Spain Golden Age Literature: Overview

Spanish Literature of the Golden Age: Overview


Although some might quibble over the exact dates, Spanish literature of the Golden Age (or “Siglo de Oro” in Spanish) usually refers to those works produced in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries.  It is a period that encompasses what is often broadly known–especially in other European countries-- as the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Spain’s Golden Age was a period of extraordinary cultural flowering, and the innovations and originality of writers in each of the three literary genres –poetry, drama, and novel-- are remarkable.   


These innovations were not produced in a vacuum.  They were the result of contact with and an awareness of the literary and philosophical currents of other European countries. Contact with Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, was particularly strong. For example, a Spanish college was founded in Bologna (Italy) as early as the 1360s to enable poor scholars of Spanish origin to further their studies. (Antonio de Nebrija, who wrote the first Castilian grammar book and first Latin-Castilian dictionary studied there in the late 15th century.) In 1442, the kingdom of Naples was conquered by Alfonso V of Aragon, who quickly converted it into a literary and cultural centre.

Cultured Spaniards travelled to Italy to acquaint themselves with the latest trends and Italian scholars were invited to Spain.  Spaniards became exposed, for example, to the love poetry of Petrarch (1304-74), the short stories of Boccaccio (1313-75), and the pastoral world of Sannazaro (1455-1530).  With Italian influence came also the revival of classical literature --particularly the verse of major poets such as Virgil, Horace and Ovid—and the philosophy of Plato (Neoplatonism). The result of all this was a radical enrichment in both language and thought.

In the 16th century, the succession of the Flemish-born Hapsburg heir, Carlos/ Charles I, to the Spanish crown in 1516 acquainted Spaniards with northern humanism, especially the works of Desiderius Erasmus (1469?–1536). Later, towards the end of the 16th century, the growth of scepticism combined with stoicism, and the rediscovery of Aristotelianism –especially Aristotle’s Poetics-- were instrumental in advancing one of the Spain’s major contributions to European Baroque thought: the interplay between appearances (parecer) and reality (ser), which more often than not lead to disillusionment (desegaño) and/or self-knowledge (conocerse). (Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, is one of many writers who address the ambiguity produced by this interplay.)

Italian and classical influence was far-reaching but…

The radical cultural changes that took place at the beginning of the 16th century should not be seen as a break in continuity with Medieval tradition. For example, Medieval Spanish romances (a romance is a verse form best translated as ballad) continued to be sung and composed. Courtly love (which entered Spain at the end of the 12th century from Provence) remained vigorous, and novels (now generally referred to as "romances") of chivalry were enormously popular. 

It would be more accurate to say that in Golden Age Spain the Medieval tradition and the Renaissance world fed off each other.  Poets, for example, used the romance for a variety of topics, from love to satire; dramatists took advantage of the romance’s galloping rhythm to advance the action of their plays. Courtly love was no longer tied to the Medieval octosyllable (the 8-syllable line was the most common line in Spanish Medieval verse), but was a topic easily adapted to the Italian hendecasyllable (11-syllable line). As for romances of chivalry, they were easily transformed into religious adventure novels (a lo divino), although the greatest transformation of this Medieval kind of adventure tale took place with the publication of Don Quixote.  Without the romances of chivalry, Don Quixote would not have existed and the history of the novel would have been quite different.

Golden Age Poetry

Of the three genres, poetry was the most admired in the Golden Age, and Spain was fortunate that the first important poet of the Siglo de Oro, Garcilaso de la Vega 1501-36, was extraordinarily gifted. 

Following the example of his Catalan friend, Juan Boscán (1490-1542. Joan Boscà in Catalan), Garcilaso undertook an experiment that totally transformed Spanish verse and poetic language: together they replaced traditional Castilian metres and stanza forms with Italian metres and stanza forms.  Of the two, Garcilaso was the superior poet, and it was he who successfully made the transition. His other major successes included the adaptation of Petrarchan imagery of nature and self analysis, and the remarkable use of Virgilian pastoral landscape.  His poetry became an inspiration and model for later poets of the Golden Age, and the subject of learned commentaries.

The development of Spanish verse in the Golden Age has traditionally been seen as a trajectory from Garcilaso to the Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), a poet who brilliantly captures the verbal inventiveness of the Baroque. Some may argue that a younger contemporary of Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) was equally inventive, but he is equally if not better known as a prose writer and author of the picaresque novel El Buscón.  Expanding the Spanish Golden Age to include Mexico, many anthologists also include a truly remarkable and original poet, much admired by feminists: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-95).

Between Garcilaso and Góngora, there are numerous poets of outstanding quality, but we’ll only look at a few. Among them are San Juan de la Cruz (1542-91, widely known as St John of the Cross) and Fray Luis de León (1527-91).  Both were religious poets but each quite different in his approach to God.  Fernando de Herrera (ca 1534-97), on the other hand, was a secular poet, usually considered a bridge between Garcilaso and Góngora because of his verbal and syntactic innovations.

Golden Age Drama

Golden Age drama (normally called comedia) is dominated by playwrights of the late 16th early 17th centuries.  The most famous and influential within the development of the comedia is Lope de Vega (1562-1635), a prodigious writer whose works encompassed prose and verse as well as drama. Tirso de Molina (1584?-1648), a pseudonym for Fray Gabriel Téllez, was not as prolific as Lope, but the protagonist of his best known play, El burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville), gave birth to the myth of one of the greatest lovers of world literature:  Don Juan Tenorio.  Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-81) is generally considered the most consummate dramatist of the Siglo de Oro, and his philosophical drama La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), is perhaps the most translated Golden Age play.

The earliest dramas of the Golden Age are usually attributed to Juan del Encina (1468-1530?), but more gifted was his Portuguese contemporary Gil Vicente (1465?-1536?) who wrote some 11 plays in Spanish.   Still, the most interesting figure of this early period is Bartolomé de Torres Naharro (1485?-1520?), author of 9 plays and, more important, of the first Renaissance theory of drama not only in Spain but in Europe.

A common feature of these early dramatists is that their plays were written and performed in the courts or households of eminent political or religious patrons.  Running parallel with this court theatre, we also have plays –usually classical, e.g. the comic works of Plautus and Terence, the  tragedies of Seneca-- put on in universities, religious drama celebrating church festivals, and popular skits or farces played out in town squares. 

The second half of the 16th century saw the appearance of the first professional companies of actors as drama became commercialised, a reflection of the increasing popularity of plays in the rapidly growing towns and cities. The companies played on improvised stages in any suitable space: the halls of the nobility, the courtyards of inns, patios or squares.  Eventually the demands for more plays and better facilities in which to see them resulted in permanent theatres –corrales-- in large towns.  The most famous were the Corral de la Cruz (founded in 1579), and the Corral del Príncipe (1582), both in Madrid.  The main centres were Madrid, Seville and Valencia. The corrales also had a very useful social as well as entertainment value: municipalities and charitable organisations (which had been prominent in establishing the early corrales) found that revenues from plays could help them set up hospitals and pay for their upkeep.

No playwright could be indifferent to the success of the corrales.  They provided the perfect opportunity for writers such as the prolific Lope de Vega to reach a wide and demanding audience.  With popularity came fame and with fame came the possibility of social advancement and wellbeing.  Lope was the dramatic genius who established the norms for what became known as the comedia nueva (new drama) which all other dramatists followed in one way or another (e.g. structure, use of verse forms, themes).

Golden Age Prose Fiction

Prose fiction of the Golden Age is extremely rich and varied and culminates with a remarkable number of novels at the beginning of the 17th century, the most famous of which is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Cervantes’ main inspiration for Don Quixote were the romances (prose fiction) of chivalry, the favourite form of literature at all social levels in the first half of the 16th century. Of these romances, the most popular was Amadís de Gaula, the "father" of the Spanish romances of chivalry,  first mentioned in the early 14th century but not published until 1508. A flood of sequels and spin offs followed, the son of Amadís, the grandson of Amadís and so on (their circulation was made easier thanks to the printing press, which first appeared in Spain in 1474). 

The romances of chivalry lost much of their popularity in the second half of the 16th century, to be replaced --mainly in aristocratic circles-- by the pastoral novel.  At the same time, the Moorish novel or novela morisca made its appearance, following the publication of the little gem El Abencerraje y la hermosa Jarifa 1561.

Of the other prose fiction forms, the Spanish sentimental romances of the 15th century or earlier enjoyed some success in the Golden Age, as did Byzantine romances of Greek inspiration (in the latter years of the 16th century).  None, however, were to have the impact of a new literary form that might be loosely called the “realistic” novel. In these realistic novels, the action was contemporary, the location recognisable, and the characters credible.

We can begin with La Celestina, a work written in 21 acts and therefore sometimes classified as a drama but which reads like a novel.  It first appeared in 1499 and became a 16th-century “best seller,” spawning numerous continuations, imitations and translations.  For many readers, La Celestina is the greatest literary work in Spanish after Don Quixote, yet strangely it is not well known beyond the Spanish speaking world.

Lazarillo de Tormes, an anonymous work first published in 1554 is neither an imitation nor continuation of La Celestina, although the world it portrays is just as real.  It tells the story in first person of the early years of Lázaro, the narrator.  Frequently called the first picaresque novel, it is a very complex albeit short narrative which was soon placed on the famous 1559 Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) for its anticlerical content. It remained unpublished in Spain until 1573 when a mutilated version, Lazarillo castigado, appeared.  
Suppressed are chapters 4 and 5 and passages elsewhere obviously considered irreverent by the church authorities.  Such censorship might be expected given the increased atmosphere of religious orthodoxy in Spain in the second half of the 16th century, a period known as the Counter Reformation in Spanish and European history.

Given this religious orthodoxy, it isn’t surprising that no other similar book was published in Spain until 1599 when the First Part of Guzmán de Alfarache appeared (a Second Part came out in 1604).  Written by Mateo Alemán, it is a long, digressive work in which the narrator Guzmán details his life from birth in Seville to his position as a galley slave on a Spanish ship. A “best seller” in its day, it is a fundamental text in the history of the picaresque novel.  It was soon followed by several others novels in the same vein, the most important being El buscón (The Swindler) by Francisco de Quevedo, possibly written in 1604 but not published until 1626.

The picaresque texts are relatively unknown beyond the Spanish-speaking world, but the same cannot be said about Don Quixote.  Published in two parts, 1605 and 1615, it describes the adventures and conversations of the would-be knight-errant, don Quixote de la Mancha, and his faithful squire Sancho Panza.  That sounds simple, but the book’s very simplicity is deceptive. In the Prologue to Part I, Cervantes tells us that the book is an “invective” against or attack on romances of chivalry.  But if it were just that, then there wouldn’t be such a large and constantly growing library of books devoted to interpreting and explaining it.  Its meaning is elusive, because like life itself it can never be pigeonholed.

Don Quixote appeared in a period of extraordinary literary flowering, just as Spain was undergoing severe social stress and its political power and territorial integrity were already being threatened.  With hindsight, we can see that Spain’s Golden Age of literature was coming to an end too, but it went out in a golden blaze and not with a whimper.

Sources

Deyermond, A.D  A Literary History of Spain: The Middle Ages London 1971
Gies, David ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge 2004
Eisenberg, D    Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age Newark, 1982
Jones, R.O.  A Literary History of Spain: The Golden Age Prose and Poetry     London, 1971
Thacker, Jonathan A Companion to Golden Age Theatre Woodbridge, England 2007
Wilson, Edward and Moir, Duncan A Literary History of Spain: The Golden Age Drama London, 1971