The following article was originally published in Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries. Henry Hallam. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847. pp. 188-92.
The Italian theatre, if we should believe one of its historians, fell into total decay during the whole course of the seventeenth century, though the number of dramatic pieces of various kinds was by no means small. He makes a sort of apology for inserting in a copious list of dramatic performances any that appeared after 1600, and stops entirely with 1650. But in this he seems hardly to have done justice to a few, which, if not of remarkable excellence, might be selected from the rest. Andreini is perhaps best known by name in England, and that for one only of his eighteen dramas, the Adamo, which has been supposed, on too precarious grounds, to have furnished the idea of Paradise Lost in the original form, as it was planned by its great author. The Adamo ... first published in 1613 ... is denominated "A Sacred Representation;" and, as Andreini was a player by profession, must be presumed to have been brought upon the stage. It is, however, asserted by Riccoboni, that those who wrote regular tragedies did not cause them to be represented: probably he might have scrupled to give that epithet to the Adamo.
The majority of Italian tragedies in the seventeenth century were taken, like the Adamo, from sacred subjects, including such as ecclesiastical legends abundantly supplied. Few of these gave sufficient scope, either by action or character, for the diversity of excitement which the stage demands. Tragedies more truly deserving that name were the Solimano of Bonarelli, the Tancredi, of Campeggio, the Demetrius of Rocco, which Salfi prefers to the rest, and the Aristodemo of Carlo de Dottori. A drama by Testi, L'Isola di Alcina, had some reputation; but in this, which the title betrays not to be a legitimate tragedy, he introduced musical airs, and thus trod on the boundaries of a rival art. It has been suggested, with no inconsiderable probability, that in her passion for the melodrame, Italy lost all relish for the graver tone of tragedy. Music, at least the music of the opera, conspired with many more important circumstances to spread an effeminacy over the public character.
The pastoral drama had always been allied to musical sentiment, even though it might be without accompaniment. The feeling it inspired was nearly that of the opera. In this style we find one imitation of Tasso and Guarini, inferior in most qualities, yet deserving some regard, and once popular even with the critics of Italy. This was the Filli di Sciro of Bonarelli, published at Ferrara, a city already fallen into the hands of priests, but round whose deserted palaces the traditions of poetical glory still lingered, in 1607, and represented by an academy in the same place soon afterward. It passed through numerous editions, and was admired, even beyond the Alps, during the whole century, and perhaps still longer. It displays much of the bad taste and affectation of that period. Bonarelli is as strained in the construction of his story and in his characters as he is in his style. Celia, the heroine of this pastoral, struggles with a double love, the original idea, as he might truly think, of his drama, which he wrote a long dissertation in order to justify. It is, however, far less conformable to the truth of nature than to the sophisticated society for which he wrote. A wanton, capricious court lady might perhaps waver, with some warmth of inclination towards both, between two lovers, "Alme dell' alma mia," as Celia calls them, and be very willing to possess either. But what is morbid in moral affection seldom creates sympathy, or is fit either for narrative poetry or the stage. Bonarelli's diction is studied and polished to the highest degree; and though its false refinement and affected graces often displease us, the real elegance of insulated passages makes us pause to admire. In harmony and sweetness of sound he seems fully equal to his predecessors Tasso and Guarini; but he has neither the pathos of the one nor the fertility of the other. The language and turn of thought seems, more than in the Pastor Fido, to be that of the opera, wanting, indeed, nothing but the intermixture of air to be perfectly adapted to music. Its great reputation, which even Crescimbeni does his utmost to keep up, proves the decline of good taste in Italy, and the lateness of its revival.
A new fashion which sprung up about 1620, both marks the extinction of a taste for genuine tragedy, and, by furnishing a substitute, stood in the way of its revival. Translations from Spanish tragedies and tragi-comedies, those of Lope de Vega and his successors, replaced the native muse of Italy. These were in prose and in three acts; irregular, of course, and with very different characteristics from those of the Italian school. "The very name of tragedy," says Riccoboni, "became unknown in our country; the monsters which usurped the place did not pretend to that glorious title. Tragi-comedies rendered from the Spanish, such as Life is a Dream (of Calderon), the Samson, the Guest of Stone, and others of the same class, were the popular ornaments of the Italian stage.
The extemporaneous comedy had always been the amusement of the Italian populace, not to say of all who wished to unbend their minds. An epoch in this art was made in 1611 by Flaminio Scala, who first published the outline or canvass of a series of these pieces, the dialogue being, of course, reserved for the ingenious performers. This outline was not quite so short as that sometimes given in Italian playbills; it explained the drift of each actor's part in the scene, but without any distinct hint of what he was to say. The construction of these fables is censured by Riccoboni as both weak and licentious; but it would not be reasonable to expect that it should be otherwise. The talent of the actors supplied the deficiency of writers. A certain quickness of wit, and tact in catching the shades of manner, comparatively rare among us, are widely diffused in Italy. It would be, we may well suspect, impossible to establish an extamporaneous theatre in England which should not be stupidly vulgar. But Bergamo sent out many Harlequins, and Venice many Pantalons. They were respected, as brilliant wit ought to be. The Emperor Mathias ennobled Cecchini, a famous Harlequin, who was, however, a man of letters. These actors sometimes took the plot of old comedies as their outline, and disfigured them, so as hardly to be known, by their extemporaneous dialogue.
Lope de Vega was at the height of his glory at the beginning of this century. Perhaps the majority of his dramas fall within it. His contemporaries and immediate successors were exceedingly numerous; the effulgence of dramatic literature in Spain corresponding exactly in time to that of England. Several are named by Bouterwek and Velasquez; but one only, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, must be permitted to arrest us. This celebrated man was born in 1600, and died in 1683. From an early age till after the middle of the century, when he entered the Church, he contributed, with a fertility only eclipsed by that of Lope, a long list of tragic, comic, and tragi-comic dramas to the Spanish stage. In the latter period of his life he confined himself to the religious pieces called Autos Sacramentales. Of these, 97 are published in the collective edition of 1726, besides 127 of his regular plays. In one year, 1635, it is said that twelve of his comedies appeared; but the authenticity of so large a number has been questioned. He is said to have given a list of his sacred plays at the age of eighty, consisting of only 68. No collection was published by himself. Some of his comedies in the Spanish sense, it may be observed, turn more or less on religious subjects, as their titles show: El Purgatorio de San Patricio -- La Devocion de la Cruz -- Judas Maccabeus -- La Cisma de Inghilterra. He did not dislike contemporary subjects. In El Sitio de Breda, we have Spinola, Nassau, and others then living on the scene. Calderon's metre is generally trochaic, of eight or seven syllables, not always rhyming; but verses de arte mayor, as they were called, or anapaestic lines of eleven or twelve syllables, and also hendecasyllables, frequently occur.
The comedies, those properly so called, de capa y espada, which represent manners, are full of incident, but not, perhaps, crowded so as to produce any confusion; the characters have nothing very salient, but express the sentiments of gentlemen with frankness and spirit. We find in every one a picture of Spain; gallantry, jealousy, quick resentment of insult, sometimes deep revenge. The language of Calderon is not unfrequently poetical, even in these lighter dramas; but hyperbolical figures and insipid conceits deform its beauty. The gracioso, or witty servant, is an unfailing personage; but I do not know ... that Calderon displays much brilliancy or liveliness in his sallies.
The plays of Calderon required a good deal of theatrical apparatus, unless the good-nature of the audience dispensed with it. But this kind of comedy must have led to scenical improvements. They seem to contain no indecency, nor to the intrigues ever become criminal, at least in effect; most of the ladies, indeed, are unmarried. Yet they have been severely censured by later critics on the score of their morality, which is no doubt that of the stage, but considerably purified in comparison with the Italian and French of the sixteenth century. Calderon seems to bear no resemblence to any English writer of his age, except, in a certain degree, to Beaumont and Fletcher. And as he wants their fertility of wit and humour, we cannot, I presume, place the best of his comedies on a level with even the second class of theirs. But I should speak, perhaps, with more reserve of an author, very few of whose plays have I read, and with whose language I am very imperfectly acquainted; nor should I have ventured so far if the opinion of many European critics had not seemed to warrant my frigid character of one who has sometimes been so much applauded.
Life is a Dream (La Vida es Sueno) rises, in its subject as well as style, above the ordinary comedies of Calderon. Basilius, king of Poland, a deep philosopher, has, by consulting the stars, had the misfortune of ascertaining that his unborn son Sigismund would be under some extraordinary influences of evil passion. He resolves, in consequence, to conceal his birth, and to bring him up in a horrible solitude, where, it hardly appears why, he is laden with chains, and covered with skins of beasts, receiving, meantime, an excellent education, and becoming able to converse on every subject, though destitute of all society but that of his keeper Clotaldo. The inheritance of the crown of Poland is supposed to have devolved on Astolfo, duke of Muscovy, or on his cousin Estrella, who, as daughter of an elder branch, contests it with him. The play opens by a scene, in which Rosaura, a Muscovite lady, who, having been betrayed by Astolfo, has fled to Poland in man's attire, descends the almost impassable precipices which overhang the small castle wherein Sigismund is confined. This scene, and that in which he first appears, are impressive and full of beauty, even now that we have become accustomed in excess to these theatrical wonders. Clotaldo discovers the prince in conversation with a stranger, who, by the king's general order, must be detained, and probably for death. A circumstance leads him to believe that this stranger is his son; but the Castilian loyalty transferred to Poland forbids him to hesitate in obeying his instructions. The king, however, who has fortunately determined to release his son, and try an experiment upon the force of the stars, coming at this time, sets Rosaura at liberty.
In the next act, Sigismund, who, by the help of a sleeping potion, has been conveyed to the palace, wakes in a bed of down, and in the midst of royal splendour. He has little difficulty in understanding his new condition, but preserves a not unnatural resentment of his former treatment. The malign stars prevail; he treats Astolfo with the utmost arrogance, reviles and threatens his father, throws one of his servants out of the window, attempts the life of Clotaldo and the honour of Rosaura. The king, more convinced than ever of the truth of astrology, directs another soporific draught to be administered, and in the next scene we find the prince again in prison. Clotaldo, once more at his side, persuades him that his late royalty has passed in a dream; wisely observing, however, that, asleep or awake, we should always do what is right.
Sigismund, after some philosophical reflections, prepares to submit to the sad reality which has displaced his vision. But, in the third act, an unforeseen event recalls him to the world. The army, become acquainted with his rights, and indignant that the king should transfer them to Astolfo, breaks into his prison, and place him at their head. Clotaldo expects nothing but death. A new revolution, however, has taken place. Sigismund, corrected by the dismal consequences of giving way to passion in his former dream, and apprehending a similar waking once more, has suddenly overthrown the sway of the sinister constellations that had enslaved him; he becomes generous, mild, and master of himself; and the only pretext for his disinheritance being removed, it is easy that he should be reconciled to his father; that Astolfo, abandoning a kingdom he can no longer claim, should espouse the injured Rosaura, and that the reformed prince should become the husband of Estrella. The incidents which chiefly relate to these latter characters have been omitted in this slight analysis.
This tragi-comedy presents a moral not so contemptible in the age of Calderon as it may now appear; that the stars may influence our will, but do not oblige it. If we could extract an allegorical meaning from the chimeras of astrology, and deem the stars but names for the circumstances of birth and fortune, which affect the character, as well as condition, of every man, but yield to the persevering energy of self-correction, we might see in this fable the shadow of a permanent and valuable truth. As a play it deserves considerable praise; the events are surprising without excessive improbability, and succeed each other without confusion; the thoughts are natural and poetically expressed; and it requires, on the whole, less allowance for the different standard of national taste than is usual in the Spanish drama.
A Secreto agravio secreta vengança is a domestic tragedy which turns on a common story -- a husband's revenge on one whom he erroneously believes to be still a favoured, and who had been once an accepted lover. It is something like Tancred and Sigismunda, except that the lover is killed instead of the husband. The latter puts him to death secretly, which gives name to the play. He afterward sets fire to his own house, and in the confusion designedly kills his wife. A friend communicates the fact to his sovereign, Sebastian, king of Portugal, who applauds what has been done. It is an atrocious play, and speaks terrible things as to the state of public sentiment in Spain, but abounds with interesting and touching passages.
It has been objected to Calderon, and the following defence of Bouterwek seems very insufficient, that his servants converse in a poetical style like their masters. "The spirit, on these particular occasions," says that judicious but lenient critic, "must not be misunderstood. The servants in Calderon's comedies always imitate the language of their masters. In most cases they express themselves like the latter, in the natural language of real life, and often divested of that colouring of the ideas, without which a dramatic work ceases to be a poem. But, whenever romantic gallantry speaks in the language of tenderness, admiration, or flattery, then, according to Spanish custom, every idea becomes a metaphor; and Calderon, who was a thorough Spaniard, seized these opportunities to give the reins to his fancy, and to suffer it to take a bold lyric flight beyond the boundaries of nature. On such occasions the most extravagant metaphoric language, in the style of the Italian Marinists, did not appear unnatural to a Spanish audience; and even Calderon himself had for that style a particular fondness, to the gratification of which he sacrificed his chaster taste. It was his ambition to become a more refined Lope de Vega or a Spanish Marini. Thus in his play, Bien vengas mal, si vengas solo, a waiting-maid, addressing her young mistress, who has risen in a gay humour, says, 'Aurora would not have done wrong had she slumbered that morning in her snowy crystal, for that the sight of her mistress's charms would suffice to draw aside the curtains from the couch of Sol.' She adds that, using a Spanish idea, 'it might then, indeed, be said that the sun had risen in her lady's eyes.' Valets, on the like occasion, speak in the same style; and when lovers address compliments to their mistresses, and these reply in the same strain, the play of far-fetched metaphors is aggravated by antitheses to a degree which is intolerable to any but a Spanish-formed taste. But it must not be forgotten that this language of gallantry was in Calderon's time spoken by the fashionable world, and that it was a vernacular property of the ancient national poetry." What is this but to confess that Calderon had not genius to raise himself above his age, and that he can be read only as a "Triton of the minnows;" one who is great but in comparison with his neighbours? It will not convert bad writing into good to tell us, as is perpetually done, that we must place ourselves in the author's position, and make allowances for the taste of his age or the temper of his nation. All this is true relatively to the author himself, and may be pleaded against a condemnation of his talents; but the excuse of the man is not that of the work.
The fame of Calderon has been revived in Europe through the praise of some German critics, but especially the unbounded panegyric of one of their greatest men, William Schlegel. The passage is well known for its brilliant eloquence. Every one must differ with reluctance and respect from this accomplished writer; and an Englishman, acknowledging with gratitude and admiration what Shlegel has done for the glory of Shakespeare, ought not to grudge the laurels he showers upon another head. It is, however, rather as a poet than a dramatist that Calderon has received this homage; and in his poetry it seems to be rather bestowed on the mysticism, which finds a responsive chord in so many German hearts, than on what we should consider a more universal excellence, a sympathy with, and a power over all that is true and beautiful in nature and in men. Sismondi, dissenting from this eulogy of Schlegel, which he fairly lays before the reader, stigmatizes Calderon as eminently the poet of the age wherein he lived, the age of Philip IV. Salfi goes so far as to say we can hardly read Calderon without indignation; since he seems to have had no view but to make his genius subservient to the lowest prejudices and superstitions of his country. In the 25th volume of the Quarterly Review, an elaborate and able critique on the plays of Calderon seems to have estimated him without prejudice on either side. "His boundless and inexhaustible fertility of invention; his quick power of seizing and prosecuting everything with dramatic effect; the unfailing animal spirits of his dramas, if we may venture on the expression; the general loftiness and purity of his sentiments; the rich facility of his verse, the abundance of his language, and the clearness and precision with which he imbodies his thoughts in words and figures, entitle him to a high rank as to the imaginative and creative faculty of a poet, but we cannot consent to enrol him among the mighty masters of the human breast." His total want of truth to nature, even the ideal nature which poetry imbodies, justifies this sentence. "The wildest flights of Biron and Romeo," it is observed, "are tame to the heroes of Calderon; the Asiatic pomp of expression, the exuberance of metaphor, the perpetual recurrence of the same figures which the poetry of Spain derived from its intercourse with the Arabian conquerors of the peninsula, are lavished by him in all their fulness. Every address of a lover to a mistress is thickly studded with stars and flowers; her looks are always nets of gold, her lips rubies, and her heart a rock, which the rivers of his tears attempt in vain to melt. In short, the language of the heart is entirely abandoned for that of the fancy; the brilliant but false concetti which have infected the poetical literature of every country, and which have been universally exploded by pure taste, glitter in every page and intrude into every speech."
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