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  • Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón’s Spain by Dian Fox
  • Victoria M. Muñoz (bio)
Dian Fox. Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón’s Spain. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Pp. 336 + 5 illus. $55.00 Hardback and ebook.

Hercules and the King of Portugal traces early modern ideations of imperial Iberia and masculinity as represented in contemporary poetry, drama, and royal iconography. Dian Fox studies accounts of the gender performances of the divine hero, Hercules, dubbed “Hercules Hispanicus,” and the lost heir of the Portuguese Aviz dynasty, King Sebastian I (1554–78, ruled 1557–78), who is memorialized as Sebastiãoel encubierto.” The book is split into two parts that examine representations of Hercules and Sebastian, respectively, showing how these figures factored into Spanish and Portuguese national identity. Fox’s study also uncovers the tension between the idealized masculinities of Hercules and Sebastian and their famous violations of appropriate male conduct. In Part I (“Hercules”), Chapter 1, Fox traces the Spanish iconography of Hercules, from whom the Habsburg royals claimed direct, legitimizing descent. The Spanish people accessed the heroic figure through local artefacts and legends, as in “the cult(s) of Melkart/Herakles/Hercules” (36), which located some of the classical hero’s famous labors in Iberia. Meanwhile, contemporary editions and translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules, and Euripides’s Alcestis revived tales of Hercules’s exploits for contemporary audiences, who availed themselves of an “early modern Spanish national project [that] imagined Hercules as founder and native son” (36).

Chapters 3 and 4 treat of two notable emasculating episodes in Hercules' mythology—his donning Medea’s poisoned robe and subsequent death upon a pyre, and his cross-dressed enslavement to Omphale, the Queen of Lydia, which represents a figurative “phallic” death—that are referenced and reflected in four staged comedias by Pedro Calderón de la Barca: Los tres mayores prodigios (The Three Greatest Prodigies) (1636); El pintor de su deshonra (The Painter of His Dishonor) (1650); Las manos blancas no ofenden (White Hands are No Offense) (ca. 1640); and Fieras afemina Amor (Love Feminizes Beasts) (1670 or 1672). For Fox, these works’ effeminate and symbolically castrated male protagonists embody versions of the “hombre esquivo,” here defined as a male who is unattracted to females. Fox casts “immunity to the love of women as a political disorder” (100). She points to the masculine tactic of restoring honor by killing an unfaithful or virtue-blighted wife (and often also her accused lover) as a key form of redress for the culture’s latent anxieties about masculine (im)potency, blood (im)purity, and, ultimately, Habsburg (il)legitimacy. Nevertheless, as Fox also observes of this violent trope that commonly featured on the Spanish national stage, “the process itself of staging countercurrents to hegemonic, reproductive masculinity [End Page 342] exposes its mutability” (112). Calderón’s esquivos emblematize that theatre’s staging scenes of “manliness disturbed shows the vulnerabilities of the sites of power” (112), especially empire.

In the backdrop of Spain’s Inquisitorial tribunals to grant positions of honor to those who could certify pure blood—Calderón also personally had to prove his blood purity before being knighted by King Philip IV(ruled 1621–65)—aberrant behaviors by males who eschewed marriage or otherwise effeminized themselves provoked in early modern audiences a position of sensitivity and defensiveness regarding masculine (im)potency and the potential corruption of bloodlines through either female infidelity or racial/ethnic intermarriage. Fox calls this gendered bloodline obsession “lineage panic,” a racially charged composite of Jeremy Robbins’s “honor panic” and Eve Sedgewick’s “homosexual panic” (10). For instance, one sees an echo of this idea in the contemporary charge that the Moriscos, Christians of Moorish descent, were “bad Christians, and, more to the point, sodomites” (13); such prejudices informed the formal expulsion of the Moriscos from Iberia beginning in 1609.

The combined “honor” and “homosexual” panic undergirding “lineage panic” especially comes to the fore in Part II (“King Sebastian”), beginning with Chapter 5, where Fox examines the correspondence and poetry of...