Don Juan and Honour/ Dishonour.
The Trickster of Seville, (1618?-1630?) is the usual English translation of Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla. A more fitting translation in the context of the play would be The Seducer of Seville. [For a summary of the play, click here.]
True, Don Juan is a tricky character, but his preferred “tricks” consist of seducing women and dishonouring them regardless of their status. He claims that “My greatest pleasure/ is to seduce a woman/ and leave her without honour” (ll. 1315-18). He boasts that “Seville loudly proclaims me,/ as the Seducer … (l. 1313) and later predicts that his seduction of Dona Ana “will be a really famous trick” (l. 1477).
And when it comes to the peasant girl Aminta, betrothed to Batricio, Don Juan enjoys the thought of the cruel laughter she will be exposed to: “Tomorrow she will be “dead” from the laughter [as a result] of this ‘trick’,” (ll. 1951-53) (i.e. everyone will laugh at her).
Unlike his equally famous literary contemporary, Don Quixote, who seeks fame “helping widows and protecting maidens” (Don Quixote, I, 9, 92), Don Juan seeks fame as “as the Seducer (of Seville)” (ll. 1313-18), or even better as “The Great Seducer of Spain” (l. 1281) as Catalinón, his servant, puts it. His road to fame is founded squarely on his success in depriving his victims of honour, one of the most potent social concerns in Golden Age Spain.
Honour was the esteem and respect one enjoyed in society. People’s opinion mattered. From nobility to peasantry, every effort was made to protect one’s honour since individuals or families could be easily dishonoured even through no fault of their own.
It became a major theme of Spanish drama (the comedia) of the period and one particularly favoured by Lope de Vega, Spain’s most famous dramatist of the period, and plays a prominent role in one of his most famous dramas, Fuenteovejuna.
Of the various strands of honour that appear in Golden Age comedia (e.g. noble birth, self-worth, woman and honour, valiant or virtuous deeds, purity of blood), El burlador… addresses two in particular: 1. the relation of women to honour and 2. the assumption of honour based on noble birth.
1. Don Juan’s predatory pursuit of women is fuelled not only by his desire to dishonour them but by the deeply held belief that they were also the embodiment of men’s honour. In other words, to dishonour a daughter, fiancée, wife or any woman under a man’s protection was to dishonour that man.
The argument is put forward early in the play by the king of Naples after discovering the illicit tryst between Isabela and (supposedly) the Duke Octavio (in fact the seducer was Don Juan) in his palace: “Oh poor honour!/ If you are man’s soul/ why do they leave you [in the hands] of fickle woman/ if she is inconstancy itself?” (Act I, ll. 152-55). The peasant Batricio argues later that when women are objects of gossip, honour suffers: “Honour and women are bad when they become objects of gossip” (Act III, ll. 1880-81).
To destroy a woman’s honour, then, was to destroy the honour and social standing of the man who protected her, leaving him open to public ridicule. In El burlador …, Don Juan’s seduction of Isabela, Ana, and Aminta attacks the honour of Octavio (Isabela’s lover), Don Gonzalo (Ana’s father) and Batricio (Aminta’s husband).**
The defence of a woman’s honour –and by extension her protector’s honour– is metaphorically expressed in military terms. Octavio, for example, expresses his fears to his servant, Ripio, as follows: “Concerns about Isabela/ worry me, my friend,/ … / my body is never at peace/ guarding whether absent or present (i.e. at all times)/ the castle of [my] honour” (Act I, ll. 203-08).
Later, Don Gonzalo angrily confronts Don Juan upon hearing Ana screams that she has been betrayed and her honour is at risk: “Traitor, you have toppled/ the barbican (part of a castle’s fortification in front of the gatehouse) [which protects] the tower of my honour/ keeper of life itself” (Act II, ll. 1574-78). The king of Naples resorts to similar imagery, observing that “Fortresses/ guards, servants, castle walls,/ fortified battlements/ are not enough/ against love, for [Cupid’s]** love/ penetrates even the inner walls” (Act I, ll. 172-76).
the Roman god of erotic love, usually depicted
as a winged, blindfolded youth carrying a bow
and arrows. Mischievously, even maliciously he
disobeys other gods, shoots his arrows
indiscriminately and is indifferent to the pain and
confusion he causes. In the 16th century, Cupid
was also viewed as a diabolical figure, a description
that also fits Don Juan. Like Cupid, too, Don Juan
disobeys his elders (even the king), pursues his
victims indiscriminately and is indifferent to the
distress he causes! His arrows are his seductive words,
his blindness is to the moral, ethical and theological
concerns of the society in which he moves.
Lost honour could be recovered legally or by challenging and (hopefully!) killing the offender. Isabela, Tisbea (Act III, ll. 2098-2205) and Duke Octavio (Act II, ll.1095-1125) seek legal redress by appealing to the king of Spain. Later, however, when Octavio learns the identity of man who dishonoured him (i.e. Don Juan), he requests permission to challenge Don Juan to a duel because he (Don Juan) is a traitor (Act III, ll. 2551-52).
Don Diego, Don Juan’s father, takes offence at this and goes to draw his sword since his honour has been impugned with the claim that his son is a traitor. Only the king’s intervention prevents the drawing of blood and only he can satisfy Octavio’s pride (by arranging an appropriate marriage for him).
2. At the same time that he happily dishonours others, Don Juan clearly considers himself a man of honour, simply because he is of noble birth. “I am a nobleman/ head of the ancient Tenorio family,” (Act III, ll. 2032-33) he boasts to Aminta, when persuading her to surrender to him.
Later, when asked by the statue of the dead Don Gonzalo whether he will keep his word (to accept his –don Gonzalo’s– invitation to dine at his tomb), Don Juan haughtily replies “I have honour/ and I keep my word/ because I am a gentleman (caballero)” (Act III, ll. 2438-10).
By birth, he is noble; however, his conduct is anything but honourable. He lies and schemes and his promises are hollow. He swears he will marry Tisbea: “I swear [by] those beautiful eyes/ that kill me by their looks/ to be your husband” (Act I, ll. 941-43). Aminta gets a similar promise: “I swear by this hand [of yours my] lady/ … /to carry out my word” (Act III, ll. 2070-72). (Both women might be criticised as naïve or gullible, but –it should be remembered— Don Juan is a diabolical figure gifted with extraordinary persuasive powers.)
Family and friends, too, are fair game in his pursuit of personal gratification. He lets down his uncle in Naples and his father in Seville, reneging on promises made to each of them. He abuses his friendship with and is disloyal to the Duke Octavio and the Marqués de la Mota, in each case seducing their respective loves, Isabela and Ana, and leaving both to face imprisonment or death (Octavio Act I, ll. 250+, Mota Act II, ll. 1660+).
He repays Tisbea’s hospitality by seducing her and then abandoning her. He ignores the sanctity of marriage when he intrudes on Batricio and Aminta’s wedding, lies when he tells Batricio that Aminta has written him a letter, threatens Batricio with death and ends up deflowering Aminta after his promise of marriage.
Don Juan’s moral compass is severely twisted, despite the veneer of dashing individualism and admirable bravado that Romanticism has showered upon him. He is a liar, bully (threatens to kill Batricio Act III, ll. 1875-77), cruel, disloyal, disobedient, and dishonourable.
But is the society in which he moves any more honourable? Hardly. In Naples, Don Juan’s uncle and Spanish ambassador, Don Pedro, lies to the king and even implicates the innocent Octavio in the seduction of Isabela (Act I, ll.149-50). Later, he lies to Octavio, alleging that Isabela had accused him (Octavio) of being her seducer (Act I, ll. 309-11).
In Seville, Don Juan’s father, Don Diego, is the most powerful figure in the court after the king, a matter that Don Juan plays to his advantage. When Catalinon questions Don Juan’s determination to seduce Aminta, he makes it clear that his father is the king’s favourite (Act III, ll. 1961-62) and charged with dispelling justice. The inference is clear, and points to corruption within the court.
Don Juan’s friends (and victims!), Octavio and the Marqués de la Mota, are no better. The latter is a Don Juan in miniature and the former is willing to engage in pre-marital sex with his lover Isabela. Indeed, Isabela, who is a duchess, and Dona Ana, daughter of the noble, Don Gonzalo de Ulloa, are both willing accomplices in pursuit of sexual gratification.
Behind the sexual proclivities of these characters, and Don Juan’s seductions, there is a critique of the honour code and a scathing swipe at aristocratic values and court favouritism. The king of Spain even elevates Don Juan to count (of Lebrija (Act III, l. 2497) because of the influence of Don Diego (Don Juan’s father, (Act III, ll. 2502-34). The gullible Aminta hits the nail on the head when she asserts that “Shamelessness has become/ nobility in Spain” (Act III, ll. 1928-29).
[The fact that El Burlador’s action is set chronologically in the 14th century is a distancing technique to avoid implicating contemporary nobility or royalty directly.]
Nevertheless, despite the significant role of honour/dishonour in the play, we should keep in mind that Tirso’s main focus is neither Don Juan’s dishonourable pursuit of women nor aristocratic corruption. Both are, in different degrees, means to a larger message: that we reap what we sow, and that the sorrow we reap is all the greater when wilfully ignoring warnings about our conduct.
The particular emphasis on divine justice regarding Don Juan’s predatory pursuits narrows Tirso’s focus even more: the play is basically a theological work addressing a widespread preoccupation in the Catholic Church at the time: the argument over free will, God’s grace and predestination, and the importance of “doing good” (obrar bien was a favourite phrase in the comedia in general) since death could come at any moment.
Often seen as a distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism, the argument was also fought out in Catholic circles particularly between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the former favouring free will and the latter leaning more towards predestination.
Like his literary contemporary Don Quixote, Don Juan did achieve his wish to become famous, although thanks more to later versions than to Tirso’s original. He has appeared in drama (e.g. Moliere’s Dom Juan, 1665, George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, 1903), poetry (Lord Byron’s epic satire Don Juan 1819-1824), opera (Mozart’s Don Giovanni, 1787).
A 19th century version, Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by José Zorrilla (1817-1893) –in which a repentant Don Juan is saved through the undying love of the dead Inés– became immensely popular. It is still traditionally performed on All Soul’s Eve (Halloween) in Madrid.
Benassar, Bartolome The Spanish Character: Attitudes and Mentalities from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century Los Angeles, London 1979
Defourneaux, Marcelin Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age Stanford, California 1979
Gies, David T. ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge 2009
Salazar Rincón, Javier El mundo social del “Quijote” Madrid 1986
Thacker, Jonathan A Companion to Golden Age Theatre Woodbridge, England 2007
Wilson, Edward and Moir Duncan The Golden Age: Drama 1492-1700 London, New York 1971