Calderon’s play tells us the story of an atrocious crime: the murder of a innocent woman due to the honour of her husband. The man instigates the murder of his wife on the belief, falsely, that she has committed adultery with the prince don Enrique. Such a crime appears, as we will see, completely justified in the play and in the outcome the author will guarantee the killer a happy ending and a new marriage with Leonor (v. 2940. and next).
Is not new in the wide field of the tragic events that a horrible crime being justified. In the Greek tragedy, we attend to multiple and terrible deaths and crimes, but the insertion of these actions in the conflict between the family range and the political ambit confers to this actions a tragic dignity, what it means that the tragedy lies in the fact of killing someone beloved due to political or religious reasons. The tragedy always has shown us the pain and suffer of whom that are meant to loose. These notes are fundamental, because, as we will see soon, the crime that Calderon places for us in the stage is absolutely irreconcilable with the tragic experience, since in the last scenes the death of the woman does not mean anything to anyone 10. Her savage murder does not matter or concern anybody, with the only exception, we will see further, of Coquin, the clown and the comic relief in the play.
Even with her remains being still on the stage, Calderon decides to resolve comically the play. There is no possible a bigger disdain for a human life, contempt that barely and hardly fits in the tragic perspective 11. The death of the wife is divested of any significance in Calderon’s play. With the corpse bloodily present, a new wedding will be set up for the murderer, weddings sponsored and blessed by the king who, even being aware of all the facts, does not consider that the death of the woman deserves any kind of punishment. The outcome of the play gives us a happy ending and the reasons of the murderer prevail through the words of the king. The play involves from beginning to end the simplistic statement of the codes of honour 12. The honour Code is above all: either above state distinctions (Enrique is not safe in spite of his noble condition), or even above evidences and realities (Enrique and Mencia never consummate their relationship). The laws of honour do not meet estates or realities and the deaths that come of its application are not questioned, nor censored, and nor judged.
Moreover, the honour is defined as a category that is always moving in the level of the appearances: it doesn't matter so much that the honour being intact: the essential issue is that the honour must seem intact. If the appearance of honour vanishes, then, equally, this appearance must be repaired with a public and ostentatious act, as finally happens in Calderon’s play. It is true that Gutierre’s honour didn’t take any offence at the actions of Mencia and Enrique, but it is no less true that their acts caused a dishonourable appearance that Gutierre shall repair with the public execution of his innocent wife. The appearance that holds the honour of Gutierre is restored by a crime that is displayed in front of the King and of other spectators.
Calderon, in a different way than other Spanish authors, shows off such a socio-political idealism in his play that even goes against the political reality that effectively shapes The Spain of the seventieth century. Other authors, like Rojas Zorrilla, in example, dramatised analogous situation but in this case the rules of honour are highly liable to its dissolution in the more complex structure of estates, stratum and classes that are implied by a Nation, which it means that if the King is the offender there is no possible reparations. In Calderon’s play, the King embodies the reason. His judgment about the crime will prevail at the end of the drama: he sanctions, approves and rewards, with a new marriage, the right and the moral prerogative of Gutierre to kill his innocent wife making use of the codes o honour, according to which the apparent offences demand the same response as well as the real ones.
Calderon had in his hands a perfect tragic material: the brutal murder of an innocent woman due to the only suspicions of her husband, the terrible duty that the honour Code, regulated by appearances, imposes to anyone, a Code that rules the life and that makes a beloved husband become a cruel executioner. Lope, as we have just seen, was so critic with the honour and its reasons and rules. But Calderon make the choice of reducing this tragic event to a mere anecdote without meaning and importance, what’s more, the death of Mencia is the only way to solve the problems of honour that another woman, Leonor, is suffering.
We will see now the basic and essential significance of these points that I come repeating and insisting on. It could be argued that in Claderon’s play we effectively have two dialectical approaches: the genre and the socio-political ones (O'Connor, 1982).
In this paper I'm going to defend that there is no way of talking about any presence of such dialectical conflicts in this play. I will argue this thesis down to the last detail.
1- Regarding the socio-political dialectic 13, I have already argued that the play has as one of its main purposes the denial of this sort of conflicts regarding to the Idea of honour in the Spanish golden age. The important matter is not the estate to where each one belongs, but the honour that each one owns. In the play, Gutierre is above the prince Enrique because Gutierre has fulfilled the requirements of honour, ordering the killing of his wife, while Enrique has desecrated those same rules, does not matter that he was unsuccessfully, courting and wooing a married woman. This is not, therefore, a dialectical approach, but a not critic and idealistic assertion of the honour and its procedures. Here are the words of the King claiming the rules of honour above any distinction of any other kind:
Act three, 75: “King: Do you not realize
That, more than once, avenging swords
Have sought to right with royal blood
Unjust offences done to them?
Enrique: I do, your majesty, But who
Can you be saying this about?
King: You, Enrique! How could you so forget
That honour is a sacred thing,
The province of the soul, where I,
The King, have no authority?
I’ll say no more.
Enrique: It isn’t true.
King: You must take greater care where love’s
Concerned and learn to act more prudently
Where female beauty, even though
It draws you, is impossible.
We deal here with the soul of someone whose
Allegiance is forever promised to
Authority far greater than my own;
Who, if he asks me to be fair
And just to him, as I must be,
Would make it difficult for me
To spare the blood of my own family”.
Rey- Vos, Enrique no sabéis / que más de un acero tiñe / el agravio en sangre real. / Don Enrique- Pues, ¿por quién, señor, lo dice / Vuestra Majestad? Rey- Por vos / lo digo, por vos, Enrique; / el honor es reservado / lugar, donde el alma asiste; / yo no soy Rey de las
: / harto en esto solo os dije. / Don Enrique- No os entiendo Rey- Si a la enmienda / vuestro amor no se apercibe, /
dejando vanos intentos / de bellezas imposibles, / donde el alma de un vasallo / con ley soberana vive, / podrá ser de mi justicia / aun mi sangre no se libre. (vv. 2189 y ss.). almas
2-The sexual dialectics.14 I can’t find in his play any sort of critic about the subjugation of women, but all the contrary. The play defines the wife role as a kind of slavery (in the verses 1240-1241, words that are not counteracted by any other assertion in the play), but, even, moreover, the damage of one woman, Mencia, becomes the solution for another, Leonor. Mencia’s death means the salvation of Leonor, that finally reaches a marriage and a happy ending with the only man that can give this to her, the man that had already promised to her before15 . Let’s see how both of them, Leonor and Gutierre, received the news regarding their future wedding:
Act three, 97-100 Mencia’s body is revealed, a bloodless corpse lyingon a bed.“King: The tale is most remarkable!
But prudence is required here.
His vengeance is quite admirable.
Conceal this vision; hide at once
This pitiful admission of
The way misfortune rues our lives,
And flls our hes with fear for
Those things that lie in store for us.
Gutierre, you have our pity.
Your loss is great, and our duty is
To try to compensate that loss
As best we can. And so it seems
The best solution is to marry Leonor.
Do not forget, she is a creditor
To whom you owe a debt of honour.
And that will satisfy me too,
And help me keep a promise I
Once made to her.
Gutierre: Your majesty,
It is not time to think of this.
The ashes of my tragedy
Are not yet cold. I beg you, do
Not make me keep this bargain. Give
Me time, the opportunity
To weep and find some peace again.
King: I have decided. See it’s done.
Gutierre: Your majesty. Mencia’s death
Has freed me from the storm that raged
About my head. Must I set sail
Upon that sea again now she is dead?
King: It is your King’s command.
Gutierre: My lord,
I beg of you. Do not make this demand.
King: You think I am unreasonable?
Gutierre: What if again I were to find
Myself in such a situation?
What if again your brother’s presence in
JMy house inflamed suspicions…?
Gutierre: A man must sometimes cleanse his hands with blood
In order to protect his honour.
King: Then give your hand to Leonor.
Her reputation merits it.
Gutierre: So be it, with the reservation that
It has been cleansed with guilty blood.
Leonor: On that condition I accept it.
Gutierre: Do not forget. I have already been
The surgeon of my honour. It is
A skill, I promise you, that lasts forever.
Leonor: If I am ever sick, Gutierre, do
Not hesitate to cure me.
Gutierre: Then here’s my hand, my dear”.
Rey- Dásela, pues, a Leonor, / que yo sé que su alabanza / la merece. Don Gutierre- Sí la doy. / Mas mira, que va bañada / en sangre, Leonor. Doña Leonor- No importa; / que no me admira ni espanta. / Don Gutierre- Mira que médico he sido / de mi honra: no está olvidada / la ciencia. Doña Leonor- Cura con ella / mi vida, en estando mala. / Don Gutierre- Pues con esa condición
/ te la doy [...]. (vv. 2940-2951).
Where is, in these words (for the problems with the English translation see the appendix), the gender solidarity that some critics notes and realizes in the play? Leonor says clearly: the crime does not amazes or scares her 16, as well as to all the characters of the play but the clown, Coquin, the only one that feels horror of Mencia’s death describing the jealous and possessive conduct of Gutierre as vil and despicable.
This character, the clown, is the only one that seems to have some empathy for the hideous and cruelty of the crime, a character whose ideas and beliefs are discredited in the play by its own kind of "clown" and "coward" (v. 1253 Et seq. Act two 43 and 44, note the contrast that Calderon establishes between Gutierre and Coquin in this specific dialogue: Don Gutierre, future killer of his wife through a forced Ludovico, embodies the honesty of those who can’t flee from justice, Coquin does not). How a coward and a clown is supposed to understand the issues of honor? No way. Let's take a look at the lines of Coquin, verses 2728 et seq.
Act three, 93. “Coquin: I swear,
Your majesty, that this time it
Is most unfunny. I know you think
That I’m a clown, but want to tell
You that, deep own, there’s really quite
A serious side o me, and what
I have to tell you now is, not
To put too fine a point on it,
Well… pretty bloody. No, I haven’t come
To make you laugh; more to see if what
I’ve got to say will break your heart.
My master is, as you well know,
A man suspicious of his honour, and of
His wife, Mencia, in particular.
Well just today, by some unlucky chance,
He came across her just as she
Had started putting pen to paper, which,
It seems, consisted of a letter to
Your brother, Prince Enrique. She begged
Him not to leave the city, knowing well
That people, when they heard the news,
Would straight away believe that she’s
The one who ought to be accused
Of it. Approaching her, Gutierre saw
How she was overcome by fear, took
The letter, thought suspicion justified,
Had all the servants leave, the doors
All locked, and him the only one
Still left inside with her. I feel
Such pity for the poor girl.
She seems so cruelly abused
By harsh, unfeeling fate, I had
To come and tell your majesty,
So you could maybe bring your strong
And mighty arm to bear on it”.
Esta es una honrada acci6n I de hombre bien nacido, en fin; I que aunque
hombre me consideras / de burlas, con loco humor, / llegando a veras, señor,
/ soy hombre de muchas veras. / Oye lo que he de decir, / pues de veras vengo a hablar, / que quiero hacerte llorar, / ya que no puedo reír. / Gutierre, mal informado / por aparentes recelos, / llegó a tener viles celos / de su honor; y hoy, obligado / a tal sospecha, que halló / escribiendo (¡error cruel!) / para el Infante un papel / a su esposa, que intentó / con él que no se ausentase,
/ porque ella causa no fuese / de que en Sevilla se viese / la novedad que causase / pensar que ella le ausentaba... / con esta inocencia pues / (que a mí me consta), con pies / cobardes, adonde estara / llegó, y el papel tomó, / y, sus celos declarados, / despidiendo a los criados, / todas las puertas cerró, / solo se quedó con ella. / Yo, enternecido de ver / una infelice mujer, / perseguida de su estrella, / vengo, señor, a avisarte / que tu brazo altivo y fuerte / hoy la libre de la muerte.
It could be argued that the clown is the one that bears the hard work of telling the truth. It could be argued that Calderon beliefs agrees Coquin’s ones, but the truth is that we will never know what Calderon thought about, the only thing that can be proven is that the end of the play points to the fact that the crime is viewed as something excusable and pardonable, and what we can demonstrate it is also that the acclaiming of the codes of honour, as Calderon does, supposes to support a system in which the mere appearance of crime implies guilt and revenge, what is absolutely consistent with the outcome of the facts and with the drawing of offences and reparations that the author puts in the scene.
The development of the play discredits the clown, not Gutierre. The King supports Gutierre, and, consequently, turns a blind eye to a vile and unfair murder. May be objected too, it is true, that the King responses to Coquin’s calling, and he doesn’t save the life of Mencia because he can't (he arrives late). It’s also true that he feels a faithful horror when he discovers the bleeding body of the woman, and expresses his reproach to Gutierre for his rush, but all these gestures and signs, quite insignificant, lose all their meaning when the King decides, I must insist, not to punish Gutierre by the horrible crime (see verses 2923-2939, Act three 97: in this dialogue it’s clear that the king couldn’t care less about the murder), and to reward him with a new wife (Act three 97, vv. 2940-2942), and Gutierre does not hesitate to warn her that he would do the same again if the situation requires it.
The denial of dialectics through the category of honour help us to find out that in Calderon’s mentality, the contrary that in Lope, then rules of honour are use for legitimating criminal proceedings. The honour dissolves in this play all sort of socio-political conflict, even above estates or classes. In Calderon there is politics and he puts his play in the service of very specific political ideas: the reaffirmation of the royal power. In this sense, the classical tradition remains alive in his work.
The main problem that we find to consider this play as a tragedy comes from its treatment of violence. To finish such a brutal and terrible play according to comical codes (the announcement of a wedding) is something that any tragedy can’t stand. The tragic genre has always offered us valuable reflections on the terrible fact of violence, doesn’t matter how much unavoidable or necessary it may be. A King that, in the face the corpse of an innocent murdered woman, does not punish the guilty; a woman who isn’t frightened or amazed by the crime; a man who receives the new nuptials threatening his future wife with the image of the inert body of his first one... Unpunished injustices which no one cares or concerns about, apart from Coquin the servant… And all of this is happening in the midst of the joy for the new wedding... The tragedy becomes extinct in Calderon as the same time as the respect due to Mencia vanishes, at once with the absence of dignity of murderers and spectators, almost accomplices. And this is not a critic taken out of the context. The Greeks knew this respect and this dignity, both were present in its literature, it is not an extrapolation of modern sensibilities, it’s simply the horror that has always gone with the violence and the injustice in every tragedy that worth it.