In Praise of Folly: Reconsidering the Functions of Lope de Vega's Saints' Play Graciosos


The gracioso roles Lope de Vega wrote into his comedias de santos are products of his imagination, unlike the roles of the saintly protagonists, whose biographies were well established by the flores sanctorum. Traditionally, the graciosos' principal function in these religious dramas has been considered to be the provision of comic relief. Indeed, Golden Age moralistas targeted their attacks on the saints' plays at the graciosos, whom they considered the chief culprits of the profane elements that "polluted" religious drama, robbing it of any evangelizing efficacy it might otherwise have. In this essay, I challenge the assumption that the graciosos represented an obstacle to the improvement of public morality that the saints' plays were designed, in part, to promote. After a brief summary of existing scholarship concerning the functions of the figura del donaire in the comedia de santos, I argue that the inclusion of certain saints' play graciosos can, in fact, be justified for the purposes of edification. In a number of his saints' plays, Lope de Vega blurs the conventional distinction of the roles of gracioso and santo, deleitar and enseñar, respectively. I argue that, because the saintly heroes can, potentially, alienate the corral spectator, Lope places some of his graciosos centre stage, inviting the audience to find religious inspiration, not just in the saints, but also in the unaffected goodness of the humble graciosos. Through these comic characters, Lope provides an alternative model for the successful resolution of very ordinary inner tensions between the worldly and the spiritual self. By tracing the comedia careers of Cosme, in La devoción del rosario and Ruperto, in San Nicolás de Tolentino, I set out internal, textual evidence of the graciosos' trajectory, carefully plotted by Lope, from irreverence to moving piety. The paper also adduces external evidence—an analysis of Lope's adaptation of certain dramatic sources—that supports the proposition that it was our playwright's deliberate strategy to put the gracioso's conversion at the heart of those plays' edificatory intent. Lope might have sympathized with these rather flawed characters, Cosme and Ruperto, created around the time that he himself took the decision to be ordained priest.