- Waking the Dead: Miguel de Cervantes’ Numancia and the Problem of Golden Age Historical Drama
Much critical discussion of Miguel de Cervantes’ La Numancia, presumably written between 1580 and 1585 (Ynduráin 23), has centered on its tragic elements (de Armas; Edwards; Friedman; Hermenegildo; Lewis-Smith; Maestro; Méndez; Ponce-Hegenauer). Seeing that all the major Golden Age “preceptistas”, who took their cue from Cervantes’ generation of writers, classified historical drama as a tragic subgenre this line of interpretation is clearly relevant. It rhymes well, moreover, with Cervantes’ overt use of tragic genre conventions (Martín; Tar; de Armas). However, tragedy is not the only relevant generic frame of Cervantes’ most celebrated attempt at dramatic poetry. As I will argue on the basis of the relatively few critics who have read the play as a history play (Darst; Shivers; Kahn), La Numancia also offers rewarding insights into the contemporaneous idea of history and the still underexplored Golden Age conception of historical drama, insights that lead to a fuller understanding of Cervantes’ conception of the tragic yet which are thwarted by the mono-tragic approach to his play.
I intend to demonstrate how the famous novelist’s affair with tragedy in La Numancia is finely interwoven with Golden Age conceptions of historical drama and the period’s idea of history. In my discussion of the play, I focus on the clash between the tragic interpretation of Numantian history found in the play’s intriguing necromancy scene (end of Act 2), and the transcendental explication of the same [End Page 225] historical events voiced in the allegorical scenes, particularly the closing parabasis (end of Act 4). Whereas the former represents a negative projection of historical drama as an occult waking-of-the-dead tied to a desolate pre-Christian worldview, the latter represents the playwright’s official promotion of La Numancia as a play which sets out to counter, precisely, the tragic interpretation of Numantian history. Yet, as always with Cervantes, things are not so evident. The fact that both notions of historical drama and both conceptions of history are present in the play suggests its author’s problem-oriented engagement with the period’s conception of historical drama as a tragic subgenre.
By highlighting the opposed historical visions represented by the play’s two surrogate historical dramatists, the pagan necromancer Marquino and the allegorical figure Fama, I will demonstrate that La Numancia is neither a pure tragedy nor simply an apotheosizing “comedia histórica”. It is a self-reflective historical drama which negotiates its own generic affiliation and hereby discusses the relation of ‘tragic’ history to the atemporal and essentially ‘comic’1 cosmic order: Is tragedy the appropriate lens through which to understand and dramatize historical events, past and present? Read in this way, the play becomes a notable contribution not only to the Golden Age theory of history plays, by then still “in nuce”, but also to the period’s ‘anti-depressive’ discourse.2
Golden Age Discourse on History Plays
Cervantes’ play about the fate of the Celtiberian oppidum in today’s northern Spain inscribes itself in the rich aesthetic-historical culture that sprang from the proverbial Renaissance birth of the past as epistemological and historiographical idea (Grafton; Schiffman) and dominated the two half centuries on each side of 1600. Especially during the 1580s and 1590s there existed a striking preoccupation with history outside the domain of historiography proper; and in the plethora of historiographical forms that saw the light of day during those decades the blooming historical drama took pride of place. It was soon seconded by developments in literary theory where “preceptistas”, [End Page 226] faced with the emergence of precisely historical drama, grappled with superordinate questions of imitation and verisimilitude along with more specific problems such as: The status of poetic invention in plays based on historical events; the dramatist’s obligation to present good and bad historical examples in order to provoke the cathartic purging of unhealthy audience passions; and the ultimate legitimacy of historical representations—half-breeds that with their unscrupulous mixing of fact and fiction jeopardized truth.
If history was a popular dramatic material in the decades around 1600 it was thus...