By the 1400s, a flourishing religious drama existed in the Spanish kingdom of Castile. Two playwrights of the late 1400s helped develop this early theater into the forms of the Renaissance. Juan del Encina, who wrote 14 plays in verse over the course of his career, gradually expanded his works from short plays with only a few hundred lines to much longer pieces. Bartolomé de Torres Naharro transformed the theater by creating an illusion of the real world on the stage, rather than relying on artificial customs and rules.
Spanish drama in the 1500s took several forms, each appealing to a different audience. The general public enjoyed the popular religious plays performed on major feast days. Schools and universities put on plays in Latin, in Castilian Spanish, or in a mixture of the two, for a more learned audience. Traveling companies of actors performed non-religious plays, often based on classical* or Italian models. And at court, royalty and nobles watched types of entertainment based on the masques* of the Middle Ages.
During the 1600s, the popular religious theater of the 1500s developed into a more formal type of drama. These sacred plays celebrated the Catholic ritual of communion. They drew their plots from biblical stories, ancient mythology, or current events. By giving dramatic form to abstract religious ideas, these plays functioned as both theater and theology*. They became an important means of transmitting the religious ideas of the Catholic Counter-Reformation*.
The other popular form of drama during the 1600s was the comedia. This word, which literally means "comedy," became a general term for "play," reflecting the fact that most Spanish drama at this time took a comic form. The works sometimes had serious or tragic themes, but the characters inevitably overcame their problems to arrive at a happy ending. A typical comedia featured a pair of lovers and the people who threatened their union, such as a rival suitor or a stern father or brother. Another character, often a servant, provided comic relief through clever wordplay or comic imitation of the main plot. Audiences generally preferred swiftly moving plots filled with disguises, deceptions, and duels.
Lope Félix de Vega Carpio played a large role in developing the Spanish comedia from the dramatic practices of the 1500s. Most plays had three acts, plus a short introduction and comic skits, dancing, or singing between the acts. Almost anything could provide the basis for a comedia, from proverbs and short stories to history, mythology, and the lives of the saints. Written entirely in verse, the comedia featured witty wordplay and complicated imagery*. The style of the poetry form varied from scene to scene. Peasants often spoke in traditional Spanish verse patterns, while nobles tended to use more formal Italian styles.
The Spanish comedia arose at the same time that Spain built its first public theaters. Plays took place during the day in courtyards surrounded by houses. Upper-class spectators sat in the houses and watched through the windows, while others sat or stood in the courtyard. The stage, at one end of the courtyard, was relatively bare, and the poetry of the play served to "paint" the scene and setting. Special stage machinery created spectacular scenic effects, which were extremely popular. One notable feature of the Spanish theater was the presence of women on the stage, which was forbidden in other European countries.
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * masque
dramatic entertainment performed by masked actors, or a ball or party at which all guests wear masks or costumes
- * theology
study of the nature of God and of religion
- * Counter-Reformation
actions taken by the Roman Catholic Church after 1540 to oppose Protestantism
- * imagery
pictorial quality of a literary work, achieved through words