Celestina is the name of an old procuress in Fernando de Rojas's Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (1499). Often referred to as La Celestina, the play concerns the lovesickness of a young man, Calisto, for Melibea, who appears to have no interest in him. At the encouragement of his valet, Calisto solicits the help of the old procuress Celestina as a skilled go-between. With much effort, Celestina secures Melibea's consent using a masterful rhetorical strategy that blends scientific argument with folkloric wisdom and acute insights into a young woman's sexual awakening. She also resorts to magic, though textual evidence that her success relies on the occult is scant. Melibea and Calisto consummate their passion thanks to Celestina's expert mediation. The play ends violently as Calisto falls to his accidental death, Melibea commits suicide, and Calisto's valets murder Celestina over an argument regarding payment, and are hanged for the crime.
The play is an exploration of sexual desire and the ways in which this is manifested in a young man and a young woman, aided by the verbal manipulation of a crafty procuress who makes a living facilitating illicit sexual encounters. Desire is portrayed as a primal drive, inevitable and necessary, able to inspire lofty courtly words as well as lewd and graphic remarks. It is shown at work among the higher and lower classes as one of the main forces that promotes interaction between people. Of particular importance to the issue of sexuality and gender is the play's representation of the seductive power of words, and the importance of a go-between for communication between men and women.
Celestina herself is drawn with such complexity and nuance that she occupies a special place in Spanish literature as a type: Able to speak eloquently on medicine, desire, magic, and sex, she occupies as much the role of teacher as that of go-between. But because she lives in constant fear of punishment (for her semi-illicit dealings) and poverty, she also represents the anxiety of early modern Spanish society. Rojas wrote La Celestina at a time when religious minorities felt increasingly pressured by the establishment, and previous models of coexistence between religions were fast being erased. Thus, while on one level the play is about sexuality and desire, on another it addresses the difficulties of living on the margins of an increasingly dogmatic society.
La Celestina inspired a number of continuations by other authors. It has also been translated frequently into many languages, and been represented in music and on stage as well as the visual arts. Mentions of Celestina and Celestina-like behavior are not uncommon in Spanish letters even in the early twenty-first century, and showcase the enormous attraction of art toward the figure of an old woman with an uncanny understanding of the workings of desire.
Corfis, Ivy A., and Joseph T. Snow, eds. 1993. Fernando de Rojas and Celestina: Approaching the Fifth Centenary; Proceedings of an International Conference in Commemoration of the 450th Anniversary of the Death of Fernando de Rojas, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, 21-24 November 1991. Madison, WI: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies.
Gilman, Stephen. 1956. The Art of "La Celestina." Repr., Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.
Rouhi, Leyla. 1999. Mediation and Love: A Study of the Medieval Go-Between in Key Romance and Near Eastern Texts. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.
Severin, Dorothy Sherman. 1989. Tragicomedy and Novelistic Discourse in "Celestina." Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.