The Maiden’s Consent

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The Maiden’s Consent

by Leandro Fernández de Moratín


A play set in an inn in Alcalá de Henares, outside of Madrid, in the mid-1790s; performed and published in Spanish (as Et si de las niñas) in 1806, in English in 1962.


The 59-year-old rich, respectable Don Diego wants to marry the poor 16-year-old Doña Francisca, but only if she will freely accept him. While her family promotes the marriage as a socially acceptable and financial necessity, Doña Francisca already loves a young officer, who turns out to be Don Diego’s nephew, Don Carlos.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

Leandro Fernández de Moratín was born in 1760 in Madrid. His father was Nicolás Fernández de Moratín (1737-80), a preeminent literary figure of eighteenth-century Spain. Although the younger Moratín did not attend university, he followed his father, uncle, and grandfather in working as a jeweler. Writing in his spare time, Leandro began attracting favorable attention in the 1770s. He traveled in 1787 to Paris as the secretary of the Count of Cabarrus, a diplomat in the service of the Spanish king, Charles III (1716-88). Upon his return from Paris, Moratín wrote a musical version of the first of his five extant plays, El baron (The Baron), in which he already treats his favorite theme of unequal marriages between affluent, aged men and very young women of little means. After staging the metacritical play La comedia nueva (The New Comedy) in which he satirized the bad theater of his time, Moratín received a pension from the royal minister Manuel de Godoy. He began travels through Europe in Paris, where he witnessed with revulsion the Reign of Terror in the months before the execution of Louis XVI in the French Revolution. He then spent a year in London and gained sufficient command of English to be able to execute the first translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet into Spanish. After residing in Italy between 1793 and 1796, he returned to Spain and secured a government position as Secretary of the Interpretation of Languages. Literature continued to occupy him and in 1799 he became the Director of the Group for the Management and Reform of Theaters. Following the May 1808 outbreak of the War of Independence of Spain from Napoleonic France, Moratín chose to continue in government service under Napoleon’s brother King Joseph I Bonaparte of Spain. With the final triumph of the Spanish over the French in 1814, Moratín’s position, that of an afrancesado or Frenchified person and sympathizer, made life in Spain problematic for him. Despite some bright moments for him there in coming years, his life became more French than Spanish until he died in Paris in 1828. His burial in Paris between the graves of Moliere and Jean de La Fontaine, two fundamental French authors, indicates the classic status that the author of The Maidens Consent had achieved only a generation after the play’s premiere. Like the French authors, Moratín humorously showed society how necessary it was to re-examine important but incorrect assumptions about relationships between men and women.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Enlightenment and the old regime

The basic tension of late-eighteenth-century Europe is sociopolitical; there was conflict between the practical pro-democratic, anti-authoritarian principles of Enlightenment philosophy and the contradiction to that thought offered by the absolutist monarchies and courts of the Old Regime. Following the American Revolution of 1776-83 and, more particularly, the French Revolution of 1789, no one could ignore the contradiction. The Enlightenment oriented humankind toward striving for happiness in this world based on the exercise of human virtue informed by the observation of natural processes and the reasoned learning derived therefrom. Old Regime absolutism depended upon a worldview in which earthly religious and secular hierarchies were accepted as the human extension of a divine plan. The reign of the Bourbon King Charles IV of Spain, between 1788 and 1808, coincided with the crisis of Old Regime absolutism in Spain. For the enlightened Moratín, these were his most productive years.

The crisis of the Old Regime in Spain

In the clearest possible fashion the personal and public life of Spain’s Charles IV, his queen María Luísa of Parma, and other members and friends of the royal family, particularly the prime minister Godoy, demonstrated all the evils of the Old Regime and, unlike the reign of the preceding King Charles III, very few of its positive points. To begin with, the royal couple gave rise to scandal. Similar to the proposed marital match in The Maiden’s Consent, the marriage of Charles and María Luisa was arranged. Even though that was the normal practice in pairing royals, and despite the fact that Charles and María Luisa differed very little in age, there were many reports, including one integrated by Benito Pérez Galdos into his 1873 historical novel, The Court of Carlos IV, of María Luisa’s affairs. It is thought that two of her children, royals by birth, were in fact not by Charles IV, but by her alleged lover, prime minister Godoy, a man 16 years her junior and to whom all knew her to be attracted from 1788 onwards. Hence on an elemental level, the broad theme of arranged marriages and their ills was a normal part of then contemporary society, as were the accompanying Bourbon familial complications which spilled over into national life. For example, faced by the ever increasing authority of Godoy in court, in 1807 the crown prince Fernando conspired, unsuccessfully, to kill his mother, dethrone his father, and, on the way to his kingship, dispose of Godoy.

In properly international and domestic affairs, Charles IV ruled no more competently than in his own family. As one of the reigning monarchs of the Bourbon dynasty, his foreign policy was broadly dynastic: preservation of the life of his cousin, the French King Louis XVI, following the French Revolution. Then, when Louis was guillotined in January 1793, Charles took measures to try to reverse the Revolution. This, however, led to a disastrous war between March 1793 and July 1795 between Spain and the French revolutionary armies and resulted in the French occupation and control of much of northeastern Spain. Between this period and that of the Spanish War of Independence from the French (1808-14)—known in English historiography as the Peninsular Wars because of English intervention there on the side of Spain and Portugal—Spain alternated in fighting with or against the French

The Legacy Of Moratín

In the historical novel. The Court of Charles IV, Pérez Galdds dramatically revealed his aesthetic allegiance to Moratín by making the premiere of The Maiden’s Consent part of the action of his novel.’In fine metaliterary tradition, Galdós had Gabriel Araceli, his first person narrator/protagonist, explain and approve of the exemplary nature of Morat’s aesthetics as demonstrated in this play. When Araceli comments upon and praises Moratm’s simple, pure Spanish and his recreation of representative middle-class persons confronting and resolving problems typical of their time and place, he is also setting forth key parts of Galdos’s own aesthetics, At the beginning of the twenty-first century The Maiden’s Consent is considered as classic a work of Spanish theater as Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream (also m WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). It continues to be staged frequently in Spain by both amateurs and professional companies, and new editions of the play multiply.

and in fighting with or against the English. When allied with France, as in 1779-83, 1796-1801, and 1804-08, Spain’s general goal was to combat the pressure of English privateers and naval forces on Spain’s monopolistic commerce with its American colonies. When allied with the English, as in 1793-95 and 1809-14, Spain’s intent was to defend itself from France. From the French perspective, alliance with the Spanish was beneficial because of the impressive Spanish fleet, which King Ferdinand VI had begun to build up tremendously in the 1750s to use in naval operations against the British. From the British perspective, alliance with Spain was beneficial because the British wanted to prevent French control of Portuguese and Spanish ports along the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The build-up of Spanish armed forces in the 1750s had in fact been designed to assure Spanish neutrality in wars between France and England, and to retain effective control over the New World colonies. But Charles IV broke that neutrality in order to defend Bourbon family interests, a violation that worked to the detriment of Spain’s domestic and colonial concerns. The colonies’ role was to provide cheap raw materials to Spain and to offer a captive market for the manufactured goods of that country. But in the wake of such naval defeats as that of the combined French-Spanish fleet by the English under Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, imports of such colonial products as cacao, sugar, and tobacco were reduced to less than 1 percent of their prewar quantities, gold and silver ships ceased to arrive in Cadiz, and Catalonian bankruptcies mounted, especially in the textile industry. All these developments contributed to economic depression and bankruptcy of the national treasury. Charles IV’s national policy of this period was self-interested, since he aimed to prevent the spread to Spain of revolutionary ideas that could lead to the same fate for the Spanish Bourbons as that of the French branch of the family.

Although Moratín does not specifically state the historic time in which the ten hours of the action of The Maiden’s Consent transpire, references to the military history and present duties of Don Diego’s nephew, a serving lieutenant colonel in the Spanish army, point to sometime after the 1793-95 war with France, but before that army is engaged in any action more important than monitoring the 1795 Basilea Treaty, which left France in control of northeastern Spain and the non-noble Godoy with the royal title Prince of Peace. In the ensuing brief period of relative calm in Spain, Moratín’s Don Carlos can take leaves of absence from his post at the strategic, but not frontline stronghold of Zaragoza.

The afrancesados

On the cultural level, the reigns of Charles III and IV in Spain were dominated by the contention between those who supported and opposed the wholesale importation of French models to supplant national customs and traditions. Those who favored the “Frenchi-fication” of Spanish life, the so-called afrancesados, were active throughout the eighteenth century in following French practice in creating cultural institutions. Taking their cue from


The eighteenth-century Spanish cortejo was a practice probably imported from Italy, but with precedents in France. In a time of arranged and often unequal marriages, it organized in the upper and upper-middle classes a kind of service to married women by unmarried, younger men called petimetres. These men constituted a kind of court in which the woman, neglected by a complaisant older or otherwise occupied husband, was queen. They assisted her in grooming, dressing, and diverting herself. While some such relations were platonic, moralists of the period, particularly clerics, viewed the cortejo as tantamount to socially sanctioned adultery. When Don Carlos warns Don Diego about the consequences of his marrying Doña Francisca, who loves Don Carlos, he specifically invokes her high morality to indicate that she would not engage in anything like a cortejo. But Don Diego understands well that would be a risk. The relation between Queen María Luísa de Parma and Manuel de Godoy seems to have been a cortejo sanctioned by Charles IV. Needless to say the cortejo was abhorrent to Spanish traditionalists. Yet in her 1972 study Usos amorosos del dieciocho en España (Customs of Love in Eighteenth-Century Spain), the highly regarded novelist Carmen Martín Gaite defended the cortejo. Despite all its negative aspects, she argued that it not only fulfilled real female needs but also helped lay the ground for the principle of equality between the needs of men and women and their satisfaction.

French models, the afrancesados gave rise in Madrid to the Royal Academies of Language (1714), History (1736), Art (1752), and what became the national library; in larger Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville, royal societies of letters, economics, and sciences prospered. The males of the Moratín family worked in one such organization—the Royal Jewelers—and the eminent painter and etcher Francisco Goya labored first as a cartoonist for the Royal Factory of Tapestries and, beginning in 1786, as painter of the Royal Court and then of the Royal Chamber. But this cultural activity had a negative side for Spanish traditionalists. While this Enlightenment cultivation of the higher pursuits of humankind might have been harmless in itself, it became identified with its royal and aristocratic sponsors. The worldly ways in manners and morals of this elite was viewed as bad enough, but the fact that it threatened to spread widely through the upper classes caused scandal and conflict in a society dominated by the austere, other-worldly orientation of Spanish Catholicism. Only for a minority of Spaniards, those most influenced by the life of the Bourbon court, did the morally liberal, intellectually probing view of life emanating from Paris seem superior to received national ways and customs.

These problems were accentuated by the influence of the Italian wives of the early-eighteenth-century monarchs Philip V (María Luisa Gabriela of Savoy and Isabella Farnese) and Charles IV (María Luisa of Parma), and by the Italian residence of the most enlightened of Spanish kings, Charles III, son of Isabella Farnese and himself King of the Two Sicilies from 1734 until he ascended in 1759 to the Spanish throne upon the death of his half-brother Ferdinand VI. In literature imitators of the exhausted Spanish baroque literature of the latter sixteenth century contended with those such as Moratín who looked elsewhere for models—to the classic literature of Greece and Rome, the Spanish Golden Age, and the France of Louis XIV through XVI. Hence while the Bourbon court paved the way for cultural progress in Spain, it was a way that the Spanish Church, the more independent, traditional nobility, and the common people viewed as the negation of essential Spanish values. This equation was greatly complicated by the French Revolution. The very Bourbons who had been responsible for the liberalization of Spanish thought and society were obliged to renounce the logical consequences of that process as they observed its practical outcomes develop in France, that is, the rise of the lower classes at the expense of the aristocracy and monarchy. The liberal nobles finally decided that Enlightenment thought led to a new conclusion: government must serve the people, not people serve the government. By this time, however, it was too late to reverse the democratization process. Spanish traditionalists, who favored royal absolutism, came to the same decision earlier than the French. But even as these Spaniards felt vindicated in their rejection of Bourbon liberalism, the most astute among them observed that democratization was a force in Spain too.

As previously noted, the Spanish fleet, along with its French allies, met with destruction at Trafalgar in 1805. This defeat occurred under French commanders that Charles IV and Godoy foisted on the Spanish navy. As a result, the king, his minister, and Queen María Luisa came to symbolize all that was wrong with French-dominated Spain. Within three years the Spanish nation, without guidance or assistance from the Bourbons, perhaps most conspicuously without the new king Ferdinand VII, who let himself be placed in 1808 under house arrest in France by Napoleon, began the War of Independence. Following the conclusion of the war, enlightened afrancesados found themselves in the most difficult of positions. During the war they had drafted and signed Spain’s first, but ill-fated, democratic document, the Constitution of Cadiz in 1812. This document of constitutional monarchy included, for reasons very hard to comprehend in light of Ferdinand’s conduct before and during the war, a preamble pledging loyalty to him. Yet upon his return, Ferdinand wanted to revive Old Regime absolutism and to that end persecuted the afrancesados. His victims included those who had been politically active in drafting and defending the Constitution, along with those such as Moratín, who had simply continued in government service under Joseph Bonaparte. Not until Ferdinand’s death in 1833, five years after Moratín and Goya had died in exile, could the surviving afrancesados return to Spain in complete safety, and could a new generation of similarly minded thinkers and writers, represented by the Duke of Rivas and Mariano José de Larra (see “The Old-Fashioned Castilian” also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), resume Moratín and Goya’s practice of criticizing the ills of Spanish society through their art.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary. The action of the play occurs in the mid 1790s, between 7:00 p.m. on one day and 5:00 a.m. on the next in Alcalá, located 21 miles east of or about a day’s stage ride from Madrid (today it forms part of metropolitan Madrid). Summer heat and mosquitoes plague the second-floor common area of an uncomfortable inn in Alcalá de Henares from which access to four numbered rooms is gained. The main characters are 59-year-old Don Diego, a prosperous, well-known, and respected gentleman; his 25-year-old nephew, the lieutenant-colonel Don Carlos, known during much of the play to some of the characters as Don Felix; Doña Fran-cisca, the 16-year-old poor but respectable intended bride of Don Diego; and her mother Doña Irene, a poor widow in her sixties.

Act 1 opens with a conversation between Don Diego and his servant Simon. They are travelling incognito, in the context of the Madrilenian master stressing the need for protecting their disguise, and the servant’s perplexity at this behavior. The two men converse at cross-purposes concerning plans for a marriage. Don Diego is praising Doña Francisca, of whom he has much news through her mother Doña Irene. He is especially happy that she has been raised far from the distractions and temptations of the world. Doña Francisca has been receiving her education at a convent in Guadalajara, 37 miles northeast of Madrid, where her aunt is a nun. As Don Diego discourses on the considerations of age and economic position that some might consider impediments to the planned marriage, Simon struggles with confused thoughts. Assuming that Don Diego is arranging the marriage of Doña Francisca to his nephew Don Carlos, the servant does not understand his master’s scruples. As the conversation continues the spectator learns that Don Carlos is an accomplished mathematician, a decorated war hero, and a lieutenant colonel serving in the Spanish army. Suddenly the characters and spectators perceive the misunderstanding: Don Diego wants the young woman for himself, not for his nephew! Moreover, Don Diego, who is the guardian and financial supporter of his orphaned nephew, expresses displeasure with Don Carlos because, in his opinion, his nephew has recently been spending too much money and time first in Madrid and then in Guadalajara, rather than at his post in Zaragoza, 212 miles northeast of Madrid.

In the next scene Doña Francisca and her mother, Doña Irene, enter from the street where they have been visiting with friends and relations. Doña Irene, in her early sixties, thrice widowed and mother to one surviving child out of the 22 born to her, states that everyone considers the proposed match between Don Diego and her daughter a fine one, but Don Diego comments that it is much more important that Doña Francisca finds it so. In a long conversation in which her daughter is mainly mute, Doña Irene narrates the family history. The spectator learns that Doña Francisca is, in the rough English equivalent, a gentlewoman whose family has fallen on hard times, but that she has all the same received the best of educations while in Guadalajara in her aunt’s convent. With this ground covered, the three parties leave the common area, but return momentarily.

Now on the scene are Doña Irene and Fran-cisca’s servant Rita and one Calamocha. The latter is Don Carlos’s servant and has become friendly with Rita in Guadalajara during the courtship of Doña Francisca and the officer known to her as Don Felix (in reality Don Carlos). Calamocha and Don Carlos have just ridden all the way from Zaragoza, via Guadalajara, after receiving a letter from Doña Francisca telling the news of her arranged marriage to an elderly suitor and trip to Madrid. Rita explains her young mistress’s hope: that the officer known to her as Don Felix can resolve the problem; in the meantime she is bound by filial obedience to follow her mother’s commands. The act ends with Rita and Doña Francisca discussing these developments.

Act 2 occurs as night falls. The first scenes are between Doña Irene and her daughter. Before a passive, apparently docile Doña Francisca, the mother rehearses the economic benefits that will grace their lives through marriage to Don Diego. She also admonishes Francisca about the obedience a child owes to a parent, and stresses the need for her to act well with Don Diego. When he arrives on the scene, a serious conversation develops between him and Doña Irene, with Francisca exhibiting the passivity that characterizes her when with her elders. At issue is Don Diego’s abiding concern that the young woman enter the marriage freely. Don Diego cogently explains the natural reasons why a young woman might not want to marry an older man. He specifically discounts obedience to a parent being sufficient grounds for marriage. He indicates also that it is precisely Doña Francisca’s convent education and removal from the world that make it possible that she might willingly enter into a relationship in which friendship more than passion would prevail. Doña Irene concurs with this view and, by means of leading questions, has her daughter agree to it. When the older people leave the scene, Francisca is joined by Rita, who informs her of the arrival of Don Felix (Don Carlos), and then is joined by the young officer himself. Francisca explains the situation and her obligations to her mother. As a person raised in the same milieu, Don Carlos immediately grasps the situation and even grants the probable good intentions of Francisca’s elderly suitor. Yet he thinks his wealthy uncle in Madrid, to where all are to go on the morrow, will sponsor his and Francisca’s marriage to each other. When she returns to her room, Don Carlos and Calamocha recognize Don Diego’s servant Simon coming into the common area in the growing darkness. For his part, Simon recognizes Don Felix as Don Carlos, Don Diego’s nephew. While all three men are trying to understand one another’s presence at the inn, Don Diego arrives. He is very displeased to find his nephew there and not at his post in Zaragoza. As they talk, a crestfallen Don Carlos realizes that his uncle is his rival for Doña Francisca. Becoming passive, following the same principle of filial obedience as she, Carlos unhesitatingly agrees to obey his uncle and return immediately to Zaragoza. In the next scene Simon, who knows nothing of the relationship between Francisca and Carlos, mentions to Doña Francisca what just happened between his master and the man she knows as Don Felix. Not yet realizing that Don Felix and Don Diego’s nephew, Don Carlos, are the same person, Francisca is filled with confusion and a sense of betrayal: she only knows that the man in whom she has placed her hope and trust is abandoning her.

Act 3 extends the action into the dawn. Off-scene Don Carlos returns to the inn, performs in the street a short serenade to gain Francisca’s attention, and then throws from horseback a letter up through the window of the common area. Unfortunately the serenade has also awakened Don Diego and Simon. In the confusion of the dark and several people emerging from their rooms and bumping into things, Don Diego, not Doña Francisca, recovers the letter meant for her. Hence Don Diego learns that Don Carlos passed himself off as Don Felix in Guadalajara, so Don Diego would not find out he was dawdling there, and of Don Carlos’s resolve to make no further pretensions to Doña Francisca. Apprised of these new circumstances, Don Diego is filled with anger, disappointment, and sadness. But as his reason gains control over these emotions, he acknowledges that, as Simon perceived in Act 1, the natural and reasonable relationship is the one between the two young people, not the one he was both trying to conceal while in Alcalá and at the same


The emphasis placed on the economically-successful marriage of Francisca by Doña Irene is very similar in its urgency and motivation to that of Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), written just a few years after Moratín’s play. While both Doña Irene and Mrs. Bennet are portrayed as grasping; imperious ninnies by Moratín and Austen, and actors in stage and film versions reinforce those characterizations, any feminist consciousness must re-examine those women and their portrayals. Both Moratfn and Austen, in the works in question, as well as in other writings by them, make it abundantly clear that survival for their middle-class female protagonists lies in marriage to a man of means. Failing such, their future will be like that of the poorly married, thrice-widowed Doña Irene: a constant battle with poverty and all its degradations and deprivations. Mrs. Bennet and, for that matter, the Bennet daughters’ friend Charlotte Lucas, chastened by such battles in the lives of others, prudently, if not romantically, take measures to avoid that fate themselves. Like Doña Francisca and Don Carlos, Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice are simply and exceptionally lucky in making love matches that are also either very or spectacularly successful in economic terms. Resolutions of this kind to the conflicts in the novel and in The Maiden’s Consent demonstrate the distance between Moratfn and Austen’s sensibility and the realism and naturalism demonstrated in the less happy portrayals of relationships in subsequent nineteenth-century literary works.

time intending to consummate in Madrid. It is in this frame of mind that Don Diego has his nephew brought back to the inn, and learns from him the innocent history of how his love for Doña Francisca began at a social function in Guadalajara and mutually grew. Dofia Francisca then is informed of who Don Felix really is, and, as Doña Irene sees her and her daughter’s chance for security slipping from her grasp, Don Diego announces that he will bless and finance the union of Doña Francisca and his nephew. Having condemned the educational system that made Francisca so passive and obedient as to falsely say she wanted to marry him, Don Diego will find the consolation of his old age in the family Francisca and Carlos will form.

When reason reigns

In Act 3, Don Carlos, under questioning from his uncle, gives the history of his love for Doña Francisca. When Don Diego asks him if he understands that circumstances now require him to yield in this competition, Carlos agrees. Don Diego, sinking temporarily to the authoritarian level occupied by Dofia Irene, tries to bolster his situation by citing the agreement of Doña Francisca’s family to the match, the issue of the filial obedience she owes to her mother, and her own spoken consent to the older suitor. Don Carlos responds by distinguishing between Dofia Francisca’s words and her heart:

You’ll hold your wedding whenever it suits you; she will always behave in a manner that befits her honor and her virtue; but I am the first, the only object of her love—I am now and I always will be.… She’ll call you her husband; but if once or many times you surprise her, and see her beautiful eyes bathed in tears, she’ll be shedding them for me.… Never ask her the reason for her moods of sadness … I, I will be the cause.… The sighs she’ll try in vain to suppress will be loving messages addressed to an absent sweetheart.

(Fernández de Moratín, The Maiden’s Consent, pp. 95-96)

Don Diego grows enraged. But Don Carlos, to the surprise of his uncle, who expects an equally passionate response from him, moves to exit the common area and to demonstrate his own filial obedience by returning to Zaragoza. He also indicates that it will be a long time before his uncle again sees him. In answer to Don Diego’s question, Why? Don Carlos speaks of rumors of war and indicates that he plans to repeat the heroics of his past, to be always the first officer to lead his men into the breech. This plan, which is tantamount to one of suicide, brings the horrified Don Diego back to reason and to acknowledging to himself the truth of his nephew’s reasoning about Doña Francisca’s disquietude if she were to marry him. Consequently Don Diego moves to resolve reasonably and happily the problems and conflicts of the play.

The scene indicates at least three lessons being taught by Moratín, the Enlightenment afrancesado and neoclassical dramatist bound by a dual obligation to please and to teach through his art. The first lesson concerns the question of socioeconomic class distinctions and practical wisdom. As happens in the best Spanish plays of contemporary manners by Tomás de Iriarte, Moratín’s lesser-known dramatic predecessor and peer, it is the servants, specifically Simon in The Maiden’s Consent, who immediately understand the path of conduct that reason recommends and that their masters either do not follow (in Iriarte) or follow only after a significant delay (in Moratín). Simon, it will be remembered, alerts both Don Diego and the audience from the first scene of The Maiden’s Consent that his master’s conduct goes against nature and therefore reason. But, as Don Carlos explains and the audience understands, the social system and economic realities grant to Don Diego the authority to be the arbiter of the conflict and to expect his judgments to be accepted. Nonetheless, from the viewpoint of the play, it is not reasonable for him to use his power to crush Francisca and his nephew. The specific moral here is that the gift of reason is not limited to those at the apex of the socioeconomic system, and that, if those who are at the apex fail to be reasonable, great harm must ensue.

There was a second, sociopolitical lesson, in times of democratic revolutions in America and France, and of the more or less moralizing allegories of France’s La Fontaine, Britain’s Jonathan Swift, and Spain’s Félix Maria Samaniego. Don Carlos’s warning to his uncle is also a threat. The rich and powerful of the Old Regime of absolute monarchy and hereditary nobility have the run of society, but the human heart—nature—will not allow them to enjoy the spoils that fall to them as their birthright if they trample the emotions and needs of their familial and social dependants. In this context it is especially revealing that the old Don Diego, a representation of the Spanish establishment, needs, during those bellicose times, the heroics of the young military men of Don Carlos’s generation to protect his possessions and position. The question the play implicitly poses is: how long will the young and economically subjugated support and defend those above them if they will have to continue tolerating abuse and injustice?

The final lesson of The Maiden’s Consent is, then, the final resolution taken by Don Diego. When he does succeed in controlling the inflamed passions of the threat posed to his own love by the Francisca-Carlos relationship, he is acting reasonably, in accord with the realities of biology and human experience. At the end of the play, Don Diego has one request: that the firstborn child of the soon-to-be married young couple be figuratively his. Seeing this child in his mind’s eye, Don Diego, who has become sublime in his self-denial, imagines: “And when I hold him in my arms, I’ll be able to say: he owes his life to me, this innocent child; as long as his parents live, as long as they’re happy, I’ll have been the cause of it” (Maiden’s Consent, p. 106). In this last scene of the play, Moratín is suggesting the widespread social and human benefits that will flow to all if those above regard and treat correctly those below.

Literary context and sources

The Maiden’s Consent is Moratín’s last dramatic work. Structured by the three unities of action, place, and time, the play revolves around the single question of who will marry Doña Francisca in one 24-hour period and at one location (the inn at Acalá). The play furthermore unfolds in a straightforward type of Spanish language. Though humorous, it is also a didactically oriented criticism of customs governing marriage and the education of young women. Altogether these components have led to its being considered the most perfect work of neoclassical drama informed by Enlightenment thought in Spain.

The theme of the unequal marriage between youth and age has a rich tradition. The precedents probably best known to Moratín included: Cervantes’s exemplary novel The Jealous Es-tremaduran; several comedies by Moliére, especially The School for Wives; and, Marivaux’s La Mére confident (The Confident Mother) and L’Ecole de méres (The School for Mothers). Among Moratín’s contemporaneous countrymen, Francisco Goya also took up the theme in, for example, his 1787 tapestry cartoon “The Wedding” and plates 2, 5, 14, 15 and 75 in Los Caprichos of 1799. Moratín also had direct experience in relation to unequal marriages. In the 1780s he loved and was loved by Sabina Contiy Bernascone, but her family, not seeing great prospects in the jeweler with literary ambitions, married her to a wealthy uncle twice her age. In the next two decades Moratín penned at least five plays, four being extant, about older, wealthy men wanting, with the blessing of society, to marry young, poor, or less well-to-do women. Generations after Moratín such important Spanish realist novelists as Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, Juan Valera, Benito Pérez Galdós, Leopoldo Alas, José Palacio Valdés, and Emilia Pardo Bazán continued to observe such relationships and transform them into significant elements of characterization and plot (see Fortunata and Jacinta La Regenta, and House of Ulloa , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times).

The difference between these realistic uses of the old man-young woman theme and Moratín’s in The Maiden’s Consent. derives from his direct experience of the Enlightenment. Along with his friends Goya and Iriarte, Moratín was very familiar with and impressed by the graphic, moralizing representations of such distinguished English satirists as William Hogarth and James Gillray. He must also have become familiar, during his European travels of the 1790s, with Got-thold Ephraim Lessing’s plays of the 1770s, which centered on the middle class, and with his theatrical parable of religious tolerance Nathan the Wise. Like all the writers named here, Moratín embraced the neoclassical aesthetic of the Enlightenment: prodesse et delectare, the creation of a pleasing drawing, painting, poem, or play to provide the moral lesson of reason conquering passion for the greatest societal and individual good. Just as Goya believed that “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters” (plate 43 of Los Caprichos), Moratín focused his simple plot on Don Diego awakening from unreasonable reveries about the very young, healthy, attractive Doña Francisca unnaturally preferring to marry a man two generations older than she. In Act 2, as the enormity of the proposed marriage becomes more real to him, Don Diego, while conversing with the talkative Doña Irene and the reserved Doña Francisca, corrects Doña Irene’s evaluation of the role of feelings in her daughter’s decision making. He explains that “at her age the passions are livelier and more overruling than at our age, and while her reasoning is still imperfect and feeble, the impulses of the heart are all the more violent” (Maiden’s Consent, p. 49). The play shows Don Diego coming to particular terms with this general principle of human nature. When Don Diego understands that his nephew and Francisca love each other with the lively passion of youth, he, as an enlightened person must do three things: admit to himself that their love is the more natural and hence reasonable pattern in life; recognize that his age militates against his inspiring this kind of love; and desist in his pretensions to Francisca, yielding to the love between her and Carlos. He, in adopting these reasoned stances, rejects the domestic version of the absolutist, authoritarian hierarchical ordering of people and society maintained by the Roman Catholic Church in Spain. Don Diego’s fight to prevent the dominance of his passions over his reason brings into focus the heart of the play, reflecting the prominence given to reason in Enlightenment thought. As a reasonable man, Don Diego must first understand the natural ages and relations of human life. Then he must consistently act with reason. When Don Diego succeeds in governing himself and then calmly surveys the situation, his solution to the problems and conflicts of the play is straightforward and positive for him and his nephew, as well as for Doña Francisca and her mother. Implicitly, but all the same very clearly rejected is the traditional version of the absolutist hierarchical order found in the received dictates of the Roman Catholic Church in the religious sphere, and of the monarchy and nobility in the civil order. These powerful creations of the medieval period have seen their day and must now yield, as the thought of the Enlightenment puts into practice the new insights gained from the study of nature and the reasoned analysis of human relations and institutions. From a broadly cultural viewpoint The Maiden’s Consent, as well as Iri-arte’s plays of contemporary manners, constitutes a presentation and critique of vices and negative practices in Spanish society, and provides examples of the kind of reasoned conduct that would better that society.


Nearly two centuries after the premiere of The Maiden’s Consent, it can be judged the single most influential play of the Spanish stage. The then-contemporary markers of its success included an unusually long run following its premiere; simultaneous productions of the play in other parts of Spain; and four printings of its text version in 1806. Despite the long War of Independence, Moratín’s association with the hated Godoy, and his subsequent ostracism as an afrancesado, the force of Moratín’s literary achievements became clear during the last years of the life of Ferdinand VII, when the Royal Academy of History published a four-volume edition


While Manuel de Godoy is generally denigrated in Spanish history, his protection of such Enlightenment artists as Moratín and Goya reveal a certain positive dimension to him and the Bourbon system. From 1792 until 1808 the middle-class Moratín enjoyed a combination of government pensions and jobs that enabled him to pursue his education abroad and to continue his literary activity. In addition, Godoy’s protection shielded Moratín from attacks on him by Spanish traditionalists, who saw dangerous social and religious criticism in The Maiden’s Consent Similarly, in 1799, when the anti-clerical satires included in Los Caprichos attracted the ire of the Inquisition, Godoy intervened to protect Goya. Then, in 1803, Godoy arranged for Charles IV, who in any case thought well of Goya, to buy out the numerous warehoused copies of Los Caprichos, lest Goya continue to be deprived of income from the edition.

(1830-31) of Moratín’s theatrical and other works. All subsequent principal Spanish authors from Ramón de Mesonero Romanos and José Maria Larra through Benito Pérez Galdos praised The Maiden’s Consent both as a satisfying night of theater and as a literary model to be followed. In 1857 Ventura de la Vega, who viewed himself as a disciple of Moratín and who is considered one of the principle Spanish dramatists of the nineteenth century, was responsible for the very public rehabilitation of Maratín; through de la Vega’s efforts, Moratín’s remains were returned to Madrid.

—Stephen Miller

For More Information

Aguilar Piñal, F[rancisco]. Introducción al Siglo XVIII. Vol. 25 of Historia de la literatura española. Ed. R[icardo] de la Fuente. Madrid: Ediciones Júcar, 1991.

Cook, John A. Neo-Classic Drama in Spain. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1959.

Dowling, John. Leandro Fernández de Moratín. New York: Twayne, 1971.

Fernández de Moratín, Leandro. The Maiden’s Consent. Trans. Harriet de Onís. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1962.

Glendinning, Nigel. The Eighteenth Century. Vol. 4 of A Literary History of Spain. Ed. R. O. Jones. London: Ernest Benn, 1972.

Goya, Francisco. Los Caprichos. Ed. Philip Hofer. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.

Herr, Richard. The Eighteenth Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Martin Gaite, Carmen. Usos amorosos del dieciocho en España. Madrid: Editorial Anagrama, 1987.

Tomlinson, Janis A. Goya in the Twilight of Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.