The India Play

views updated

The India Play

by Gil Vicente


A farcical play set in early sixteenth-century Lisbon; published in Portuguese (as Auto da India) in 1509 or 1510; in English in 1997.


Enclosed in her home in the company of a maid, a young woman playfully exploits adulterous courtships after her husband sets sail for India in search of fame and fortune.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

For More Information

Gil Vicente is considered the founder of the Portuguese theater as well as the greatest dramatist in the Iberian Peninsula before Spain’s Lope de Vega. He is thought to have been born sometime between 1460 and 1470 in Lisbon, Portugal, and to have been put to rest in Évora, Portugal, sometime before 1537. It is known that Vicente first came to Évora as a goldsmith for the court during the 1490 wedding of Crown Prince Afonso of Portugal to Princess Isabel of Castile. Vicente himself wed twice: to Branca Bezerra and, after her death, to Melícia Rodrigues. He had five children in all—two sons by Branca (Gaspar and Belchior) and two daughters and a son by Melicia (Valéria, Paula, and Luís). Although Vicente’s educational background remains a mystery, the philosophical and theological knowledge exhibited in his plays indicates some formal instruction. He was a musician, a poet, and an actor, as well as a writer, and he held a seat on the Lisbon Town Council. Vicente’s oratory skills earned him respect, as attested to by a sermon on tolerance in which he reprimanded monks in Santarém for maintaining that faithlessness among the “New Christians” (converted Jews) had angered God into striking the Portuguese with the earthquake of 1531. Insisting that it was a natural phenomenon, not a sign of divine displeasure, Vicente’s sermon prevented a pogrom. In his career as a dramatist Vicente wrote more than 40 plays, some in Portuguese, some in Spanish, and some in a mix of the two languages. His career began at court the day after the 1502 birth of Prince João (the future João III), with the play Monólóego do Vaqueiro (The Herdsman’s Monologue, also known as The Visitation Play). He would write three more works (The Castilian Pastoral Play, The Play of the Magi, and The Play of Saint Martin), then take a five-year hiatus before penning the farce The India Play. Farce was a genre distinguishable from comedia, a term used for the longer, more developed theater, be it serious or humorous. A transitional dramatist, bridging the medieval and Renaissance eras, Vicente, along with Spanish playwright Torres Naharro, would go on to forge Iberian comedia. Still in the genre of farce, The India Play nevertheless entails some serious commentary. The play elucidates bourgeois domestic relations at a time in which men were increasingly being called to expansionist adventures; in the process, it ties the domestic to the national scene in early-sixteenth-century Portugal.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

A frenzy of exploration and trade

The India Play was performed in 1509 in honor of King Manuel’s mother, Dona Leonor, after Portugal had already pioneered the way to the riches of the Orient. In 1498 Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa to reach India, becoming the first to connect Europe to Asia by sea. Vicente’s farce dramatizes the consequences of this breakthrough voyage of exploration to India and of Portugal’s subsequent presence in the East. The farce emphasizes the private, human side of the public enterprise by adopting the point of view of a commoner residing in the busy port city of Lisbon.

The work involved in what was to become the Portuguese empire building spanned much of the fifteenth century, with The India Play opening on the heels of close to a hundred years of vigorous activity on the part of the Portuguese:

1415 The Portuguese conquer Ceuta in North Africa.

1427 Diogo de Silves is believed to have reached the Azores.

1469 Pedro Escobar and João de Santarém reach Mina in Northern Africa; the Portuguese conquer Arzila and Tangier.

1472 João Corte-Real reaches Greenland.

1482 Diogo Cão reaches the south of Guinea and lodges for the Portuguese the first, padrão (standard column) in the mouth of the Zaire River in Africa.

1492 Dom João II allows Jews expelled from Spain into Portugal.

1494 The Tordesillas Treaty divides areas of dominion in the west Atlantic Ocean between Spain and Portugal at a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, attempting to create monopolies in what would later be recognized as international waters.

1496 King Manuel I orders the expulsion from Portugal of all Jews who are not willing to convert to Christianity.

1497–98 Vasco da Gama sets sail for the East from Restelo Beach in Lisbon, eventually reaching Calicut, in India.

1499 King Manuel adopts the title Senhor da conquista, navegaCão e comércio, de Etiópia, Arábia, Pérsia e Índia (Lord of conquest, navigation and commerce in Ethiopia, Arábia, Persia, and India).

1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral reaches Brazil.

1505 Hunger epidemic in Lisbon; Dom Francisco de Albuquerque takes the cities of Quiloa and Momba,ça in Eastern Africa.

1506 Tristão da Cunha reaches the archipelago in the south Atlantic Ocean known today as Tristan da Cunha.

1507 Afonso de Albuquerque takes the city of Ormuz (now part of Iran); outbreak of the plague and hunger in Lisbon.

1509 King Manuel regulates the India House (Casa da Índia); a repository for imported goods, it stands in Lisbon next to his residence, the Palace by the River Tejo.

1508 Tristáo da Cunha returns to Lisbon with ships laden with spices and jewels.

Lisbon had thus become quite the cosmopolitan city by Gil Vicente’s day and would continue to qualify as such in the following decades. In his 1554 Urbis Olisiponis Descriptio (Description of the City of Lisbon), a sort of humanist guide to Lisbon, Damiáo de Gois points to the seemingly limitless riches coming from the East that were stored in the India House:

[The India House is] executed in marvelous style and replete with the abundant spoils and plundering from many nations and peoples. Because it is there where the business affairs with India are handled, our people have named it the India House. In my opinion, it might sooner be called an opulent emporium, due to its aromas, pearls, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones brought to us from India year after year; or perhaps a grand depository of gold and silver.… There stand … innumerable compartments arranged with an artful cleverness, overflowing with such a great abundance of those treasures that—word of honor!—it would surpass one’s capacity to believe, if they did not leap before the eyes of all, and if we could not touch them with our own hands.

(Góis, pp. 29–30)

King Manuel financed much of the overseas venture with capital from foreign bankers (Gen-ovese, Florentine, and German), who were quick to sponsor the Portuguese enterprise. Ironically this sealed the empire’s fate, prompting Portugal to become a wholesaler of sorts and severely limiting how much the country itself could benefit: “Portugal’s poverty prevented the consumption of these exotic cargoes at home, and it was in the port of Antwerp that these riches found distribution into the markets of northern Europe” (Ruth in Góis, p. xv).

Regardless of these financial considerations, Portugal gained distinction in Europe as the first to open up new avenues of contact and exchange among very distant peoples. Gold, slaves, and pepper from Africa; ivory, cinnamon, and other spices from East Asia; and sugar from islands in the Atlantic and later from Brazil would pour into European markets via Portugal. Their receptive-ness, in turn, fueled the frenzy for further Portuguese exploration.

The epoch of the India Play is framed in particular by the celebrated expedition of Portuguese navigator Tristáo da Cunha (c. 1460–1514). In 1506 Tristáo da Cunha embarked with 15 vessels from Lisbon to East Asia, he himself on the Graça. During his most significant voyage, Tristáo da Cunha discovered three volcanic islands in the South Atlantic, one of which received his name. After taking control of the city of Socotra off Arábia in hopes of establishing a monopoly over the Red Sea, the navigator went on to India in the pursuit of Eastern riches. At this point, Afonso de Albuquerque detached part of the fleet.

A nobleman, Albuquerque fought to secure Portugal’s presence in the East. He masterminded a strategy of establishing bases in the region, not just to ensure access to commercial goods but to protect Portugal’s pathway to Europe and, also, to safeguard Portuguese operations from Muslim attacks. The center of Portuguese activity was to be an island off southwest India, an area defensible by land or sea. Establishing it as a capital, Albuquerque conquered this island—Goa—in 1510, shortly after The India Play was first performed. He would go on to plan the planting of permanent garrisons, naval reserves, and even shipbuilding enterprises in the East so that Portuguese forces could survive the onslaughts of their foes. Thus, it is at the brink of the consolidation of the empire that The India Play is set.

Meanwhile, Tristão da Cunha continued voyaging to the East himself. In 1513 he was sent by King Manuel on a renowned diplomatic mission to the papal court in Rome. During the festivities celebrating the election of Pope Leo X, the charismatic Tristão da Cunha appeared dressed in a hat “entirely covered with large pearls” and exhibited the finest riches from the East, including papal regalia (Góis in Dos Passos, p. 268):

All these vestments were woven with gold thread and so covered with precious stones and pearls that only in a few places could you see the cloth of gold…. In certain places the fabric appeared as if painted in gold and silk with the face of our Savior and of the saints and apostles all outlined with pearl and those gems we call raw rubies, not worked or polished, but used just as they came from the places where they were found in their natural splendor.

(Góis in Dos Passos, p. 268)

The most bizarre sight in this opulent display was yet to come. Along with these first gems from the East, the Portuguese mission paraded to the eminent crowd an elephant, a then bizarre spectacle that mesmerized the onlookers:

The pope viewed the scene from a window in a lower story of the Castle of Sant’Angelo. The elephant made three curtseys, and, filling his trunk with water in a trough placed there for the purpose, shot a stream so high above where the pope was that it landed on a number of cardinals looking out from the upper stories.

(Dos Passos, pp. 267–68)


One of the reasons for the European competition for the East was to monopolize the spice trade. Cinnamon was so important a commodity in the sixteenth century that Gil Vicente mentions it as a symbol of India itself. The wife’s comments on it as she complains about her husband having abandoned her for India:

In an evil hour did I
kneed and bake biscuits
for him to take his damned
cinnamon to the devil.
     (Vicente, The India Play, verses 28–31)

Used as a mouthwash, cinnamon was also considered a sort of panacea that alleviated (among many other ailments) problems of the stomach, kidneys, and even the heart. Probably the Europeans also knew of its aphrodisiac qualities. More than just for culinary and medical uses, the competition for eastern spices becomes a metaphor for “other,” European cravings: “It is as if the magnetism of the East, the spell it cast, inspired Europeans to create or recreate an East that would accord with what the West wanted it to be: mysterious, wonderful, bizarre and perhaps even immoral” (Cuddon, p. 664).

The presentation was so successful that King Dom Manuel sent the pope another shipload of treasures in 1517, including Dom Manuel’s very own rhinoceros, the same one that painter Al-brecht Dürer made famous in his well-known engraving of 1515. Dom Manuel was often seen strolling down Rua Nova in Lisbon with exotic animals in tow—typically four elephants, a rhinoceros, and a leopard. He was Europe’s first Christian king to own such a prestigious menagerie.

These promotional displays of the Portuguese had a connection to religion. More exactly, King Dom Manual nurtured a messianic ambition to bring an end to Islam and establish an alliance with a legendary Christian King of Ethiopia (Prester John) in East Africa. This ambition complemented the commercial and military interests of the Portuguese Crown. But there were objections from a significant faction of the population: the landed nobility opposed military activities that would consume the kingdom’s resources in areas other than the familiar military ground of North Africa. The debate between this nobility and those who favored energetic exploitation of the eastern markets is echoed later in the sixteenth century in the epic poem The Lusiads (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). In the epic, a “venerable” old man, watching Vasco da Gama’s fleet take its leave at Restelo Beach, condemns the moral decline such colonial ventures produce:

You ignore the enemy at the gate,
In search for another so far away,
Unpeopling the ancient kingdom,
Leaving it vulnerable and bereft!
You are lured by the dangers of the unknown,
So history will flatter you, as
“Seigneurs” (or titles yet more copious),
India’s, Persia’s, Arábia’s Ethiopia’s!
     (Camões, 4.101)

These lines are a direct indictment of the military’s extended overseas ventures and, more specifically, of King Manuel’s “messianic” design. In The Lusiads, this “venerable old manwith a wisdom only experience could impart” warns the adventurers: “you promote separation and adultery” (Camões, 4.94, 95, 96). His warning echoes a message advanced some 60 years earlier in Vicente’s The India Play, which contains one of the first known criticisms of overseas expansion.

Women in early-modern Portugal

In The India Play, the maid—an accomplice-voyeuse (facilitator and voyeur)—is implicated as much as her mistress in the promiscuous game of adultery that takes center stage, since she agrees from the very beginning to serve as a go-between (Ferreira, “Intersecting Historical Performances,” p. 107). Her mistress, Constance, promises the maid a reward for her service and for her silence: “I’ll give you a silk cap,” to which the maid greedily responds: “Or, when he gets back / give me something he’s brought you” (The India Play, verses 49–51). Thus, both women stand to lose—or gain, as the case may be—in their dangerous, but playful pastime.

However playful, Constance, it should be noted, also has good cause for her flirtatious behavior. She toys with her suitors partly in self-defense, in case her husband fails to return. Her game nevertheless is a perilous one. It was not uncommon during this era for an adulteress to be penalized with death if the wronged husband chose such a penalty. “[A]mong many nations, as the Italians, Spaniards, and Turks, it is counted a capital crime in the wife to tread awry” (Som-merville, p. 144). In the best case, a husband might decide to retain his spouse, albeit in a confined situation that was perhaps worse than death, for he could kill her at a moment’s notice. Mário Fiúza recalls an anonymous Portuguese collection of sixteenth-century sayings that registers the following observation: “My lady, I pray thee, please betray me so that I can forever more rule over you” (Fiúza, p. 40; trans. R. Garay).

Vicente’s play draws a parallel between domestic and national squabbles. His protagonist, Constance, pretends to be the virtuous wife. At the end of her duplicitous ruse, one realizes that she is guarding her personal India or material subsistence. She shows a resilience, an aptitude for tactics of survival, that would do her country proud were she a soldier in the East or a trader in the international European market:

Constance’s two seducers—an eloquent, arrogant Spaniard who sells vinegar, and an enamored Portuguese … who is now without work—attempt to rip off the profits from India by seeking to occupy an ’available’ body-space—woman/home.… Yet, Constance is no mute, passive body-space for anyone’s possession; in control of her situation she confronts each pretender with his own ultimate aim while clearly setting her own conditions of acceptance … she keeps them both at bay so as not to lose the possible gains that each may bring her.

(Ferreira, “Intersecting Historical Performances,” pp. 106–07)

This strong, self-willed woman struggles, within the limits of the era, for control of her passions and life. In reality, such a struggle was not easy, given the prevailing double standard in sexual behavior. It was an era in which, notes historian Margaret Sommerville, “a wife’s infidelity undermined her husband’s status far more than his did hers. A husband almost automatically obtained a separation for his wife’s adultery, but a wife who attempted to sue for a separation solely on grounds of her husband’s adultery—without also being able to prove cruelty or desertion “was unlikely to have success” (Sommerville, pp. 141–42). Part of the reasoning for this double standard lay in the more injurious effect on society of a wife’s infidelity. Only her promiscuity caused a breakdown of matrimonial obligations, by making a male care for a child not his own. This, of course, had economic ramifications: “Infidelity by either party was thought to involve ’filthiness and falseness,’ but only a wife’s transferred her husband’s ’estate to strangers and other men’s children’” (Sommerville, p. 148). On the other hand, some early modern thinkers placed the responsibility for a wife’s infidelity directly on the men.


Although The India Play (c. 1510) and The Lusiads (1572) agree on the imperial project’s promoting separation and adultery, the thrust of these two literary works diverge. The Lusiads emphasizes the historical imperative of Portuguese national history, invoking timeless images of mythological pageantry and depicting the dauntless qualities of national he-roes, The India Play, by contrast, dramatizes antiheroic pranks in the domestic setting of a family home. The same can be said for the depiction of the Muslim “other.” Whereas The Lusiads portrays the easterner as cunning and therefore untrustworthy, the situation of the protagonist Constance in The India Play reflects another aspect of European contact with the East. She expresses jealousy over her husband’s possible relations with the “beautiful Indian women,” a menace to domestic accord (The India Play, verse 487).

A number of treatises on marriage were published by contemporary thinkers in Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (e.g., F. Osuna, Norte de los estados en quese da reglas de bivir a los mancebos …, 1531; A Young Man’s Precepts for Moral Living …). In a world governed by forced separation, especially in maritime nations such as Portugal and Spain, such thinkers as F. Osuna accused men of abandoning their wives in a sea of temptations. Especially the young and beautiful women were placed in temptations’ way by the absence of their husbands (P. Luján, Coloquios matrimo-niales …, 1550; Matrimonial Dialgues …). In Casamento perfeito (1630; Perfect Marriage), Diogo de Paiva Andrada notes a further very real danger to marital unions in these separations: ships made their way home laden with “riches” other than the variety expected: some carried into port exotic female slaves for sexual purposes (Andrada in Pacheco, p. 54).

The Play in Focus

Plot overview

The India Play is a comic spoof on the consequences of abandoning the homeland in search of newfound riches in the Far East. With adultery as its main subject, the play follows closely the slapstick tradition of medieval farce. The play unfolds as one complete action without the multi-act divisions typical of most modern theater, yet it has definite sections. There are three dramatic movements—exposition of the narrative material, in which the precipitating circumstances are related; the conflict, which begins as soon as Constance’s husband has left for India; and the denouement, or resolution, which turns out not to be a solution at all. Dramatically the three parts correspond to 1) conversations about the awaited departure of Constance’s husband for India; 2) the adulterous amusements of Constance; 3) her husband’s return from India.

In brief, a woman (ironically named Constance) laments the departure of her husband for the East, but, as the audience quickly learns, her sorrow is feigned. As soon as her husband’s ship is on its way, a Castilian suitor appears to woo the hypocritical wife. This suitor’s departure is followed by the arrival of yet another suitor, the lowly Portuguese squire Lemos, who is made to believe that the Castilian is Constance’s brother. The burlesque encounters between the wife and each of her lovesick suitors are frequently interrupted by the maid. In one such instance, she announces that the ship that carried Constance’s husband to the East has just returned to Lisbon. Her suitors escape by the skin of their teeth, after which Constance, greeting her husband with her typical hypocrisy, insists that she has been the model of a virtuous wife and scolds her husband for leaving her heartbroken and alone.

Plot summary

As the play opens, the maid speculates about Constance’s grief, “is it because the fleet has left?” to which Constance retorts “would that make me shed tears?” (India Play, verses 2, 4). When the maid leaves the stage to confirm that the husband is in fact on his way to India, Constance invokes Saint Anthony, the patron saint of marriages, and goes to sleep. Shortly thereafter, she brings to the fore more reasons for her subsequent actions. “They leave here in May, / when the new blood begins to rise. / Do you think that is fair?” (The India Play, verses 91–93). This reflects an historical event, going on year after year. Tristão da Cunha’s expedition, which Constance’s husband presumably joined, left in fact for India in April 1506. The second part of the play develops Constance’s betrayal, or adultery. First, she receives a braggart Castilian, Juan Zamora, who woos her in the most ornate rhetorical style. Although his flirtatious discourse fails to move Constance, she promises to see him that evening, at “nine o’clock and no later, / and throw a little pebble / a teeny-weeny stone / at the garden window” (The India Play, Vv. 184–87). In her tête-á-tête with Juan Zamora, Constance informs him that her husband left two days ago, whereupon the Castilian observes:

Then to the devil let him go,
the accursed wretch!
What more India could there be,
what more precious stones than you?
What more things of beauty
than both of you to be together?
     The India Play, verses 129–134)

To this rebuke, Juan adds that in abandoning family and home, the Portuguese are fulfilling a divine plan that will work to his (and, one can extrapolate, to his country’s) advantage.

But as Gospel-truth is this:
God has made India
only so that we two
could go through this together;
and, solely for my happiness
to partake of this joy
God had India discovered,
and there’s nothing else to say,
by God’s holy mother!
     (The India Play, verses 144–52)

The Castilian, who remains outside the home during the scene, is made to leave so that a second suitor, Lemos, may enter.

Constance’s maid, a perceptive witness to the situation, muses on her mistress’s hypocrisy: “How many wiles, how many deceits / can my mistress perform! / One in the street, the other in bed!” (The India Play, verses 353–55). Lemos, Constance’s “forsaken lover,” a typical poverty-stricken Portuguese squire, arrives to make the most of the situation in the absence of Constance’s husband (The India Play, verse 209). Although his part in the play is small compared to Juan’s, his character traits reveal even more elements of a society in decay. With biting satire, the play exposes his pretentious behavior in comic scenes that exploit the impoverished squire’s fraudulent sense of largesse. He asks the maid to buy expensive foods and wine for supper but is unwilling to pay the price: “Are you only giving me a farthing?” asks the maid (The India Play, verse 282).

Like the Castilian, Lemos makes use of the courtly love rhetoric and Petrarchan imagery that was already becoming obsolete in Vicente’s day. The Portuguese suitor continuously exaggerates Constance’s social position, making her superior to others of her own social standing. He hopes through verbal and gestural flattery to seduce Constance. No fool, Constance observes his grandiose posturing when first he enters her sphere: “Jesus! What a bow / By any chance, am I a queen?”, to which he answers: “But you are my Empress” (The India Play, verses 225–26, 227). As noted by Ana Paula Ferreira in “Performing Inconstancies,” the suitor reflects a type in Portuguese society of the era; in contrast to the Spaniard, he illustrates the parasite at home, a menace to society.

In the third and final part of the dramatic movement, Constance’s diversions with the two suitors are arrested by the news of her husband’s arrival: “Oh, ma’am, I’m frightened to death! / Our master’s here today!” The news elicits a curse from Constance to the maid: “you wicked excommunicate” (The India Play, verses 385, 386, 388). Upon her husband’s arrival, Constance’s adulterous behavior naturally comes to a halt. Her immediate reaction is one of disgust (“Jesus! How black you are, and tanned! / I don’t love you, I don’t love you” ; but her anger subsides after her husband’s reply: “And I do love you, for I hope / you’ve been a prudent woman” (The India Play, VV. 420–21). The remark tames the shrewd but inconstant Constance, who knows full well the fatal consequences associated with adultery in her society.

Gil Vicente’s dramaturgy in the age of humanism

Gil Vicente is considered a transitional figure in Portuguese literature, straddling the eras of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Displaying characteristics typical of medieval drama, his plays invoke religious themes and strategies—for example, the use of allegorical figures to personify abstract ideas and human virtues and vices. At the same time, Vicente’s plays pave the way for humanism, a Renaissance movement that featured individualism as well as a social critical bent and a heightened focus on secular concerns. The humanists exalted a person’s relationship to God, individual free will, and human superiority over the forces of nature. Many of Vicente’s plays prompt the audience to ponder the new humanist ideals. Certainly The India Play presents a critical view of the Portuguese business-driven involvement in the East. The play advances an iconoclastic, nonheroic view of the maritime adventure. Challenging the religious motives for the enterprise, The India Play brings to the fore the designs for profit that hide behind and propel the costly explorations of markets in the East.

Stylistically, Vicente was able to preserve elements of the medieval farce while finding ways to accommodate and expand upon the new Renaissance experimentation. His theatrical innovations point the way to those principles of drama that will not only define the Portuguese national theater, but will also typify the structure of the comedia throughout the Iberian Peninsula. The India Play exhibits some characteristics typical of medieval theater (for example, its a-temporal logic is based on non-Aristotelian notions of time that see no need for unity in this regard). Yet The India Play also displays classic, Aristotelian parts of a dramatic work (exposition, conflict, and denouement). Vicente’s farce furthermore features characters that are more rounded than the allegorical, medieval fare, even, to some extent, psychologically conceived. The depiction of women in particular exhibits an acute sense of their individualism based on observation of their passions and reactions vis-à-vis longstanding notions of female subservience. In this regard, his famous Farsa de Inês Pereira (1923) is a notable example of women’s active agency first brought to the fore in The India Play.

Sources and literary context

The India Play makes use of one of the most important moments in Portuguese (and Western) history: the discovery and colonization of the Eastern world. Within this register of real events, Vicente’s farce reflects actual social consequences. The character of the “husband” is not only a copy of the many stereotypical cuckolded husbands of medieval narratives but also a depiction of the many men of various classes who set out for the East, often in search of a better future for themselves and their families. The anxieties associated with his absence in the play reflect genuine concerns.

More than just a social document of these ventures abroad and their repercussions in sixteenth-century Lisbon, The India Play is also the first play by a Portuguese playwright that achieves a truly dramatic design, representing an organic action with an intrigue that contains three distinct dramatic movements. In this respect, The India Play may be considered the first genuinely dramatic play in Portuguese theatrical history. Drawing on some existing genres, Vicente culls from the medieval tradition of the Galician-Portuguese “Cantigas d’escarnio e mal dizer,” a type of song that spoofed people and social circumstances (in the vein of the French fabliau). In The India Play, he ties notions about the evils of women, present in this Galician-Portuguese genre, to the context of early-sixteenth-century overseas expansion. Of all Vicente’s works, The India Play is in fact the only one that ties adultery to overseas expansion. It is now known that Gil Vicente inherited particular theatrical motifs from Portugal’s Henrique da Mota and the Cancioneiro tradition, or court/festival entertainment tradition. Armed with these motifs, he became the first to endow them with techniques that gave dramatic form to such semi-theatrical genres. One of the subjects inherited by Vicente is that of marriage and adultery.

To be properly understood, The India Play’s concern with marriage needs to be considered in the context of its relation to Spanish Golden Age drama. As noted, the concept of comedia, or theater, differed from farce, a short, highly satirical and hence light genre. Vicente wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age, the era of literary preeminence that began to dawn in the Iberian Peninsula in the early 1500s, then flourished between 1550–1650. In Spanish Golden Age comedia, the central unifying motif of marriage sanctioned the union between man and woman; it was also the means by which Gil Vicente, his contemporaries, and later dramatists resolved levels of conflict. The farce diverged from the comedia in that it usually satirized marriage, focusing on its precariousness, often attributed to adultery. Whether matrimony is presented seriously (as in comedia) or humorously (as in farce), both forms exhibited a didactic intent.

Vicente introduced a further innovation that appears in The India Play. Its scenic apparatus includes a complexity unknown in the peninsula before Vicente. Within a scene, action takes place inside the home and outside the home, and the home itself has two levels. This same complexity would surface later in the comedia of the Spanish Golden Age playwrights, which The India Play precedes.


The immediate response to the India Play is unknown today. However, it is known that Vicente himself later rejected the entire genre of farce, offering the king instead more elegant theater, the new comedia, which aimed to incorporate a sound sense of mirth with serious intent and excellent diction. Good examples of this later focus may be found in Vicente’s tragicomedies Dom Duardos (1522) and Amadis de Gaula (1523).

Vicente’s works would be rediscovered in the nineteenth century by the writer, poet, and dramatist Almeida Garrett (see Travels in My Homeland , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Garrett hailed Vicente as the founder of Portuguese theater, setting out himself to revitalize it with a Romantic play invoking this founder (Urn Auto de Gil Vicente, 1838; A Play by Gil Vicente). Since then, Vicente has remained a popular playwright in Portugal and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. His notoriety has extended to other parts of the European continent as well and to Latin America too. In twentieth-century Britain, A. R. Mil-burn described Vicente as “the greatest [dramatist] in Europe before Shakespeare” (Milburn in Thorly, p. 800). Back in Portugal, The India Play gained particular importance after the Revolution of April 1974, which deposed the dictatorship and ultimately brought the Portuguese empire to an end. The work became part of the official Portuguese high-school curriculum, and in the 1980s, of all Vicente’s plays, proved to be the most frequently performed by student, amateur, and professional groups. Not coincidentally, the Portuguese empire, now a historical phantom, was gaining new critical and nostalgic contours at the time (Ferreira, “Intersecting Historical Performances,” p. 101).

—René Garay

For More Information

Camões, Luíz Vaz de. The Lusiads. Trans. Landeg White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Dias, Ana Paula. Para Uma Leitura de Auto da India de Gil Vicente. Lisbon: Editorial Presenga, 1997.

Dos Passos, John. The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery. New York: Double-day, 1969.

Ferreira, Ana Paula. “Intersecting Historical Performances: Gil Vicente’s Auto da India.” GESTOS 9, no. 17 (1994) 99–113.

______. “Performing Inconstancies: Gil Vicente’s Auto da Índia”.

Paper presented at the International Conference, “Staging Brazilian and Portuguese Theater.” Yale University, Nov. 11, 2000.

Fiúza, Mário, ed. Auto da Índia. Porto: Porto Editora, 1979.

Garay, René. Gil Vicente and the Development of the Comedia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Góis, Damiáo de. Lisbon in the Renaissance, a New Translation of the Urbis Olisiponis Descriptio. Trans. Jeff Ruth. New York: Italica Press, 1996.

Pacheco, Jose. 0 Sexo Por Cd. Lisboa: Livros Horizonte, 2000.

Parker, Jack Horace. Gil Vicente. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Sommerville, Margaret R. Sex and Subjection. Attitudes to Women in Early-Modern Society. London: Arnold, 1995.

Thorly, Anthony. Penguin Companion to European Literature. New York: McGraw, 1969.

Vicente, Gil. The India Play (“Auto da India”). In Three Discovery Plays. Trans. Anthony Lappin. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1997.

About this article

The India Play

Updated About content Print Article