La Celestina. The Upstairs World of Calisto and Melibea.

La Celestina was first published in 1499 but the title and preliminary material of the only copy in existence are missing. In 1500 another edition appeared this one with the title Comedia de Calisto y Melibea.  In some acrostic verses preceding this text of this edition, the identity of the author is revealed: Fernando de Rojas.  

Shortly after, the title changed to Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea before finally ending with the name of the charismatic go-between, Celestina.  The first two titles suggest that Rojas saw Calisto and Melibea as the main characters; the reaction of readers, however, determined that Celestina and her world were the protagonists.

First page of Burgos edition, 1499. Melibea and Calisto. Summary of Act I below them.

The narrative begins with Calisto’s passionate reaction when he first sees Melibea in her parents’ garden, which he entered in pursuit of his falcon. Melibea scornfully dismisses his exaggerated praise of her, and orders him to leave. From this moment, Calisto is obsessed with Melibea.

It has been convincingly argued that Calisto is a parody of the courtly lover of the sentimental romances much in vogue in Spain at the time. Calisto suffers the courtly lover’s usual maladies: he burns for his lady, he is tormented, sleepless, incoherent, irritable, impetuous, full of despair, and wants to talk only about her.  Calisto is also religious, but it is the religion of love that he subscribes to.  When asked by Sempronio if he is not a Christian, he replies quickly: “I am a Melibean, I adore Melibea, I believe in Melibea, and I love Melibea” (Act I). “She is my god” (Act I), he says later to Celestina “Melibea is my life; I am her captive, her slave” (Act XI).

Little wonder, then, that his obsession with Melibea and with the waistband she has given him makes him vulnerable to parody and renders him the easy object of others’ scorn.  Even his servants, Sempronio and Pármeno, deride him, openly and behind his back. 

Calisto suffers from a form of madness that blinds him to everything but his self gratification.  The climax of the parody is his death, falling from the ladder that helped him gain access to Melibea’s garden. Not only could this publicise the affair (if it was not common knowledge already via the servants) and therefore bring dishonour to both families, it is also a marked demystification of the courtly lover. 

Nobles simply were not supposed to die in the street in such a pointless, humiliating and comical way. And to cap it all, Calisto`s servants gather up their master’s splattered brains from the ground and place them by his head (Act XIX)! No crown of laurels for Calisto, no lament about his nobility, but the practical job of cleaning up the mess, and carrying away his body before his honour is compromised (Act XIX)!

Calisto`s problem is that he applies the language of courtly love to “real” life, just as Don Quixote –over 100 years later– uses the language of knight-errantry in the world of 17th-century Spain. Both Calisto and Don Quixote are in love, but where Don Quixote tries to be a knight-errant in a world already introduced to firearms, Calisto is a courtly lover in a world of prostitutes, procuresses, thieves and cutthroats. Like Don Quixote, Calisto too dies, but his death is a comical let down, with none of the dignity of Don Quixote.

The closest to a tragic figure appears to be Melibea, a strong-willed young woman who rejects Calisto’s advances vigorously and forthrightly in the first act. Soon, however, she is caught up in the net cast by the verbal magic of Celestina.

When she hands over her waistband to Celestina to give to Calisto to cure his toothache –a traditional image for highly charged sexuality– she involuntarily surrenders her will, and is then trapped in a chain of events over which she has no control. And when she falls in love with Calisto, it is with a passion that cannot survive when she hears of his death. Her suicide seems to be the tragic outcome of one who at first did not love and then loved too much.

However, this view of Melibea is a little too romantic, for the same brush that demystified her courtly lover touches her also. Appropriately she rejects Calisto’s advances firmly at first, but they have left an impression so that when Celestina first visits her she is vulnerable to the persuasive arguments of the procuress.

And when she capitulates to her desires she does so with a fervour that confirms Celestina’s caustic observation that all women “once saddled never tire of being ridden” (Act III). Now eager for Calisto’s embraces, Melibea’s frustrations find an outlet in sentiments that are strikingly modern: “oh fragile femininity! Why wasn’t it given to women too to uncover their troubling and burning love, just like men?” (Act X)

Like Calisto, Melibea is sexually driven, and the decorum expected of the courtly lady is severely strained whenever she and Calisto are together. At their first tryst (Act XII), Melibea reminds Calisto of her honour and reputation on the one hand, while at the same time inflaming him by saying that she would prefer to see him act than to hear him simply talk.  And when he does act, on their next “date” (Act XIV) she reproaches him for having straying hands, while at the same time telling her maid to go away. 

At their last meeting (Act XIX), she chides him for tearing at her clothes and yet confesses later that she was the one who got most pleasure. Melibea may be inexperienced in the hands of Celestina, but she is something of a seductress whose protestations arouse not only Calisto’s fervour but also hers.

Like Calisto, Melibea leaves herself open to the sarcastic observations of others, and even to a more than casual interest in her by Calisto’s unscrupulous servant, Sempronio (Acts V, VIII, IX).

Her comments when she overhears her parents discuss marriage reveal a self interest and desire for sexual gratification that equal those of Calisto (Act XVI).  She is categorical about rejecting marriage, and cares neither for her parents nor relatives (“I wish for no husband, nor father nor relatives” Act XVI).

When she throws herself from the tower, we are spared any scattered brains, but Pleberio’s lament starts inauspiciously when he tells his wife in very commonplace, if not comical, terms that “our source of joy [is] down the hole” (literally “down the well”) (“nuestro gozo en el pozo” Act XXI), and her body is “all in pieces” (“hecha pedazos”).

Just as nobles were not supposed to die ignominiously falling off a ladder like Calisto, so too young ladies did not end up in pieces at the foot of a tower.

Even though Pleberio’s lament picks up after this, and acquires a somewhat more elevated if confused tone, this has less to do with Melibea than with her father’s impotence and despair in the face of an indifferent world.

The world of courtly love, like that of knight-errantry, is the fictional construct of the medieval aristocratic imagination, and exists only in the world of “poetry.”  Rojas did not kill the world of courtly love any more than Cervantes is said to have killed books of chivalry in the 17th century.

Dealing with universals, both courtly love and knight-errantry have metamorphosed into the worlds of Harlequin romances, James Bond and even Hollywood space odysseys such as Star Wars etc.

What Rojas did –as soon as Celestina entered Calisto’s house– was to introduce the sentimental romance and world of courtly love to the everyday world, the world of “prose.”  By combining both of these worlds, he produced a totally new kind of work that was a major step towards the novel. 

A point to keep in mind is that it is generally agreed that  Act I — in which Calisto is introduced to Celestina — was written by an unknown author.  This does not detract from Rojas’s creative talent, but the unknown author’s contribution in bringing together the worlds of “poetry” and “prose” deserves recognition.

Nothing like it had appeared before, but if popular acceptance is anything to go by, Rojas was clearly on the right track. La Celestina was one of the most celebrated books of the 16th century, with over 60 editions published, in addition to sequels, multiple translations into Italian, French, Portuguese, English, German, Latin, Hebrew, and countless imitations!

Of course, its very popularity also brought the scrutiny of preachers and moralists who condemned it for its immorality.  Nevertheless, the one body that might effectively have silenced the book in Spain, the Inquisition, was evidently untroubled by its content, at least until 1640 when it censured Calisto’s irreverent adoration of Melibea as “god” etc as blasphemous. The book was finally prohibited by the Inquisition in 1793.

Castro, Americo   La Celestina” como contienda literaria (castas y casticismo) Madrid1965

Gilman, Stephen  The Spain of Fernando de Rojas: the Intellectual and Social Landscape of “La Celestina” Princeton 1972
Lacarra, María Eugenia   Como leer “La Celestina” Madrid1990
Maravall, José A   El mundo social de “La Celestina” Madrid 1973
Severin, Dorothy ed.  La Celestina  Madrid 1997
Image of Calisto and Melibea: By Fadrique Alemán de Basilea Public Domain,