Article Title

A Hermaphrodite? Lope de Vega and the Controversy of Tragicomedy


Sofie Kluge


In his Tablas poéticas (1617), the classicist critic Francisco de Cascales notoriously called the contemporary Spanish plays ’hermafroditos’ and ’monstruos de la poesía’, indicating that they were neither tragedies nor comedies in the Aristotelian sense, but a mixture of both dramatic genres. Since antiquity, traditional dramatic theory had treated the tragic and the comic separately, largely on thematic grounds (if a play showed persons of high rank, it was a tragedy; if it showed persons of low rank or common people, it was a comedy; if it involved death and suffering, it was a tragedy; if it didn’t, it was a comedy). In Golden Age Spain, however, playwrights were simultaneously mixing the genres in their dramatic practice, admitting persons of high rank into plays that otherwise had to be considered comedies, as well as persons of low rank into what otherwise appeared to be tragedies. In other words, they created tragicomedies. Yet, although what was represented on the Spanish stages from the last decades of the 16th century onward was in fact—strictly speaking—best described as tragicomedy, this term was very rapidly replaced by the term comedia. Why did this term eventually end up as the hegemonic generic concept of Golden Age drama? In my essay I argue that this astonishing terminological development must be seen as the result of the seventeenth-century Spanish revival of the Christian dramatic heritage and the corresponding transformation of the neo-Aristotelian dramatic theory of the Renaissance. It seems that the non-Aristotelian mixture of tragedy and comedy could only gain critical acceptance under the name comedia and with the revival of the Christian theatrum mundi. However, before the developments got this far, an essential clarification of the term comedia had to be carried out, which separated the moral and transcendental Christian comedia from the base comedy that had always been repellent to ecclesiastical authorities. Taking off from the controversy surrounding Lope de Vega’s dramatic production, this essay analyzes the various stages of ’purgation’ that the tragicomic monster of the Spanish Golden Age stage had to undergo in order to be accepted under the name of comedia.

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