Don Juan. The Trickster of Seville.
The myth of Don Juan has permeated Western culture to such a degree that the expression “He’s a Don Juan” identifies a man as a “great lover” and pursuer of women. Thanks to the 19th-century romantic idea of Don Juan, he is something of a dashing individual, with a touch of admirable bravado.
But let’s face it, Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan, as portrayed in El burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville), is anything but admirable. Like the Comendador in Fuenteovejuna, he is what we would call nowadays a sexual predator. He is a cruel, unfeeling libertine who abuses women whenever and wherever possible.
He breaks the moral codes of friendship and hospitality, kills an older man, and destroys the honour of men and women in the pursuit of fame, power and personal gratification.
A creator of discord wherever he goes, he is an unstoppable force ignoring all warnings about his conduct and the need to repent until he comes face to face with the reality of death. By then it is too late.
Don Juan: Creator of discord.
Don Juan is an extraordinary figure. He fascinates women and cannot be controlled by men. He disobeys his father, his uncle, and even the most powerful individual in society, the king.
Whenever the king undertakes to resolve the social discord caused by Don Juan through various marriage arrangements (see Summary), he is unsuccessful until Don Juan is dead. Only then can the king declare that “all can now marry/ since the cause of so many/ disasters is now dead” (ll. 2856-59). Clearly, if Don Juan does not obey the king, then no other human agency can control him.
Don Juan’s social status is that of a noble, but his deeds are ignoble and disruptive. Who or what, then, is this disruptive Don Juan?
From the beginning he is a character who seeks darkness and anonymity. It is nighttime when the play opens, and Isabela is about to strike a light. Don Juan, however, doesn’t allow her, telling her “I’ll kill the light” (l.13).
For Don Juan, the night is the time for action, despite the observation by the servants of the Marqués de la Mota that “God created/ night for sleep” (ll. 1614-15). Not so for Don Juan. When Aminta, another of his victims, cries out in the dark “[Who is in] my room at this hour?” Don Juan’s reply is chilling: “These are my hours” (l. 2005).
If we accept the biblical observation that “… every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light …” (John, 3: 20), then we can deduce that what Don Juan –this creature of the night—does is evil.
Let’s go back to the first scene. Isabela is fearful after Don Juan refuses to let her strike a light. “Who are you?” she asks, to which he replies “Who am I? A man without a name” (ll. 14-150). Not only does he avoid the light, he hides in anonymity.
In the same way that darkness provides security and power for Don Juan over his victims, so too does anonymity. Anonymity and darkness go together. It’s not the only time that Don Juan tries to hide his identity. Before seducing Tisbea, he asks his servant, Catalinón, not to give her his name (ll. 681-82). He doesn’t know that Catalinón has already done so and added Don Juan’s status and destination, Seville (ll. 570-78). This is fortunate for Tisbea because she knows all she needs to know in her pursuit of justice. Knowing his name has conferred power on her.
How do those who know Don Juan feel about him? They describe him in terms that coincide with his fondness for the dark and for anonymity.
From the beginning of the play, there are images that suggest that Don Juan is evil. For example, his uncle, Don Pedro, portrays the fleeing Don Juan as a “coiled snake” (l.140), an image which is repeated by the cuckolded Batricio (l. 1841), and as a variant –viper— by the seduced and abandoned Tisbea (l. 2187).
The serpent, of course, was early identified in the Bible (Genesis 2:4-3:4) with seductive power, its alluring words being responsible for humanity’s fall from grace. In the play, Don Juan’s sweet words bring loss of honour that leads to the fall of these ladies and their families from the state of social respectability and the good opinion of others.
Don Pedro further describes Don Juan as “undoubtedly a giant or monster/ … /I believe the devil/ took human form in him/ for he threw himself off the balcony/ cloaked in cloud and dust” (ll. 296, 300-02).
The key to Don Juan’s power is that he is a diabolical figure, and as such is stronger than any human. The devil image reappears later, when Batricio surmises that it was the devil who guided Don Juan to the wedding: “I imagine/ the devil sent him” (ll. 1722-23). And Catalinón, Don Juan’s servant, contemplating Batricio’s misfortune, feels for him: “You poor fellow/ who has landed in Lucifer’s clutches!” (ll. 1775-76).
The fact that Don Juan is portrayed as devilish helps explain why he is so difficult to control, even for the king. Throughout the play, figures of authority and power –his uncle, Don Pedro, and his father, Don Diego– admit their inadequacy where Don Juan is concerned. The king’s attempts at arranging the marriages of his subjects are constantly thwarted by the actions of Don Juan. He constantly undermines any attempt to create order.
So, an even more powerful figure, God, is required to defeat Don Juan. That God will play a role is suggested early, when Don Pedro washes his hands of Don Juan with the words Castíguete el cielo (“May heaven punish you”).
These words are echoed later by an angry Don Diego: “May God give you the punishment/ your crime deserves” (1441-42). Shortly after, Don Diego repeats his warning: “Since what I say and do/ is not punishment for you/ I leave your punishment with God” (ll. 1468-1470).
God’s punishment is finally channelled through the statue of Don Gonzalo, which twice affirms that “This is God’s justice/ you reap what you sow” (ll. 2756-57; 1773-74). The emphasis on divine justice and retribution at the end of the play (the sentiment is again repeated in ll. 2849 and 2856) is a powerful reminder to the audience of God’s omnipotence and of the folly of wilfully ignoring orderly conduct.
It is fitting that, as a guest who has persistently betrayed his hosts’ hospitality, Don Juan die a guest (i.e. of Don Gonzalo) in the house of God whom he cannot deceive or flee from.
Bentley, Eric Life is a Dream and other Spanish Classics (includes Fuenteovejuna/ The Sheepwell and El burlador de Sevilla/The Trickster of Seville) New York 1985.
Edwards, Gwynne The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest Warminster 1985
Spanish Text used.
Martel, Alpern, Mades Diez comedias del Siglo de Oro 2nd. ed. New York, London 1968. Translations into English are mine.