- Juan Maldonado’s Hispaniola, ‘The Spanish Woman’: A Spanish View on Marriage Choices in the Reformation, trans. and intro. Warren S. Smith and Clark Colahan
The plot of this clever neo-Latin comedy written around the 1520s by Juan Maldonado puts together scheming servants, young maids, conservative parents blinded by greed and social aspiration, a hypocrite friar secretly lusting after a young wife, a wealthy but impotent husband, and a long string of go-betweens and confidantes with their clever parcels of tricks. Against all this social theatre, the young and inexperienced lovers Philocondus and Christiola struggle to overcome family opposition or social prejudice and, most importantly, they also struggle to understand the nature of their own [End Page 248] developing feelings, the meaning and implications of those feelings, the value of human freedom and choice, and the responsibility that goes with it.
Written originally by a young university student for performance (public or private, something still debated) to a student audience which was both learned and rowdy, The Spanish Woman provides a delightful picture of Renaissance Spanish culture, with its characteristic mixture of the learned and the popular. It has verbal wit and bold action, literary allusion and salacious plays on words, stereotypical characterization, and brash situational comedy. All this is wrapped up in elegant prose that is happy to cheekily wink an eye to the reader familiar with Plautus, Terence, Apuleius, Cicero, and Plinius Livius, among others. The play can thus be read as a defence of both a new stylistic programme (Maldonado defends his use of prose in the prologue) and of eclectic imitation, against the previously prevailing tradition – still popular in schools at the time – of canonical imitation. Erasmus’s own dialogue Ciceronianus is an eloquent testimony in this on-going debate, and Maldonado’s play fits within it as a significant example of the rising taste for variety in style and composition.
While the practice of Latin verse and prose composition as a school exercise was common enough throughout the Middle Ages, both Erasmus and Maldonado used the pattern to their own purposes. It may be precisely this practical approach to a pre-existing literary reality that explains Maldonado’s handling of the subject matter in a way that is both careful and bold. Maldonado favours the servants’ point of view (and particularly Trilus) for good reason: first, for sympathy; second, for comedy’s sake. That focus sets the audience apart from the prejudiced parents, while keeping a sense of both suspense and moral responsibility on the heroes themselves. The use of asides – audible only for the audience, never for the masters who are the butt of the joke, which Maldonado adapts from Plautus – adds to the moral stance of the play.
Equally interesting are Maldonado’s efforts in adapting the original material to the new cultural milieu of early sixteenth-century Castile. The very title of the play emphasizes this cultural difference in contrast with the original sources: Hispaniola (that is, ‘the Spanish woman’) consistently highlights the importance of the female lead character’s individuality, as well as that of the historical setting. Several references are made to the courtier culture emerging in Spain, with its attached array of perennial pretenders, status-obsessed parents, favour-seeking servants, manipulators, and deluded social climbers. These themes are expertly developed to great comical effect in the central episode of mistaken identity. And yet, in stark contrast with any of its main sources, the female lead Christiola is given a respectful treatment [End Page 249] throughout the play. After all, this is comedy with a clear ideological lesson, and for all his hilarity, Maldonado champions free will and responsible individual choice as the key to happiness both for the individual and for society at large.
Credit must go to editors Warren S. Smith and Clark Colahan for the beautiful presentation of the...