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The Biblical Ruth as Dama Principal: Tirso’s La mejor espigadera

From: Bulletin of the Comediantes
Volume 64, Number 2, 2012
pp. 1-13 | 10.1353/boc.2012.0037



The comedia mined a variety of source texts for its plots—Italian novelle, Spanish history, Greek and Roman mythology, and, of course, the Bible—but always managed to adapt plot, setting, and characters to the conventions of the Spanish national theater. This process offered great benefits, such as audience familiarity, as well as challenges, including inherent and unavoidable limitations on artistic freedom. One of the more interesting adaptations is Tirso de Molina’s reworking of the Biblical story of Ruth in La mejor espigadera, primarily because of the lack of dramatic potential offered by the original: there are no villains, no obstacles that appear to be insurmountable, no internal conflicts that any of the principal characters must resolve. Indeed, the Biblical characters are for the most part rather one-dimensional and exceedingly virtuous. This study focuses on the central figure of Ruth and her transformation from young, simple Moabite to a leading lady with much in common with other damas principales. Tirso’s techniques—elevating Ruth to nobility, describing her in conventional poetic terms, creation of a love triangle, even recasting her as a strong-willed, intelligent, and competent woman who does not submit meekly to the wishes of others—not only provide the audience with a different interpretation of this righteous woman of the Hebrew Bible, but also reveal a great deal about seventeenth-century Spanish views of women and the art of comedia dramaturgy as well. In the end, Tirso does not just demonstrate the Baroque aspiration to imitate its models with the goal of surpassing them, he makes the case that the comedia as a genre should take second place to nothing, not even to the Holy Bible.

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