Essay / Art

Tirso de Molina's Tragic Rake

Everyone has his or her notion of what constitutes a relaxing evening. For me, among other things, it is an occasional trip to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to watch and experience an operatic performance. This weekend, neither time nor finances permitted such a venture, so I got a DVD version of Mozart’s masterful opera, Don Giovanni, skillfully performed by Ruggero Raimondi and Kiri Te Kanawa. This made me think of the play on which this opera was based: Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla (The Rake of Seville), written in 1630.

Molina, a Mercedarian friar and playwright, has created this beguiling figure that has inspired a play by Moliere, Mozart’s famous opera, Don Giovanni, the famous poem by Shelley, Don Juan, several symphonic pieces, and philosophic reflection. The character of Don Juan takes his place with Hamlet, Don Quixote, Macbeth and Faust in the western imagination. “Don Juan” has become a by-word for the quintessential rake, the man “without law” who seduces unsuspecting women, deflowering their honor, while beguiling them with false promises of eternal devotion. Such individuals go about their lives living on their charms, with mere lip-service to honor and piety, until the world crashes in on them.

What were the sources Molina drew upon to create this masterful work of moral and theological reflection? Several possibilities present themselves before us.

Some sources place him within the reign of King Pedro of Castile, which is quite interesting, for the Castilian king himself provides a lot of food for moral reflection. The rule of King Pedro of Castile (1350-1369, known as “the Cruel”) was characterized by civil war and unrest, and the king himself was killed by his own brother, Enrique of Trastamara. His reign began as his mother, Maria of Portugal, had her rival, Leonor of Castile (by whom Pedro’s father, Alfonso XI, fathered 11 illegitimate children) imprisoned and executed. Leonor’s sons (and Alfonso XI’s illegitimate sons) Enrique, the Count of Trastamara, and Fadrique, master of the military order of the Knights of Santiago, were angered by this act, but were unable to do anything about it (O’Callaghan, History of Medieval Spain, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 419). Of course, Pedro would soon be emulating his father Alfonso, because shortly after his marriage to Blanche of Bourbon, he would run to the arms of his mistress, Maria de Padilla. The king never again saw his queen, Blanche, and in fact had her imprisoned in Toledo. This would anger both Blanche’s father, the Duke of Bourbon, and the Papacy. It would also have severe consequences for the internal politics of the kingdom of Castile (Ibid.). His former tutor and chancellor, Juan Alfonso of Portugal, Duke of Albuquerque, returned to Portugal, seeing that Castilian politics were going to get a bit heated, and not to his favor. Leonor’s sons, Enrique and Fadrique, championed the cause of Blanche of Bourbon, and soon quite a number of towns would defend her rights as wife and queen. At the Battle of Toro in 1356, Pedro crushed the opposing forces, forcing surrender, with the result that Enrique of Trastamara went into exile to Aragon (seeking refuge with Pedro of Aragon, Pedro the Cruel’s chief rival), and Fadrique submitting to Pedro of Castile. Blanche also remained imprisoned, and Maria de Padilla continued to “enjoy the king’s favors” (Ibid). Enrique’s having found refuge in the Aragonese court moved Pedro of Castile to declare war on Pedro of Aragon (“the battle of the two Pedros”). O’Callaghan describes Pedro of Castile’s martial temperament: “There was an aggressive streak in Pedro of Castile, a determination to establish his predominance in the [Iberian] peninsula and to defend his sovereignty against real or fancied challenges to it” (Ibid., 421). This was not only true of his relations with the Aragonese crown and the Muslim Caliphate of Granada, but also with his own nobles, especially within his own family.

Pedro’s wrath fell upon his half-brother, Fadrique (Master of the Knights of Santiago), when he suspected him of treason. His other half-brother Juan was also done away with, and in an especially cruel way: believing himself to be honored with a lordship of Vizcaya, Juan walked into the king’s court unarmed, only to be bludgeoned to death with Pedro’s mace-wielding knights. Pedro threw his bloody corpse into an assembly of Vizcayans in the main courtyard, and he shouted “Here is the lord of Vizcaya you asked for” (Ibid., 423).

For all his cruelty, however, King Pedro of Castile also had a reputation for throwing great pageants on major feast days, and would be seen often in the streets dancing with the locals. He also had a reputation for fairness in adjudicating laws for mercantile activity. This made him popular with merchants and traders, and even his public liaisons with Maria de Padilla did not lessen his subjects’ love for him.

Nonetheless, his dealings with nobles who did not submit to him revealed a cruel streak in him, one that was less than chivalrous. His alliance with the Edward the Black Prince of Wales could not ultimately hold back Enrique of Trastamara and his Aragonese ally. Pedro eventually succumbed to the same fate he had inflicted on others when on March 23, 1369, his brother Enrique stabbed him repeatedly (read Lopez de Ayala’s account, p. 427, as well as Chaucer’s reflection on Pedro’s death on same page).

Against this backdrop we first hear in later ballads of a certain unnamed knight in the service of Pedro the Cruel who carried off the daughter of the powerful Commander of the Knights of Calatrava. The Knight Commander, barring his way, was killed. For this crime and for many other acts of seduction, the monks of the of the powerful convent of San Francisco in Seville had him trapped in the monastery church, arrested, tried and executed. They let flow a rumor that demons had emerged and taken him into the nether regions for his sins. Another ballad, titled El Convidado de Piedra (The Stone Guest), an unnamed knight with a bit of a reputation as a rake insults a statue of a dead man by tweaking its beard and mockingly inviting it to dinner. The statue appears, giving the young rake a bit of a fright, but rather than dragging him to hell, in keeping with Molina’s moral reflections, the knight is reformed, never to disrespect the dead again. In the hands of Tirso de Molina, these accounts would combine to contribute to a large morality play about the wages of sin, and the mystery of grace, predestination and the final judgement.

The play is historically set in the 14th century, under the reign of King Alfonso XI (Pedro the Cruel’s father) when Seville was the capital of the kingdom. Naples, then Seville and the neighboring countryside are the central locations where the adventures of Don Juan Tenorio, a gallant young knight, take place.

The first scene is set in the evening, in a palace in Naples. The Duchess Isabella is violently seduced by a stranger pretending to be her fiance, Duke Octavio. Betrayed by his victim’s screams, Don Juan is arrested and taken before the Spanish Ambassador to the court of Naples, Don Diego, who, luckily for Don Juan, happens to be his uncle. Upbraiding the rake for his lack of honor, Don Diego’s familial affections for his roguish nephew nonetheless get the better of him, and he decides to facilitate his escape. Don Juan takes this opportunity to flee to Seville for a while until things calm down.

During his voyage, he has a close call when a violent storm hits, leaving him stranded on the Spanish coast, where a young fisherwoman by the name of Tisbea shelters him and allows herself to be seduced by his charms. Apparently, this near-brush with death at sea does not cause him to reflect upon his dissolute life, and he uses this second chance, this extension of grace, to engage in his old shenanigans. He immediately abandons her and rushes to Seville, where the news of his Neapolitan adventure has already preceded him. The King decides to correct this outrage by arranging the marriages that will save honor on all sides. Don Juan has, in effect, turned the world upside down with his acts of dishonor.

Once in Seville, Don Juan meets his up with his friend, the Marquis de la Mota. His outward show of friendship belies his scheming soul, and in spite of the oath made to his father and the warnings of his valet Catalinon, he plots another romantic intrigue, this time with Doña Ana, who has a secret love affair with the Marquis de la Mota (apparently Molina does an interesting sleight of hand, because one can’t say that the Marquis and Doña Ana are all that innocent).

The third act of the play opens as the first act does, with Don Juan using a disguise to seduce his victim, pretending to be the Marquis. The young woman discovers the ploy, but too late. Her father, Don Gonzalo d’Ulloa, the Knight Commander of the Order of Calatrava, comes to her aid and dies by the sword of Don Juan.

Things are now much too hot for Don Juan in Seville, and he retires to the country. In a village wedding he plots yet another seduction-the peasant bride Aminta. Don Juan has now used up all his “second chances,” for this act of dishonor will be his last. Signs of impending judgement are looming, as all of his victims are demanding justice. The action culminates in the chapel, where the tomb of the Commander d’Ulloa is located. Engraved on his tomb is the epitaph: “Aqui aguarda del Señor el mas leal caballero la venganza de un traidor” (Here awaits the most faithful knight for the Lord to avenge him of a traitor). Don Juan finds insult in these words, and to demonstrate his indignation he pulls the beard of the Commander’s statue and, in a scoffing and ironic tone, invites it to dinner.
During the banquet, the mood is light and cheery, and then there is an ominous knock at the door. Don
Juan’s valet Catalinon timidly answers the door, and, to his dismay and consternation, the statue appears. Don Juan keeps his calm, however, feigning levity. This time the statue invites Don Juan to dine with it at the church of San Francisco the next evening, which he willingly accepts.

What awaits Don Juan is a macabre feast of black crows, spiders and rancid oil and vinegar for wine awaits him. At this point the statue offers him its hand, and Don Juan requests a last confession. Repentance has come too late for this rake of Seville. This is his hour of reckoning, finally he is dragged to eternal torment in hell.

Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan then becomes a cautionary tale of the limits of divine mercy, and how man’s salvation is ultimately dependent on his act of repentance, which cannot be deferred indefinitely. There comes a time when that grace is withdrawn, and as Don Gonzalo’s rejection of Don Juan’s plea for a confessor shows, repentance is deemed an act that can be described as too little, too late.

But it’s not as though he is not warned of his impending death, for when Catalinon warns him that he would pay for his crimes, he brushes it off by replying that that day of reckoning is “a long way off,” which he repeats to the beguiled Tisbea when she reminds him of divine punishment if he does not keep his promises. His father Don Diego cautions him that there is a limit to God’s tolerance of his impieties, and that final reckoning must some day come, to which Don Juan replies that that too is a “long way off.” That day finally arrives, and just as Don Juan denied Don Gonzalo the last rites of the Church when he brutally murdered him, so now he denies Don Juan’s request for a good death. That day which was “a long way off” has now visited him, and now the world is set to right. His final request for confession is more of a negotiation with God than a real act of contrition. Molina’s message is clear – you cannot, in the end, negotiate deals with God.

In the end, Molina has perhaps created a rakish and evil character that simply gets away from him, like Milton’s Satan. Molina’s creation really takes off in the late 18th and 19th centuries, where Don Juan becomes the Romantic hero par excellence. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he has the same kind of makeover Blake gave to Milton’s Satan, as he becomes a Faustian character in search for autonomy. This would be news for Molina, because his purpose for the character is to tell a cautionary tale. He has two choices to convey his message: write a hell, fire and brimstone sermon, or write a play. He chooses the latter, and in the process, reaches a very wide audience by entertaining them as he delivers his warning to a culture that seems to him to be declaring its own autonomy from its Christian morrings. In his hands, Don Juan is an Alcibiades figure, a man with talent, intelligence and skill who chooses to use these gifts to hurt others, and fails horribly to combine his brilliance with the cardinal virtues of  justice, temperance, fortitude and courage, not to mention the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. It is a tragic tale of a man who had so much, but gave nothing, and finally, in his obstinacy, paved the way for his own destruction.

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