Renaissance Theater in Spain

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Renaissance Theater in Spain


The theater of Renaissance Spain was similar in many ways to the rest of Europe, although it displayed a number of innovative developments. Religious dramas, much like the great mystery cycles of France, England, and Germany, had been important in Iberia in the later Middle Ages. Since Muslim forces had held much of Spain during the Middle Ages, these religious dramas had developed earliest in Catalonia, the northeastern region of the country and the first to expel the influences of Islam. As the Reconquest of the peninsula proceeded, religious dramas developed in those places recaptured from the Muslims. In the absence of a widespread Reformation in the sixteenth century, many of these dramas survived into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and some even into modern times. During the sixteenth century, the Feast of Corpus Christi, long the most important time for theatrical spectacles and dramas, continued to be a force in local religion. While evidencing these conservative elements, new religious forms of drama came to flourish as well, some inspired by the Counter-Reformation. As they did elsewhere in Europe, the Jesuits used school drama in Spain to perfect their students' Latin, although over time the Jesuit Theater produced plays in Spanish as well. The adoption of Spanish was not so much an innovative element of the sixteenth-century Jesuits, but a bow to longstanding tastes. Latin had not been used extensively in the Spanish religious dramas that flourished in the peninsula during the later Middle Ages. Instead the vernacular or local languages had long been the preferred medium of expression. At court and church festivals in the sixteenth century a genre of Autos sacramentales, or religious plays on various themes, came increasingly to be dominated by professional playwrights and producers. A final important trend in the Renaissance theater in Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, was the growth of troupes of itinerant professionals, the first evidence of which comes to us from the 1540s. Both Italian Commedia dell'Arte groups and native professionals toured the peninsula in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As in England and other parts of Europe, these groups often raised the ire of local authorities that complained that the itinerants were little more than thieves and tricksters. Spanish troupes displayed from the very start a love not only of drama but also of dance and song, and the street performances that were common in Iberia were eclectic, mixing elements of all the dramatic arts. While feared as a source of disorder, these very same performers integrated their dancing and theatrics into the celebration of local religious festivals at the request of church and civic officials.


Politically, modern Spain was a country that was still very much in the process of being created in the sixteenth century. While the two largest kingdoms in Iberia—Castile and Aragon—had been joined in the late fifteenth century by the dynastic marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Spain was ruled for much of the sixteenth century as two separate kingdoms, each with their own law code, customs, and civic liberties respected by the Habsburg dynasty. Both Charles V (r. 1516–1558) and Philip II (r. 1556–1598) presided uneasily over powerful noble families who were jealous of their ancient rights. In addition, strong traditions of civic liberty in Spain further limited the authority of these rulers in the towns. Even though Charles V was the grandson of Ferdinand of Aragon, he had been raised in the Burgundian lands in the Netherlands, long one of the most elaborate and spectacular courts in Europe. Although he introduced some elements of Burgundian spectacle into Spanish court life, Charles tread carefully, aware of the envy that these displays might produce in his great nobles and urban patricians. And while Philip II was a great lover and patron of the visual arts and literature, he found elaborate court spectacle distasteful. For a large part of his reign he isolated himself in the Escorial, a combination monastery, church, and royal palace built outside Madrid as a memorial to his father. In these circumstances the dramatic and imposing forms of court life popular in France and other great sixteenth-century courts—royal entries and spectacles, masques, and elaborate banquets—generally played little role in sixteenth-century Spain. The tenor of Habsburg court life in Spain remained altogether more restrained throughout the sixteenth century.

Humanist Elements.

Juan del Encina (c. 1468–c. 1530) was the first Spaniard to integrate humanist elements into his dramas and literary creations. Born the son of a shoemaker, he had been christened Juan de Fremoselle, but later changed his last name to Encina. Educated in law at the University of Salamanca, he entered the service of the powerful Duke of Alba in 1492, where he was appointed the master of revels, a position responsible for ensuring that the duke had a steady stream of musical, dramatic, and poetic entertainments. He held this position until 1500, and during these years he wrote fourteen verse plays and more than sixty songs, the lion's share of his literary and dramatic output. His most important achievement lay in the drama, in which he made use of the Renaissance revival of Vergilian eclogue to create religious plays that were pastoral in their imagery. The first of these were only a few hundred lines long, but he gradually expanded the dramas to more than several thousand lines of verse. Over time, they acquired a surer skill and artistry. Although they did little to inspire the great dramatists of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they introduced Renaissance forms into Spain and were notable for their conflicted imagery. On the one hand they displayed Encina's deeply Christian sentiments, and on the other, they showed the realities of a court that had a fondness for the erotic and pagan elements of Renaissance classicism. Encina tried to harmonize these two elements into a refined style, and toward the end of his time with Alba he succeeded in producing works of great elegance. The finesse of these later works came after he had made several trips to Rome, and in these plays he adopted a more forthright eroticism. The most experimental of the fourteen dramas was Plácida and Victoriano, which was actually staged in Rome during 1513. That work included parodies on the rituals of the church, invocations of pagan deities, and daringly erotic interludes. In the course of the sixteenth century, however, the rapid development of Spanish literature made his bucolic verses seem outdated, and his frank eroticism put his plays on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Even in his own lifetime Encina disavowed his embrace of pagan eroticism; in 1500, he left the Duke of Alba to pursue a clerical career. Ironically, later Golden Age dramatists revived his elegant Spanish style in the seventeenth century to suggest the unsophisticated nature of peasant speech.


Authorities suspected social criticism in the entertainments of musicians and acting troupes who traveled from city to city, easily escaping prosecution for blasphemy or libel. Always outsiders, these traveling musicians and players were commonly suspected of theft and prostitution. In addition, they often relied on unwritten lines and impromptu exchanges with the audience, difficult evidence for prosecutors attempting to prove blasphemy. These travelers resembled the vagabonds that city officials distrusted so intensely, except that actors were very clever in persuading their audiences. They delighted their street audiences with ribald imitations of nobles and churchmen. Their bawdy songs poked fun at authority and at those who had money. Townspeople might consider them immoral, but they always gathered an eager, happy audience for their unauthorized street performances.

Drama, music, and dance were usually performed by traveling companies, but all three were also an integral part of religious liturgy. The mixture of theater and religion reached its zenith with the founding of the Jesuits' houses in Seville. Many Jesuits used theater and drama to teach virtue and dramatize the life of Jesus and the saints. Students who were taught in the Jesuits' schools became stars in the acting companies in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Spain. …

Although drama was presented on the streets and in the plazas of Seville, the city also had three famous theaters in the early modern period. The Corral de Doña Elvira, which was built in the sixteenth century, was a patio for performances, covered and surrounded by theater boxes and a gallery in back. The city council decided to build the Coliseo in the early seventeenth century so that it could control the performances and profits of the theater. The first Coliseo, finished in 1607, was a modest wooden building. It was replaced by a second Coliseo that was built much more lavishly in 1614. Rich marble and paintings by Diego de Esquivel and Gonzalez de Campos decorated the theater, and a handsome crest of the city council dominated the entry. This Coliseo burned in 1620 and was rebuilt in greater splendor in 1641. After fire destroyed the Coliseo once more in 1659, the city council lacked funds to rebuild it. It agreed to permit Laura de Herrera and her company to use the Coliseo rent-free for the next forty years in exchange for her financing the reconstruction of the theater. …

The audience seemed to be as responsible for the scandalous reputation of the theater as the actors were, and the city government's efforts to control the audience failed. Custom dictated that men and women be separated in theaters, but separation had not been enforced. In 1627 a city council member declared that permitting women to sit with men in city theaters had resulted in many "offenses to God." He proposed that the city government require men and women not only to sit in separate sections in the theaters, but also to enter through different doors. These regulations only promoted more scandals, like the uproar in 1654 when one man sneaked into the women's section in La Montería and lifted skirts and "touched legs." Although he was imprisoned and then exiled from the city for two years, the women's gallery (called the cazuela, or stewing pan) remained one of the rowdiest sections of the theaters.

People came to the theater for fun and celebration. Customarily they brought fruit and cucumbers, and they pelted the actors who displeased them. They also used rattles, whistles, and metal keys to register their approval and disapproval as noisily as possible. In 1643 an audience in La Montería was outraged when the comedy they had come to see was censored by the Inquisition and replaced by a less offensive comedy. The city chronicler who reported the incident said that "lower and popular" people filled the audience on this feast day. Shouting in protest, they jumped up and began breaking the chairs and benches. They threw the pieces around the theater and tore up all the costumes and scenery they could find. The actors, according to the chronicle, fled from "the rabble."

source: Mary Elizabeth Perry, Crime and Society in Early Modern Seville (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1980): 151–155.

Torres Naharro.

Slightly later in 1517, Bartolomé de Torres Naharro (c. 1485–after 1520) published a collection of poems and nine plays entitled Propalladia or The First Fruits of Pallas. These plays made use of the firsthand knowledge of humanism and politics he had acquired while living in Italy. The Propalladia plays were notable not only for their classical forms but for the work's Prologue which articulated the first dramatic theory in Spain. Torres Naharro argued that there were only two types of dramas: one based on actual events and the other on imaginary but still believable forms of fiction. Unlike many dramatic theorists at the time who maintained that drama was primarily a literary art, Torres Naharro insisted that plays needed to be performed so that all their elements could be appreciated and comprehended. Among the best known of the Propalladia plays is the Himenea, a work that deals with the theme of feminine honor; critics have long seen it as a precursor to the many seventeenth-century Spanish plays treating the same theme. In the work Himenea's brother, a marquis, threatens his sister with death for compromising the family's reputation, but the last-minute arrival of her lover and his reasoned arguments stay the marquis's hand. Two of Torres Naharro's Propalladia dramas are satires. One, the Comedia tinellaria, treats the less than pious behavior of the servants of a cardinal, and the other the Comedia soldadesca satirizes a pope's attempts to raise an army. This latter play was a thinly veiled commentary on Julius II (r. 1503–1513), who was known as the "Warrior Pope" since he marched into battle with his troops. In his relatively brief pontificate Julius aimed to expand the secular territory controlled by the papacy and, in so doing, he embroiled the Papal States in a variety of international intrigues. His policies engendered opposition from Europe's two great powers, France and Spain. Thus while Torres Naharro's choice of theme might appear a daring one at first glance, his satirical jabs at the papacy actually fit with Spain's international aims as an opponent of papal expansionism. These plays introduced a sure understanding of the dramatic structures of the ancient Roman playwrights Terence and Plautus into Spain. At the same time their author also made use of native literary traditions. His works, for instance, evidence an indebtedness to the Celestina, a popular novel written in prose dialogue around 1500. The Celestina's author had intended the work to be read out loud rather than staged, and its dramatic, sometimes highly emotional style finds its way into Torres Naharro's plays. Spanish playwrights imitated this lively style in the following decades, although no figure seems to have developed the same finesse or to have acquired a following as large as Torres Naharro in the decades that immediately followed the Propalladia. Instead court spectacles staged in the palaces of the country's grand nobles and religious dramas were the dominant theatrical forms of the mid-sixteenth century.

Professional Theaters.

If the mid-sixteenth century produced little in the way of drama that was innovative, it saw at the same time the rise of commercial theaters in Spain's largest cities. In Italy, the ducal courts had largely supported the construction of both temporary and permanent theaters. In France and England, these endeavors had been from their first inception more commercial in nature. At Paris, the late-medieval guild of amateur actors, the Confraternity of the Passion, possessed a royal monopoly over dramatic performances in the city—a right that they were willing to share with other traveling troupes in exchange for money payments. The pattern in England was again slightly different, with the crown granting license patents to companies that fell under the cloak of patronage from nobles and other distinguished subjects of the realm. Spain's commercial theaters evidenced yet a third pattern of development, since from the first they were supported by the charitable confraternities or brotherhoods that ran urban hospitals. These brotherhoods ran the theaters as commercial ventures to support their charitable activities. These theaters first began to appear in Madrid, not long after the city had been chosen as the center of royal government in 1561. Until this time Madrid had been a relatively sleepy provincial town, perched on the high central plain of Spain. After Philip II's decision to build his royal palace, the Escorial, outside the city and to move the offices of royal administration to the town, a period of explosive growth began. By 1600, the population had more than tripled, and twenty years later these numbers were almost seven times the city's size in 1560. This expansion in population produced a corresponding rise in the number of professional theaters located within the city. The first of Madrid's corrales—known as such because they were at first merely closed-in yards or "corrals"—was built in 1579. The second came in 1582, and by 1630 there were seven theaters in the city, making Madrid second only to London in the vibrancy of its dramatic life. Each of these theaters contained a large yard surrounded by a U-shaped gallery of boxes arranged in tiers facing the stage. The most visible and desirable of these boxes frequently rented for more than twenty times the admission to the pit-like floor. With this arrangement of space the average Madrid theater could accommodate about 2,000 spectators, about a third smaller than the largest theaters in London at the time but nevertheless an enormous auditorium given Madrid's size (about 130,000 inhabitants in 1620). At their inception these structures were merely functional, quickly erected in yards that surrounded the confraternal hospitals. Over time, however, as the new professional theaters spread to other Spanish cities, more sophisticated designs emerged. By the end of the sixteenth century theaters had been built in every large Spanish town, and although plays were widely popular, the theater was also controversial. As elsewhere in Europe, the new professional theaters inspired attacks from Christian moralists, and the Council of Castile, the body charged with regulating actors, granted licenses to only a small number of troupes. Censorship was strict, and a royal official viewed each play before it could be shown to the public. But in Spain, in contrast to most places in Europe at the time, there was no prohibition on women actors. The regulations governing their roles were relatively liberal, allowing them to even dress as men when their parts called for it.

Rise of Golden Age.

The early years of the new Renaissance professional theater produced no dramatist of distinction, but the rising popularity of the institution attracted a number of great playwrights to the stage after 1600. The seventeenth century in Spanish art and culture has long been known as the Golden Age. This great flowering of the arts came at a time when Spain's international political influence and its national economy were in decline. By 1600, in fact, the great period of Spanish expansion was at an end. Thus the great flowering of Spain's high culture developed, as in High Renaissance Rome, at a time of increasing political tensions and an ever more precarious domestic situation. New immigrants flooded Spain's growing cities, fleeing an increasingly impoverished countryside. In the newly swollen cities, an all-too modern cycle of structural poverty and crime developed. In this new environment the theater provided a welcome and often relatively cheap release from some of the more harrowing aspects of urban life. As in England, the culture of humanism had made its impact on Spain during the Renaissance. Yet in the new commercial realities of Spanish cities, where numbers were increased by thousands of new immigrants from the countryside annually, Golden Age dramatists were never able to adopt Renaissance forms in a pure way. Instead they had to please crowds with dramas that were relatively quick moving and geared to middlebrow tastes. The five-act style of comedy that had been favored in ducal courts in Italy because of its roots in Terence and Plautus did not prevail in Spain. In the summer, performances began in Madrid's corral theaters at 4 p.m.; in the winter when sunlight was more limited they commenced two hours earlier. With these practical considerations in mind there was no place for the elaborate five-act comedies of Renaissance Italy, which had frequently been extended to great lengths through the staging of interludes and other spectacles between the acts. The demands of the new theater were instead for crowd-pleasing, fast-paced action that would leave the audience craving for more.

Emerging Forms.

Miguel de Cervantes and the other great figures of the early Golden Age thus attempted to adapt classical forms to native traditions and Spanish realities. In the plays that he wrote around 1600 Cervantes relied on a four-act structure, and he drew a clear distinction between tragic and comic forms. One of his earliest successes, Numancia, dealt with a tragic event from Spain's ancient past, the destruction of the Celtic Iberian city of Numantia in the second centuryb.c.e. The play has since seen many revivals at crisis points in Spanish history, as, for instance, during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century and in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) of the twentieth. It did not produce a wide circle of admirers, though, when first staged in the early seventeenth century. By 1615, shortly before his death, Cervantes tried to adapt to a new style, shifting the directions of his theatrical writing to conform to a quicker paced three-act comic formula. By then, the author's taste for grand themes, carefully and subtly elaborated, had marked many of his earlier plays as outdated. He published eight of his plays in the new three-act formula, a formula that owed its existence to the rising popularity of works by Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1562–1635). In his plays Lope drew no distinction between comic and tragic forms, dividing each of his plays into a three-act production—a factor that made them relatively easy to stage in the emerging commercial houses. He also relied on quick action coupled with witty, octosyllabic verses—traits that were very different from Cervantes' Renaissance sensibilities, with their tendency toward the gradual elaboration of grand themes. Into his new three-act formula Lope poured historical, religious, and mythological themes, and at the height of his popularity he completed a new play every few weeks. In his lifetime he may have written as many as 1,800 dramas, and the more than 300 of these that survive today show that he had a tremendous talent for creating engaging and appealing works. Still, despite this enormous productivity, great variety exists in his enormous opus—so much variety, in fact, that scholars are still finding hidden treasure in his works today. Lope often started with a scenario drawn from his reading of history, an incident from Spain's past, from the lives of the saints, or from mythology. To each of his creations he brought a fresh perspective, so that even plays that seem to share similar themes are, upon closer inspection, very different from one another. When he died in 1635, his funeral became an event of public mourning in Madrid. By that time, though, his example had inspired many other authors in Spain to undertake writing for the stage. By 1632, for instance, one commentator listed almost eighty contemporary playwrights active in Castile alone. Some of these figures were as prolific as Lope de Vega, and as a result thousands of plays survive from seventeenth-century Spain.

Toward the Future.

The enormous outburst of dramatic creativity that appeared in both Spain and England as the Renaissance faded into the new Baroque sensibilities rested on a firm foundation of native tradition and classical models. Like much of the theater of England in the years immediately following 1600, Spain produced many excellent, mediocre, and bad dramas at the same time. The enormous popularity of the new commercial theater reveals important changes that were at work in European society. In place of the community plays staged in the Middle Ages, the tendency appeared for drama to be mounted more and more by a paid cast of professional actors whose primary job was to entertain. Although seventeenth-century society remained vastly poor by modern standards, the increasing division of labor that was appearing in these societies, coupled with rapid urbanization, produced a public with more leisure time, more disposable cash, and a discriminating taste for the drama, indeed for all entertainments. The results of this transformation, rooted in subtle shifts of taste and larger economic realities, helped sustain the theater as one of Europe's most important art forms into modern times.


M. Banham, ed., The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

M. McKendrick, Theatre in Spain 1490–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

M. Wilson, Spanish Drama of the Golden Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

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Renaissance Theater in Spain

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