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Lope de Vega’s and Webster’s Amalfi Plays John Loftis Few Spanish and English plays offer more attractive subjects for comparative study than Lope de Vega’s El mayordomo de la Duquesa de Amalfi and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, plays with a common source in a novella by Matteo Bandello and yet having resemblances to each other that cannot be ex­ plained by reference to that source. Here are two major dram­ atists transforming the same Italian story into tragedies repre­ sentative of their national dramas. Webster’s play is as highly prized as any non-Shakespearean tragedy of the Jacobean era. Lope’s tragedy is good, though it is not in the first rank of the enormous corpus of his drama. Had it been written by a less prolific man, it would no doubt have attracted more attention.1 Webster’s is a play in which concern for family honor provides a driving force. The Spanish drama is known for its preoccupa­ tion with family honor. How does Lope treat the subject in his play? Webster’s Duchess is remembered for her defiance of her brothers. How does Lope’s Duchess respond to her brothers? Some Anglicists have expressed doubt that the Spanish drama­ tists of the Golden Age wrote plays that are properly considered tragedies. So prominent a scholar as Clifford Leech, for example, concluded an essay of 1950 on the Spanish and English dramas with the following paragraph: But, because of the general maintenance [in Spain] of the three-fold division of dramatic thought—religion, honour, and cloak-and-sword—the tragic spirit hardly existed. That comes when the world oppresses through its very lack of pattern, when the resolution of the individual alone withstands the erratic light­ ning: tragedy or a helter-skelter into the abyss can then equally be the result, according to the degree of the resolution. The JOHN LOFTIS is Bailey Professor of English Emeritus at Stanford University, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Spanish Plays of Neoclassical England (1973). 64 John Loftis 65 Elizabethans and Jacobeans knew both, but Spain’s ark of cove­ nant with its god survived the Armada.2 Tragedy in Spain, just as in England, assumed varied forms that do not lend themselves to accurate generalization. Yet distinctions can be made between the places of tragedy in the dramas of the two nations. In England the best and best-known of the serious plays, by Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and Ford, are tragedies. They frequently include comic interludes, often as in The Duchess of Malfi interludes that intensify the grotesque horror of the primary action. But they end in cata­ strophe. In Spain, on the other hand, the best and best-known serious plays, with important exceptions such as Lope’s El caballero de Olmeda and Calderon’s El principe constante, are not tragedies but tragicomedies. Not infrequently they depict grave moral crimes and violent death (in Calderon’s El alcalde de Zalamea, for example), but they do not end in catastrophe for one or more protagonists; rather in the reestablishment of social and moral harmony. In Spain there may not be more tragicomedies in proportion to the total number of plays than in England,3 but the mixed genre itself is more important. It is worth recalling that the most famous of all Golden Age plays is a tragicomedy, Calderon’s La vida es sueho. Clifford Leech in the passage quoted above refers to the “general maintenance [in Spain] of the three-fold division of dramatic thought—religion, honour, and cloak-and-sword. . . .” Cloak and sword plays, about the love intrigues of unmarried couples, are comedies and are not relevant here. Plays about honor as exemplified by El mayordomo will be a central pre­ occupation of this essay. Leech’s emphasis falls on religion as impediment in Spain to the production of tragedy. I assume he refers, not to the autos sacramentales (a form of religious drama in which the Spanish were unsurpassed), but to the comedia, that is, the secular drama. Calderon’s El principe constante, one of his best plays, provides an example of Christian faith inhibiting a...


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