Don Juan Tenorio

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Don Juan Tenorio

by José Zorrilla


A romantic drama set in Seville in the years 1545 to 1550; performed and published in 1844 (as Don Juan Tenorio: drama religioso fantástico en dos partes); translated into English in 1944.


A young Spaniard leads a life of debauchery but ultimately receives salvation through the love of a pure woman.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Born in Valladolid, Spain on February 21, 1817, José Zorrilla y Moral was educated at the Real Seminario de Nobles—a Jesuit school—and later at the universities of Toledo and Valladolid. Though Zorrilla’s father hoped his son would become a lawyer, Zorrilla left his studies and went to Madrid to pursue a career as a poet. In 1837 he became an overnight success after his dramatic recital of an elegy at the funeral of the essayist and satirist Mariano José de Larra. Witnesses claimed that Zorrilla actually leaped into the grave and stood on the coffin to deliver his reading. His first volume of verse, Poesias (1837), garnered him immediate acclaim and recognition as one of the primary voices in Spain’s Romantic movement. Between 1839 and 1849, Zorrilla composed 40 plays, including Don Juan Tenorio (1844), a version that parodies the old Don Juan legend. Although Zorrilla would later disparage Don Juan Tenorio as an unsuccessful youthful experiment, the play’s lyricism, colorful characters, and engrossing plot have made it a popular favorite, still performed in Spanish theaters each year on All Saints’ Day during the first week of November. The play’s rendition of the legendary Don Juan furthermore casts him in a modified mold, one emblematic of his Romantic age.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The transformation of Don Juan

Over 200 years elapsed between Don Juan’s first onstage appearance—in Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest (1630; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times)—and his portrayal in Zorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio (1844). During those intervening years, the Don Juan legend had become widely known throughout Europe and yielded many different literary incarnations. Tirso had apparently developed his cunning libertine from various songs and ballads, and possibly from real life as well; at least one scholar suspects Don Juan to have been modeled on Don Pedro Tellez Giron, a dissolute nobleman who may have been related to Tirso.

Whatever his antecedents, however, the figure of Don Juan captured the imagination of succeeding generations of poets, dramatists, and even composers, each of whom brought their own unique perspective to the character. This was especially true of artists from other European nations. In Dom Juan ou lefestin de pierre (1665), written by the French dramatist Jean-Baptiste Moliere, Tirso’s dashing trickster became more intellectual and sophisticated, less a man of action than a calculating seducer. The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart tried a different approach in his opera Don Giovanni (1787); his character combines the wit and cynicism of Moliére’s Don Juan with the passion and daring of Tirso’s.

Other versions strayed even further from Tirso’s interpretation and made Don Juan a figure of fun rather than a menace. When the story grew popular in Italy among the comedia dell’arte (troupes of masked ensemble actors), the legend’s comic aspects began to overshadow the religious and moral themes. Don Juan became a common subject for lighter forms of entertainment—puppet shows, farces, and even pantomimes (the precursor to modern musicals). In England, on a somewhat more serious note, eighteenth-century theatergoers enjoyed such productions as Don John; or the Libertine Destroyed (Drury Lane; 1782), and Don Juan; or the Libertine Destroyed: A Tragic Pantomimical Ballet (Royalty Theatre; 1788). George Gordon, Lord Byron, the British Romantic poet, was probably well acquainted with the Don Juan of pantomimes when he wrote his own comic masterpiece, Don Juan—pronounced “joo-un”—from 1816 to 1824. Witty, bawdy, and irreverent, Byron’s mock epic did not even attempt to take the traditional legend seriously.

Nonetheless, the nineteenth century also saw a resurgence of more serious treatments of the Don Juan story, especially after the Romantic movement took hold in Germany, Britain, France, and Spain. More attention was paid to Don Juan’s individuality and motivations, to the desires and frustrations underlying his libertine behavior. German author August Heinrich Hoffman depicts Don Juan as continually disappointed in his quest for the ideal woman, and this repeated failure as fueling his resentment against God and his fellow man. José Zorrilla’s bold stroke in Don Juan Tenorio was to return the character to his origins as a ruthless trickster, as he was in Tirso’s play, but also to make him susceptible to true love, willing—however briefly—to redeem himself for love’s sake, and, at the last, capable of repenting and being saved through love, as none of his precursors had been.

Don Juan’s Seville

The setting of Don Juan Tenorio—sixteenth-century Seville—enhances the play’s passionate, colorful atmosphere. Situated on the Guadalquivir River, the port city of Seville enjoyed a period of great prosperity after the discovery of the New World in 1492. Successful trade with the Americas established Seville as one of Europe’s most prominent centers of commerce; indeed, much of daily life in Seville was regulated by the arrival and departure of transatlantic trade ships. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people from diverse professions—actors, artists, missionaries, navigators, adventurers—converged upon the city, transforming it into a cultural and intellectual as well as a commercial capital of the world. Between 1533 and 1594, the population of Seville more than doubled: from 41,224 to 90,000 inhabitants (Ruiz, p. 57).

One idiosyncrasy of Renaissance Seville was its lack of a social and stable upper middle class. The hidalgos—minor nobility—who formed an important component of other Spanish cities, such as Madrid, hardly existed in Andalusia, the region where Seville is located. In Seville, businessmen and entrepreneurs who may have begun in the middle class tended to succumb, after making their fortunes, to what historian Marcelin Defourneaux describes as “the snobbish longing for ennoblement. … These merchants, wishing to climb up the social ladder, could buy titles or public appointments, such as becoming ‘one of the Twenty-four’ (a municipal magistrate), which considerably enhanced their social status” (Defourneaux, p. 83). Seville did, however, contain several great aristocratic families, whose wealth was usually derived from the vast domains they held in the lower Guadalquivir regions. Some of these families were so wealthy that they built palaces in Seville. The Tenorios in Zorrilla’s play are just such a family; Don Diego owns a palace that, on his deathbed, he orders razed to the ground because of the misdeeds of his son, Don Juan.

Defourneaux contends that the city’s vast prosperity created “a very particular Sevillean mentality” among its wealthier citizens (Defourneaux, p. 84). The rapidity with which fortunes in trade could be made—and lost—fostered “a sudden desire to enjoy the pleasures and refinements which wealth could provide and a certain detachment in regard to money, which should not be hoarded but spent. Thus the whole of the social life of Seville reflected a certain insouciance combined with a taste for ostentation” (Defourneaux, p. 85). Seville’s richest inhabitants built palatial houses, dressed splendidly, and dined sumptuously. And Seville’s public festivals—religious and secular—were magnificent to the point of, as Defourneaux suggests, ostentation. In Zorrilla’s play, Don Juan Tenorio demonstrates that he is a true son of Seville, at least in matters of money. The young libertine thinks nothing of bribing Doña Inés’s duenna (chaper-one) and Doña Ana’s maid with purses of gold in exchange for access to their mistresses. Nor has he any difficulty in finding and hiring bravos (hired thugs) to detain his rivals or help him abduct Doña Inés from her convent.

Carnival season

The first four acts of Don Juan Tenorio take place in a single night during carnival season of the year 1545, the period of feasting and celebration in Roman Catholic countries that immediately precedes Lent. Derived from the medieval Latin phrase “carnem levare” (take away the meat), carnival appears to have originated in Italy during the fifteenth century, becoming popular in France and Spain in the sixteenth century. Some scholars contend that carnival may have its roots in pagan festivals such as Saturnalia in ancient Rome (the festival of the god Saturn a period of unrestrained revelry in December). Certainly, like Saturnalia, carnival celebrated rejuvenation in the natural world—the end of winter and the beginning of spring—and did so with feasts, dances, and often the exchange of gifts among celebrants. Carnival festivities were to some extent sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. Although overindulgence was frowned upon, popes even became patrons of carnival at times; during his tenure (1464–71), Pope Paul II ordered various races to be held in Rome and introduced masked balls.

The start and duration of carnival season varied among nations and localities. For many countries, however, carnival commenced on Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday before Lent—which began on Ash Wednesday—and 40 days before Easter). In Spain at the time of Don Juan Tenorio, carnival festivities would have likely ceased by Ash Wednesday. Zorrilla’s choice to set his play during the brief carnival season adds an element of local color—in the form of the masked revelers who avidly discuss and observe Don Juan’s escapades—and enhances the hectic atmosphere as Don Juan scrambles to outwit his many opponents at both love and intrigue. Moreover, the sensual excesses of carnival season provide a marked contrast to the religious austerity of Doña Inés, the novice nun whose innocence improbably captivates Don Juan and leads him to contemplate redemption.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

One night during carnival season, a masked Don Juan Tenorio arrives at the Hosteria del Laurel (Laurel Tavern). The young gallant writes a mysterious letter, commanding his servant, Marcos Ciutti, to deliver it to a certain “Doña Inés” and bring back a reply. Meanwhile, more masked revelers converge upon the Laurel Tavern; many are Don Juan’s own friends and acquaintances, eager to learn the result of a wager made a year ago between Don Juan and another gallant, Don Luis Mejía. Also among the throng, however, are Don Gonzalo de Ulloa—comendador mayor (a high-ranking official) of the order of Calatrava—and Don Diego Tenorio. Each has his own reasons for attempting to discern Don Juan’s true character.

The hour of reckoning (8:00 p.m.) arrives: it is revealed that Don Juan and Don Luis wagered which of them could do more harm in 12 months. Before an avid audience, the two men meet, unmask, and regale each other with tales of their misdeeds during the past year, which include seductions, abandonments, brawls, duels, killings, and thefts. When they compare written records, Don Juan is revealed as the victor. His list of sexual conquests, however, lacks two kinds of women: a nun and the bride of a friend. Don Juan boasts that he can manage to attain both in 6 days and informs his rival that the bride in question will be none other than Doña Ana de Pantoja, whom Don Luis intends to marry the next day. Incensed, Don Luis warns Don Juan that the stake in this wager will be life, but Don Juan readily accepts the terms.

Just then, an outraged Don Gonzalo and Don Diego confront the younger men. Don Gonzalo reveals himself as the father of convent-bred Doña Inés—Don Juan’s prospective bride—and declares he would rather see his daughter dead than married to such a scoundrel. Don Diego, Don Juan’s own father, likewise expresses his disgust and publicly disowns his son. Don Juan openly defies both men, vowing to live his life to please only himself.

In an attempt to forestall Don Juan’s seduction of Doña Ana, Don Luis lodges an accusation that results in his rival’s arrest by the night watch. However, Don Juan has employed similar tactics so that Don Luis is arrested by another night patrol. Freed with the help of his friends, Don Luis hurries to Doña Ana’s house to warn her. She agrees to let her betrothed into the house at ten o’clock, so that he can prevent an entrance by Don Juan. But Don Juan, also freed from custody, overhears their conversation and plots to impersonate Don Luis to gain access to the house and Doña Ana. Encountering Don Luis in the street, Don Juan has his own men bind, gag, and carry off his rival, then bribes Doña Ana’s maid to give him the key to the house at ten o’clock that night.

Don Juan’s other scheme—to abduct Doña Inés from her convent—also progresses. Meeting with Doña Inés’s duenna, Brígida, whom he has bribed to deliver a letter to the young woman, Don Juan learns from her that the innocent Doña Inés already loves him, without ever having seen him. Entrusting Don Juan with a key to the convent garden, Brígida reveals the location of Doña Inés’s cell before taking her leave.

At the Convent of the Calatrava Order, the Abbess praises Doña Inés for her piety and longs for the day when the girl will take her final vows as a nun. Alone, however, Inés confesses that her religious vocation, once so strong, has withered because of her newfound passion for Don Juan. Brígida, the girl’s duenna, arrives at their shared cell and quickly directs Inés’s attention to Don Juan’s letter, hidden in a book of hours. On reading her suitor’s impassioned verses, Doña Inés is so overcome by love that she swoons at the sight of Don Juan entering her cell at nine o’clock that night. Pleased with his success, Don Juan easily carries off the unconscious girl, accompanied by a fearful Brígida, from the convent. Shortly after their flight, Don Gonzalo arrives at the convent to make certain that his daughter remains cloistered, but discovers that she has already been kidnaped by Don Juan, and rides to her rescue.

Midnight finds Brígida and Doña Inés safely lodged in Don Juan’s country house beside the Guadalquivir River on the outskirts of Seville. When Inés awakens, Brígida tells her the convent was on fire and Don Juan saved them. Not entirely convinced, Doña Inés prepares to flee the house but is prevented by the arrival of Don Juan, returned from his seduction of Doña Ana. Doña Inés pleads for her release but Don Juan assures her of her safety and makes a persuasive and impassioned declaration of love. Overwhelmed, Inés then confesses that she loves Don Juan and cannot live without him. Genuinely moved by her devotion, Don Juan vows to redeem himself so that Don Gonzalo will consent to their marriage.

Don Juan’s noble intentions are thwarted, however, by the arrivals of Don Luis and Don Gonzalo, both determined to avenge the dishonor done to their loved ones. Refusing to believe Don Juan’s supplications, Don Gonzalo will not grant him Inés’s hand in marriage and furthermore accuses him of cowardice. Don Luis inflames the situation by taunting Don Juan. Enraged by their combined insults, Don Juan shoots Don Gonzalo and runs his sword through Don Luis, then leaps into the river to escape the police pounding at his door. Emerging from her chamber, Doña Inés discovers her father’s corpse and is devastated to learn that Don Juan killed him. But the prospect of Don Juan’s being punished for his crimes dismays her too.

Five years after the events of that night, as the second part of the play begins, a sculptor adds the finishing touches to a pantheon of statues. He is interrupted at his labors by a masked man who claims to have been away from Spain for several years and who seeks to know the story behind the pantheon. The sculptor reveals that, on his deathbed, Don Diego Tenorio ordered his palace razed and a cemetery built for the victims of his wicked son, Don Juan. Warming to his theme, the sculptor displays to the stranger all of his statues, including that of Doña Inés, who died in her convent after Don Juan abandoned her. The masked man gives the sculptor a purse of gold to reward him for the beauty of his labors, then reveals himself as Don Juan and orders the sculptor to leave the grounds.

Kneeling before Doña Inés’s monument in this midsummer night, Don Juan recalls his lost love and near-redemption, and prays wistfully to her spirit to ask God’s mercy for him. Suddenly, the statue disappears and Don Juan finds himself speaking to the ghost of Doña Inés, who tells him she has made a bargain with God either to bring Don Juan’s soul back to heaven with her or to be damned with him for all eternity. The choice is to be Don Juan’s, however—and he must decide by dawn.

After Inés’s spirit departs, Don Juan questions what he has seen and heard, although her statue is still missing. He also expresses doubt that his years of sin and depravity could ever be forgiven by God. Sensing that the pantheon statues have turned towards him, Don Juan shouts his defiance at them, attracting the attention of two passers-by—Don Rafael de Avellaneda and Captain Centellas—who are drinking companions from his days in Seville. The three men renew their acquaintance. Don Juan invites his friends to dine with him, then brashly extends the same invitation to the statue of Don Gonzalo, announcing that only his late enemy’s presence at his table will convince him of an afterlife. Avellaneda and Centellas express unease at such fool-hardiness, but Don Juan declares that the dead do not frighten him.

While drinking and dining at Don Juan’s house, the trio hear increasingly loud knocks upon the doors. After Don Juan bolts the door, the statue of Don Gonzalo comes through the door without opening it. Avellaneda and Centellas faint, leaving Don Juan alone with his onetime enemy, who informs Don Juan that he will die the next day and that the fate of his soul hangs in the balance. Don Gonzalo then invites Don Juan to come and make his choice to repent or be damned beside Don Gonzalo’s tomb, subsequently disappearing through the wall. Still plagued by doubts, Don Juan attempts to dismiss Don Gonzalo’s visitation as trickery, even after Doña Inés’s shade reappears to plead with him once more. Rousing his unconscious friends, Don Juan accuses them of staging the visitation; they, in turn, accuse him of drugging them, and challenges to a duel are issued. Captain Centellas kills Don Juan outside his new home (as explained by the statue of Doña Inés’s father, the Comendador Don Gonzalo).

Early the next morning, Don Juan returns to the cemetery, where the statues of Inés and Don Gonzalo are both missing. His knock upon Don Gonzalo’s tomb transforms it into a banquet table that horribly mimics his own of the previous night. Snakes, bones, and ashes are served as dishes, goblets burn with fire, and ghostly guests sit around the table. Don Gonzalo’s statue again attempts to tell Don Juan of the power of repentance, but the young man remains skeptical, even after learning that his earthly form was slain in the duel with his friends and is now being prepared for burial. As the funeral procession approaches the cemetery, Don Gonzalo takes hold of Don Juan’s hand through trickery, then prepares to drag him off to hell. Frantic, Don Juan finally prays for divine forgiveness, stretching out his free hand to heaven.

The tomb of Doña Inés opens and her shade emerges to take his outstretched hand. Don Gonzalo and the other phantoms vanish as Inés’s shade assures Don Juan of his salvation. They sink together onto a bed of flowers scattered by angels, and their joined souls—in the form of flames—mount to heaven as the play ends.

Faith and skepticism

Although Zorrilla’s Don Juan is as reckless and bold as the Don Juan first presented in Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville, ultimately both interpretations are very much the products of their times. Nowhere is this perhaps more obvious than in the character’s differing philosophies.

Hedonistic and confident to the point of hubris, Tirso’s Don Juan does not engage in self-analysis or reflection; rather, he lives entirely in the moment, never considering the future or the consequences of his misdeeds. By contrast, Zorrilla’s Don Juan resembles other Romantic figures, such as Byron’s Childe Harold and Manfred, in his brooding sensibility, self-scrutiny, and ongoing conflict between his higher and lower impulses. In a moment of introspection, Zorrilla’s Don Juan admits to sharing the priests’ belief “that there’s a fallen angel / Lives in each man. My heart is like a cloister, / Wherein the man I might have been, the man I might / Still be, is shut away from sun and liberty” (Zorrilla, Don Juan Tenorio, p. 74). Nonetheless, he feels impelled to continue his libertine ways: “I bear a fire within me / That calls for victims, that unless I feed it, / Makes me a walking hell; sin’s my religion, / Ill-deeds my sacraments, myself the priest. / What’s law to me whose only law’s desire?” (Don Juan Tenorio, p. 74).

Don Juan’s sense of isolation is heightened by his failure to redeem himself through the love of Doña Inés. As he sees it, if salvation does not come through her, it will probably not come at all. The failure contributes to his skepticism—his ongoing doubt and need to challenge accepted beliefs, especially with regard to religion. This is another trait that sets him apart from his literary precursor. Tirso’s Don Juan is not a skeptic, an unbeliever, or a heretic; indeed, he believes in God and arrogantly trusts that he will escape damnation for his wicked deeds by confessing his sins and receiving absolution while on his deathbed. Zorrilla’s Don Juan, however, not only doubts his own salvation but the very existence of an afterlife, cynically declaring.

All that we are is here. We are not born
But as the brutes are; and like brutes we perish,
Crumble and rot; the rest is windy talk,
And traps of crafty priests that work men’s fears
Of a hereafter, sell them dear salvation
By masses, candles, bulls, and trips to Rome.
          (Don Juan Tenorio, p. 172)

Even after Don Juan receives proof of the existence of an afterlife by means of the animation of Don Gonzalo’s statue, the young Spaniard continues to doubt divine mercy and his ability to earn it. Although the statue exhorts, “Repentance yet can change a soul’s direction; / And heaven’s grace gives you one moment more,” a defiant, despairing Don Juan asks, “How shall one moment weigh the balance down / Against the weight of thirty years of sin? / … Shall God receive him who rejected God?” (Don Juan Tenorio, pp. 208–209). Don Juan’s skepticism, mingled with his self-doubt, hinders his ability to place his faith in a higher authority or to embrace the concepts of grace and repentance. Not until damnation has literally taken him by the hand can Zorrilla’s Don Juan beg for the mercy that he doubts so thoroughly could ever be accorded to him.

While the skepticism of Zorrilla’s Don Juan is in keeping with the Romantic emphasis on the individual and his particular sentiments, it is worth noting that skepticism as a philosophy may have existed as early as 1000-600 b.c.e. Modern skepticism can be said to date from the sixteenth century as voyages of exploration, scientific discoveries, and religious movements such as the Reformation radically changed the entire world view of Western Europe. Significantly, Zorrilla sets Don Juan Tenorio not during the medieval era of Tirso’s The Trickster of Seville but during the mid-sixteenth century—1545 to 1550, to be precise—in the midst of these dramatic historical changes. Thus, it could be argued that Don Juan’s skepticism is as much the product of the play’s setting as of the dramatist’s Romanticism, or of Zorrilla’s faith in the Virgin Mary, who, as the Mother of Jesus, can intercede on behalf of a sinner’s salvation. Doña Inés fulfils such a role in Don Juan Tenorio.

Sources and literary context

According to Zorrilla’s autobiography, Don Juan Tenorio was written at the request of a theater-owner friend facing bankruptcy, and the play took only 20 days to complete. In all probability, Zorrilla was already familiar with his country’s popular folk-hero; indeed, only Don Quixote might be said to exceed Don Juan in familiarity to Spanish audiences. A variety of prior treatments of the story would also have been available, including Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville (1630; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portugese Literatures and Their Times) and Antonio de Zamora’s No hay plazo que no se cumpla ni deuda que no se pague (1722; There is no term that does not expire nor debt that is not paid). The latter work, while less famous than Tirso’s, might well have had the more immediate influence on Zorrilla’s play. Literary scholar L. L. McClelland noted Zamora’s embellishments to Tirso’s starker play:


The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines grace as “the super-natural gift that God, of his free benevolence, bestows on rational creatures for their eternal salvation” (Hardon, p. 236) “Grace” can only be bestowed freely by God—it cannot be claimed, coerced, or demanded. Repentance means ’Voluntary sorrow [for having committed an offense against God] … together with the resolve to amend one’s conduct by taking the necessary means to avoid the occasions of sin” (Hardon, p. 463). Both “grace” and “repentance” play pivotal roles in Zorrilla’s play; the proud Don Juan cannot bring himself to believe in the former, nor, at first, can he humble himself to express the latter. His last-minute act of contrition, however—together with Inés’s love—earns him the gift of God’s grace and allows his soul to be saved.

[T]he amount of sword-play is trebled; hidings and masqueradings occur more frequently; a new company of students provides riotous entertainment; all of which interrupts the powerful, sweeping movement of the original and turns it into a mixture of cloak-and-sword play and comedy of magic. Don Juan himself is not allowed to rest on the laurels of his former ill-gained victories. He must pursue his wicked ways more deliberately. He must kill more and deceive more, mock more and defy more.

(McClelland, p. 202)

Certainly, in terms of tone and atmosphere, Don Juan Tenorio resembles Zamora’s play more closely than Tirso’s, employing such elaborate touches as the fiery goblets at the feast held by the dead and stage directions that call for various ghosts to walk through walls or disappear through trap doors. Moreover, Zamora apparently ends his play with a hint of possible redemption for its swaggering anti-hero, an idea Zorrilla adopts and brings to full fruition.

Whatever the extent of these influences, Don Juan Tenorio emerges as both derivative and innovative. It contains elements of capa-y-espada (cape and sword) comedies, religious parables, swashbuckling romance, and supernatural fantasy. Zorrilla himself described Don Juan Tenorio as a drama religioso-fantdstico, humorously noting that the seven-act drama violated every canon of the theater (Don Juan Tenorio, p. xi). Some nineteenth- and twentieth-century commentators pronounced Don Juan Tenorio poorly constructed and overly sentimental, yet few could deny that Zorrilla had written a colorful and engrossing work featuring a generous, passionate Don Juan with whom audiences could fully sympathize.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

The Romantic Movement in Spain

During the absolutist regime of Ferdinand VII (1814–33), many Spanish liberals were exiled to England and France where they came into contact with the intellectual and aesthetic movement known as Romanticism, which the émigrés helped popularize upon their return to Spain in the 1830s. European Romanticism had begun in the late eighteenth century as a reaction against Neoclassicism, which emphasized the ideals and standards of classical Greece and Rome. Plays and poems of the Neoclassical period were judged according to how well they adhered to established verse or dramatic forms or how faithfully they upheld the classical dramatic unities of time, space, and action. Intellect and reason were the guiding forces in the Neoclassical movement.

By contrast, Romanticism emphasized elements that Neoclassicism disdained, such as imagination, emotion, and the importance of the individual as opposed to society. Proponents of the new movement altered their entire criteria of aesthetic evaluation, concentrating on the emotions infused into and evoked by the artist’s work. Between them, England and Germany produced many dominant figures in Romanticism, including poets William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Heinrich Heine and composers Richard Wagner and Ludwig Von Beethoven. Spain too yielded many talented authors—Mariano José de Larra; José de Espronceda; Ángel de Saavedra, Duque de Rivas; and José Zorrilla. More renowned nationally than internationally, they emerged during that comparatively brief period from 1833 to 1850, when Spanish Romanticism was at its height.

Salient traits of Spanish Romanticism included exaltation of the individual; the pursuit of political, artistic, and personal freedom; the choice of exotic and antique settings; and the rediscovery of the nation’s traditional myths and heroes. Spanish Romantics embraced their past, reexploring medieval poetry and Golden Age drama but integrating their own perspectives as well. In Don Juan Tenorio, Zorrilla resurrects the traditional folk-hero made famous in medieval ballads and Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville; however, the sensibility that infuses the play is Zorrilla’s own. In Zorrilla’s hands, Don Juan emerges a quintessential Romantic figure: a proud, passionate, flamboyant individual who scorns human and divine authority alike but who is not immune to the pure love that becomes his ultimate salvation.


Premiering on March 28, 1844, Don Juan Tenorio enjoyed moderate first-night success and remains a popular favorite with Spanish audiences today. Later, in his autobiography, Zorrilla scoffed at the play as “the greatest nonsense ever written” and pointed out how it violated all the canons of the theater (Don Juan Tenorio, p. xi). Nonetheless, Zorilla’s best claim to enduring fame probably rests in his authorship of Don Juan Tenorio.

After Zorrilla’s death on January 23, 1893, many critics and reviewers passed judgement on the play. While some disagreed about Zorrilla’s technical skills as a dramatist, nearly all agreed that Don Juan Tenorio—whatever flaws it might possess—was an undeniably engrossing work and its author’s best claim to immortality. In Poet Lore, Fanny Hale Gardiner noted Don Juan Tenorio’s resounding popular success: “Fifty years of unabated applause for what was the work of twenty days to a young man of twenty-seven years, seems an incontrovertible verdict for genius and renown. It is probably safe to predict for it another fifty years of the same popularity” (Gardiner in Harris and Fitzgerald, p. 523). Gardiner was especially impressed by Zorrilla’s transformation of his source material, proclaiming, “Although Zorrilla has simply resurrected and rehabilitated a mass of old legend, his work has thrown all other versions into the shade. … Don Juan Tenorio is the most important of his poetic productions, the greatest of his legends, and it encloses all his poetic personality” (Gardiner in Harris and Fitzgerald, p. 523–24). In Poetry Review, Ella Crosby Heath subjected Zorrilla to a more critical analysis, remarking, “His work is often lacking in unity, and weak in construction, but when the foundations were laid, and the structure indicated, as in the national legends, his facility of execution and his felicity of phrase gave the theme new life and fresh beauty” (Heath in Harris and Fitzgerald, p. 524). Summing up the enduring appeal of Zorrilla’s best-known play, Heath wrote:

Don Juan Tenorio, Zorrilla’s supreme claim to immortality, is one of the most surprising plays ever penned. Only a Spaniard could have written it, and only in Spain can it be entirely understood and appreciated. It begins on a spirited note of brilliant comedy which develops into a farcical but equally brilliant flippancy; it passes from comedy to romantic and tragic drama.

(Heath in Harris and Fitzgerald, p. 524)

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Carr, Raymond, ed. Spain: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Defourneaux, Marcelin. Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age. Trans. Newton Branch. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970.

Hardon, John A., S. J. Modern Catholic Dictionary. Garden City: Doubleday, 1980.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen, and Sheila Fitzgerald, eds. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticim. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Kamen, Henry. Spain 1469–1714. London: Longman’s, 1983.

McClelland, I. L. The Origins of the Romantic Movement in Spain. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1975.

Ortiz, Antonio Dominguez. The Golden Age of Spain 1516–1659. Trans. James Casey. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Rosenberg, John R. The Black Butterfly: Concepts of Spanish Romanticism. University: Romance Monographs, 1998.

Ruiz, Teofilo F. Spanish Society 1400–1600. London: Longman’s Press, 2001.

Silver, Philip W. Ruin and Restitution: Reinterpreting Romanticism in Spain. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.

Zorrilla, José. Don Juan Tenorio. Trans. Walter Owen. Buenos Aires: Walter Owen, 1944.

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Don Juan Tenorio

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