Preamble: Fuenteovejuna is one of the best known Spanish Golden Age plays, and its author, Lope de Vega, the most popular and influential dramatist of the period. Prodigiously talented, Lope’s output was vast, encompassing prose and verse as well as drama.
His major contribution was to fix the norms for the Golden Age comedia (i.e. drama) in both structure and thematic variety. Plays were divided into three acts and written in verse. The classical unities of time and place were disregarded although that of action was retained. The plot that carried the action was frequently supported by a relevant comic or serious subplot, and a comic character (the gracioso) was often present. Lope overturned classical decorum by mixing comic and tragic elements, and having both nobles (even royalty) and peasants appearing on the stage at the same time.
Thematically, Lope drew inspiration from a wide variety of sources: e.g. history, classical mythology, the Bible, lives of saints, Italian literature. However, two themes he worked with particular success were amorous cloak and dagger intrigues (comedias de capa y espada) and honour conflicts, especially between the peasantry and nobility.
Fuenteovejuna is an historical play, based on an uprising in the village of Fuenteovejuna (North West of Córdoba) in 1476. It was composed probably between 1612 and 1614. The action of the play takes place in 1476, but with implications not just for the audience of the 17th century but for all ages: good governance, loyalty, justice, the meaning of honour, trust, true love, sacrifice. Is nobility restricted only to social rank?
The main plot centres on the relationship between the noble, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, Comendador (Knight Commander) of the Order of Calatrava**, and the villagers of Fuenteovejuna; the subplot addresses the relationship between the Comendador and the Catholic Monarchs. In both, the Comendador creates disorder. For order and harmony to return, the Comendador must either recognise his error or be destroyed. (See El burlador de Sevilla for another creator of disorder, Don Juan.)
Political Background: It is 1476. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, are embroiled in a dynastic war for the throne of Spain with the Portuguese king, Afonso V and his young Castilian wife Juana –Isabella’s niece-- following the death of Henry IV of Castile (1474). The Portuguese were supported by disaffected Castilian nobles (who had opposed the marriage of Isabella to Ferdinand, who was from Aragón), and many towns and villages under the control of the nobles.
Scene 1 (ll. 1-172): The play opens in Almagro (a town between Madrid and Seville).
After apologising (ll. 61-2) Rodrigo asks about the war, the background to which is then given by Fernán Gómez (ll. 69-140). At the same time, he urges the Rodrigo to gather his troops and attack the nearby town of Ciudad Real, which supports the Catholic Monarchs. The Comendador argues that by such action, Rodrigo would acquire fame worthy of his illustrious predecessors. The young Maestre agrees.
Scene 2 (ll. 173-634). This long scene takes us to Fuenteovejuna, a village under the control of the Order of Calatrava (whose representative in the village is Fernán Gómez).
Lines 275-444: At this moment, Laurencia and Pascuala are joined by Mengo, Barrildo and Frondoso.
life (alabanza de aldea y menosprecio de corte)
was a popular topic in Golden Age literature.
This leads in turn to an equally unlikely discussion among peasants: a philosophic commentary on the nature of love (ll. 366-444). Barrildo and Frondoso argue that love is harmony and love for others, while Mengo asserts that love is self-interest. Laurencia agrees with Mengo.
The discussion ends inconclusively with the arrival of the Comendador’s servant, Flores. He brings news (ll. 455-528) of the conquest of Ciudad Real by the Comendador and the Maestre. The latter –ornately dressed like Fernán Gómez-- has distinguished himself and generously shared the booty with the Comendador and others. Music then announces the arrival of the triumphant Comendador (ll. 529-44).
Lines 545- 634: The villagers, headed by the village elders, Juan Rojo and Esteban greet their lord warmly, with praise and gifts, and confirmation of their loyalty to him.
Scene 3 (ll. 635-722): takes us to Medina del Campo where Ferdinand and Isabella are lodged. Two councillors have arrived from Ciudad Real seeking their help. They explain how the town was overcome by the Maestre, although they make it clear that without the advice and help of the Comendador (ll. 679-82), Rodrigo would not have been able to take it. Isabella urges immediate intervention, seconded by Fernando who orders reinforcements to accompany the two councillors back to Ciudad Real.
Scene 4 (ll. 723-860): we return to the countryside near Fuenteovejuna. Frondoso and Laurencia are alone. He confesses his love for her and she concedes that she has some feeling for him (ll. 773-74). Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Comendador who is out hunting. Laurencia tells Frondoso to hide, which he does. Using hunting imagery, Fernán Gómez accosts Laurencia, informing her that other village women have been very willing to accept his advances (ll. 799-804). Laurencia rejects him angrily, upon which the Comendador puts down his cross bow and attacks her. At this point, Frondoso breaks out from his hiding place, seizes the bow and threatens the Comendador. After ensuring that Laurencia has left, Frondoso departs with the bow, leaving the Comendador swearing vengeance.
Scene 1 (ll. 861-1138): The act opens in Fuenteovejuna where, after concern over the harvest and brief criticisms of astrologers and the printing press (which has allowed poor writers to be published), the topic turns to the deplorable behaviour of the Comendador. “Was there anyone so cruel and lecherous?” asks one peasant. “I’d like to see him hung from that olive tree” (ll. 939-40).
At this moment, Fernán Gómez appears, and a disagreement soon ensues between him and Esteban, the village mayor and Laurencia’s father. The Comendador compares Laurencia to a “hare” he is hunting, which offends Esteban and the other villagers with him. A village councillor (regidor) dares to point out that it is not right for the Comendador to deprive them of their honor (ll. 986-88). Fernán Gómez can scarcely believe the villagers’ claim to honour and is amazed that they see his treatment of them as dishonorable. In his opinion, peasants simply do not have honour. They insist that they do.
“You have honour?” he asks, and sarcastically adds “What knights of Calatrava [you are]!” (ll. 989-90). In towns, he adds, there are married men who are happy to see their wives receive visitors. Esteban replies “Not here [they don’t]" (ll.1005-07). With this, the Comendador rudely dismisses the villagers.
Lines 1025-1138. Left alone with Flores and Ortuño, Fernán Gómez can hardly contain his anger: “Do these think they are my equals?” (l. 1029). “The world’s coming to an end, Flores,” he adds (l. 1050), before reviewing with Flores and Ortuño a list of his conquests. Following this, he cynically concludes that those women who surrender themselves quickly are those least respected.
The arrival of a messenger (ll. 1105-38) interrupts the conversation. Fernán Gómez is needed in Ciudad Real, which is under attack from the forces of the Catholic Monarchs.
Scene 2 (ll. 1139-1278): Mengo, Laurencia and Pascuala appear. Their conversation centres on the Comendador, whom they describe as a “cruel devil” (l. 1145), “bloodthirsty animal” (l. 1150), “tiger’" (l. 1186). A fleeing Jacinta confirms their views of Fernán Gómez. She is being pursued by the Comendador’s servants who have been ordered to carry her off to Ciudad Real. Fearful, Laurencia and Pascuala flee, leaving Jacinta with Mengo, who tries to defend her. For his trouble, Mengo is thrashed, and Jacinta is dragged off as part of the “baggage” (l. 1271) for the Comendador’s army. For Fernán Gómez, Mengo is beneath contempt, an ignoble individual from a vil lugar (“despicable place” l. 1221). However, by his willingness to defend Jacinta, Mengo has behaved honorably, and has also disproved his earlier thesis that the world is governed by self-interest. He has sacrificed his own safety in his defence of Jacinta.
Scene 3 (1279-1450): We move to Esteban’s house in Fuenteovejuna. The violence of the preceding scene now gives way to one of harmony, underlined by Frondoso and Laurencia’s mutual declaration of love. Seeing her father (Esteban) approach, Laurencia hides while Frondoso asks Esteban for her hand.
Esteban is accompanied by a councillor, both lamenting the Comendador’s “excesses” (demasías l. 1324) and Jacinta’s kidnapping. After noticing Frondoso, Esteban and the councillor hear Frondoso’s request to marry Laurencia. After a little banter in which Esteban teases Laurencia (who has reappeared) (ll. 1410-22), everything is set for Frondoso and Laurencia’s marriage.
Scene 4 (ll. 1451-73): Near Ciudad Real. Things have gone badly for the Comendador and the Maestre. Ferdinand and Isabella’s troops have retaken the city. Fernán Gómez accepts no responsibility for the revolt against the Catholic Monarchs, pointedly saying to the young Rodrigo: “Your plans, Girón, have come to nothing” (l. 1458).
Scene 5 (ll. 1474-1653: Back to Fuenteovejuna. Preparations are made for the marriage. When Mengo mentions the Comendador, Barrildo cuts him off, not wanting to be reminded of that “murderous barbarian/ who deprives everyone of honour” (ll. 1487-8).
In the midst of the revelry, Fernán Gómez and his servants suddenly appear, casting a shadow over the celebration. The Comendador immediately orders Frondoso to be tied up (l. 1582; for having earlier threatened him with his own cross bow, end of Act I) and orders him to be sent to prison (ll. 1589-90). He rejects Pascuala’s plea to forgive Frondoso (ll. 1595-6), whom he accuses of treason for having rebelled against the Grand Master, Rodrigo, and against him. Fernán Gómez’s accusation is cynical: he does not recognise that he himself has rebelled against his natural lords, the Catholic Monarchs and has urged the inexperienced Maestre to do the same. The Comendador has rebelled with no more reason than political opportunism, whereas Frondoso’s revolt against him was morally justified. Fernán Gómez underlines his cynicism exclaiming “What loyal subjects [you people of Fuenteovejuna are]!” (l. 1607), when he himself has been disloyal to the Catholic Monarchs. Esteban reminds him that there are rulers in Castile who will bring order where discord has been sown, and they will not allow men –who are powerful just because they wear a powerful cross (i.e. in this case the cross of Calatrava)—to go unpunished (ll. 1622-32).
The act ends with two further excesses: the Comendador strikes Esteban with his (Esteban’s) staff of office and orders Laurencia to be taken away.
Scene 1 (ll. 1654-1849): In Fuenteovejuna. The villagers gather to see what can be done about the Comendador. Various solutions are suggested: appealing to Ferdinand and Isabella, abandoning the village, or seeking vengeance by killing the tyrants (i.e. the Comendador and his men). The discussion is interrupted by the arrival of a dishevelled Laurencia, who launches into a tirade (ll. 1725-95) against the village men. She accuses them of being cowards, chickens, half-men, sheep, hares, pansies, for allowing her to have been kidnapped by the Comendador. Such accusation quickly move the men to action against Fernán Gómez, while at the same time they make clear that they are not rebelling against the Catholic Monarchs: “Long live our “señores” (i.e. Ferdinand and Isabella)/Death to treacherous tyrants” (ll. 1815-16). As the men leave, they are followed by the women who have organised themselves into a militia.
Scene 2 (ll. 1850-1921): The villagers break into the Comendador’s house. Stunned (“The people against me!"), Fernán Gómez frees Frondoso and asks him to intercede with the villagers, but it is too late. Against shouts of “Long live Ferdinand and Isabella, and death/ to traitors” (ll.1867-8), the Comendador cries out, “I am your lord” (l. 1887). “The Catholic Monarchs/ are our lords” (ll. 1887-88) is the collective reply by the men. As they attack, they are joined by the women so that both men and women are implicated in the assassination.
Fernán Gómez’s servants, Flores and Ortuño flee, chased by the women and Mengo (who identifies Flores as the one who had whipped him mercilessly earlier (Act II, Scene 2). Laurencia urges the women on, and the scene ends with cries of “Fuenteovejuna, and long live King Ferdinand” (l. 1921).
Scene 3 (ll. 1922-2029): In Toro (East of Zamora, on the River Duero) where the Catholic Monarchs are assured that Ciudad Real is theirs. Flores arrives seeking justice! It is a biased account according to which Fernán Gómez was attacked by his vassals “with little cause” (l. 1969). After killing the Comendador “with a thousand cruel stabs” (l. 1981), the men of the village threw him out of a window whereupon the women then set upon him. The king acts immediately (ll. 2016-29), sending a judge to Fuenteovejuna to investigate and punish the guilty.
Scene 4 (ll. 2030-2125): Back in Fuenteovejuna, the peasants celebrate with the Comendador’s head stuck on a lance while musicians and others in the village emphasise their loyalty to the Catholic Monarchs. Following Esteban’s caution that Ferdinand and Isabella will want to find out who killed the Comendador, the villagers prepare their defence. They agree that the response must be that Fuenteovejuna did it collectively.
Scene 5 (ll. 2126-61): A brief scene in Almagro. The young Maestre has just heard of the Comendador’s death and gives orders for 500 men to go to Fuenteovejuna and destroy it. However, a soldier advises him to calm down and not anger the king any further. The soldier further suggests that the Maestre go to the king and plead his case, advice which Rodrigo accepts.
Scene 6 (ll. 2162-2291): Back in Fuenteovejuna. After a brief scene between Frondoso and Laurencia (he rejects her suggestion that he run away), the judge arrives. During interrogation and torture (even of women and children), the only reply he can get is the collective “Fuenteovejuna [did it], sir” (ll. 2209, 2216, 2230, 2237), and Mengo’s “Sir, Fuenteovejunica [did it]” (l. 2251). Collective action and collective responsibility.
Scene 7 (ll. 2292-2455): With the Catholic Monarchs in Tordesillas (East of Toro). The Maestre appears to plead his case: he was young, he was deceived, he was ill-advised. Begging the monarchs’ pardon, he offers his service to fight in Granada where Ferdinand and Isabella are heading next. His offer is accepted and he is forgiven.
Finally, the peasants of Fuenteovejuna arrive, and Esteban, Frondoso and Mengo present their defence and ask for forgiveness. The king accepts their reasoning and, since the crime committed against the villagers was serious, they are pardoned.
Bentley, Eric Life is a Dream and other Spanish Classics (includes Fuenteovejuna (The Sheepwell) and El Burlador de Sevillla (The Trickster of Seville) New York 1985.
Martel, Alpern, Mades Diez comedias del Siglo de Oro 2nd. ed. New York, London 1968. Translations into English are mine.