La Celestina. Author. Genre. Location.

The Author.
The first edition of La Celestina appeared in 1499, but there exists only one copy of it, and the title and preliminary material are missing. In 1500 another edition appeared in Toledo which included introductory and concluding material and a title: Comedia de Calisto y Melibea.

The introductory material consists of a letter from The author to a friend followed by some acrostic verses which identify the author as Fernando de Rojas.

In the preliminary comments preceding the acrostic verses, Rojas claims that while he was a student in Salamanca, he had found some papers that appealed to him both for their elegant Castilian and their didactic message against the passions of love and the use of go-betweens and unreliable servants.

Inspired by this, and having two weeks of holidays to kill, he decided to complete the work. The general consensus now –based on an analysis of linguistic characteristics and literary allusions– is that Rojas was the author of all but the first act and the beginning of the second, and that he had expanded the original version in response to readers’ requests. 

Who the author of Act I and the beginning of Act II was we don’t know, although Rojas himself suggests, in another edition which came out in1514, that it was Juan de Mena (1411-56) or Rodrigo Cota (?- 1504?).
Not too much is known of Rojas.  He was born, probably in the 1470s, in the village of Puebla de Montalbán, to the west of Toledo, and studied law at the University of Salamanca.  Around 1507 he moved a little further west from Puebla to Talavera de la Reina, where documents show that he married Leonor Alvarez.

In 1525 his father-in-law, Alvaro de Montalbán, asked that Rojas represent him before the Inquisition. What is interesting in the request is that Rojas is directly referred to as a Converso (a Christian of Jewish origin). Rojas remained in Talavera for the rest of his life.

From his activities there, he was evidently respected by his neighbours, being entrusted with several municipal positions, including that of mayor.  He died in April of 1541. His will shows that he was comfortably off, although an inventory of his modest belongings suggests that he avoided ostentation in favour of an unassuming life style.  Equally unassuming was his burial; he was laid to rest in a Franciscan habit in a modest convent.

[Fernando de Rojas has recently been transformed from author into literary character!  He is the protagonist of a very popular detective novel, El manuscrito de piedra, by a professor of literature, Luis García Jambrino. It was published in 2008. The year is 1497 and Rojas, a young law student at the University of Salamanca, has just successfully defended his father –accused of practising Judaism– from the Inquisition. Impressed by his intellect, the Bishop of Salamanca asks Rojas to solve the brutal murder of a professor of Theology at the door of the cathedral.]

Although Rojas’s library was made up primarily of the usual law books and religious works, it also contained a number of texts that reflected a humanistic spirit: classical works (including Ovid, Seneca), Boccaccio, Petrarch and Castiglione among the Italians, novels of chivalry, sentimental novels, poetry. 

The wide ranging sources of La Celestina reflect something of Rojas’s reading; he was clearly acquainted with the love theories of the day, the Latin theatre of Plautus and Terence and Italian humanistic comedy, Seneca, the philosophy of Boethius, and Petrarch, not to mention Spanish authors. 

Still, even with this impressive literary arsenal the only known work by Rojas is La Celestina. Its fame seems to have had no impact on his life, and he appears to have made no attempt to cash in on his literary fame. Indeed, his personal library had only one copy of the book, and not one of the many continuations, imitations and translations that appeared during his lifetime.

La Celestina is difficult to pigeonhole, although for modern sensibilities it reads more like a novel than a drama.  Nevertheless, reams of paper have been spent arguing whether it is a drama or a novel, whether a comedy or tragedy, or a combination, as its second title –Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea– suggests.
Certainly, it is written in dialogue form, but being divided into 21 acts it is far too long to present on the stage. It almost certainly was not meant to be acted, and when Rojas refers in a Prologue to the Valencia edition of 1514 to people coming together to hear (oír) the drama (comedia), he probably meant that they would listen to it read aloud or read it collectively, and not witness it enacted.

This idea of public reading –something quite common in a preliterate age– is reinforced by the words of the proof-reader (corrector), Alonso de Proaza, in a verse appendix at the end of the book.  Proaza specifically talks of the gestures and voice a reader should adopt when reading to the listeners (leyendo a … los oyentes).

Proaza’s observations have a nice modern touch as he identifies the emotional cues required of the reader to move listeners, ranging from pleasure to anxiety to anger.  Adopting the voice of all the characters, the reader will move from tears to laughter as appropriate to the character.

The change in title from Comedia to Tragicomedia reflects readers/ listeners’ differing interpretations, if we are to believe Rojas’s words in the Prologue. Apparently the public disagreed whether it was tragedy or comedy.  In view of these disputes, Rojas compromised by simply splitting the difference down the middle and calling it tragicomedy.

Clearly he did not anticipate that the book’s fame would finally rest on yet another interpretation, and that it would become known after its most (in)famous character, Celestina. No better proof, perhaps, of an author’s loss of textual control than when his title is replaced by that of the readers!

The location of La Celestina is credible even if we do not know precisely where the action takes place. There are details such as street names, references to churches and a tannery quarter etc, but these are insufficient to identify a specific location.

Most believe it to be Salamanca, where Rojas was a student, and even today visitors to the town may be shown Pleberio’s house and the famous garden of Melibea!

Others suggest Toledo, more associated with the commercial background of Melibea’s parents, and close to Puebla de Montalbán and Talavera.  Some even opt for Seville because Melibea refers to the ships visible from her father’s tower (Act XX) and Pleberio weeps over the pointlessness of the ships he has built now that Melibea is dead (Act XXI).

In the last analysis, this geographic imprecision may simply have been caution on Rojas’s part to avoid possible repercussions (for example, Celestina –a go-between– lists among her clients nobles and clergy, including bishops). 

In any case, knowing which town the action takes place will not appreciatively affect our understanding of the work, any more than knowing which village Don Quixote was born in adds to our understanding of that great novel. They both transcend their geographical space.

Dunn, Peter N  Fernando de Rojas Boston: 1975

Lacarra, Maria Eugenia Como leer “La Celestina” Madrid: 1990
Maravall, Jose A El mundo social de “La Celestina” Madrid: 1973
Severin, Dorothy ed.  La Celestina  Madrid: 1997