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Fuente Ovejuna

Fuente Ovejuna

by Lope de Vega

THE LITERARY WORK

A play set in a small town in Cordoba, Spain, in the year 1476; published in Spanish (as Fuente Ovejuna) in 1619; in English in 1959.

SYNOPSIS

The citizens of Fuente Ovejuna rise up against and kill their tyrannical overlord.

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

Lope Félix de Vega Carpio was born in Madrid, Spain, in 1562 and educated at the University of Alcalá de Henares. In 1583 he became involved in the theater world, writing several plays for his mistress Elena Osorio, an actress and the daughter of an actor-manager. The love affair ended badly in 1587, after which Lope vented his feelings in writing. He circulated scurrilous verses about Elena and her family that resulted in his being convicted of malicious libel and exiled from Madrid for eight years and from Castile for two years. During his banishment, Lope married Isabel De Urbina by proxy. In 1588 he sailed with the Spanish Armada in its ill-fated attack on England, then took up residence with his bride in Valencia, where his career as a professional playwright began in earnest. After his exile from the region of Castile ended, Lope moved to Toledo, then to Alba de Torres, entering the service of the Duke of Alba, the first of many noblemen he would serve until deciding to become a priest in 1613. Until his death in 1635, however, Lope conducted numerous romantic liaisons and, according to modern scholars, composed an estimated 340 plays. Two notable plays among others in his corpus are El Caballero de Olmedo, the story of a young nobleman who rides to and fro from Olmedo to Medina to court a girl, though warned that if he continues he will meet with an unhappy fate, and Peribánez y el Comendador de Ocaña, a play on country life that includes a villainous nobleman and a king who champions the commoner. Fuente Ovejuna (The Sheep-Well; also spelled Fuenteovejuna) is noted for its stirring depiction of history and its critique of the abuses of political power.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The war of Castilian succession

The ongoing conflict over the throne of Castile forms the historical background in Fuente Ovejuna. In December 1474 Enrique IV of Castile died after declaring his 13-year-old daughter Juana his rightful heir. His death sparked a war of succession that would last until 1479. There were two main contenders for the throne: Juana, whose legitimacy was doubtful (her detractors claimed she was actually fathered by Don Beltrén de la Cueva, her mother’s favorite at court); the second contender was Isabel (Isabella), Enrique’s younger half-sister. A third contender, Fernando (Ferdinand), the king of Sicily and prince of Aragon, who was Enrique’s cousin and Isabel’s husband, was not really a claimant in his own right but rather through his wife, Isabel.

In fact, Isabel was considered to have the strongest legal claim—unlike Juana, she was unquestionably legitimate and, unlike Fernando, she was Castilian born and bred. Moreover, at the time of the king’s death, Isabel was conveniently situated in Segovia, a city not far to the north of Madrid, the city in which Enrique died. Within hours of receiving the news, Isabel had her succession proclaimed; next, she secured the royal treasure, and, a few days later, assumed the crown. After Isabel was proclaimed Queen, the Castilian Cortes (parliament) met in Segovia and swore allegiance to her; accepting these developments, Fernando hurried to Castile, quickly establishing his own position as king consort. Meanwhile, despite the rumors of her illegitimacy, Enrique’s daughter, Juana, had acquired supporters and a powerful ally in her uncle Afonso V, King of Portugal, who betrothed himself to her in early 1475. In May 1475, Juana issued her own claim to the throne of Castile. The Spanish nobility found itself divided: while the people of Segovia completely supported Isabel’s claim, several highborn families of Castile opposed it, and a few nobles, like the Marquess of Villena, played both sides against each other for their own gain. Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto describes the ensuing conflict:

[It was] a war without fronts, with rebellions and counter rebellions spread across Castile like pin-heads in a map, but there were to be three main theaters of conflict: one in the north, where Afonso was poised to invade and where the [Portuguese] Duke of Arevalo was stirring up insurgency; another in the centre where the Marquess of Villena was most active; and a last in the South, where the Count of Uruena sought to exploit divisions among the monarchs’ supporters.

(Fernández-Armesto, pp. 16–17)

In March 1476—about a month before the events in Fuente Ovejuna take place—the contest yielded an important victory for Isabel and Ferdinand: Castilian forces cut off the supplies of the Portuguese troops, then defeated them conclusively at the Battle of Toro. The triumph consolidated Isabel’s position as heir to the throne and increased her contingent of supporters. After Isabel produced a healthy male heir in 1476, opposition to her claim grew even weaker. In September 1479, the treaty of Alcacovas-Toledo ended the war: on behalf of himself and Juana, Afonso V renounced all rights and claims to the Castilian throne. The betrothal between Afonso and Juana was dissolved, Juana was sent to the convent of Santa Clara at Coimbra, and Isabel became the undisputed Queen of Castile.

The Military Order of Calatrava

The involvement of Castile’s three major religious-military orders further complicated the war of succession. Established in the twelfth century, the monastic knightly orders of Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcantara were created to defend the Christian states of Spain against the Muslims. The intention was for these orders to embody the religious and secular ideals of chivalry; however, over the years, the orders became distracted by mundane, materialistic concerns. They acquired great wealth and power, with which they were reluctant to part. Many nobles eagerly sought inclusion in the orders. Members were subject only to the authority of their grand masters—the heads of the orders—and officials, and, as religious knights, they enjoyed clerical as well as aristocratic privileges, such as the right to hold land. During the war of succession and the early years of her reign, Queen Isabel increasingly came to see the orders as a threat to her authority.

At the time that Fuente Ovejuna takes place, the Grand Mastership of the Military Order of Calatrava was held by Don Rodrigo Téllez Girón, 17 years old and the illegitimate son of the previous Grand Master, Don Pedro Girón. Don Pedro had, in fact, been selected by Enrique IV of Castile as a husband for Isabel, then the Infanta (princess). After receiving a papal dispensation that allowed him to put aside the monastic vow of chastity he had taken, Don Pedro set out in 1466 to claim his bride but fell ill on the journey and died. Before his death, Don Pedro had chosen his eight-year-old son Rodrigo as his successor as Grand Master of Calatrava. Until 1474, however, the real chief of the order was Don Juan Pacheco, Rodrigo’s uncle and the Marquess of Villena, whom Pope Paul II designated to be coadjutor. Don Juan Pacheco would serve as head of the order until Rodrigo came of age.

During the war of succession, the Girón family, one of the most powerful and influential in Castile, favored Juana’s claim to the throne. In 1476, acting on the advice of his brother and cousin, Don Rodrigo Tellez Gíron and several of his knights attacked and seized Ciudad Real, which occupied an important strategic position between Castile and Portugal. His triumph was short-lived: Fernando and Isabel’s forces quickly recaptured Ciudad Real. Eventually, Don Rodrigo was reconciled with Fernándo and Isabel, who excused his conduct because of his extreme youth and the undue influence exerted on him by his family, especially his late uncle, Villena. Don Rodrigo raised no more rebellions but served his sovereigns loyally until his death in battle at Loja in 1482. Although Don Rodrigo’s attack on Ciudad Real is the more minor of the two subplots in Fuente Ovejuna, Lope effectively depicts the young Master of Calatrava’s ambition, familial pride, and ultimate repentance of his rash actions. Lope does, however, take a liberty with one of the powerful members of the Order of Calatrava, the comen-dador mayor Fernán Gómez de Guzmán. (A comen-dador mayor was second only to the Grand Master of a military order.) To make Fernán Gómez, who was also overlord of Fuente Ovejuna, more villainous, Lope has him, rather than the Giróns, persuade Don Rodrigo to attack Ciudad Real.

The Fuente Ovejuna uprising

Like many of Lope’s historical plays, Fuente Ovejuna is based on an actual event: a peasant rebellion in April 1476 that resulted in the death of a feudal overlord. Even before the uprising, however, the real Fuente Ovejuna—a town situated in the province of Córdoba with a population of less than 1,000 inhabitants—had an unusual history. In 1460 Fuente Ovejuna became a bone of contention between Córdoba and Don Pedro Girón, who was the Grand Master of Calatrava at the time. As a reward for Girón’s loyalty to the Castilian throne, Enrique IV conferred upon him in perpetuity the towns of Fuente Ovejuna and Bélmez. The citizens of Córdoba, however, opposed Girón’s claims to the lands and petitioned the crown for their return. In time, after much haggling on all sides, Enrique IV annulled the grants of Fuente Ovejuna and Belméz to Pedro Giró, who, by this time, held the more desirable towns of Os-una and Cazalla. Córdoba thus received the right

THE CATHOLIC MONARCHS

The joint reign of Isabel (ruled 1474–1504) and Fernando (ruled 1474–1516) was considered among the greatest in Spain’s history. During their years on the throne, Isabel and Fernando ruled the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under their double crown. They implemented a code of law, imposed religious uniformity on their populations, broke the power of the nobles, and brought the region’s economy under royal control. Two of their most notable triumphs took place in 1492: the re-conquest of Granada, the last outpost of Moorish opposition against Spain, and the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, whose exploration was financed by Isabel and Fernando. In recognition of the latter event, Pope Alexander VI conferred upon Isabel and Fernando the grand title of “los reyes CatóIicos” (the Catholic kings). They have been known by this title, or by the title Catholic Monarchs, ever since. The Catholic Monarchs expanded Christendom, adding a seemingly limitless territory to the empire of Catholic Spain. The prestige bestowed upon Isabel and Fernando by their new title was, by extension, bestowed upon Spain, which emerged as a dominant power in the Christian world. In Fuente Ovejuna, Lope has his characters refer to Isabel and Fernándo as “the Catholic kings,” even though they did not yet hold that title at the time the play takes place. Lope made conscious use of the label nonetheless, reminding audiences of Spain’s former glory, when the Catholic kings sat on the throne.

to recover by arms the places that had been taken from it; violence proved unnecessary, because Fuente Ovejuna and Bélmez had never became disaffected from Córdoba.

Civil dissension between the two citizens Alfonso de Aguilar and Don Diego Fernández de Córdoba over control of Córdoba, however, created a distraction that Fernán Gómez, comendadormayor of the Order of Calatrava, exploited. In 1468, taking advantage of the distraction, he employed the force of arms to seize Fuente Ovejuna for himself and his military order. Subsequently, on April 22, 1476, a crowd of about 1,000 peasants stormed the comendador mayor’s residence, overcame his guards after a long night of fighting, forced their way inside, and slew the comendador mayor when he confronted them. The mutilated corpse of Fernán Gómez was thrown out the window, suffering further indignities at the hands of the crowd. Investigation of the incident by an emissary of the royal authorities failed to establish individual guilt—under interrogation, townspeople reportedly said only that Fuente Ovejuna had killed Fernán Gómez. Ultimately no one was punished for the crime. Control over Fuente Ovejuna reverted to the Order of Calatrava. The pope blamed Córdoba for the uprising, thinking it may have instigated the resistance, so he refused to reward the Córdobans with Fuente Ovejuna.

What did Fernán Gómez do to suffer such a fate? History presents conflicting portrayals of his character and rule. A chronicle by Francisco de Rades y Andrada’s (Chrónica de las tres Ordenes y Cavallerias de Santiago, Calatrava y Alcantara [1572])—to which Lope de Vega faithfully adhered—depicted the comendador mayor as a cruel, brutal tyrant who oppressed the citizens of Fuente Ovejuna economically and pursued the townswomen ruthlessly. This unflattering depiction was echoed in Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco’s Emblemas morales (1610) and Tesoro de la lengua castellana (1611). Literary scholar Claude E. Anibal, however, cites other fifteenth-century writers, including historian Alonso Fernández de Palencia (1423–92) and Pedro Tafur, who praised Fernán Gómez’s military prowess, noble character, and love of culture and refinement. Evaluating his conduct as overlord of Fuente Ovejuna, Anibal argues that

The Comendador must be judged by the standards of his time. Probably he did not abuse the recognized rights of any feudal baron, and certainly he was no worse than the Giróns, the Pachecos, or many another fellow nobles of this cruel and loose epoch. Indeed contemporary testimony recognizes in him an unusually high degree of respectability. He seems in any case to have been the victim not so much of his own extortion and vices, as of a political situation for which he himself was in no way responsible.

(Anibal, p. 704)

The “political situation” to which Anibal refers was the continuing hostility between the Order of Calatrava and Córdoba, which resented the order’s continuing possession of its towns, including Fuente Ovejuna. Anibal advances the theory—also voiced by historian Don Rafael Ramírez de Arellano in 1901—that the Fuente Ovejuna rebellion was encouraged, even fomented, by Córdobans eager to reclaim their former property. Indeed, less than a week after Fernán Gómez’s death, Córdoban representatives reportedly arrived in Fuente Ovejuna to take possession of the town. The Order of Calatrava, in turn, protested the removal of Fuente Ovejuna from its jurisdiction. Ultimately, a papal bull of Pope Innocent VIII awarded Fuente Ovejuna to Calatrava and implied that Cordobans had instigated the rebellion. Various public officials and inhabitants of Córdoba were excommunicated and subjected to other ecclesiastical sentences for their occupation of Fuente Ovejuna after the rebellion. None of these issues is addressed in Lope’s play. It ends after King Fernándo pardons the former rebels; stopping the narration of the story here is perhaps partly responsible for the play’s becoming one of Lope’s best-known works outside of Spain.

Vassals and overlords

Feudalism—a land-holding system based upon the “fief,” valuable property held by vassals in trust for their overlord in exchange for certain services—did not really exist in the kingdom of Castile in the fifteenth century. Muslim invasions in the earlier Middle Ages had eroded the foundations of a feudal baronage, and Christian resettlement in the Duero Valley was, at least initially, carried out by small settlers who were not dependent on any powerful lord. These settlers developed into a society of small proprietors who learned to defend themselves and their frontier holdings from attacks by the Moors. Historian Henry Kamen explains:

The authority and lands of the king of Castile advanced during the great Reconquest campaigns, but there was little need for contracts between the crown and the warrior nobles, since these could be rewarded directly from the conquests without having to depend on the crown for reward. The great independent Military Orders—of Santiago, Calatrava and Alcántara—carved out huge territories for themselves in the frontier lands of New Castile. The “fief,” which created a bond of dependence between warriors and their prince, and which is the institution most commonly associated with “feudalism,” was consequently very rare in Castile.

(Kamen, p. 11)

Later in the Middle Ages, as the Reconquest progressed and the frontier advanced southward, the society of small proprietors was replaced by one of warlords who controlled large areas of land and of settlers who accepted the warlords’ protections as “vassals.”

The peasantry represented a large segment of this new society during the time that Fuente Ovejuna takes place, with relationships between peasants and those socially above that varied depending on the geographical region. In central Spain, which included the kingdoms of Old and New Castile, peasants could hold or even own small pieces of land and have a share of the communal lands in their villages. However, on the Castilian plains, large domains were often owned or held by ecclesiastical and lay lords; peasants rented lands from these lords—sometimes through long-term leases—and paid them dues in the form of rent. What remained constant was the relationship between peasant and lord, as historian Teofilo F. Ruiz explains:

There were no peasants without lords; even well-to-do farmers were never released from their obligations, rental dues, and debts of allegiance to the lord of their lands. The lord could be distant and benign, or close-by and horrible. The lord could be the king, usually the most favourable arrangement, or a neighbouring monastery or cathedral chapter. Thus masters and peasants were enmeshed in complex networks of reciprocity.

(Ruiz, p. 49)

The complexities of the lord-peasant relationship are reflected in Lope’s play. The population of Fuente Ovejuna consists of people from various walks of life: laborers, farmers, and students, for example. All, however, are accountable to their overlord, Fernán Gómez, who knows that he may dispose of their lives as he chooses. When the Master of Calatrava asks Commander Fernán Gómez if he can provide soldiers from Fuente Ovejuna for the campaign to take Ciudad Real, the latter replies that his vassals, “if they are obliged, / They’ll fight as fiercely as lions” even though they are “humble people, more used to fields / And ploughshares than battles” (Vega, Fuente Ovejuna, pp. 6–7). The consciousness on both sides of the contract between vassals and overlord renders the townspeople’s ultimate decision to rebel against Fernán Gómez for his abuses of power all the more startling.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

The play opens with Fernán Gómez, Grand Commander of the Military Order of Calatrava and overlord of Fuente Ovejuna, visiting his superior, Rodrigo Tellez Girón, the 17-year-old Master of Calatrava. The two men discuss the ongoing war between Aragon and Portugal over the throne of Castile. Fernán Gómez reminds the Master that the Girón family always supported the Portuguese claim, then urges the younger man to assemble the knights of Calatrava and capture the strategically placed town of Ciudad Real. The Master agrees to the plan, Fernán Gómez promises him some soldiers to support his efforts, and the two men leave for Ciudad Real.

In Fuente Ovejuna, two young peasant women, Laurencia and Pascuala, express relief that Fernán Gómez, their overlord, has left for battle. They then discuss his pursuit of the local women, including Laurencia herself, who has continually rebuffed his advances. Three of Fuente Ovejuna’s young men—Mengo, Barrildo, and Frondoso—enter and begin to banter with the two women about the nature of love, Frondoso revealing his growing attraction to the witty Laurencia. Just then, Flores, one of Fernán Gómez’s servants, interrupts the conversation with news of the battle: under Girón’s leadership, the knights of Calatrava have successfully taken Ciudad Real.

On his victorious return to Fuente Ovejuna, Fernán Gómez receives a warm welcome and gifts of food and drink from the town magistrates, including Esteban, Laurencia’s father. The victorious comendador mayor uses the occasion of his celebration to renew his pursuit of Laurencia, who still rebuffs him. Elsewhere, King Fernándo of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabel learn of Ciudad Real’s capture and dispatch troops of their own to try to reclaim the town.

Back in Fuente Ovejuna, Frondoso woos Laurencia, but their courtship is interrupted by the appearance of Fernán Gómez, who is out hunting. Spying Laurencia, he seizes her, but Frondoso picks up a crossbow and threatens to shoot him unless he releases the girl. Furious, Fernán Gómez obeys but vows revenge on the insolent peasant. Relations between the comendador mayor and the citizens of Fuente Ovejuna further deteriorate at a town meeting to discuss the grain harvest. Several men rebuke Fernán Gómez for his pursuit of the town’s women, but he belittles their concerns and continues to plot, with his servants Flores and Ortuño, assignations with several local beauties.

A newly arrived soldier informs the comendador mayor that troops from Aragon have laid siege to Ciudad Real and exhorts him to join the other knights of Calatrava to prevent them from losing the town. Fernán Gómez quickly assembles his men and prepares to ride; before he departs, he orders Flores and Ortuño to capture Jacinta, a local married woman, and bring her to him. Jacinta flees for protection to Mengo, one of her relatives, but ultimately, she is abducted and Mengo receives a savage whipping from Fernán Gómez’s men for trying to defend her. The townspeople are outraged to learn of this attack but feel powerless to stand against their overlord. Meanwhile, Frondoso and Laurencia have fallen in love and received the consents of their parents to marry. But Fernán Gómez, returning to Fuente Ovejuna after Calatrava’s defeat at Ciudad Real, interrupts their wedding. Using the crossbow incident as the cause, he orders Frondoso’s arrest and imprisonment, then carries off Laurencia to his house.

In the wake of this catastrophe, the men of Fuente Ovejuna hurriedly call a secret meeting to discuss their wrongs at the comendador mayor’s hands and what they should do to retaliate. The sudden appearance of Laurencia, escaped from her captors (who had unsuccessfully tried to rape her), interrupts the meeting. Bloodied and disheveled from her ordeal, Laurencia berates the men of Fuente Ovejuna for failing to protect their women from Fernán Gómez and bitterly informs them that her husband, Frondoso, is to be hanged without trial. Shamed into action, the men vow to take up arms and kill their tyrannical overlord, while Laurencia rallies the women of Fuente Ovejuna to the same cause.

Fernán Gómez and his men prepare to hang Frondoso from the battlements when the townspeople storm Fernán Gómez’s residence. The townspeople kill him, then pursue his followers, Flores and Ortuño. Later, a wounded Flores escapes to Córdoba, where King Fernándo and Queen Isabel are staying, and informs them of Fernán Gómez’s brutal murder by his vassals. King Fernando vows that the culprits will be punished and sends a magistrate to Fuente Ove-juna to investigate the crime.

On learning of the magistrate’s arrival, the townspeople all agree to form a united front and maintain that the community of Fuente Ovejuna murdered the comendador mayor. During the interrogations and torture that follow, all the townspeople assert that Fuente Ovejuna killed Fernán Gómez. Thwarted by the citizens’ continued defiance and the overall lack of evidence to convict anyone, the magistrate at last informs King Fernándo that everyone in Fuente Ovejuna must be either pardoned or put to death. Several of the town’s inhabitants, including Frondoso, Laurencia, Esteban, and Mengo, appear before the king to plead their case, revealing Fernán Gómez’s many cruelties and injustices towards them. King Fernándo ultimately decides to pardon the rebels, since they have sworn to be loyal to his cause, but informs them that their crime was serious nonetheless and a new comendador mayor must be appointed. The citizens of Fuente Ovejuna thank the king for his mercy and submit to his authority.

Honor among peasants

Since the fifth century and the advent of the Visigoths, honor—the respect and esteem accorded to one who was virtuous, worthy, or of noble standing—had been an important concept in Spain, all the more so because honor could easily be lost or compromised. A man could lose others’ respect and esteem by being called a liar, by having his face struck, by having his beard pulled, or by being humiliated by the sexual misconduct of his wife or daughter. According to medieval law, such a man was socially dead until his honor was restored; he could seek redress legally (in the courts) or he could kill those who had offended his honor. Indeed, the law usually recognized a Spaniard’s right to avenge a dishonor done to a family member, even to the point of condoning a cuckolded husband’s murder of an unfaithful wife and her lover. Furthermore, public dishonor required public vengeance, while private dishonor required that vengeance, if executed, be concealed. Throughout the Middle Ages in Spain, as in the rest of Europe, honor was considered a prerogative of the nobility, while commoners were believed to be without honor. By the late sixteenth century, however, many Spanish intellectuals had come to realize that all men, regardless of birth or station, deserved respect. Honor became increasingly associated with nobility of spirit rather than noble birth.

This shift in the meaning of honor fuels much of the hostility between Fernán Gómez and the townspeople in Fuente Ovejuna. From the beginning of the play, Fernán Gómez reveals his preoccupation with the outward marks of deference and respect he feels are due him, rebuking the Master of Calatrava for keeping him waiting during a visit: “My love and background led / Me to expect much more respect / From you, Master of Calatrava, / Towards your most obedient servant and / Commander” (Fuente Ovejuna, p. 4). The comendador mayor behaves still more harshly towards those he considers his inferiors, such as Frondoso, who aims his crossbow at Fernán Gómez for accosting the peasant maid Laurencia: “I shall take / Revenge on him for this, both for / The insult and the interruption. / I should have tackled him. That I / Did not adds further to my sense of shame!” (Fuente Ovejuna, p. 26). Fernán Gómez inextricably associates honor with noble birth and high social standing; it never occurs to him that his seductions of the local women compromise their honor or that of their families or that his own honor is besmirched by his lustful pursuits.

The townspeople, however, bring that point home to Fernán Gómez at a town council meeting. Hearing the comendador mayor mention his pursuit of Laurencia, Esteban, the girl’s father, rebukes him for speaking so freely and reminds him that “there are people of great worth / In Fuente Ovejuna” (Fuente Ovejuna, p. 31). When Fernán Gómez mocks Esteban as “an eloquent peasant,” an alderman warns him: “To speak of us like that / Is to deny us honour” (Fuente Ovejuna, p. 31). The comendador mayor responds even more scornfully, “You believe / You have honour? You’ll be claiming next / You are knights of Calatrava!” (Fuente Ovejuna, p. 31). The meeting ultimately dissolves in mutual recriminations, Fernán Gómez fuming over the insolence of his vassals, the townspeople expressing similar outrage over his arrogance and tyranny. The tensions resulting from conflicting and incompatible concepts of honor set the stage for the violent reckoning between Fernán Gómez and the townspeople in the play’s final act.

Significantly, despite his sympathetic depiction of the Fuente Ovejunans, Lope does not present their rebellion as the best or even the correct solution to their woes. Indeed, in avenging their honor, the townspeople display a degree of mob fury that is every bit as savage and brutal as Fernán Gómez’s attacks on them. Literary scholar Robin Carter contends that

The pattern we are meant to see is one of disorder and tyranny among the villagers bringing the Comendador’s evil home to roost, their mass behaviour being a reflection of, as well as the result of, the Comendador’s behaviour. … The motif of “Fuenteovejuna lo hizo”[Fuenteovejuna did it] in the torture scene emphasizes the fact that the villagers’ act was a crime, that all of them did take part, and that the whole village is indeed guilty.

(Carter in Fox, p. 138)

While King Fernándo may tacitly acknowledge the abuses committed against the townspeople’s honor and persons, he also makes it clear that they are pardoned only because their individual guilt cannot be proved and because they are willing to swear their loyalty to him. The former rebels receive forgiveness but not validation.

Sources and literary context

Lope drew from several historical sources to provide the context of his play, chiefly Francisco de Rades y Andrada’s Chrónica de las tres Ordenes y Cavallerias de Santiago, Calatrava y Alcántara (1572), Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco’ Emblemas morales (1610), and Tesoro de la lengua castellana (1611). All three supplied accounts of the incident at Fuente Ovejuna, though Lope appears to have leaned most heavily on Rades’s Chrónica for his information. But while historical sources mention the real-life figures of Fernán Gómez, the Master of Calatrava, King Fernándo, and Queen Isabel, the townspeople in Lope’s play—virtuous Lau-rencia, brave Frondoso, comic Mengo—appear to be his own invention. Indeed, portraying the townspeople as distinct individuals allowed Lope to emphasize Fuente Ovejuna as a community.

Overall, Lope’s salient traits as a dramatist include his consistent use of the three-act play (over the four- and five-act form), his preference for verse over prose, his avoidance of tragic endings in favor of tragicomic ones, and his integration of songs, stories, and customs gleaned from common people into his works. Such qualities made Lope a hugely popular playwright, much admired and imitated. One dramatic innovation initiated by Lope was “putting royalty on the stage,” making such historical figures as Pedro the Cruel, King Fernándo, and Queen Isabel as flesh-and-blood characters in his plays (Hayes, p. 68). But Lope was equally adept at depicting the countless types of common people who made up the masses.

Many of Lope’s plays belong to the tradition of the comedia de la capa y espada (cloak-and-dagger plays): light comedies featuring characters from the lower nobility, engaged in plots focused on love and jealousy. By contrast, Fuente Ovejuna is most accurately described as a “historical” play, despite the romantic subplot between Frondoso and Laurencia, and Fernán Gómez’s jealous, lustful pursuit of Laurencia. Fuente Ovejuna can also be termed a comedia villanesca, a play featuring peasant characters that dramatizes the relationship between peasants and the nobility, or even in some cases, between peasants and royalty.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Spain in decline

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Spain coped with serious challenges to its economic as well as to its military and political power. Silver bullion, mined from its American colonies, was spent in several ways. Spain used it to help pay for its troops in the Netherlands and Italy, to help support Spanish forces in Germany (the forces of Charles I of Spain, also known as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor), and to help maintain conspicuous consumption among wealthy Spaniards at home. The vast quantity of imported wealth contributed to inflation in Spain itself, an economic phenomenon occurring elsewhere in Europe too. Taxes rose, as did the price of Spanish goods until they were too expensive to compete in international markets. Spanish industry gradually declined and even agriculture suffered, after an increasing number of country people relocated to the cities. Plague and emigration reduced the overall population of Spain, which decreased from 8 million in the early sixteenth century to 7 million by the mid-seventeenth century (Sol-sten and Meditz, p. 20).

Spain also suffered from a decline in the quality of its rulers. On his deathbed, Philip II—who reigned from 1556–98—lamented, “God, who has given me so many kingdoms, has not granted me a son fit to govern them” (Philip II in Grunfeld, p. 116). As Philip II grimly prophesied, neither Philip III (reigned 1598–1621) nor Philip IV (reigned 1621–65) provided Spain with a clear direction: “The vigor and zeal of the Catholic [M]on archs, inherited by Charles V and Philip II, had played itself out and disintegrated into apathy and incompetence” (McKendrick, p. 125). Philip III and Philip IV demonstrated their ineffective leadership by handing over the reins of government to their favorites, the duke of Lerma and the count-duke of Olivares, respectively. The final monarch of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, Charles II (reigned 1665–1700) was even worse than his two predecessors: sickly, incompetent, and, as a result of generations of inbreeding, half-mad.

Ironically, Spain’s political and economic eclipse formed a dramatic contrast to its successes in the arts during that same period. The seventeenth century witnessed the appearance of such masterpieces as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) and Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna (1612–14). Indeed, one may contend that Lope—whose career spanned the reigns of Philip III and Philip IV—intended Fuente Ovejuna to impart a lesson for kings and ministers. Unlike the ineffectual Philip III, Fernándo and Isabel, as presented in Lope’s play, are model rulers, attempting to bring peace, justice, and order to their war-torn realm. They are depicted as closely involved in the lives of their subjects, thus instilling great loyalty.

Reception and impact

Throughout his long career, Lope de Vega reigned supreme as Spain’s leading—and most prolific—popular dramatist. Lope boasted that he had written 1,500 plays, as well as several novels, stories, and verse epics. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, called Lope “one of nature’s marvels” and “the reigning monarch of the stage” (Cervantes in Ger-stinger, p. 103). In the theatre world, he was often referred to as “El Fénix de España” (The Phoenix of Spain). His works inspired numerous admirers, imitators, and younger dramatists cast in the same mold, including Tirso de Molina and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (see The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest and Life Is a Dream , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). During his lifetime, a customary expression in Spain to describe something good and praiseworthy was “Es de Lope” (It’s by Lope).

Despite the great fame Lope enjoyed in his lifetime and in his own nation, his work did not become widely known outside Spain until the twentieth century. Even today only a handful of his plays are performed; Fuente Ovejuna, however, is one of those plays, becoming a particular favorite in such countries as France, Germany, and Russia. Modern productions of Fuente Ovejuna have often emphasized the timelessness of the story by altering the play’s staging or outcome. For example, some productions in the former Soviet Union presented the peasant uprising as the triumphant overthrow of tyranny, downplaying the final scenes in which the rebels submit to King Fernándo’s authority. In the 1930s,

LOPE’S PRESCRIPTION FOR SUCCESS

In 1609 Lope challenged his detractors, who preferred Aristotelian to popular drama, by presenting a verse treatise Arte nuevo de hacer comedias (The New Art of Play Writing) before a Madrid literary society. In this treatise, he set down his formula for popular success, arguing that, while he had known the classic rules of drama since he was ten years old, he chose to ignore them because “the man who attempts to write according to rules known to so few people will fail financially. …I keep my eye on the box office, and because the common man pays the piper, I pipe the tune he likes’” (Lope de Vega in Hayes, p. 78). Lope’s formula to please the “common man” included choosing the subject carefully; mixing the comic and tragic; keeping a tight unity of action, disregarding strict replication of time and place if they presented dramatic obstacles; and dividing the play into three acts, reserving the suspense until the middle of the last one to maintain the audience’s interest. It was a formula he usually exploited throughout his career, whether writing in a serious or a lighter vein. The formula affected not only Lope’s works, but those of a number of Spanish dramatists in the country as well. In fact, Lope has been hailed as the founder of Spain’s national theater.

He establishes the definitive form of the play: three acts in poly-metric verse. He is inspired mainly by the great themes of Spanish history, by folk poetry, and by national legends, which he presents without regard for Aristotelian unities. He creates the comic sidekick, the gracioso, who becomes essential in almost all plays of the time.

(Bleiberg, Ihrie, and Pérez, p. 1672)

the Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca directed a production with his student company (La Barraca), which set the play in the twentieth rather than the fifteenth century, thus highlighting its revolutionary character.

Fuente Ovejuna has also been performed in the United States. In 1970, the Theatre Arts Division of Columbia University made its debut with a creditable performance of Fuente Ovejuna. George Gent, reviewing the production for the New York Times, wrote that “its traditional form and contemporary ambiance are precisely right for the young players” (Gent in Gerstinger, p. 116). Dr. Bernard Beckerman, director of the Theatre Arts Division’s production, explained the company’s unusual choice of vehicle: ’“Fuente Ovejuna’ is a classic play with contemporary relevance in that it was one of the first to depict a community of workers and peasants as capable of courage and resolution” (Beckerman in Gerstinger, p. 116).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Anibal, Claude E. “The Historical Elements of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna.” In PMLA (September 1934): 657–718.

Bleiberg, Germán, Marueen Ihrie, and Janet Pérez. Dictionary of the Literature of the Iberian Peninsula. Vol. 2. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

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

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Ferdinand and Isabella. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

Fox, Dian. Refiguring the Hero: From Peasant to Noble in Lope de Vega and Calderon. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

Gerstinger, Heinz. Lope de Vega and Spanish Drama. Trans. Samuel R. Rosenbaum. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974.

Grunfeld, Frederic V. The Kings of Spain. Chicago: Stonehenge Press, 1982.

Hayes, Francis C. Lope de Vega. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Kamen, Henry. Spain 1469–1714: A Society of Conflict. London: Longman, 1991.

McKendrick, Melveena. The Horizon Concise History of Spain. New York: American Heritage, 1972.

Ruiz, Teofilo F. Spanish Society 1400–1600. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2001.

Solsten, Eric, and Sandra W. Meditz, eds. Spain: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, 1990.

Vega Carpio, Lope Félix de. Fuente Ovejuna. In Three Major Plays. Trans. Gwynne Edwards. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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