Marta Albalá Pelegrín and Rafael Jaime
Written by one of the Spanish Golden Age’s most accomplished female playwrights, Ana Caro’s The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs is a comedy of wild intrigue and lively ingenuity in which Leonor crosses geographical boundaries and defies social expectations of gender in order to bring her fickle lover, Juan, to justice and restore her lost honor. Dressed as the dashing Leonardo, she travels from Seville to Brussels, where she finds Juan and initiates her shrewd plan for revenge. What follows is a hilarious feat of masterful maneuvering, replete with cross-dressing and unexpected twists, in which she repeatedly outwits the men around her. And while the thrill of Leonor’s efforts to seek redress culminates with the expected restoration of her honor and marriage to Juan, the questions raised by her demands for justice make the play anything but conventional. Through this stirring tale of a woman’s courage to right the wrongs she has suffered, the play holds up to scrutiny contemporary notions of masculine honor and offers in their place a vision that opens up space for women and their agency.
The play opens with Estela, a countess, and her cousin Lisarda descending a mountain during a storm. Having wandered off from their hunting party, they find themselves alone when they are set upon by a group of bandits. Fortuitously, Don Juan and his servant Tomillo, who are traveling from Seville, happen upon them and manage to fend off the bandits. Once Estela and Lisarda are reunited with Don Fernando de Ribera and Prince Ludovico, both of whom long for Estela’s love, Juan is invited to join the group at the court in Brussels. Before departing with them, he lingers behind to tell Fernando how he came to be in Flanders. He reveals that he had fallen in love with a lady in Seville and courted her successfully with pledges of marriage, only to grow tired of her and leave her.
As Fernando and Juan depart, Leonor—the very woman Juan had abandoned, and Fernando’s sister—enters the stage, dressed as a man and accompanied by her servant and confidant, Ribete. (He and Tomillo both serve as the play’s graciosos, comedic servants who offer witty insights and criticism.) Leonor describes how she decided to follow Juan to Flanders to restore her lost honor—an adventure she could only accomplish in male guise. She encounters Fernando, who fails to recognize his sister, and convinces him that she is actually his cousin, Leonardo. Fernando invites her, too, to stay in Brussels, enabling her plan for revenge, which will require outwitting everyone.
Act II opens in Brussels, with Estela confiding in Lisarda about her love life. While both Juan and Ludovico court her, she cares for neither; instead, she has fallen in love with the newcomer, Leonardo. Leonor, as “Leonardo,” has set out to seduce Estela to thwart Juan’s new attempted conquest and to force him to publicly confess his wrongdoing. Once he confesses, Leonor, still in disguise, plans to force him into a duel and restore her honor through the death of her one-time lover.
Estela plans to meet Leonardo that night on the palace grounds. Leonor-as-Leonardo informs Ludovico of the meeting and offers to give up Estela, if only he will impersonate Leonardo that night and convince Estela that she should love Ludovico instead. Leonor, using Ribete as an intermediary, then convinces Juan that Estela wants to meet him that night at her balcony. As Juan attempts to go to Estela, however, Leonor sets upon him, using the cover of darkness to hide the identity of her male persona. She accuses him of dishonorable conduct and challenges him to a duel, at least in part to waylay him long enough to prevent him from interrupting Ludovico’s meeting with Estela. Leonor leaves a confused Juan to disguise herself as Estela and meet him at Estela’s balcony. There she rejects him, and proceeds to criticize his behavior in Seville in such detail that he is left astonished and feels forced to review his old feelings for Leonor. At the same time, he is convinced that someone has betrayed his confidence by revealing so much to Estela. Meanwhile, Ludovico-as-Leonardo is unable to convince Estela of Ludovico’s appeal.
Act III begins with Juan accusing Fernando of telling Estela what had happened in Seville. Fernando rightly denies the accusation, but Juan proceeds to ask Estela herself about the identity of the informant. As no one had, in fact, told her anything, Juan’s interrogation effectively serves as a confession of the entire affair. Upon hearing this, Estela rejects him for his treatment of Leonor back in Seville. Juan then approaches Leonor-as-Leonardo and asks her to give up her pursuit of Estela. Leonor, still as Leonardo, replies that she is actually in love with Leonor and has come to Brussels to defend not just Leonor’s honor but also the dignity of love and women in general. This prompts Juan to sudden and unexpected jealousy, and a declaration that it was he who betrayed Leonor. Fernando enters and interrupts their argument, lamenting his feelings for Estela. Meanwhile, Flora—Estela’s servant and the play’s trickster— drugs Tomillo with a chocolate drink, rifles through his belongings, and steals his money. Juan, still madly jealous, returns to challenge Leonardo to a duel. Fernando discovers them with their swords drawn and prompts Juan to confess that he had dishonored a lady in Seville and that the lady was Fernando’s sister. Leonor-as-Leonardo pushes the argument to the point that Juan declares his renewed love for Leonor. She leaves and returns dressed as a lady, explaining her actions throughout the play. Repentant and humbled by Leonor’s masterful execution of her plan, Juan promises to truly marry her this time. The abandoned Estela forgives Leonor and, calling her “sister,” proposes to Fernando. Ludovico proposes to Lisarda. Estela matches Flora with Ribete. Tomillo remains alone and penniless.
“This attire will enable me to recover my lost honor” (vv. 426-27), exclaims Leonor. Women dressed as men were very popular devices in Golden Age comedias. The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs explores what it means for a woman to join the ranks of men, while poking fun at that theatrical construction through the play’s gracioso (Ribete), who often speaks truth to power. “You look like the god of love himself. What a dashing figure, what a well-turned leg, what a shapely foot!” (vv. 428-31), exclaims Ribete as he contemplates Leonor, in breeches and stockings, ready to avenge Don Juan’s affront. As Ribete notes, typical male attire was considered scandalous on a woman because it exposed the shape of her body, especially her legs.
The exchange between Ribete and the cross-dressed Leonor must have riveted audiences at the corral. The mosqueteros standing at the pit might have enjoyed Ribete’s explicit mention of the actress’s tight clothes, while the women in the cazuela (stewpot) might have enjoyed envisioning for themselves a similar transformation, with all the possibilities that it could entail, including a challenge to male privilege in their society. The mere idea of such a transformation onstage seems to have inspired historical women. Trial records and contemporary news items tell of many women who, imitating the stories they watched at the corral, seem to have dressed as men to further engage in public life.
Although Leonor has changed her clothes, she insists that she is not just wearing a costume: “I am who I am! You are mistaken, Ribete, if you think I am a woman. The wrong done to me changed me” (vv. 471-74). Leonor claims she is not merely dressing up so she can speak in the voice of a man. Instead, she insists she has undergone a more profound internal transformation. While we might find this a strange claim, some members of the audience would have found it entirely plausible. The early modern period viewed sexual change as possible and derived from multiple causes. Ribete alludes to Ovid’s tale of the maiden Iphis, who is granted her wish to be transformed into a man thanks to the intervention of the goddess Isis (vv. 476-78). Some believed that changes in bodily temperature, great effort or pain, and other accidents might turn a woman into a man. Among the most famous examples claiming such a transformation, well illustrated in books of medicine and news broadsheets, was Elena/o de Céspedes, who in 1587 declared before a court that s/he had become a man while giving birth to a son.
Mujeres varoniles were often described as sexually ambiguous. Leonor’s physicality as a beardless man is built on this ambiguity. Estela immediately finds Leonor/Leonardo more attractive than any other man, while the audience arguably finds her more attractive as a woman, both sexually and in her increased agency. Leonor is also presented as both logical and ethical, showing concern for her family members and adversaries alike. From the beginning, she has arranged to hide her situation from her family, scheming with her sister in a conscientious dissimulation that reveals strong female bonds and family ties. As Leonardo, she exposes a woman’s experience of the male conception of honor. She also shows up the version of manhood embodied by Prince Ludovico and Don Juan, whose values are reduced to inconsistency, egotism, and cowardice. As Robert Bayliss has noted, Leonor’s solidarity with Estela, her rival for the love of Don Juan, whom she needs to “defeat” in order to save her own honor, makes her not only “the best man of the play” but also a “better (hu)man” when compared with the men she has managed to outwit.
OVERCOMING THE DON JUAN MYTH
Leonor’s unfaithful and inconstant lover, Don Juan de Córdoba, is Ana Caro’s re-elaboration of the Don Juan myth popularized first in folktales and then on the stage beginning with the famous Trickster of Seville (El burlador de Sevilla), a play usually attributed to Tirso de Molina. The prototypical Don Juan is a young nobleman who enjoys conquering women through ruses of all sorts. He does not hesitate to impersonate someone else, kill, or give false promises of marriage in order to enjoy the women he desires. Don Juan always grows tired of his conquests and abandons them, neither experiencing remorse nor fearing any consequences. Caro writes back to the myth by assigning doubt and fear to her Don Juan and making him virtually a parody. A playful reference announces Don Juan de Córdoba’s first appearance in Valor, as Tibaldo, one of the thieves who tries to assault Estela and Lisarda, perceives him as a devilish creature to be avoided at all costs: “Run, Astolfo. This one’s a demon, not a man!” (vv. 171-72). Tibaldo’s comment echoes the dark overtones of The Trickster of Seville, in which the protagonist is ultimately killed by the ghost of one of his victims, and conjures Don Juan’s lack of pity. As in the myth, Don Juan de Córdoba comes from a noble family: the Córdobas, descendants of the Gran Capitán, a military hero who helped establish Spain’s power across Europe and especially in Italy. Like his predecessor, this Don Juan, too, is a flatterer, and an unfaithful narcissist. As he explains to Fernando, Leonor’s brother, his presence in Brussels is not entirely by choice: he is running from town to town (from Madrid, to Córdoba, to Seville, to Lisbon, to Flanders) to escape the obligations incurred in his unrelenting search for new amorous encounters. We learn that he was expelled from Madrid because of certain love affairs that got him in trouble. In Seville he abandoned Leonor, whom he had promised to marry (v. 363). After sleeping with her, Don Juan tired of their relationship and regretted his involvement, driven by what he calls his blindness (v. 366). Here, and unlike the character in the myth, Don Juan shows some sense of guilt. He deems his escape “indecorous” (v. 377) and claims to have left Seville out of shame due to his “inconstant stars,” which made him reject Leonor (vv. 373-76). Caro’s Don Juan is able to recognize his own faults. But he is ineffective when the play’s female characters get in his way. Leonor easily undoes Don Juan’s high-flying rhetoric: after he claims that a star (Leonor) has been outshone by a sun (his new love interest, Estela, vv. 1700-08), Leonor reminds him that there was no sun on the horizon when the star was abandoned. With her own responses to Don Juan’s metaphors, Leonor outwits her lover. Perhaps most remarkably, in Caro’s version Leonor manages to make Don Juan humble himself, confess that he still loves her, and acknowledge his fault. Only then does she accept him as a husband and abandon her initial plan to kill him. In order to be reintegrated into society and love, Caro’s Don Juan must repent and take responsibility for his actions.
The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs offers a rich tapestry of female characters bound by ties of solidarity, a counterpoint to the bonds that other contemporary plays depict among men. Leonor consistently engages in relationships with other women. Before transforming herself into Leonardo, she concocts a ruse with her sister to hide her absence from her family (vv. 447-55). At the court, Leonor is well aware that she might be harming another woman as she maneuvers to deceive Estela and prevent her marrying Don Juan. Yet Leonor remains determined: she pursues an outcome that is fair not only to her but also to others.
In addition to Leonor herself, other female role models populate the play, whether examples of bravery and courage such as the Amazons, the warrior Camilla, and the goddess Isis, or writers such as the ancient Argentaria, Sappho, Areta, and Blaesilla, to which Caro adds the “thousand modern women who make Italy shine with splendor” (vv. 1145-47). This praise recognizes the struggle of women writers to obtain recognition. When Ribete briefs Tomillo on the novelties of Madrid, he voices criticism that might have circulated at the time, as he notes that in Madrid poets have become so numerous that “even women want to write poetry and dare to write plays” (vv. 1137-38). Tomillo replies: “Wouldn’t they be better off sewing and spinning? Women poets!” (vv. 1139-41). By having a less thoughtful character dismiss female writers, the author denounces the idea as equally uncouth.
Finally, Leonor refrains from portraying herself as a model of female beauty. The topic seems entirely unimportant to her. When Leonardo claims that he is related to Leonor, Don Fernando immediately inquires about Leonor, whether she is well and “very beautiful” (v. 611). Leonor-as-Leonardo avoids answering and tellingly redirects the conversation by replying: “She’s kind and virtuous” (v. 612), prompting a validation by Don Fernando: “That’s all that matters” (v. 613).
Noble courtship practices in early modern Spain were an intricate negotiation between propriety and desire. A woman’s presence in public space was heavily constrained. One of the few places where women and men could see and be seen was the church, during mass. Multiple plays make reference to young people noticing each other and locking eyes at mass. As such these spaces become grounds for wooing. Suitors also made contact with their ladies by coming to their windows late at night; the men would stand below to court the women with words and even music. The Spanish even has a special word—terrero—for this space under the window. When multiple suitors showed up to woo the same lady in the same place, as threatens to happen in Courage, the terrero becomes the stage for displays of male violence.
When out in public, noblewomen would be escorted and were expected to cover their faces with a veil and avoid eye contact with men. Of course, women could also use this convention to disguise themselves by covering their faces. In some cases this was even used as an instrument of seduction, as in the infamous tapado (literally the “cover up”—the artful placement of a mantle, veil, or other cloth over a woman’s face so no one could recognize her). We can see this play out in Courage when Don Juan sees Leonor (pretending to be Estela) at a window and fails to recognize her—not only is it dark, but she may be covering her face.
THEATER WITHIN THE THEATER
Courage shows off Caro’s deep familiarity with the comedia tradition. Her opening scene channels Calderón’s excessive baroque landscapes; Leonor’s long made-up story of seduction and revenge, which she tells as Leonardo, recalls the outsize tales told in the plays of Alarcón (vv. 633-96); and of course her very plot is a rewrite of Tirso’s The Trickster of Seville, and closely echoes his Don Gil of the Green Breeches.
The gracioso is a key figure in Golden Age comedias, and is often the one who has free rein to reconsider what is going on in the play. The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs introduces not one but two graciosos: Don Juan’s servant, Tomillo, and Leonor’s servant, Ribete. This enables a double comparison, between the graciosos and their masters, and between the two graciosos. Ribete shares in both Leonor’s heroism and her transgressions. In contrast with Tomillo, who presents on a lesser scale the faults of Don Juan, Ribete is remarkably astute. In fact, he makes two key metatheatrical points that show his insight and understanding of the social mores of the play. First, he declares to an approving, cross-dressed Leonor that he cannot see why the servant of a gentleman should be a gracioso, that is, foolish and fearful, rather than a double of his master’s nobility, and notes the impropriety of comedias that require both the gracioso’s buffoonery and his intelligent intervention for a happy ending (vv. 493-537). Second, in response to Tomillo’s joking misogyny about women writers, Ribete offers a list of examples that suggest there is nothing unusual about women writing.
Indeed, women contributed to the creation of a national commercial theater in Spain even beyond acting and writing plays. Within a theatrical troupe they could rise to become directors and producers (or autoras, as they were known). At the same time, women married to printers often worked alongside their husbands and led the businesses when they were widowed. Widow-printers were remarkably prominent: in fact, one Francisca de Medina was responsible for publishing many volumes of the plays of Lope de Vega, Spain’s most famous playwright at the time.
Caro’s decision to make the court in Brussels the backdrop to her forceful vision of female agency may not at first strike one as an obvious choice. After all, the Flemish city was just one point in a vast political system whose center lay in Madrid. However, when it came to female, personal rule, the court in Brussels was exceptional.
In the period, Spain was not a single political entity but rather an association of peoples on the Iberian peninsula and beyond. With the rise of the Spanish Habsburgs, the dominion of the monarchy expanded well beyond the many “Spains” to a global empire. In the early seventeenth century, they ruled over an expansive territory that included the Iberian peninsula, what is today known as Italy, most of the Americas, the Philippines, and the Netherlands. These dominions, however, did not exist as one unified state and the power of the crown over them varied significantly from one place to another.
When the House of Habsburg split into an Austrian and a Spanish branch in 1556, the Low Countries (what we call the Netherlands) came under the dominion of the Spanish monarch Charles V. However, the Spanish monarchy’s relationship to the Low Countries was radically changed by the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648). In response to the formidable opposition to Spanish rule in the north of these territories, Phillip II transformed the Spanish Netherlands in the south into a semi-autonomous state headed by his eldest daughter, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, and her husband, Archduke Albert of Austria. The two ruled jointly over the Netherlands from 1599 until the Archduke’s death in 1621, when the Infanta became sole ruler as governor-general. Thus, from 1621 until Isabel’s own death in 1633, sovereignty in the court of Brussels belonged to a woman.
Female, personal rule in the Netherlands was not entirely unprecedented. There was, in fact, a long tradition that stretched from Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary—aunt and sister of Charles V, respectively—to Margaret of Parma, Charles V’s illegitimate daughter (van Wyhe 10). Yet Isabel’s power as governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands was without precedent. Unlike her female predecessors, who occupied a more symbolic role, the Infanta Isabel actually governed. As ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, she also had significant control over its military as captain-general (van Wyhe 11).
Isabel’s rule was remarkable for her deft execution of power. She presided over a tumultuous period when the vast dominion of Habsburg Spain threatened to disintegrate and had to manage the conflicting pressures for continuity and transformation. She tactfully forged “consent through reasonable argument,” and her political skill allowed her to solidify “feelings of affection and submission” crucial to the preservation of her polity (Estíngana 418). For a court in Madrid that feared losing its grip on power in the far reaches of its empire, Isabel represented a vital link to the Netherlands and helped ensure the continuity of rule.
Esteem for the Infanta Isabel in Madrid extended far beyond the royal palace. She was also celebrated in the city’s corrales de comedias, with allusions to her life and reign in the works of playwrights such as Lope de Vega. Though there is no explicit mention of Isabel in Courage, there is a strong sense that the play is paying homage to a woman who, like Leonor, journeyed to Brussels and prevailed in an undertaking often reserved to men. In her martial prowess and masterful maneuvering, it is almost as though Leonor becomes the embodiment of the dual roles the Infanta played as sovereign: the captain-general and governor-general of Flanders. References to a certain “Highness” (su Alteza) whose identity is never made clear appear throughout the play. However, it does at one point mention the “Infanta” (v. 545). The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs is, after all, a play that consistently questions traditional gender roles and affirms the authority and agency of women through references to female characters in myth or to female authors. Brussels, therefore, is more than just a backdrop for Leonor’s adventure. Instead, it represents a privileged space for female agency.
Unlike for other dramatic works by Ana Caro, we have no evidence of seventeenth-century performances of The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs. Two manuscripts are preserved in the National Library of Madrid, one from the seventeenth and one from the eighteenth century. The play was also printed around the late seventeenth century and again in the early eighteenth century in Seville, where it seems to have had a greater reception and was most likely performed.
In the last twenty years, the comedy has been performed by professional theater companies in the United States. In 2006, Gala Hispanic Theatre staged Valor, agravio y mujer in Washington D.C. The play was directed and adapted by Hugo Medrano, who transposed the action to the nineteenth century. In 2017-2019, the New York City company Repertorio Español staged the play in a production directed by Leyma López.
In Spain, the 42nd edition of the Festival of Almagro included a production directed by Verónica Clausich, on 9-10 July 2019. In 2018 an adaptation by Ana Castrojuan, entitled Loco desatino, was staged in Pamplona’s Teatro Gayarre. The adaptation imagined Ana Caro writing the third act of The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs over the course of a sleepless night.
ABOUT THIS TRANSLATION
This translation is based on two critical editions, by Lola Luna (1993) and María José Delgado (1998). There are two extant manuscripts of the play, each with different textual gaps. In order to fill these, we compared the editions of the two manuscripts. Ana Caro’s title also has interesting gaps, in this case deliberate. The modular title simply juxtaposes “courage, wrong, woman.” Any translation must fill in the relationships between these terms. Our title emphasizes Leonor’s agency, ideally capturing the spirit of the play.
This translation includes emotional interjections and exclamations in Spanish as optional lines where the meaning can be inferred from the context of the dialogue or an actor’s performance. These moments are marked with a forward slash between the English translation and its Spanish equivalent in italics, and include Spanish punctuation where appropriate.
Vélez Quiñones, Harry. “Lición de llevar chapines: Drag, Footwear, and Gender Performance in Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 14.2 (2013): 186-200.