fuenteovejunaIn this post I am looking at Fuenteovejuna a play by Lope de Vega, the Spanish Golden Age playwright who is best known outside of Spain.  There are a number of urban legends concerning him.  One says that he compiled over one thousand plays.  The people of Madrid love this story: it somehow makes Lope more of a genius than his contemporary Shakespeare.  However, I am using a digital Colección integral, or Complete Works, which has left out 994 of the other plays: there are six published here; a fine enough sample to get to know the writer.

Fuenteovejuna is the best-known of his well-known plays.  It is set in the times of Ferdinand and Isabella.  A beastly governor comes to the town of Fuenteovejuna and proceeds to act like a despot, seducing the women, stealing property and abusing the men.  The town rises up against him and kills him.  When the king sends a judge to investigate and discover the perpetrator of this crime, the townspeople will only answer “Fuenteovejuna” even under torture.  When this comes before Ferdinand he declares the town loyal to him and everyone is happy and eats partridges.  (That is the Spanish version of happy ever after: fueron felices y comieron perdices.)

Fuenteovejuna has been performed at Stratford, where modern acting and direction brought the play alive.  For an English-speaking audience, to see the production in English of a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare was a valuable insight.  They must have remarked on the quality of the drama and there were certainly some who thought the passion distinctively Spanish.  Look at this passage when Laurencia appears before the mutinous townsfolk, scoffing at their pretensions of bravado:

“Fernán Gómez took me before your eyes to his house; you left the sheep to the wolf like cowardly shepherds.  What daggers have I not seen at my breast?  What great madness, what words, what threats, what atrocious crimes, all so that I would give up my chastity to his feeble appetites?  Look at my hair!  Doesn’t it tell it all?”

And on she goes for sixty lines or so.  Do you remember Penelope Cruz in Vicky, Cristina, BarcelonaShe won an Oscar for playing a stereotypical Spanish woman:  fiery, passionate, and a little crazy.  I can imagine her taking on this scene. All the men would be gathered around speaking their lines and Penelope would erupt into the middle full of violent intensity.

Her speech should be different in kind to theirs because Lope drops the use of rhyme.  The vast majority of the play is written in rhyme and it only breaks down when Laurencia storms in.  Shakespeare uses rhyme for similar purposes: building up a structured formal pattern that he can break at the most critical moments.  Yet Spanish drama is different in kind.  It is partly a difference in the culture and partly a difference in the language.  Latin languages give themselves to rhyme much better than English and Lope takes advantage of this to work complicated patterns of rhyming through the speeches.  The rhymes loop forwards, sometimes straddling six lines.  Most of the rhyming is on alternate lines and feminine: that is grieving/leaving  rather than grief/leaf.  Shakespearean iambic pentameter ends on the stressed foot so would generally be masculine.

Whether the cultural difference comes out of the form is an interesting question.   Before I address that question, let’s have a look at a passage from just before the irruption of Laurencia (Spanish first, English version after):

Act 3

Mengo:               También vengo yo a hallarme en esta junta.

Esteban:             Un hombre cuyas canas baña el llanto,


Lope de Vega

Labradores honrados, os pregunta,

¿Qué obsequias debe hacer toda esa gente

A su patria sin honra, ya perdida?

Y si le llaman honras justamente,

¿Cómo se harán, si no hay entre nosotros

Hombre a quien este bárbaro no afrente?

Respondedme: ¿hay alguno de vosotros

Que no esté lastimado en honra y vida?

¿No os lamentáis los unos de los otros?

Pues si ya la tenéis todos perdida,

¿A qué aguardáis? ¿qué desventura es esta?

Juan Rojo           La mayor que en el mundo fue sufrida.

Mas pues ya se publica y manifiesta…


You can follow the link here to listen to me reading this passage.  I am a reader, not an actor.  You will notice that I emphasize the line endings.  It seems to me that the dramatic force of the irruption of Laurencia would be lost through an over-emphasis on meaning and an under emphasis on form.  This is highly formal language.

Here is a translation that preserves something of the rhyme scheme.  It is very hard to rhyme this way in English.  So many feminine rhymes sound artificial:

Mengo:                            Here I am.  I also came to meet you.                                  A

Esteban:                           A man whose gray hairs are wet with grieving,                B

You honourable workers, comes to greet you                  A

And ask of all the people here of duty:                               C

What owe you your country, honour losing?                    D

Were these honours ever ours resolutely?                        C

Can they be still when not one among us                          E

Has not been offended most dissolutely                                   C

By this brute?  Answer: What this man has done us,              E

Is there one of you escaped his choosing?                        D

Our mutual complaints have overrun us.                           E

Well, then, if you all are equal in your losing                    D

Why wait now?  Don’t you know what shame is?              F

Juan Rojo:                        A shame beyond the worst of any choosing.                    D

But we have all…

You can hear me reading this version here.  This is not a strict literal translation, so you are welcome to correct details in the comments, especially if you can do so within the rhyme scheme.  I hope you can appreciate how difficult it is to find words with feminine endings that rhyme in English and to find anything quite like otros, vosotros, nosotros or gente, justamente, afrente would require a Byron of ingenuity.

Whether Lope wrote a thousand plays or a mere twenty-five, the invention in sustaining these rhymes throughout the plays is truly remarkable; the fact that he does so without compromising their dramatic purpose is even more so.  It seems to me that the rhyming is a vital part of the meaning of the texts and this is where the language/culture chicken and egg question I mentioned before comes in.  The fact that Spanish allows these linguistic conceits makes it a more fertile ground for elaborate formality than English, with its short Anglo-Saxon words that pulsate with the iambic rhythm.  The breaking of the rhythm, then, is all the more significant.  When Laurencia stops rhyming it comes as a shock.  It should be instantly noticed by the audience.  It should be felt as a disruption of the rhythm.

I am generally against stereotypes of national culture.  They almost always seem to beg more questions than they answer.  For that very reason I was not happy with Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona.  I live here and don’t meet many crazy, passionate artists.  It seems like a cliché.  Yet I cannot help but feel that the aesthetic effect of the rhyming in Lope de Vega is a world removed from Shakespeare.  I haven’t put my finger on exactly what it is this time, but I shall keep exploring the theme and hopefully get closer to an understanding.

If you like reading and are interested in sharing, you might be interested in the courses I run in Asturias.  We have a new website at Villandasrural.com.  Drop me a line.  I would be delighted to hear from you.


About Jason Preater

Working on Projects
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