Laura Muñoz and Payton Phillips Quintanilla
Guillén de Castro’s The Force of Habit (La fuerza de la costumbre, c. 1610) is singular among comedias in that it takes the popular device of cross-dressed characters a step further, daring to ask whether gender is something that can be learned and unlearned, or if it is a fact of nature. The protagonists, a brother and sister separated at birth and raised apart, become the center of a discussion about nature versus nurture: Félix, brought up by his mother to speak softly, fear thunder and stitch with the women of the house, and Hipólita, raised with her father in a war zone to wield a sword like a soldier, horrify their parents and amuse onlookers with their complete reversal of feminine and masculine attributes. When the family is reunited, the father insists on making the siblings conform to traditional gender roles. While Félix teaches his sister how to wear high heels and Hipólita shows him how to use a weapon, the question of gender roles is complicated by the tangles of love. Castro thus uses the siblings to explore essential questions about the nature of identity and the limitations of a system in which the correct performance of gender is key to being accepted by family and friends alike.
The Force of Habit is a fast-paced play, structured around the siblings Hipólita and Félix as each undertakes a complete change of character based on traditional gender lines.
Act I opens with Félix’s father, Pedro, finally returning home after a long separation from his family. Félix’s mother, Costanza, explains how she and Don Pedro met, married, and had a daughter in secret—Félix’s sister, Hipólita. When Costanza’s brother and father discovered them, Pedro narrowly escaped with his life and the baby girl, leaving Costanza alone and pregnant with Félix. Following the recent death of Costanza’s father, Pedro can finally return home to them after serving as a soldier in Flanders for the past twenty years.
Pedro arrives with Hipólita, who is dressed in men’s clothing, and finds Félix dressed in less-than-masculine attire. The parents are chagrined to realize that they have each raised their children in the habits and customs of the opposite gender, and decide that they must immediately rectify both son and daughter by forcing them to perform socially acceptable gender roles. Félix is hesitant and unsure of himself when told he must change his ways, while Hipólita adamantly refuses, fighting the process every step of the way. After initial and unsuccessful lessons in appropriate dress and deportment, the family is interrupted by the sound of a sword fight. Félix hides with his mother, as Hipólita takes back the sword she had just been forced to give up and fights the offender, a handsome young man named Luis.
When things settle down, Luis and his sister, Leonor, explain that they ran into Pedro’s men on the street, where a misunderstanding caused them to fight. The first act closes with the parents hoping that love will be the motivation to change their children. The pairings are already set in motion: Félix with Leonor, and Hipólita with Luis.
Act II introduces Otavio and Marcelo, gentlemen of good standing who will present a challenge to both Luis and Félix in their pursuits of love. These two, along with Luis, see the Moncada family leaving church and note how the siblings still seem very uncomfortable in their new roles. Still, Marcelo falls in love with Hipólita, and Otavio with Leonor.
Back at the family home, Hipólita continues to resist her training in ladylike behavior, and Félix begins his sword-fighting lessons with equally disastrous results. When Hipólita cannot resist demonstrating how to use a sword correctly, she is chastised and told to leave men’s things to men. Félix, meanwhile, is humiliated by his father for not fulfilling the expectations of a male heir. Pedro and Galván, his servant, concoct a plan to cure Félix of his constant fear. Later, while Félix anxiously stands guard in the street, his father comes out in disguise and attacks him; Félix, scared at first, finally begins to fight back as his father runs away. Leonor, awakened by all the noise, calls out to Félix and the two exchange sweet words. Félix excitedly tells his father about the fight and how Leonor saw him in his moment of bravery.
The next day, Marcelo and Otavio come to the house to court Hipólita and Leonor, and are met by Luis and Félix. Leonor comments on Hipólita’s growing interest in Luis, which Hipólita vehemently denies. The four suitors begin to fight over favors that Hipólita and Leonor drop from the balcony. Marcelo runs off with Hipólita’s cuff and is followed by Luis, while Otavio wins Leonor’s glove. Leonor expresses her disappointment in Félix’s failure to retrieve the token and breaks off their courtship, calling Félix a coward. Pedro, apprised of the situation, swears he would rather kill Félix than let his son continue to dishonor the family name. Hipólita, feeling insulted, is ready to go after her cuff herself, but when Galván refuses to give her his sword, she punches him in the nose. Luis returns with the cuff, stained with Marcelo’s blood. Hipólita thanks him profusely and doubts herself for the first time in the play. Félix swears he will avenge himself and restore his honor.
In Act III, the siblings’ training is put to the test. The men discuss the best way for Félix to restore his honor and decide that he must do it alone, out of sight of the local constables who might interfere. Pedro asks one of his captains to keep an eye on his son, and come to his rescue if necessary. Once again, Luis declares his love for Hipólita, and she finally admits that she loves him, too. Galván seizes an opportunity to get back at Hipólita for punching him in the nose and tells her that Luis is already married to Marcelo’s sister. Hipólita, jealous, angry, and hurt, goes off to look for Luis and avenge herself. Otavio calls at Leonor’s balcony. Disappointed that the wrong suitor has come, she decides to make Félix jealous to motivate him to fight Otavio. The two suitors argue, then go off to find a private place to settle their differences, with the Captain following closely behind. Hipólita, dressed as a man again, finds Luis and reveals herself, furiously challenging him to fight, but Luis explains that she has been tricked. Hipólita is embarrassed and tries to save face, and Luis uses this to his advantage, convincing her to meet him in a grove of trees to settle their argument. Hipólita is aware that Luis has no intention of fighting and every intention of wooing her, but follows his lead. In the meantime, the Captain has followed Félix and Otavio and hides behind a wall, the only witness to their fight. When Otavio appears, injured and defeated, Félix shows mercy and lets him run away. Alerted by the noise, some bailiffs appear and try to apprehend Félix, who fights them off successfully until the Captain can jump into the fray.
Costanza is worrying about her children when Hipólita comes in, clearly upset. Prompted by her mother’s anxious questioning, Hipólita describes her encounter with Luis. She speaks of the loss of her manly bravery and strength of character due to the ambiguous fight with Luis, during which some kind of physical sexual encounter has occurred, and ends her speech with a declaration of love that identifies her weakness as a womanly quality. Before Costanza can console her daughter, Leonor enters and inquires about Félix’s whereabouts. Pedro, filled with worry, vows to avenge his son if he has been killed. The Captain walks in and describes the fight between Félix and Otavio. When Félix and Luis enter shortly thereafter, Félix has clearly been changed by his experience. He approaches Leonor with full confidence, and Pedro declares that he has earned Leonor’s hand in marriage. Costanza takes the opportunity to subtly command Luis to do the same for Hipólita, since he has already defeated her in another “challenge.”
The play ends with the two siblings having conformed to the expectations of their genders, and with the promise of marriage for both. Their father is happy to declare that his children have returned to their natures, seemingly unaware of the loss Hipólita has suffered, and proud of the violent actions of his son.
PERFORMING GENDER AND VIOLENCE, THEN AND NOW
Modern audiences may be surprised, even disappointed, by how Guillén de Castro ends his play: heterosexual love and marriage allegedly cure the siblings of their gender-bending ills by conquering habit and restoring nature. This tidy conclusion may feel forced, incomplete, or unsatisfactory after three acts that brazenly challenge traditional presentations of gender and genre, and that assert at nearly every turn the supremacy of habit (nurture) over biology (nature), despite the parents’ hopes to the contrary. In the Spanish comedia, “happy” endings of this type—where all is made “right” and any unsettling or unsavory aspects of plot or character are swept away—are conventional, almost a requirement. For this reason, comedia scholar Kathleen Jeffs asks readers and audiences to focus on the body of the text or performance to identify the “nuanced views lurking below the surface” (148).
Critics have noted how unconventional Félix and Hipólita are even within the tradition of comedia cross-dressing. Harry Vélez Quiñones wonders why the siblings “should find it so impossibly difficult to adopt a performance of gender that matches their biological sex” when “hundreds of similar characters in plays by Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Calderón de la Barca, Agustín Moreto, or Juana Inés de la Cruz accomplish much more challenging performances of gender with absolute ease?” (192). The successful cross-dressers in those plays normally do so for a short amount of time and with a specific goal in mind, such as gaining access to otherwise closed spaces in order to reach a lover or exact revenge, and then return to their normal clothing, names, and behavior once the job is done. In The Force of Habit, the siblings arrive onstage at ease in the expected dress and manners of the gender opposite their biological sex, and their struggle to conform to their parents’ gender-swapping demands is long, difficult, and painful.
This is especially true for Hipólita, whose gendered performance appears to be more internalized and complete than that of Félix—even her parents initially refer to her as a young man, as opposed to a woman with masculine qualities—and whose physical, psychological, and emotional suffering as a result of the switch is more severe; after all, dropping her sword and stepping onto platform shoes is a huge step down in her society, in terms of power, independence, and prestige. This is sure to make modern sensibilities (and one might imagine, some early modern sensibilities as well) question whether the social gain of marriageability really outweighs her personal loss of self. While Hipólita is transformed at the last into a feminine figure acceptable to society’s standards, one wonders why a suitor who fell in love with her when she acted like a man would threaten violence against her in order to make her a woman and his wife.
While Hipólita’s performance of femininity is a step down on the social ladder, Félix takes a step up by taking on the masculinity that he previously lacked. Again, it is important to recognize that the personal and emotional trajectories of the siblings’ stories are far from equivalent, and even represent reverse experiences. Félix’s transformation is, in part, a reflection of his growth into a self-sufficient adult, though this growth is complicated by the path he must take to reach maturity and independence: performing to his father’s expectations and standards, which include physical violence. Félix must commit an act of violence against a rival in order to claim his masculinity and recuperate his own honor, again in the name of love.
These acts of violence resemble each other in that they occur offstage and force audiences to rely on a secondary telling of what has occurred, all of which adds a layer of ambiguity that makes the play’s ending less neat than it might appear at first glance. The audience’s only view of Félix’s transformative battle with his rival comes at the very end, when he mercifully allows the defeated Otavio to escape with his life. Of Hipólita’s encounter with Luis we see nothing, and must determine from her words and distress the nature of her defeat. When Hipólita appears again onstage in the wake of the encounter, she is a woman who has lost her courage and strength of character in the shock of what has just occurred. She describes how she was overpowered by Luis, and how the encounter has made her realize that she is, indeed, a woman. This scene, occurring offstage and retold by a shocked Hipólita, is complicated by the ambiguous nature of the retelling: did Hipólita willingly allow herself to be overpowered, was the sexual act entirely nonconsensual, or was it something in between? A generous reading of this encounter is that perhaps Hipólita’s shock stems more from her “defeat” in this contest than from the sexual act itself. Yet even if we accept this account, in that moment sex itself becomes masculinized as violent conquest. For a person who has lived her entire life being treated as an equal, and even admired by men for her strength and skill, the battlefront of sexual experience is also the final lesson in female subjugation and the breaking point of Hipólita’s masculine characteristics.
Jeffs, however, argues that today’s directors can present a more nuanced reading and performance in which Hipólita does not lose her masculine power to heterosexual love or a submissive sexuality, but instead begins “negotiating a balance of power within herself, calling upon her resources of dominance and passivity when the situation requires one or the other, or a cunning mix of both” (170). Félix’s situation can be similarly nuanced, she says, if the director carefully stages an ending that remains true to the text while still allowing for “open interpretation” and “ambiguity” (171). This will indeed be a challenge for the modern director as there is little in the closing of Act III to support such optimism—particularly in the case of Hipólita.
The positive ambiguity that Jeffs recommends does appear in the early modern adaptation of the play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher,entitled Love’s Cure, or The Martial Maid (c. 1612-13). Love’s Cure is more explicit in its references to physical and sexual violence, more exaggerated in relation to the moral and physical shortcomings of its male characters, and presents—in spite of a similarly conventional ending—an even stronger argument for gender as performance than Castro’s original. Beaumont and Fletcher’s Hipólita character, Clara, emerges as the clear protagonist over her brother Lucio, as she pragmatically and effortlessly switches between exemplary feminine and masculine performances, using both to her advantage. Anne Duncan argues that Clara is “presented as the only ‘real man’ in the play” because she gives a superior performance of the male code of honor, and that her character therefore complicates contemporary English stage practice (in which she would have been played by a male actor) and anti-theatricalist debates (which reflected larger social concerns over gender performance) by positing that “a woman can perform a man best” (398).
The Félix character, Lucio, brings into full view the issue of gender as performance. In Love’s Cure, he is raised as a female, with a woman’s name, so that no one but the closest servants and his mother know that he is actually the male heir of the exiled Alvarez (Don Pedro). From the opening scene, the audience is aware that the only thing saving Lucio from death—vengeance for his father’s actions prior to the play’s beginning—is the fact that the would-be avenger, Vitelli, thinks he is a woman. It is clear that Lucio’s upbringing as a maiden is about more than learned manners: it is a disguise to protect him from notions of honor that would fault him for another’s actions, and from the accompanying revenge. As Lucio battles for a woman’s love and family honor, his newly gained masculine courage is tempered by restraint—a masculine honor code that other male characters appear to have discarded in favor of crude violence, and which Clara has displayed for the entirety of the play.
While Love’s Cure appears to shy away from an outright indictment of the possible sexual violence and female subjugation in Castro’s treatment of his female protagonist, it goes further in developing the latent interpretation of gender in The Force of Habit as a negotiation of different forms of power.Much like Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in modern productions, The Force of Habit should be a challenge welcomed by directors and actors alike because of the opportunities it presents for creative, nuanced performances and fruitful post-performance discussions. Playwrights, of course, have the luxury of adaptations, but instead of rewriting Castro’s ending, they may wish to take another cue from Fletcher, who wrote a sequel to the The Taming of the Shrew called The Woman’s Prize, the plot of which can be summed up in its alternate title: The Tamer Tamed.
The Force of Habit is an entertaining and engaging play that can foster important dialogues about gender, gender performance, and gender-based violence. We hope that our translation enables it to be recuperated and embraced.
Our translation of The Force of Habit is based on Eduardo Julia Martínez’s 1927 edition of La fuerza de la costumbre. It was the first translation produced by UCLA’s Working Group on the Comedia in Translation and Performance. Directed by Professor Barbara Fuchs and sponsored by UCLA’s Center for 17th– and 18th-Century Studies, this working group includes UCLA graduate students, local theater practitioners, and Golden Age scholars.
As part of our goal of fostering new and expanded audiences for Spanish Golden Age plays, our translation is designed for maximum accessibility, readability, and adaptability. Directors, playwrights, actors, and dramaturgs as well as students, scholars, and casual readers will find Castro’s complete text translated into clear prose (the movement from verse to prose is the only substantive textual manipulation), with brief but vital explanatory notes. This translation complements the play’s only other English version, by Kathleen Jeffs, an adaptation for the stage performed under her direction at Gonzaga University in 2013.
Our translation was performed by Chalk Repertory Theatre as a staged reading in May of 2014, and again in October 2017 as part of the annual Southern California Shakespeare Festival, where it was performed by an Actors’ Equity Association company in residence at Cal Poly Pomona. The play is also the subject of two curriculum projects, developed as part of our “Classics in the Classroom” iniative, an effort to bring Spanish classical theater into K-12 classrooms by working with Los Angeles-based theater practitioners. Thanks to funding from the University of California Humanities Research Initiative (UCHRI), we were able to collaborate with teaching artists from 24th STreet Theatre’s “Enter Stage Right” program (Los Angeles, California) to develop lessons for elementary school students and workshopped them in several classrooms. A similar collaboration with About…Productions (Pasadena, California) yielded a robust curriculum designed for a 12-day teaching artist residency at the high-school level called “Embodying the Classics.” This work was also supported by the UCHRI, as well as the Pine Tree Foundation (New York).
Duncan, Anne. “It Takes a Woman to Play a Real Man: Clara as Hero(ine) of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Love’s Cure.” English Literary Renaissance 30.3 (2000): 396-407.
Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher, The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Jeffs, Kathleen. “Gender Politics in Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre.” On Wolves and Sheep: Exploring the Expression of Political Thought in Golden Age Spain. Ed. Aaron M. Kahn. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011. 147-76.
Martínez, Eduardo Julia. Obras de Don Guillén de Castro y Bellvís. Tomo Tercero. Real Academia Española, Biblioteca Selecta de Clásicos Españoles, segunda serie. Madrid: Tipografía de la «Revista de Archivos», 1927.
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.