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COMEDIA LOVERS AND THE PROPRIETIES Margaret Wilson, University of Hull There is an incident in La vida es sueño which to a modern reader seems puzzling, and has obviously presented some difficulty to translators and commentators . When Segismundo is brought to the palace and meets his cousin Estrella, this is the first time he has ever seen a woman, at least anyone who is recognizably a woman, and he reacts uninhibitedly by saying "Dadme a besar vuestra mano," and trying to seize her hand. Estrella recoils and tells him to be "más galán cortesano," but it is the reaction of Astolfo, who is also present, which is unexpected: "Si él toma la mano, yo soy perdido" (II, 1404-9). "Soy perdido " can presumably only mean "I am ruined"; and why should Segismundo 's taking Estrella's hand ruin Astolfo? The most recent translation, by Kathleen Raine and R. M. Nadal (Life's a Dream, London, 1968), renders the phrase "I'll lose my self-control"; this is clearly inaccurate. Even Albert E. Sloman in his excellent edition ( Manchester , 1961) seems unhelpful on this point. In his Notes he suggests that hand-kissing was a "polite if empty greeting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." But Estrella accuses Segismundo of impoliteness; and if it is an empty gesture, why is it going to ruin Astolfo? I would like to suggest that, far from being empty, it is in the theatre of Calder ón a gesture of great significance. Evidence of this can be found in the sub-plot of El médico de su honra. Leonor comes to the King to demand of Gutierre the restoration of her lost honour, because although she is still a virgin, the fact that Gutierre had visited her openly in her home as her acknowledged suitor meant that she was compromised in the eyes of others, and dishonoured if the expected marriage did not take place. Gutierre admits the facts as Leonor has stated them, but emphasizes that not merely is her virginity intact, he has never even so much as held her hand: "no Ie debo a su opinion / de una mano el interés" (L 847-48). This implies that the holding of hands is a meaningful action, sufficient in itself to compromise the woman. And here surely is the explanation of Astolfo's alarm. He wants to marry Estrella, in order to strengthen his claim to the throne, since she also has a claim which is slightly stronger than his; but if Segismundo takes hold of her hand she will be compromised and will have to marry him. Then Astolfo will have lost all chance of the throne, and will indeed be ruined. This attitude to the holding of hands certainly pushes the ideal of female chastity very far. But it doubtless derives from the fact that it was the taking of hands before witnesses which constituted a desposorio, a commitment to marry. Indeed it is probably true to say that it constituted the marriage itself , on which the subsequent ecclesiastical blessing merely set the seal.' When the intrigue is unravelled and a comedy ends with the giving and taking of hands, there is no doubt that this finalizes matters and constitutes an irrevocable commitment. The unrentable Garcia of Alarcón's La verdad so^ spechosa, insisting to Jacinta that he really is free to marry her, offers to give her his hand in the presence of her cousin, and clearly believes that this would be binding, where his mere word would not; and when at the desenlace Jacinta obeys her father's command : "Dale la mano a don Juan," Garcia reacts at once with: "Perdí mi 31 gloria." It was all a misunderstanding; but it is too late now for explanations. After the taking of hands, Jacinta is committed. When at the end of La vida es sueño Segismundo, having learned the rules of society, says again to Estrella "Dame la mano," he is this time betrothing himseH to her, if not then and there marrying her; and the significance of the formula and of the act is what gives to those words and to that act...


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