' or 'Spanish'.  Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española is the title of Sebastián de Covarrubias's dictionary of 1611.[1]

Expansion of education.

Need for education is recognized by both Church and State.  More schools and universities.

Greater professionalism.

In the arts, the rise of literary criticism; the rise of rhetoric (the study and practice of effective speaking and writing); the rise of public theatres and professional actors and dramatists; the emergence of new, highly stylized genres and linguistic styles (literary fashions); in the 17th century, a greater awareness of/responsiveness to taste (el gusto) and distrust of academic theory.  Correspondingly, a more sophisticated and critical public.

In the 17th century, the rise of self-consciously sophisticated literature--texts and plays which are deliberately ingenious and challenging within their particular artistic domain, tending to highlight the talent of the writer and their own status as art.  Works which allude to themselves are now called 'self-referential'.

Greater social mobility.

Agricultural workers migrate to cities, the integrity of the aristocracy is less protected by the Crown (which both sells and gives away noble status: there is an 'inflation of honours' [J.H. Elliot]), the expanding civil service depends on educated men and is not closed to commoners.

Decline of aristocratic political power.  Rise of the bureaucratic king.  Rise of government through ministers.

The Reyes Católicos dismantle the political and military power of the medieval religious-military Orders (Orders of Knighthood: Alcántara, Calatrava, Santiago) which held jurisdiction over regions reconquered from the Arabs.  Particularly in the 17th century, nobility can be bought from the Crown.  In the 17th century it is a larger class, is less involved in royal service, and is less successful in military leadership (as the officer class).  Its head, the monarch, becomes a less impressive figure after the reign of Charles V.  His successor, Philip II (1556-98), was a strong political leader, but not a warrior.  Subsequent monarchs were neither warriors nor great political leaders.  Rise of the aristocratic royal favourite (the valido, a precursor of the modern prime minister or presidente del gobierno) under Philip III (1598-1621).  Philip III's favourite, the Duke of Lerma, is corrupt and is eventually toppled.  Subsequent favourites fail to halt national decline.

Rise of economic materialism.

Social power of money increasingly evident and commented upon by satirists, e.g. Francisco de Quevedo's satirical poem: 'Poderoso caballero es don Dinero' ('Money is a powerful knight').

Intellectual life less dominated by the Church and by Christian revelation (the message of the Gospels).

Rise of humanism. 

Expansion of secular literature and rise of secular drama, secular historiography, and other studies not centred upon Christianity, e.g. studies of the Spanish language, Spanish proverbs, and poetics.  Translations and imitations of Classical and secular Italian works.  First treatise on temperament and natural vocation, Dr Juan Huarte de San Juan's Examen de ingenios (1575), inspired by the 2nd-century doctor, Galen.  Mildly censored--to eliminate possible inconsistency with the doctrine of Free Will.  Widely read in translation throughout Europe. 

Dignity of monarchs and aristocrats not sacrosanct in literature. 

Stronger voice given to non-aristocratic values.  Re-valuation of popular culture by educated writers: appreciation of popular poetry, songs, and proverbs.

Rise of more realistic fashions in prose fiction, though not always realistic in form.

Demise of heroic fantasy (books of chivalry: knights [Sir Lancelot types], damsels in distress, magicians, giants, etc) followed by that of pastoral fantasy (idealized love romances set in Arcadian worlds); rise of lifelike fiction and moral and satirical fantasy (fantastic in form, desengañado in its understanding of life and people).

Political theory: Christian, but more worldly.

As political life becomes more complex, moral decisions become more difficult.  No one approves of Machiavellianism (the un-Christian, morally unscrupulous advice given to rulers in Niccolò Machiavelli's 16th-century Italian political treatise, The Prince) and kings want clean consciences; but the foreign doctrine of ' Reason of State' (political casuistry, allowing rulers to relax their moral principles in situations of emergency) makes inroads into political theory and practice; and there is a heightened awareness that that the security of monarchs, although they are appointed by God, depends on their worldly prestige.

5. Continuity: the Golden Age and the Middle Ages

Medieval beliefs persist.  The arts are revolutionized, but certain fundamental beliefs about man and the universe stay essentially the same.

The Structure of the Universe (Macrocosm).  Most relevant to poetry and drama.

Astronomical discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries do not destroy the neo-Classical model of the universe (Aristotelian-Ptolemaic: derived from Aristotle, a Greek, and Ptolemy, an Egyptian) transmitted from the Middle Ages.  A neat, beautiful, and convenient one for non-scientific purposes, this model continually re-appears in poetry and drama.

The Earth is the centre of the universe.  The planets and the mass of stars are embedded in translucent spheres (like the layers of an onion) which revolve around the Earth.  As the spheres turn, they supposedly emit an inaudible celestial music.  For the Renaissance mind, the music of the spheres symbolises the harmony of the macrocosm (physical cosmos, or universe).  Beyond the spheres of the planets and the stars lies Heaven.  The matter of which the celestial bodies are made is purer than the stuff of which Earth is made.  The closer to God, the purer is this material.  When the Devil is given a physical place, it lies in the bowels of the Earth.

Renaissance neo-Platonism stresses the harmony of the macrocosm and its origins in love. 

Astrology and Astronomy.  Most relevant to drama.

Belief in astrology grows during the Renaissance.  The movements of the celestial bodies were widely believed to influence events on Earth and the propensities of individual human beings.  Royal families are known to have consulted astrologers.  The Catholic Church forbade the practice of astrology in the early 17th century, and in so doing attracted attention to it: a series of Spanish plays appear that deal with astrological and other forms of prediction.  17th century Spanish writers tend to treat astrology as hazardous and impious, but seldom as unfounded.

What we now call 'astronomy' was known as 'natural astrology'.  Astrology was known as 'judicial astrology'.

Macrocosm and microcosm.  Most relevant to poetry and drama.

The Renaissance thinks of man as a 'little world' or 'microcosm'.  The idea is that man, like the macrocosm, is an organic whole made up of parts which are arranged in a hierarchy of nobility or excellence or importance, and which function harmoniously in a fully healthy person (one who is mentally, morally, and physically fit).  The highest part is seen as the intellect (made up of understanding and reason) or (sometimes) the will (the faculty of choice).  The intellect and will are the higher faculties of the soul.  As in the Middle Ages, sub-intellectual forces (the passions) are distrusted.  Theoretically, then, a rationalist culture, unlike Romanticism.

Social Order.  Most relevant to drama.

An ordered society is harmonious and loving, but hierarchical, like the macrocosm.  It is headed by a monarch.

All creatures have their primates.  The lion is the primate of animals.  In a natural society, the king is the primate of humans.

By 1600, enlightened thinkers require the monarch to honour (pay respect to) all his subjects.  Medieval social theory limited honour to the noble and urban classes; it did not confer honour on the peasantry (farmers, agricultural labourers), seeing them merely as a class which needed protection.

The Elements of Creation.  Most relevant to drama.

The Renaissance view is essentially medieval.  In the non-scientist's version, the basic elements are earth, water, air, and fire.  In the scientist's version, the theory of the elements is more subtle than this and is actually a theory of elemental properties or qualities (dry, cold, wet, hot) but it is sufficient to be familiar with the simplified version which is used by imaginative writers.

Natural disturbances--like storms, volcanoes, or earthquakes--are attributed to local turmoil in the elements.  Before the Fall of Man (Adam's sin, theologically known as Original Sin) when God walked the Earth, such turmoil did not occur, for the elements were then in absolute harmony.  Since the Fall, harmony prevails overall; but local discord occurs, since God has retreated from the world.  His love or 'grace' is now more distant.

In drama, turmoil in the elements (storms etc) is often an omen or symbol of turmoil in human affairs.  Music can be a symbol of the opposite: harmony or love.

All creatures have their particular element.  The human element is earth.  Residual doubts about the legitimacy of seafaring.

Human Physiology and Character-formation.  Most relevant to fiction and drama.

Individuals have 'dispositions' or 'tempers'.  Both nature and nurture (upbringing, environment, experience) create them.  Nature influences character physiologically by setting the relative balance of the Four Humours (black bile, yellow bile, choler, phlegm).  A person with an inborn preponderance of choler, for example, is likely to be prone to anger and other strong passions.  The positions of the planets at the time of a person's birth is often believed to influence their body chemistry and thus their disposition.  Theologians state that no one is morally imprisoned by their disposition.

The theory of body chemistry is handed down from the Middle Ages.  But the Golden Age is more interested in characterology (the study of 'disposition' or temperament) and the importance of character than the Middle Ages. 

Free will.  Most relevant to fiction and drama.

The Church asserts that every person is under divine judgment and is responsible for their actions, being naturally capable of making either wrong or right choices.  The planets cannot control the soul (the seat of the intellect and the will), since they can influence only matter and the soul is not matter but spirit.

Free will is a major theological issue in the Golden Age.  The Catholic Church sees Protestantism as a threat to belief in Free Will, with some justification.  The freedom of the will is therefore much 'plugged' by the Counter-Reformation Church.  There are seminal tensions between this doctrine and the rise of character-study in fiction; e.g. the decadent hero of Francisco de Quevedo's El Buscón (early 17th century picaresque novel) becomes addicted to crime, whilst knowing he ought to reform. 

6. Major Mathematical, Scientific and Technical Discoveries in Post-Classical Europe before 1700

1050 - crossbow

1150 - papermill

1249 - eyeglasses

1250 - magnifying glass

1260 - gun/cannon

1360 - mechanical clock

1410 - wire

c.1454 - printing press

1474 - lunar nautical navigation

1504 - pocket watch

c.1540 - heliocentric planetary system (Copernicus); disproves Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model of a universe whose centre is Earth

1550 - screwdriver, wrench

1569 -screw-cutting machine; lathe

1589 - hosiery knitting machine
          - flush lavatory

1592 - first thermometer (Galileo)

1599 - silk knitting machine

1608 - telescope

1609 - astronomical telescope (Galileo)
          - laws of planetary motion (J. Kepler)

1614 - logarithms

1616 - function of the heart (W. Harvey)

1621 - slide rule

1637 - analytic geometry

1642 - calculating machine

1643 - barometer

1654 - basic laws of probability

1656 - pendulum clock

1658 - red blood cells

1660 - barometer for weather forecasting
          - static electricity observed

1666 - calculus

1668 - reflecting telescope

1676 - pressure cooker
          - artificial water filtration

1683 - bacteria

1694 - male and female reproductive organs of plants

7. Science and Philosophy; the Scientific Renaissance

The Renaissance was founded on the rediscovery of Graeco-Roman culture.  It is commonly envisaged as a flowering of the arts (most people think of painting).  In fact there is remarkable energization in all aspects of high culture including the sciences (shorthand, in these notes, for the sciences, mathematics, and technology).

A survey of major discoveries and innovations up to 1700 shows that scientific advances in Europe are very slow until about1500 and that before this date the major discoveries are practical or technological.  Afterwards greater progress is initially made in the non-experimental sciences.  This reflects the legacy of the medieval philosophy of knowledge, which emphasized the importance of deductive logic--not experience and experiment--and respect for intellectual authority.[2]  This medieval outlook comes under strain in Golden Age Spain, and in 17th century France and England systematic attempts are made to reform philosophical thought.[3]

Generally speaking, scientific progress is more rapid in the 17th century than the 16th, and progress in the 17th century is as rapid in some fields as it is in the 18th century.  In some fields it is more rapid.  The rate of progress does not dramatically accelerate until we reach the 19th century.

Though both dates are approximations, 1500 and 1800 are therefore the major landmarks in the development of science, though progress has continued unabated from c.1500 through to the present day.

Between them, philosophy and science (two indistinct fields from a GA point of view) have finally marginalized religion.  Note, however, that early reformist philosophy (e.g. Descartes) treats Christian faith with respect: faith is not superstition; it is supernatural.  However, Christian philosophy as far as possible seeks rational grounds for Christian belief, and Catholicism is perhaps more confident of the rationality of Christianity than Protestantism is.

Mathematics.  No major advances by Europeans till 1464, when the German J. Muller produces the first major text on trigonometry (published 1533).  More rapid progress in 17th century than 16th.  Steady progress in 18th and 19th.  Acceleration of progress in 20th.  Dominated by British and French in 16th and 17th centuries.

Chemistry No major advances till 16th century.  More major discoveries in 17th century than 16th.  First major post-Classical texts are late 16th century.  Chemistry is relatively slow to progress compared with other sciences.

Physics.  No major advances till 16th century, though Columbus merits a footnote: he noticed that the compass pointed in different directions at different latitudes (1492).  More rapid progress in 17th century than 16th.  Major figure is Isaac Newton (1642-1727).  His innovations included the discovery of gravity and the invention of calculus. 

Astronomy.  First major advance is the appearance of Copernicus' Concerning Revolutions (1543), which shows that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  Rate of progress declines in 18th and 19th centuries, but recovers dramatically in 20th.  Copernicus was Polish.

Biology and Bio-medical sciences.  No major developments between Pliny the Elder's Natural History (c. 50 A.D.) and 1460, when the German Heinrich von Pfolspeundt produces the first textbook of surgery.  1551 sees the first textbook on zoology, produced by a Swiss.  1616 William Harvey describes the function of the heart and the circulation of the blood.  Steady progress in 16th and 17th centuries.  Rate of progress declines in 18th. 

8.  The direct impact of scientific/technological progress on the outlook of imaginative writers 1500-1700

The Hispanic world has excelled in the arts and some other humanities.  But it has never been a leader in scientific development.  In the list of discoveries above, only the papermill was invented in Spain.  Spain has produced few world-class philosophers--some would say only one: Ramón Lull [Llull], known in England as as Raymond Lully, who died in 1316. 

In the literature of the Golden Age, scientific discoveries which do not affect social and political life are ignored.  Certain technological advances are registered.  These include:

Clocks and watches.  Heighten awareness of the passage of time.  But this is not wholly attributable to technology.  Classical writers dealt with this subject and their influence is clear in the more common examples of the theme, e.g. poems urging women to make the best of their beauty while it lasts.  These are reworkings of poems by Ausonius and Horace.  Ausonius's poem, 'De rosis nascentibus', is the source of the 'Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may' theme, comparing the duration of a woman's beauty to that of a flower.

2.  Oceanic shipping.  Often seen as unnatural by writers who were influenced by Classical and Renaissance dreams of a lost agrarian age in which man and life were perfectly good (the Age of Gold), by the surviving medieval idea that every creature had its natural element (that of man was earth, not water), and by Renaissance neo-Platonism, which stressed harmony as a natural principle.  Symbol of a civilization which has lost its innocence--materially 'advanced', we would say, but dangerously self-willed.  Associated with greed (trade; treasure-hunting in the Americas) and sometimes warfare.

3.  The rise of modern warfare--reducing the importance of close-quarters fighting and physical skills, and increasing the importance of technology and tactics.  Undercuts the relevance and dignity of the medieval ideal of martial heroism, epitomised in the heroic knights of books of chivalry, the popular 16th century genre of narrative fiction.  Must have contributed to the decline of this genre in the second half of the century.  Together with a host of other factors [4]it may have contributed to 'counter-epic' tendencies in literature of the 17th century: parodies of heroic literature (e.g. Lope de Vega's Gatomaquia [1634], a mock epic in which the characters are cats) and lesser forms of irreverance towards it (e.g. epic drama in the 17th century is inclined to absorb elements from romantic drama).

9. Printing as a Moral Issue

The use of printing is a major moral issue in the 16th century.  Clerical moralists are troubled by the rise of fiction (and later they fuss over drama).  They worry about its effects on public apprehensions of truth; they think that it stimulates the sensory imagination rather than the rational intellect; they find it sexually indecent.

Such criticism owes much to the kinds of fiction that were written.  But there was a body of thought which considered all fiction to be inferior to accurate history, simply because it was fiction.

The earliest defences of fiction pleaded that it could teach useful moral lessons, like the medieval exemplum.  Later defences referred to the Aristotelian distinction between historical truth (particular truth) and 'poetic' truth (universal truth).  It also became increasingly respectable to claim a therapeutic value for fiction (we need to relax and re-charge our batteries).  Cervantes did so for his Novelas ejemplares, though he also stressed their 'exemplarity'.

[1] Spanish nationalism and unity decline in the 17th century under the effects of military failures, poor political and military leadership, social tensions, and conflicts of economic self-interest.  A separatist movement develops in Catalonia.  Whilst the army is crushing the revolt in Catalonia (1640), Portugal, which had been annexed in 1581, successfully rebels.  A period of political turmoil follows.

[2] Chiefly Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, and Aristotle, who was known as the greatest 'philosopher'.  Philosophy was understood in both the Middle Ages and Golden Age as intellectual activity uninformed by, or conducted independently from, Christian revelation and 'faith': i.e. 'philosophy' is thinking based on natural reason alone.

[3] The leading revisionist philosophers of the 17th century were Francis Bacon and René Descartes.  Bacon was the more independently minded, though Descartes has tended to steal the limelight.  Bacon was interested in improving the human lot and was a precursor of empiricism, with a utilitarian bias.  He condemned earlier philosophers for placing excessive trust in intellectual authority and abstract reasoning, and for not attaching sufficient value to experience.  He saw the proper end of philosophy as that of achieving practical power over nature, based on experiment and achieved for the benefit of mankind.  In this sense, he is a precursor of those who place their hopes for mankind in technology. Descartes attempted to build a new philosophy of knowledge, having decided that everything previously believed needed to be doubted.  His point of departure was therefore scepticism (Scepticism was a Classical philosophy which held that it was impossible to have certain knowledge of anything).  His most famous argument is his argument for believing that he exists: 'I think, therefore I am' (Cogito, ergo sum). 

[4] The greater costliness of warfare in both economic and human terms, the rise of a non-military aristocratic class, the 17th century decline in the quality of military leadership, the 17th century's military setbacks, decadent monarchy (Philip III), and the rise of economic materialism and individualism, fuelled in part by the entrepreneurial exploitation of precious-metal deposits in the Americas.