Don Juan

views updated May 29 2018

Don Juan

by George Gordon, Lord Byron


A satirical poem set in Spain, Greece, Russia, and England during the late eighteenth century; published, serially, from 1819 to 1824.


A handsome young Spaniard embarks on a series of amorous adventures in his native country and abroad.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The Poem in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

For More Information

Born in 1788, George Gordon became the sixth Baron Byron at age ten, after his great-uncle’s death. The new Lord Byron was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge; in 1807, he published his first book of poems, Hours of Idleness, which received mildly favorable notices from most literary magazines but one scathing critique from the influential Edinburgh Review. Stung, Byron launched a counterattack in his first satirical poem, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” (1809), which was influenced by Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad. Soon after his satire’s publication, Byron embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, which provided him with the material for his romance, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The first two cantos of that poem became an instant success when they appeared in print in 1812 and Byron himself became famous overnight. A disastrous marriage in 1815, followed by a scandalous separation one year later, tarnished the poet’s reputation and in 1816 Byron left England, never to return. While living abroad in Switzerland and Italy, Byron continued to write, producing two more cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the dramatic poem Manfred, and the epic satire, Don Juan. Although contemporary critics denounced Don Juan as immoral, modern scholars consider it to be Byron’s masterpiece, a comic tour-de-force of formidable scope and range.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

Don Juan—history and legend

While it is unclear whether Don Juan Tenorio—as he was most often called—was a real person, the dashing seducer had been a familiar figure in Spanish and Italian folk legend as early as the seventeenth century. In 1630, Tirso de Molina, a Spanish monk, became the first to dramatize Don Juan’s exploits in his play El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (“The rake of Seville and the stone guest”). In the play, Don Juan engages in a series of romantic intrigues, seducing and abandoning several women. In one entanglement, Don Juan slays Don Gonzalo, the father of his intended victim. Towards the end of the play, Don Juan flippantly invites the stone statue of the murdered man to dine with him. To his surprise, “Don Gonzalo” accepts the invitation and reciprocates with one of his own. During the latter encounter, the statue challenges Don Juan to a handshake; meeting the challenge, the astonished Don Juan finds himself cast into hell before he can confess his misdeeds to a priest.

Tirso’s play inspired many later treatments of the legend, including Jean-Baptiste Moliere’s play, Dom juan ou le festin de pierre (1665) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous opera, Don Giovanni, which was first performed in Prague in 1787. Significantly, the Don Juan legend underwent considerable changes as it traveled from Spain to other parts of Europe. Tirso’s Don Juan had been a true libertine—a religious freethinker as well as a dissolute rake—whose ultimate damnation was due as much to his blasphemy as to the sexual indiscretions that flouted faith and convention. Literary scholar Moyra Haslett observes that, in Tirso’s play and in the earliest versions that followed, “Don Juan’s greatest offence is his presumption that God’s mercy can be taken for granted and will be available to him whenever he wishes to repent. And it is for this that he is finally punished” (Haslett, p. 8). However, after the story became very popular among the troupes of the commedia dell’arte in Italy, the legend’s comic aspects gradually overshadowed the religious and moral themes. Don Juan became a figure of fun, rather than menace, a fitting subject for puppet-shows, farces, and even pantomimes (the precursor to modern musicals). London audiences were especially partial to pantomimic treatments of Don Juan, such as Don John; or the Libertine Destroyed, offered by Drury Lane in 1782, and the similarly named Don Juan; or the Libertine Destroyed: A tragic Pantomimical Ballet, first performed at the Royalty Theatre in 1788, the year, coincidentally, of Byron’s birth. While it is unclear which, if any, of these productions influenced Byron’s poem, the poet was certainly aware of Don Juan’s familiarity to audiences and of his popularity in the pantomimic medium, humorously declaring in Canto 1, “I want a hero … / I’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan— / We all have seen him, in the pantomime, / Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time” (Byron, Don Juan, 1.6-8).

Catherine the Great

Don Juan’s interaction with Catherine the Great represents one of the more historical interludes in Byron’s poem. Born in 1729, Sophia Augusta Frederica—of the principality of Anhalt-Zerbst—was betrothed in 1744 to Grand Duke Peter Feodorovich, nephew of Empress Elizabeth of Russia and heir presumptive to the Russian throne. In an attempt to please her mother-in-law, Sophia took the name Ekaterina (Catherine) Alekseevna before her marriage in 1745. The royal couple soon became estranged; Peter was less well educated than Catherine and showed a tendency towards madness. After the birth of her son, Paul, in 1754, Catherine became involved in politics, opposing her husband’s pro-Lutheran and pro-Prussian policies.

On January 5, 1762, the Grand Duke ascended to the Russian throne as Peter III; matters between Peter and Catherine further deteriorated when he threatened her with divorce on the grounds of her infidelity. His accusations were justified; during her life, Catherine was to take many lovers, including Gregory Potemkin and Alexander Lanskoy, on whom she showered titles, lands, and wealth. The empress responded to her husband’s threats six months later, while Peter was away from court. Conspirators led by Gregory Orlov, Catherine’s current lover, and backed by the Imperial Guard issued a pronouncement that stripped Peter of his powers and made Catherine empress in her own right. The deposed emperor was secluded in a country house at Ropcha, where he was murdered in July 1762, probably with Catherine’s approval.

Reigning as Catherine II, the new empress was considered, overall, an able ruler—an enlightened despot who transformed Russia into a great power. Her domestic policies were not completely successful, however. Early in her reign, Catherine convened a legislative commission of 565 representatives—from every class except the serfs—and tried to introduce new, modernized laws. The commission was ultimately dismissed


Various modern critics have noted the influence of such skeptical thinkers as David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, and Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist, in Don Juan. Indeed, in the poem’s later cantos, Byron, through the medium of his garrulous narrator, frequently expresses the main philosophical tenet of skepticism: that true knowledge of anything is uncertain. Quoting Montaigne’s motto “Que sÇais-je?” (“What do I know?”), the narrator explores the skeptics’ position “[t]hat all is dubious which man may attain … / There’s no such thing as certainty, that’s plain / As any of Mortality’s conditions: / So little do we know what we’re about in / This world, I doubt if doubt itself be doubting” (Don Juan, 9.131, 133-36). Later in the poem, the narrator expands upon his theme, arguing that “He who doubts all things, nothing can deny” and calling into question the very nature of reality itself: “But what’s reality? Who has its clue? / Philosophy? No; she too much rejects. / Religion? Yes; but which of all her sects?” (Don Juan, 15.701, 710-12). Don Juan’s refusal to acknowledge any certainties—whether in love, thought, or faith—contributed, as much as its bawdiness, to the poem’s hostile reception by contemporary critics. The influential Blackwood’s Magazine denounced Don Juan as a “filthy and impious poem” and its author as “no longer a human being, even in his frailties; but a cool unconcerned fiend” (Eisler, p. 647). Byron, however, fought back in Canto 7 of Don Juan, listing the names of other controversial thinkers in his own defense:

They accuse me—Me—the present writer of
The present poem—of—I know not what,—
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that:
And this they say in language rather rough.
Good God!I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than has been said in Dante’s
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes.
By Swift, by Machiavel, by Rochefoucalt,
By Fenelon, by Luther, and by Plato:
By Tillotson, and Wesley and Rousseau,
Who knew this life was not worth a potato.
’Tis not their fault, nor mine, if this be so—
For my part, I pretend not to be Cato,
Nor even Diogenes—we live and die,
But which is best, you know no more than I.
               (DonJuan, 7.17-32)

18 months later, without the implementation of a single new law. The empress did, however, introduce some administrative reforms, especially at the level of local government. After a peasant rebellion in 1773-74, Catherine increased the number of gubernias—the territorial units into which Russia was divided—from 20 to 51, and separated the administrative, financial, and judicial functions of each provincial government.

Catherine’s foreign policy achievements were more spectacular. Her success in that arena included the acquisition of a large portion of Poland, including Lithuania and Kurland. The empress also went to war with Turkey on two occasions (1769-74 and 1787-91), strengthening Russia’s hold on the Black Sea coast from the Kerch Straits to the Dniester River, thus securing a natural frontier to the south and another outlet to the sea.

One pivotal Russian victory during the second war with Turkey was Marshal Alexander Suvorov’s 1790 capture of Ismail (Izmail), a key Turkish fortress on the Danube. The siege was immensely costly, however—an estimated 20,000 Russians died in the storming of Ismail (CoughIan, p. 309). Byron vividly describes the carnage of the siege of Ismail in Don Juan: “Three thousand cannon threw up their emetic, / And thirty thousand musquets flung their pills / Like hail, to make a bloody diuretic. / Mortality! thou hast thy monthly bills” (Don Juan, 7.89-92). Juan,


As a glamorous celebrity of Regency England, Byron attracted more than his share of feminine attention. He embarked on a series of affairs with several fashionable beauties, including the countess of Oxford and the flighty, scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb. However, he chose as his bride Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, a pious, proper, and rather priggish young woman with a passion for mathematics, which prompted Byron to label her as a “bluestocking,” Despite their different personalities, the couple married with the best of intentions. Byron hoped his wife’s virtuous ways might reform him, and Annabella hoped she might succeed in changing her husband. Not surprisingly, the marriage was a disaster, lasting only a year, Byron found Annabella’s prim naiveté annoying, and she in turn was shocked by his volatile moods, eccentricities, and his relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Lady Byron returned to her parents’ house in January 1816, taking her infant daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, with her. On April 21, 1816, Byron signed a deed of formal separation, leaving England forever two days later. The Byrons never saw each other again, and the poet’s bitterness over his failed marriage resurfaces continually throughout Don Juan. Indeed, many of Byron’s gibes at “bluestockings” are directed at Annabella. In designating a series of commandments for his readers, Byron declares, “Thou shalt not bear false witness, like ‘the Blues’, / (There’s one, at least, is very fond of this)”, referring to Lady Byron’s attempts to have him proven mad when their marriage foundered.

who has joined the Russian army, and his fellow soldiers wallow “in the bloody mire / Of dead and dying thousands” and stumble over fallen comrades “sprawling in [their] gore” (Don Juan, 7.153-54, 160). In St. Petersburgh, however, Catherine herself remains untouched by the horrors of the war, rejoicing when Juan brings her the dispatch regarding Ismail’s fall: “Great joy was hers, or rather joys; the first / Was a ta’en city—thirty thousand slain. / Glory and triumph o’er her aspect burst… / Those quenched a moment her Ambition’s thirst” (Don Juan, 9.465-67, 469). Byron also satirizes Catherine’s promiscuity, as the empress becomes immediately infatuated with the messenger, Juan himself: “Besides, the Empress sometimes liked a boy, / And had just buried the fair-faced Lanskoi” (Don Juan, 9.375-76).


Among Byron’s favorite targets in Don Juan are the group of intellectual Englishwomen commonly known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as “bluestockings.” While never a formal society, the bluestockings organized social gatherings to discuss literature and other intellectual matters, to which they invited various men of letters and members of the aristocracy. Fanny Burney, a British novelist and one of the original bluestockings, explained that the term came into existence when one lady, a Mrs. Vesey, invited Ben Stillingfleet, a learned man, to attend one of her parties. Stillingfleet initially declined, saying he lacked the proper garments, but was told by Mrs. Vesey to come “in his blue stockings” which he was wearing at the time. Stillingfleet obeyed, and the group was nicknamed the Bluestocking Society, in his honor. The bluestockings were frequently satirized—most often by men—as affected, pretentious women who lacked any true understanding of literary and political matters. In Canto 11 of Don Juan, Byron, who despised bluestockings, not least because he numbered his estranged wife among them, describes how Juan, newly arrived in England, is immediately accosted by these “learned ladies”: “The Blues, that tender tribe, who sigh o’er sonnets… / Advanced in all their azure’s highest hue: / They talked bad French of Spanish, and upon its / Late authors asked him for a hint or two” (Don Juan, 11.393-98).

The Poem in Focus

Plot summary

The poem begins with an account of Don Juan’s childhood in Seville, as the only son of rakish Don Jóse and reserved, intellectual Donna Inez. The domestic strife of this ill-matched pair reaches a crisis when Donna Inez attempts to have her husband declared insane. Matters deteriorate until divorce seems inevitable, but then Don Jose unexpectedly dies of a fever. As Juan’s sole guardian, Donna Inez attempts to rear her son in the strictest propriety. At 16, however, the naive Juan falls in love with one of his mother’s friends, the 23-year-old Donna Julia, who is married to a much older husband. The two have a brief affair that ends when Don Alfonso, Julia’s husband, catches them together in her bedroom. Donna Inez sends Juan abroad to “mend his former morals”; Julia is sent into a convent (Don Juan, 1.1523).

The ship carrying Juan soon encounters a storm, however, and suffers heavy damages, forcing the survivors to take to the lifeboats. The shipwreck and ensuing hardships take their toll on the sailors, some of whom resort to cannibalism after the rations run out (the first victim is Juan’s tutor, Pedrillo) only to die raving in a mad frenzy. Others succumb to drought, thirst, and exposure; ultimately, only four, including Juan himself, are left when land is finally sighted. In their haste, the survivors overturn the boat, and only Juan manages to swim ashore. He is found and secretly nursed by Haidee, the beautiful daughter of a Greek pirate. As Juan recovers, he and Haidée fall in love but their idyll is cut short by her father, who has Juan carried off in chains to be sold as a slave in Constantinople. Haidée suffers a seizure and dies of grief.

In the slave market, Juan and a fellow prisoner, an Englishman named Johnson, are purchased by Gulbeyaz, fourth wife of the sultan of Constantinople. Both are brought to the palace by Baba, a eunuch, who disguises Juan as a girl to bring him before the sultana, who wishes him to become her lover. Although an outraged Juan initially spurns Gulbeyaz’s aggressive advances, he begins to soften towards her when she bursts into tears. A surprise visit by the sultan himself interrupts this encounter, and “Juanna” is quickly concealed in the harem with several other girls, all of whom feel strangely drawn to their new companion. The next morning, Gulbeyaz flies into a rage when she learns Juan spent the night in the harem. The sultana’s jealousy necessitates Juan’s flight from the palace, accompanied by the harem girls and his fellow prisoner, Johnson.

Having made good their escape, Juan and Johnson join the Russian army, which is currently besieging the Turkish city of Ismail. Although the military campaign is marred by incompetence and savagery, Juan distinguishes himself in the fighting and even rescues a young girl, Leila, from the carnage when the city falls. He is then sent to St. Petersburg with dispatches for the Russian empress, Catherine the Great; Leila accompanies him.

At the Russian court, handsome Juan captures the empress’s fancy and she soon makes him one of her favorites, conferring lands, wealth, and influence upon him. Catherine’s assiduous attentions, however, prove to be too much for Juan, who first becomes “a little dissipated,” then falls gravely ill (Don Juan, 10.179). The royal physicians prescribe a change of climate to ensure his recovery; the empress reluctantly agrees to send him to England as an emissary. With Leila once more in tow, Juan departs Russia in great style and luxury.

Safely landed in England, Juan and Leila travel by carriage across the countryside towards London. To his surprise, Juan becomes the victim of an attempted robbery on his way to town; he shoots one of the thieves, and the rest flee in confusion. Juan then proceeds to London, where his looks, accomplishments, and glamorous reputation secure him an immediate place in English high society. After finding a suitable guardian for Leila, Juan experiences the pleasures of the season, then departs London for a country house party at the estate of his new friends, Lord Henry Amundeville and his wife Adeline. Scandalized by the provocative behavior that another houseguest, the duchess of Fitz-Fulke, displays towards Juan, Lady Adeline, known for her beauty and virtue, determines to find him a suitable bride. However, she is inexplicably displeased when Juan seems taken with Aurora Raby, a beautiful young girl with a spotless reputation: “She marvell’d ‘what he saw in such a baby / As that prim, silent, cold Aurora Raby?’” (Don Juan, 15.391-92).

Meanwhile, Juan’s sojourn at the Amundeville estate is disrupted by the nocturnal sighting of a ghostly figure in a black cowl, which vanishes as mysteriously as it appears. Unnerved, Juan confesses his experience to his hosts, who surmise that he has seen the “Black Friar” who haunts the house. That night, however, Juan once again encounters the ghost but makes a shocking discovery when he confronts it: “Back fell the sable frock and dreary cowl, / And they revealed—alas that ere they should! / In full, voluptuous, but not o’ergrown bulk, / The phantom of her frolic Grace—Fitz-Fulke!” (Don Juan, 16.1029-32). The poem concludes on an unresolved note when Juan and the Duchess appear at breakfast the following morning, both haggard and wan from the night’s adventure.

The tale of Don Juan’s exploits becomes somewhat incidental, however, to the digressions of the poem’s garrulous, worldly narrator—often identified as Byron himself—who continually departs from the plot, either to comment satirically upon the characters’ situations or, more frequently, to pursue a variety of social, political, and philosophical tangents. Some of the digressions are deliberately frivolous, however. For example, at one point during the Juan and Haidée idyll, the narrator embarks on a rapturous description of the joys of wine and women:

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but in toxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the
Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful ono
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with head-ache, you shall see what

After praising “hock and soda water” as a cure for hangovers, the narrator recalls himself to Don Juan’s story with a start: “The coast—I think it was the coast I/Was just describing—Yes it was the coast—” (Don Juan, 2.1434, 1441-42). The narrator is well aware of his own loquacity, confessing, “If I have any fault, it is digression— / Leaving my people to proceed alone / While I soliloquize beyond expression” (Don Juan, 3.858-60). Despite this artless admission, the digressions continue throughout the poem.

As the poem progresses, the digressions themselves become more serious and, at times, more scathing. In the cantos dealing with the siege of Ismail, the narrator delivers a blistering commentary on the horrors of war and the extravagant waste of human life:

There was an end of I smail—hapless town!
Far flashed her burning lowers o’er Danube’s
And redly ran his blushing waters down.
The horrid war-whoop and the shriller scream
Rose still; but fainter were the thunders
Of forty thousand who had manned the wall,
Some hundreds breathed—the rest were silent

Even Juan, whom the narrator has previously regarded with amused indulgence, comes under fire for his own part in the slaughter; his chance rescue of Leila is cynically described by the narrator as “one good action in the midst of crimes” which “[i]s ‘quite refreshing,’ in the affected phrase / Of these ambrosial, Pharasaic times, / With all their pretty milk-and-water ways” (Don Juan, 8.713-16). The narrator further raises the question of whether “some transient trace of pity” that resulted in a few victims being spared can really mitigate the atrocities committed “in one annihilated city, / Where thousand loves, and ties, and duties grow?” (Don Juan, 8.985, 989-90). At such moments in Don Juan, the narrator’s perspective—worldly, cynical, questioning everything from the standpoint of mature age and wider experience—takes precedence over the more facile impressions of the eponymous hero: “Juan’s participation [in the siege] … consists of alert excitement, constant activity, and moments of pity. The narrator’s relationship with events is of far greater interest to the reader for he presents a much more complete picture of the battle than Juan can comprehend.… The reader reacts with the narrator and looks to him rather than to Juan for directions here” (Beatty, pp. 38-39).

A “hero” for the age

While Byron’s earlier poems, such as The Corsair and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, featured tortured, brooding heroes with dark pasts and darker secrets, Don Juan represents a departure from that tradition in every way. Indeed, Byron has not so much adapted the Don Juan legend as turned it inside-out. The wicked, dashing seducer of Tirso’s play and Mozart’s opera has been replaced by “a stripling of sixteen” who, in the first of his adventures, is led astray by the older Donna Julia (Don Juan, 1.658). Juan’s passivity during that episode becomes representative of his conduct in later affairs; in Byron’s poem, the women are always the aggressors, and Juan merely responds to their advances. Consequently, his misadventures are seldom presented as his fault or responsibility. After Juan’s affair with Haidée ends with her death and his enslavement, the voluble narrator laments how “a gentleman so rich in the world’s goods / …is suddenly to sea sent, / Wounded and chain’d, so that he cannot move, / And all because a lady fell in love” (Don Juan, 4.403, 406-408).

Byron’s demystification of the Don Juan legend is attributable to many factors, not least of which is the poet’s own desire to create something new. In the opening verses of Don Juan, the narrator declares emphatically, “I want a hero: an uncommon want, / When every year and month sends for a new one, / Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, / The age discovers he is not the true one” (Don Juan, 1.1-4). After proposing and rejecting a slew of contemporary celebrities, the narrator declares, “I condemn none, / But can’t find any in the present age / Fit for my poem (that is, for my new one); / So as I said, I’ll take my friend, Don Juan” (Don Juan, 1.37-40). Byron’s Juan (intentionally pronounced “Joo-un” for the sake of rhyme), therefore, is reinvented as an Everyman figure, traveling through an often confusing modern world. As literary scholar David Perkins observes, “Indeed, [Juan’s] character is remarkably generalized. We can list traits—courage, kindliness, generosity, idealism—but the upshot seems to be that he is an average sort of fellow subject to average instincts and illusions” (Perkins, p. 829).


In the first canto of Don Juan, Byron sets out his plans for his poem, declaring, “Prose poets like blank verse, I’m fond of rhyme, / Good workmen never quarrel with their tools” (Don Juan, 1.1605-06). Indeed, Byron’s fondness for rhyme and his determination that his stanzas should be seen and heard to rhyme contribute to the comic tone of Don Juan. For example, orthodox pronunciations of Spanish names are deliberately twisted for the sake of preserving Byron’s meter and rhyme scheme—thus, in the poem, “Juan” is pronounced as “Joo-un” to rhyme with “true one” and “new one”, “Inez” as “Eye-nez” to rhyme with “fine as,” and “Guadalquivir” as “Gwadalquiver” to rhyme with “river.” Byron’s use of “Hudibrastic rhyme”—the practice of rhyming a polysyllabic word with an unexpected series of monosyllabic words (introduced in Samuel Butler’s 1663 satirical poem, Hudibras)—could be even more deadly, as demonstrated by this infamous couplet: “But—Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?” (Don Juan, 1.175-76).

Yet Juan’s very “averageness” throws into sharp relief the societies into which he is introduced and the personalities with which he must interact. The character’s youth and blandness also provide a necessary contrast to the narrator’s distinctive voice and views. Byron’s emphasis in Don Juan is less on the heroic than on the human, less on the romantic than the real. Nettled by his publisher’s criticism of Don Juan, Byron responded irritably: “So you and Mr. Foscolo, etc., want me to undertake what you call a ‘great work?’ an Epic poem, I suppose, or some such pyramid. I’ll try no such thing… You have so many ‘divine’ poems, is it nothing to have written a Human one? without any of your worn-out machinery.… Since you want length, you shall have enough of Juan, for I’ll make 50 cantos” (Byron in Perkins, p. 934). Despite hostile reactions to Don Juan, Byron continued to work on his poem for the rest of his life, confiding to his publisher about Juan’s further adventures:

To how many cantos this may extend I know not nor whether (even if I live) I shall complete it; but this was my notion: I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy and a cause for divorce in England, and a sentimental “Werther-faced man” in Germany, so as to show


Throughout Don Juan, the line between fiction and reality continually blurs, as the narrator becomes less of an imaginary construct and increasingly like Byron himself. Indeed, Byron ascribes many of his own exploits to his characters, such as swimming the Hellespont (an athletic feat on which Byron prided himself) and rescuing a Turkish girl from being drowned (an incident that inspired an earlier poem, The Giaour). Byron’s incestuous feelings for his half-sister Augusta were also exploited in Manfred, through the title character’s tortured memories of Astarte, a kinswoman whose exact relationship to Manfred is continually hinted at, but never explicitly revealed. Other scandals, however, did not make their way into Byron’s poetry but remained confined to his private correspondence and his memoirs (the manuscript of these memoirs was later burned by his squeamish publisher, John Murray). These other scandals include his brief entanglement with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s erratic sister-in-law, Claire Clairmont, which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Allegra; and his spell of promiscuity after leaving England, during which Byron had sexual relations with, by his estimation, some 200 partners. In 1819, Byron fell in love with 19-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli, whom he called his “last Passion” (Byron in Parker, p. 80). After Teresa was granted a separation from her much older husband in July 1820, she and Byron lived in close proximity in Ravenna, seeing each other frequently. Despite its tempestuous beginnings, the relationship between Teresa and Byron settled into comfortable domesticity; they remained together until his death in 1824.

the different ridicules of the society in each of those countries.… But I had not quite fixed on whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest. The Spanish tradition says Hell: but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state.
(Byron in Perkins, pp. 940-41)

Sources and literary context

Byron drew from history to provide the events and characters in Don Juan. His excoriating depiction of the siege of Ismail, for example, was taken from Marquis Gabriel de Castelnau’s account, Essai sur I’histoire ancienne et moderne de la Russie (1820), though Byron emphasized the horror, rather than the glory, of the campaign. Byron also mined his own life for inspiration, often to devastating effect. For example, Donna Inez, Juan’s mother, is a thinly veiled portrait of Annabella Milbanke, Byron’s estranged wife, who also “was a learned lady, famed / For every branch of every science ever known” (Don Juan, 10.73-74). Moreover, the unhappy marriage between Don Jóse and Donna Inez parallels that of the Byrons; in the poem, Inez mimics her real-life counterpart by attempting to prove that her husband is mad. Despite these semi-autobiographical details, however, Byron avoids identifying himself too closely with any of his characters. Even the narrator, whose voice resembles Byron’s own, maintains the fiction that he is distinct from both Juan and Byron, declaring during his comments on the disastrous marriage of Juan’s parents: “I’m a plain man, and in a single station” (Don Juan, 1.174). This pretense, however, becomes harder to sustain during later cantos of the poem, especially when the narrator’s perceptions as an older, more sophisticated man of the 1820s overshadow those of young, callow Juan, living in the 1790s.

Despite its somewhat misogynistic remarks, Don Juan sprang from more than Byron’s lingering anger over his failed marriage. Some incidents of the poem appear to be drawn from more amusing moments in Byron’s life; in Canto 16, Byron borrows the ghost said to haunt his own estate of Newstead Abbey—which housed the black-robed Order of Canons Regular 400 years earlier—to create the “Black Friar” who roams the halls of the Amundevilles’ stately home. In a casual swipe at Gothic romance, however, Byron reveals the “Black Friar” legend as a ruse concocted by an amorous houseguest to facilitate sexual conquest, a theme also explored in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” (also in WLAIT 3: British Literature and Its Times). Similarly, a crossdressed Juan’s comic adventures in a Turkish harem could be interpreted as Byron poking fun at his own success with such Oriental romances as The Giaour and The Corsair.

Other of Byron’s jabs at contemporary literary movements were more pointed. Throughout his poetic career, Byron clashed frequently with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, whom he derisively referred to as the “Lakers” because all three lived in the Lake District in Northern England. Byron took particular exception to Wordsworth’s rejection of the eighteenth-century poets Byron admired—specifically, John Dryden and Alexander Pope—and exhortations that poetry should devote itself to the mundane and commonplace aspects of life. Rejecting in turn the aesthetics of his contemporaries, Byron turned to the Italian poets of the Renaissance for inspiration, borrowing for Don Juan “the colloquial idiom, the volubility, the brisk and easy handling of ottava rima (a stanza of eight pentameter lines rhyming abababcc), the profuse incident, the wandering plot, and above all, the medley of realism and romance, of sentiment and buffoonery” (Perkins, p. 829). Perkins contends, “That Byron happened upon these writers is one of the most significant accidents in literary history; only with their help did he achieve full expression of his complex personality” (Perkins, p. 829). Byron’s particular sensibility and unusual choice of models renders Don Juan unique in the canon of Romantic literature. Modern poet and scholar Derek Parker sums up: “The force of Byron’s political and social opinions, the force of his satire, the romance of his personality, the extraordinary cleverness of his metrical and rhyming schemes, came together finally in Don Juan.… It was the first, and almost the last poem of its kind” (Parker, p. 127).

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

Europe after the Napoleonic Wars

For the better part of 22 years—from 1793 to 1815—England was at war with France, observing with alarm the excesses of the French Revolution and the meteoric rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, who became emperor of France in 1804. In the decade that followed, England watched in alarm as Napoleon’s seemingly invincible army seized Rome, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. France’s victories on land, however, were countered by England’s might at sea; Admiral Horatio Nelson handed Napoleon a major defeat during the naval battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Ultimately, Napoleon overextended himself with an ill-advised invasion of Moscow in 1812, where the rigors of a Russian winter took their toll on French troops, which were forced to retreat. Napoleon also suffered a string of costly defeats that weakened his power base even further. In


Byron’s animosity toward the Lake District poets had as much to do with politics as with poetics. As an outspoken liberal of the Whig party, Byron supported such causes as Catholic emancipation and labor reform. He even delivered an eloquent speech in the House of Lords on behalf of Nottingham weavers who were rioting to protest the mechanization of their profession. Byron’s liberalism also made him sympathetic to the principles underlying the French Revolution, even though he deplored the savage excesses that ultimately damaged those principles. By contrast, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, who had supported the French Revolution in its early years, were deeply disillusioned when the event failed to fulfill their hopes. In their middle age, the Lake poets adopted increasingly conservative positions, becoming staunch supporters of England’s reactionary Tory government. Byron, who despised “turncoats,” seldom bypassed the opportunity to criticize what he saw as the Lakers’ hypocrisy. Most of Byron’s bile was reserved for Robert Southey, who was appointed poet laureate in 1813, and vilified Byron as the head of “The Satanic School of Poetry” in his preface to A Vision of Judgement (1821), a fulsome occasional poem on the death of King George III. Byron had earlier ridiculed Southey in his “Dedication to Don Juan”; he responded even more trenchantly with his own The Vision of Judgement, a parody so biting that Byron’s publisher, John Murray, refused to print it. Branding Southey as a hypocrite, toady, and mediocre poet, Byron wrote:

He had written praises of a regicide;
He had written praises of all kings whatever;
He had written for republics far and wide,
And then against them bitterer than ever…
He had written much blank verse and blanker prose,
And more of both than anybody knows.
               (ByroninPerkins, p.922)

John Hunt, editor of The Liberal, eventually published the poem in 1822, and, as a result, was indicted for libel of the king and his royal patrons a few months later.

1814, Paris fell to allied troops from England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria; the allies exiled Napoleon to Elba and restored Louis XVIII to the French throne. The former emperor escaped Elba in 1815 and attempted a comeback, only to be conclusively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. He was then imprisoned on the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

After Napoleon’s exile to Elba, representatives of Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France met at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, to reorganize Europe. Diplomats from smaller allied countries—Spain, Portugal, Sweden—also attended. Despite quarrels between the allies over land and boundaries, the following conditions were ultimately agreed upon: Prussia received 2/5 of Saxony, along with territorial compensations in Westphalia and the Rhineland; Poland was divided among Russia, Austria, and Prussia; and Russia acquired most of the duchy of Warsaw as a separate kingdom under Russian sovereignty.

While these agreements strengthened unity among the allies and the final peace settlement preserved Europe from any major wars until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, not everyone approved of the terms established in the Congress of Vienna. British liberals, including Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, were disgusted by what they saw as a victory for tyrannical kings of Europe, whose reactionary regimes were upheld by the acquisition of new territories and the alliance with Britain. In the “Dedication” to Don Juan, Byron attacks Lord Castlereagh, who represented Britain at the Congress of Vienna, as “a tinkering slavemaker, who mends old chains, / With God and man’s abhorrence for its gains” (Don Juan, “Dedication,” lines 111-12). Similarly harsh words are leveled at the duke of Wellington, who commanded the British troops at Waterloo, and was hailed as a hero by his country. Byron, however, was less impressed, declaring in one of his lengthiest digressions in Don Juan:

Never had mortal Man such opportunity,
Except Napoleon, or abused it more:
You might have freed fall’n Europe from the
Of Tyrants, and been blest from shore to
And now—What is your fame? Shall the
Muse tune it ye? Now— that the rabble’s
first vain shouts are o’er?

Byron’s criticisms of England, its traditions, and its “heroes” become increasingly more pronounced as the poem progresses and Juan himself arrives in England.


Not surprisingly, in light of Byron’s fall from grace, critical response to Don Juan was hostile. Contemporary reviewers in England refused to judge poem and poet separately; Byron was attacked as much for his lifestyle as for his poetry. An anonymous review in the influential Blackwood’s Magazine stated: “[T]he poet has devoted his powers to the worst of purposes and passions.… The moral strain of the whole poem is pitched in the lowest key—and if the genius of the author lifts him now and then out of his pollution, it seems as if he regretted the elevation and made all haste to descend again” (Trueblood, p. 27). The reviewer for The British Critic was even more censorious, declaring, “The versification and morality are about upon a par” and dismissing Don Juan, overall, as “a narrative of degrading debauchery in doggerel rhyme” (Trueblood, p. 30).

Despite these harsh comments on Byron’s lack of morality, a significant number of critics found praiseworthy elements in Don Juan itself. The same Blackwood’s Magazine review that condemned Byron’s lack of morality praised the poem’s breezy style and ambitious scope, terming Don Juan “the most admirable specimen of the mixture of ease, strength, gaiety, and seriousness extant in the whole body of English poetry,” and stated that “Lord Byron has never written anything more decisively and triumphantly expressive of the greatness of his genius” (Trueblood, p. 27). Another critic, writing for the New Monthly Magazine, declared regretfully, “We cannot read these passages [in Don Juan] without being touched by their exquisite beauty, and wishing that a poet so full of the true inspiration had devoted his powers to the cause of virtue” (Trueblood, p. 35). A review in The Edinburgh Magazine recognized and even cautiously commended Byron’s satiric bent in Don Juan: “In spite of all his faults, Byron has a noble sympathy with liberty, and a just abhorrence of the leagued and crowned oppressors of the earth” (Trueblood, p. 57).

The scandal caused by early cantos of Don Juan soon led John Murray to reconsider publishing later sections of the poem. From Canto 6 on, Don Juan was published by John Hunt, Leigh Hunt’s brother and editor of The Liberal. Although Hunt was a less reputable figure in the publishing world than Murray and although most major journals ignored those later cantos, the poem continued to sell widely, often in cheap, pirated editions. But perhaps the last word on Don Juan should be pronounced by Byron himself. Never reluctant to promote his own work, the irrepressible poet appealed to a friend: “As to ‘Don Juan,’ confess, confess—you dog and be candid… it may be bawdy, but is it not good English? It may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing” (Byron in Perkins, p. 938).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Beatty, Bernard. Byron’s Don Juan. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Christensen, Jerome. Lord Byron’s Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of All the Russias. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974.

Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Erickson, Carolly. Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. New York: William Morrow, 1986.

Haslett, Moyra. Byron’s Don Juan and the Don Juan Legend. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

McGann, Jerome J., ed. The Oxford Authors: Byron. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

———. Don Juan in Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Manning, Peter J. Byron and His Fictions. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978.

Parker, Derek. Byron and His World. New York: Viking, 1968.

Perkins, David, ed. English Romantic Writers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.

Trueblood, Paul Graham. The Flowering of Byron’s Genius: Studies in Byron’s Don Juan. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1945.

Wu, Duncan, ed. A Companion to Romanticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Don Juan

views updated May 29 2018

Don Juan

Don Juan has spawned a sizable cultural, political, and social production in Europe for at least six centuries. His fictional, allegorical, and philosophical figure has educed key questions about the sexes and their relations, about domination, resistance, identities, and stereotypes; through the ages he has forced readers to rethink correspondences between lust, trust, love, and relations. He has performed, and been performed, within and without the frame of literary fiction, engaging sex and gender with a looking glass in a variety of literatures and societies. Because he has exercised such influence, his figure has oftentimes been read as an allegory of masculinity (and, in broader terms, of gender) and as an arresting imago significantly indebted to myth and legend, especially those pertaining to regulatory fictions of sexuality. As Leo Weinstein put it in a 1959 work, "Strange as it may seem, Don Juan is at his best in a society that keeps its women behind barred windows and permits them to go out only in the company of chaperones" (p. 37).


It makes sense, in fact, that Don Juan's beginnings have been identified with seventeenth-century Spain, where the allegorical power of Don Juan's dominant, unrepressed masculinity was a formidable competitor for the paternalistic, heteronormative sexual politics that characterized Counter-Reformation Spain. In 1564 marriage was squarely positioned center-stage in a monumental show of imperial politics, as the law of the land was dictated throughout the peninsula: Every Catholic man was to emulate Christ's union with the church by marrying a Catholic woman for strict purposes of procreation; their union would be legally and spiritually binding only if officially sanctioned by an ecclesiastical officer and two witnesses representing the Universal Catholic Monarchy, or ruling church-state in Spain. In that context the dramatic character of Don Juan Tenorio played with the institution of marriage to no end, reacting with strong defensive swerves in a text from the early 1600s titled The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest. There, he openly resisted the principles and doctrines of marriage and, in "The End," when audiences knew to expect a multiple wedding scene, the same Don Juan who had broken his promise to marry four times and left as many women to live in dishonor hell, agreed to give his hand in virtual matrimony to the Stone Guest, with whom he was united forever after in the symbolic realm of catharsis. This is one of the most poignantly ironic scenes of simultaneous recognition and interrogation of the Spanish church-state's power ever staged by a single subject. The more the Monarchy reached out to police sex and gender, the more tricks Don Juan turned, questioning such closure of life forces.

In artistic terms, Don Juan spoiled the show of Spain's early modern church-state by stealing another one: that of the first professional European theaters. Uncannily, his behavior toward literature and the arts was as restless as his earlier incarnations in myth, legend, and history; he resisted the constraining frame of one text/one author, and made a grand entrance onto the vast stage of European literatures and cultures to play the archetypical swindler forever after. Centuries before Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) sent out his characters in search of an author, neither playwrights nor textual boundaries were safe from Don Juan's guile. The result is puzzling, for as James Mandrell (1992) notes, "whereas it is customary to speak of Sophocles' Oedipus, Ovid's Narcissus, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Cervantes's Don Quijote, and Goethe's Faust, with respect to Don Juan, there are simply too many equally important works to single out one version as more significant than any other" (p. 1). Even the first irruption of Don Juan into literary textuality cannot be wedded to a single pen or text.

Two authorial figures have been associated with The Trickster: Tirso de Molina, the pseudonym for the monk-playwright Gabriel Téllez (c. 1580–1648), who for centuries stood as its single author, and Andrés de Claramonte (c. 1580–1626), a playwright and director of an incorporated theatrical company, to whom Adolfo Rodríguez López-Vázquez attributed the text in 1983. A second play, titled Tan largo me lo fiáis (I still have a lot of time, or, You trust me too much), was wrongly attributed to Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681). Tan largo bore an uncanny resemblance to The Trickster, and is said to have been published and staged at the same time. Their Coloratura representation of Don Juan, appearing simultaneously in different theaters, as well as the spectacular nature of the masculine voice shown in the title, follow the tradition of dissemination of the myth of Don Juan by means of popular sayings performed by troubadours in late-medieval Iberia. As the braggart title announces, Tan Largo voices Don Juan's defiant modus operandi, which he reiterates every time he faces his hubris—the prospect of a repressed, controlled, monogamous masculinity. These two dramatic texts overlap as much as they differ from each other, a literary gesture that stamped the seductive, teasing, and deceiving manner of Don Juan on the collective memory for audiences, readers, and critics to ponder.

The irruption of the mythical persona of Don Juan on the Spanish stages showed a man without a name, a seducer, a libertine, a sexual predator, a madman, a trickster, a demon—in sum, the basics of an archetype of dominant, free-roaming masculinity. Stages and narrative fiction in seventeenth-century Spain often came to depend on Don Juan for survival, as evidenced by the ubiquitous appearance of his figure under the robe of arrogant, deceiving men, manly women, pathetic fools, dandies, and fallen noblemen literally named "Don Juan" or figuratively evoking his figure by mimicking him. Therefore, one could argue with David Whitton (1995) that The Trickster does not represent a mere literary debut, for "in addition to its sensational story, the play broaches two major themes which, at the emergence of the modern world, were starting to take a grip on Western consciousness: the clash between the rationalist mind and phenomena which transcend the material world, and the tension between the individual ego and the moral restraints of society" (p. 1). This clash, the competing encounter of the opposing forces of physis, or nature, and nomos, the spirit of the law, triangulate in Don Juan with another mythical force, philía, which signifies the friendship, kinship, and unconditional affection that he violates every time he performs his burla, or trick.


As the context for the legislation of gender relations unfolded in Europe, Don Juan continued to challenge key assumptions of marriage, virtue, and honor. Across the northern border of the peninsula and less than half a century after the publication of The Trickster, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière) wrote Dom Juan; or, The Feast of Pierre, first performed at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in 1665. Rather than focusing on the negotiations of the physical aspects of the seduction that preoccupied Tenorio—women, cities, court protocols, presence-absence of bodies, (in)visibility on and off the stage—Dom Juan rambled frequently about philosophical and metaphysical questions, presenting audiences with a cynical, brainy version of a libertine. Although he broke free from the constricting frame of classical theater units (time, place, unity of action), Dom Juan switched from the physical prowess of the Sevillian hunk and zoned in the inner territories of his character. The subtitle of the play reveals his great capacity to see within, for the word pierre denotes both the proper name of the commander (Peter) and the material with which the funerary statue is made (stone). His hypocritical gestures of rebellion against his social context offered a high-resolution psychological picture of a terribly complex masculinity.

The libertine's cynicism and capacity to reflect socio-psychological traits continued to grow in the eighteenth century. As women gained relatively more solvency in public spheres, the figure of Don Juan channeled many anxieties that such apertures elicited; as Weinstein (1959) reasons, the struggle of Don Juan in the eighteenth century "takes place in the open field of the drawing room, the weapons are wit, skill, and ingenuity, and if he does not watch his step, the seducer may find that the woman has turned the tables on him" (p. 39). Several authors experimented with aspects of this tectonic-plate change in gender relations. In England, as reflected in the title of his 1747–1748 novel Clarissa Harlowe, Samuel Richardson underscored the centrality of the woman in the tale of Lovelace, considered by some as the ultimate seducer—despite his loss of protagonistic capital. In France, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, in his 1782 novel Dangerous Liaisons, tested the power of man versus woman, as the Vicomte de Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, both award-winning sexual predators, raced each other for the prize of most seductive character. In Spain, the nostalgia with which Antonio de Zamora returned to Tirso's text heavily distorted the once spectacular tricks of the seducer, as it is revealed in the title of his 1744 play, No hay plazo que no se cumplia ni deuda que no se pague y convidado de piedra—translated by Joan Ramon Resina (2000) as "For every term there is a due date and every debt must be paid, and the stone guest" (p. 54).

Audiences had to wait for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte to collaborate on an artistic experiment that would most radically redefine Don Juan's audiovisual language of representation. In the fall of 1787 in Prague, Don Juan crossed another historic threshold and entered the plateau of musical recollection in a capital operatic text, The Reprobate Punished; or, Don Giovanni. Originally characterized as an opera buffa or drama giocoso (humorous drama), this text engaged the words, actions, and physical presence of all characters to transcend the limits of logic and rhetoric in representing the story of Don Giovanni. The death of Donna Anna's father—a moment of climax and dramatic representation in Don Juan's previous textual lives—reaches a peak with a lyrical trio of voices in Don Giovanni that reveal at once glimpses of wrath, bravado, annoyance, and cowardice. The brief trio in F minor is only eighteen measures long and flows with a solemn rhythm that profoundly engages the questions eternally posed by Don Juan (physis, nomos, philía). The text unfolds in poetic, comic, ironic, sentimental, and melodic turns, stimulating the senses and paving the way for the gripping conclusion, in which demons seize the unrepentant Don Giovanni and drag him to the underworld.


After this, it seems that Don Juan had exhausted all possible tricks. He had tried a number of variations and, despite the dubious nature of his character, he had reached the heights of sublime expression. Thus argued Søren Kierkegaard for whom Don Giovanni "deserves the highest place among all the classic works of art" (Kierkegaard 1944, vol. 1, p. 52). According to Weinstein (1959), Kierkegaard held Don Giovanni in such high regard because it rendered the most abstract idea (the sensuous and erotic genius of Don Juan, expressed in all its immediacy) in the most abstract of media (music). But there was one more trick left for Don Juan to turn, as he was to repent from his transgressions and let the woman be his savior—a trick that he performed during the nineteenth century. The 1813 tale Don Juan by E. T. A. Hoffmann, the 1830 dramatic poem The Stone Guest by Alexander Pushkin, and the 1844 play Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla y Moral underscored this component of what has been understood as the modern Don Juan, the one who can understand the contradictions of transgressing the laws of nature and society, and still be able to move to repentance by virtue of his connection with a woman.

Regardless of the outcome, the period, or the setting, the political economy of Don Juan's tricks left women time and again in positions of powerlessness, silence, or even death. This has locked Don Juan in a gendered perception of the sexual predatory role, even in the case of the Romantic ladies who came to rescue Don Juan from the hell in which his pathetic self had become by the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, as argued elsewhere, the violations of the laws of marriage, trust, and honor performed by Don Juan in literature are not aimed directly at the sexed aspect of the female bodies and figures (Carrión 1995). His most significant targets were fathers, brothers, husbands, noblemen, and kings in the families and nations in which he seduced women. For the women around him he feigns words of intimate, lyric love; but he addresses his most meaningful speech, actions, and madness to the men. As a result, the female literary partners of Don Juan ended up signifying as strict currency for a series of transactions of power between men, especially in the earlier stages of his development in Europe.

Be that as it may, despite the fact that Don Juan became a singular authority in the brethren of European arts and letters, only by virtue of the power of this currency, the women, did he acquire more complex meaning in public spaces. In The Trickster, for instance, Isabel, Tisbea, Arminta, and Ana occupy a secondary place; only the voice of the latter is projected onstage from the depths of the backstage, screaming for the restitution of her honor. But each one of them made his tricks possible, even if that meant cultural, social, or even physical annihilation. In Molière's text Elvire overcomes her rage against him and prays for his soul, a juggling act that Dom Juan never matches. With Mozart and Da Ponte, Don Giovanni (the character turning text, the ultimate trick) absorbs the lyricism of Elvire's arie to reach the highest levels of artistic accomplishments. And with Hoffmann, Pushkin, and Zorrilla, the carnavalesque libertine joins the pantheon of stoned folks by virtue of the redemptory nature of the Romantic heroines—Anna in Don Juan and The Stone Guest, and Doña Inés in Don Juan Tenorio.

Two women, however, have complicated to no end Don Juan's role of predatory sex and dominant gender alignment: Tisbea in The Trickster, who declares herself the keeper of her own sexuality and honor ("en las pajas," which can be read either as in the haystack or as by masturbating herself), and Merteuil, who, unlike any other woman on Earth competed with Valmont for the prize of most dangerous sexual predator. Thinking of these women as meaningful in their own right can yield new meanings for Don Juan's tricks, through which readers can perceive the radical critique of a control of sex and gender that his otherwise predatory, dominant, and masculinist role is designed to articulate.


Within the confines of the artistic looking glass, the more immoral the tricks, the more plasticity there is in the aesthetic effect. The poetry, the philosophical ramblings, the light, the music, and the physical, intellectual, and vital stimulation that these texts offer have all been—and will continue to be—great contributions to the realms of the senses, the intellect, the body, and fantasies. Outside of the artistic confines, performing Don Juan as a senseless exercise of literal, dominant masculinity for the sake of merely abusing women has yielded rather infelicitous and, unfortunately, too frequent readings of this figure, both in their lack of aesthetic results and twisted political economies. This abusive reading of both women and Don Juan is related to what has been termed the "Don Juan complex," which the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, pupil of Sigmund Freud, associated with the exercise and discourses of the ius primae noctis, or first night law, the despotic right of the feudal lord to deflower the bride of his peasants. Igor M. Kadyrov (2000) called these psychosocial dynamics "neurotic and more primitive aspects of personality … [a] core-psychopathology indebted to earliest preoedipal (in classical terms) trauma" (p. 43), and, at best, related to poor readings of Don Juan's artistic experiences.

By recklessly and endlessly enacting a loudly proclaimed infringement of a promise he has uttered for every woman he tricks, Don Juan presents readers with an untenable, yet greatly desired fantasy: a glimpse of the possibility that a single subject can actually adhere to the promise of control and civilization, while at the very same time holding the power to lead a life of great, uncontrolled sexual prowess. To resolve the dramatic conflict, these artistic texts bring the father back from the dead in a fashion more splendid than what he knew when he was alive. The apparition of the ghost who, like Don Juan, comes from—as he heads to—time immemorial no doubt incites another unsustainable fantasy for readers of these texts to visually and collectively apprehend: Audiences can see Don Juan repeatedly killing the father, who comes back from the dead as a fabulous, cryptic presence onstage that both haunts and escorts Don Juan in his voyage across the centuries and European borders.

see also Allegory; Domination; Gender Identity; Gender Stereotype; Literature: I. Overview.


Carrión, María M. 1995. "The Queen's Too Bawdies: El burlador de Sevilla and the Teasing of Historicity." In Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero. New York: Routledge.

Kadyrov, Igor M. 2000. "On the Neurotic and More Primitive Aspects of Personality." American Imago 57(1): 43-68.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1944. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mandrell, James. 1992. Don Juan and the Point of Honor: Seduction, Patriarchal Society, and Literary Tradition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Rank, Otto. 1975. The Don Juan Legend, trans. and ed. David G. Winter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Resina, Joan Ramon. 2000. "The Time of the King. Gift and Exchange in Zorrilla's Don Juan Tenorio." Diacritics. 30(1): 49-77.

Rodríguez López-Vázquez, Alfredo. 1987. Andrés de Claramonte y "El burlador de Sevilla." Kassel: Edition Reichenberger.

Weinstein, Leo. 1959. The Metamorphoses of Don Juan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Whitton, David. 1995. Molière, Don Juan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

                                             María M. Carrión

Don Juan

views updated May 17 2018

Don Juan

The mysterious, probably fictional Yaqui Indian sorcerer whose metaphysical doctrines were recorded by Carlos Castaneda in his best-selling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968) and in numerous subsequent writings. No evidence has been produced for the actual existence of Don Juan outside the pages of Castaneda's books.


Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan. N.p., 1972.

. A Separate Reality. N.p., 1971.

. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. N.p., 1968.

Don Juan

views updated May 21 2018

Don Juan ★★★½ 1926

Barrymore stars as the swashbuckling Italian duke with Spanish blood who seduces a castle-ful of women in the 1500s before falling in love with innocent Astor. Many exciting action sequences, including classic sword fights in which Barrymore eschewed a stunt double. Great attention is also paid to the detail of the costumes and settings of the Spanish-Moor period. Noted for employing fledgling movie sound effects and as the first film with a synchronized musical score from the Vitaphone Company, which, ironically, were responsible for eclipsing the movie's reputation. Watch for Loy as an Asian vamp and Oland as a pre-Charlie Chan Cesare Borgia. 90m/B VHS . John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Willard Louis, Estelle Taylor, Helene Costello, Myrna Loy, June Marlowe, Warner Oland, Montagu Love, Hedda Hopper, Gustav von Seyffertitz; D: Alan Crosland; W: Bess Meredyth; C: Byron Haskin; M: William Axt.

Don Juan

views updated Jun 27 2018

Don Juan.
1. The legend of the libertine Don Juan has been the basis of many plays since that of Tirso di Molina in 1630, and of many operas, Mozart's Don Giovanni being the best-known. Other composers who have treated the subject incl. Melani, Gazzaniga, Fabrizi, Federici, Dibdin, Pacini, Dargomyzhsky, Delibes, Alfano, and Goossens.

2. Tone-poem, Op.20, by Richard Strauss, based on poem by Lenau, comp. 1888, f.p. Weimar 1889.

3. Ballet-pantomime in 3 acts, music by Gluck, lib. by Calzabigi, based on Molière. Prod. Vienna 1761.

Don Juan

views updated May 18 2018

Don Juan Legendary Spanish philanderer. A medieval folk tale, the earliest printed version is The Rake of Seville (1630) by Tirso de Molina. Notable versions of his amorous adventures are Molière's play The Stone Feast (1665), Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (1787), and Byron's poem Don Juan (1819–24).

Juan, Don

views updated May 29 2018

Juan, Don legendary Spanish lover and hero of a number of stories, the type of a heartless seducer. According to a Spanish story first dramatized by Gabriel Téllez (1584–1641), he was Don Juan Tenorio of Seville.

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Don Juan

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Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic