Set in Valencia at the end of the sixteenth century, The Widow of Valencia tells the spicy story of the young widow Leonarda, and her posse of hopeless suitors. Written between 1595 and 1599 by Lope de Vega, perhaps the most renowned playwright of Spain’s Golden Age, the play was not published until 1620. The publication date, as well as the text’s dedicatory to Marcia Leonarda, makes the play all the more intriguing.
Lope’s lover, Marta de Nevares, is, according to critics, the woman from the dedicatory, and she also shares a name with the play’s protagonist, Leonarda. Marta had, in fact, become a widow in 1618, and one cannot help but think of an analogy between Lope and Camilo, the one man with whom Leonarda falls in love. Though there has been great interest in the play in Spain, without a translation it has remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Now UCLA’s Working Group on the Comedia in Translation and Performance has translated and annotated Lope’s play, and will soon be posting it for open access on the group’s website: http://diversifyingtheclassics.humanities.ucla.edu.
The play’s juiciness lies in its intricate plot and permeating sense of mystery. Lope here inverts the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which the god of love takes on the role of a mystery lover: in The Widow of Valencia, Leonarda becomes an invisible lover to Camilo. Widows were expected to maintain a pious, devout, and reserved life, yet Leonarda, with her servants Julia and Urbán, devises a plan to enjoy her lover’s company without compromising her family name and social status. Camilo is to be hooded by Urbán and brought into Leonarda’s house through the back door, so that the two can consume their passion in the dark, away from curious eyes. To add to the general sense of confusion, Lope sets the play in Valencia—one of the most vibrant and festive Spanish cities of the time—during Carnival, when amorality, chaos, and false identities were normalized and accepted.
Leonarda must face the dangers to which attractive young widows were exposed in sixteenth-century Spain—dozens of suitors roam her house at all hours, hoping for a glance, a smile, or a kind gesture. They even disguise themselves as door-to-door vendors for the chance to speak with her face to face. Leonarda deglamorizes her apparently favorable romantic situation to uncover the difficult reality of being a rich widow. In a passionate speech to her uncle Lucenio, who insists that she marry, Leonarda points out the pompousness and dishonesty of most suitors, who wish to marry her only to snatch her fortune. By keeping her identity a secret in her dealings with Camilo, Leonarda manages to maintain social decorum without renouncing her appetite for sexual pleasure.
Clever, compelling, and entertaining, The Widow of Valencia takes on universal themes of love, pride, and social standing, yet it remains unique in its daring portrait of intrigue and female sexuality. With the forthcoming translation, Lope de Vega’s one-of-a-kind play can finally be enjoyed by actors, directors, and theatergoers in the English-speaking world.
Jennifer L. Monti