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Lope de Vega’s Women and Servants (Mujeres y criados, c. 1613-14) depicts a sophisticated urban culture of self-fashioning and social mobility, as the titular figures outsmart fathers and masters to marry those they love. Recently rediscovered in an overlooked 17th-century manuscript in Madrid’s Biblioteca Nacional,1 the comedia emerges from its 400-year sleep with a remarkable freshness: it presents a world of suave dissimulation and accommodation, where creaky notions of honor and vengeance have virtually no place. Full protagonists of their own stories, women and servants take control of their fates despite their assigned roles in a patriarchal and hierarchical society.
Set in Madrid, Women and Servants tells the story of Luciana and Violante, the two daughters of the gentleman Florencio. The young women are in love with Teodoro and Claridán, secretary and valet, respectively, to Count Próspero. As the play opens, the Count decides to pursue Luciana. At the same time, Florencio’s friend Emiliano proposes that Violante should marry his eligible son, Don Pedro. Presented with favorable alliances they do not want, the two sisters must manipulate the action to favor instead the men they love. Violante uses her wit and rhetorical prowess to demolish Don Pedro’s pretensions, while Luciana concocts an elaborate plot in which almost all the characters find themselves entangled. Meanwhile, a subplot follows the loves and jealousies of the servants Inés, Lope, and Mars.
The play’s urban setting is crucial to the action, as much of the women’s freedom comes from their location in Madrid and their ability to meet their lovers in public spaces such as the park, away from parental supervision. The oscillation between scenes in the house, the park, and the street allows Lope to explore how different characters negotiate reputation and visibility, from the cowardly miles gloriosus Mars, to the noble Próspero, who is reduced to spying behind trees, to the sisters whose “exercise” takes them far from their father’s solicitous eye.
Women and Servants is the mature work of a playwright highly skilled at interweaving and resolving multiple plots. The play features two main storylines, as each of the sisters seeks marriage to the man she loves, with an additional subplot among the lower-class servants.
As Act I opens, the debonair Count Próspero returns home from a very long night of gambling. His servants grumble about the late hours he makes them keep. The efforts of Claridán, his valet, to get Próspero to bed quickly make his master suspicious, as he fears that Claridán may be courting Luciana, the lady he desires. In fact, Claridán loves Luciana’s sister, Violante, and as soon as he can get his master to bed he finds her house and calls her to the window. Próspero follows Claridán, but is relieved to find that Violante, not Luciana, is the object of his valet’s affections. Próspero asks Violante to help him court her sister. Meanwhile, Próspero’s secretary, Teodoro, who actually loves Luciana, follows his master and confirms his worst suspicions. Claridán recommends patience and counsels Teodoro not to let jealousy get the best of him.
At Florencio’s house early the next morning, the master rouses a sleepy household of daughters and servants. He prepares to give his daughters their steel-water tonic, which they only pretend to drink. They then leave the house for the exercise the medicine requires, and take the opportunity to meet their suitors in the park. Meanwhile, Florencio’s friend Emiliano comes to the house to offer his son, Don Pedro, as a husband for Violante. Florencio, worried about his daughters’ prospects, gladly accepts. In the park, the footman Lope complains to Inés that she seems too fond of his rival, Mars, while Teodoro seeks reassurance from Luciana that she prefers him to the Count. Count Próspero soon shows up in his coach. The lovers find excuses for their compromising situation, yet Próspero nonetheless decides to spy on them. From behind the trees, he hears Luciana confirm her love for Teodoro and swears to seek revenge by his wits.
Act II begins with Próspero’s plan to sideline his secretary: he orders Teodoro to carry a letter to his cousin in another city. While Teodoro suspects that this is just a ruse to get him away from Luciana, he cannot refuse his master. When he visits Luciana to say goodbye, she encourages him to open the letter, which only confirms their suspicions. In his message, the Count asks his cousin to keep Teodoro away for six months. Instead, Luciana hatches her own plan to keep Teodoro not just in Madrid, but ensconced in her father’s house.
Meanwhile, Claridán visits Violante but must hide when Florencio and Emiliano arrive to introduce to her the eligible Don Pedro. Violante insists that she must examine Don Pedro before she can agree to her father’s plan to marry her off. While waiting to meet her, Don Pedro catches sight of a man—Claridán—hiding in the house. He is also none too pleased at Violante’s interrogation. In spite of all this, he asks Violante for some time, if only properly to fall out of love with her.
Proceeding with her plan, Luciana writes the Count a letter begging him to intervene on behalf of a certain Don Pedro, the brother of a friend, who has supposedly been involved in a violent quarrel and needs to hide in Florencio’s house until the trouble dies down. She also hints that this will provide Próspero with an excuse to visit her, so he gladly agrees to help. But there is no such Don Pedro: instead, Luciana passes Teodoro off to her father as Próspero’s protegé and thus keeps her preferred suitor by her side. When the Count comes to visit Luciana, he encounters the real Don Pedro—Emiliano’s son—and, although they speak at cross-purposes, they agree to help each other in their suits.
As Act III opens, Florencio meets Emiliano in the street and confesses that he is hiding a Don Pedro in his house, at Próspero’s request. Emiliano assumes his son is the fugitive Don Pedro and berates him for his supposed violent behavior, which the real Don Pedro denies. Still operating under his mistaken assumption, Emiliano visits the Count to thank him for protecting his son and asks him to intercede in favor of his marriage to Violante. Ever seeking allies in his pursuit of Luciana, Próspero gladly agrees.
At Florencio’s house, Don Pedro asks Violante to help cure him of his love for her, and she wittily complies, but her prescriptions fail to work on him. Lope and Inés bicker again about Mars. Luciana reassures a weary Teodoro of her love, and hides him where he can hear her coded responses to Próspero’s entreaties. Próspero then turns to Florencio to ask whether his protegé, Don Pedro, might marry Violante that very night. Florencio, who delights in the supposed Don Pedro, readily agrees.
The real Don Pedro thinks that he is to be the lucky groom, but when he and the Count come to Florencio’s house, they all discover that the Don Pedro whom the Count has been protecting and whom Florencio has been sheltering is really Teodoro. Furious, the Count and Florencio threaten Teodoro, but the two sisters restrain them. Faced with the possibility of dishonor, Florencio accedes to his daughters’ wishes and accepts the unions between Teodoro and Luciana, Claridán and Violante, as do Próspero and Don Pedro. Lope and Inés announce that they, too, will wed, as the play comes to an end.
As its title suggests, Women and Servants deals directly with questions of gender and class. The glaringly absent term in the title is masters—the patriarchal figures of authority to whom both women and servants in early modern Spain would have owed allegiance.2 By sidelining lords and masters, the play offers an alternative view of the world, focused instead on figures whose limited agency requires of them creativity and wit.
The criados of the original title might well be rendered as “the staff.” Although ultimately this solution sounded too modern for this translation, it gets at the broad range of persons whom Lope collectively depicts under his title, from the Count’s secretary and valet, whose stature is such that they can compete with their betters in the game of love, all the way to menial servants. His male protagonists are educated retainers who outwit their masters not with the traditional servant’s cunning of commedia dell’arte or the picaresque, but with more sophisticated plots, the force of their self-determination, and a good deal of help from the women they love.
The term criados—past participle for crear: to breed, raise, or create—emphasizes the deep, enduring connection between the master, Count Próspero, and these servants: they are part of his household and were raised within it. Covarrubias’ early modern Spanish dictionary offers various meanings for criado: what God has created; one who serves a master; well or ill bred.3 The sense that servants are shaped by their master’s household makes Teodoro and Claridán’s standing ambiguous. Although they are not part of Próspero’s immediate family, they have an intimate, long-standing relationship with him—they are his creatures. As Próspero himself recognizes at the end of Act I, when he is exasperated by their perceived betrayal, “they were both raised in my house” (p. 34). This admission tempers his thoughts of violent revenge against the two men, and he decides on a contest of wits instead. The ambiguity is also what enables Teodoro, in particular, to best the Count at his game by easily impersonating a noble “Don Pedro” while courting Luciana.
The scene in which Luciana persuades Teodoro to open the letter that Próspero has charged him with taking to his cousin most directly subverts master-servant relations in the play. Teodoro must decide whether to betray his master’s trust, and at a woman’s urging. Although the secretary suspects that his master means him harm, only violating the confidence of the letter can confirm this. Teodoro is forced to gamble for high stakes, transgressing in order to find a justification for his transgression. In a fascinating image, Luciana compares the desire that animates her and Teodoro to a republic that freely elects its leader:
Luciana All is fair in love and war. Love has no master, but disdains them all. It has only one lord, and that one elected, as in Genoa or Venice. Open the letter!
Teodoro There—it’s come out of its shell. (p. 40)
Faced with Luciana’s radical dare, Teodoro can only comply. He takes his master’s letter out of its envelope, a move that renders him, in a metalepsis of sorts, as fragile and exposed as a newborn chick. The play thus questions both class and gender hierarchies: Luciana’s call to open Próspero’s letter challenges the authority of the master, to be sure, but it also drives home how much greater are her agency and initiative than Teodoro’s. Perhaps because Próspero is not her master, she is better able to assess the limits of loyalty than is Teodoro himself. When the secretary confesses to his master at the end of the play, he cannot even admit his hand in the deed, and claims that Luciana opened the letter (p. 77).
Yet this scene of explicit disobedience is hardly the most daring aspect of Lope’s play. Beyond its specific plots, Women and Servants depicts a fluid continuum of class rather than a rigid hierarchy of castes—a situation that even fathers and masters come to accept with reluctant forbearance. The play suggests that, beyond whatever education a secretary might have absorbed, servants raised in a noble house could learn the trappings of courtliness and civility so well as to outcharm their masters, thereby attaining an elusive social mobility.
The theater itself was an important component in the process of acquiring social distinction. Despite a long critical tradition that emphasized the democratic nature of the comedia in early modern Madrid, not everyone could attend the theater, or at least not regularly.4 The key, repeat audiences were aristocratic, and they brought to the theater the broad range of people they employed: tutors, secretaries, ladies-in-waiting, pages, and other attendants.5 Servants experienced what one might call a theater of aspiration, as they witnessed actors dressed in silks and finery rehearsing the mores of the upper classes. The theater offered cultivation and sophistication to these middling classes, who might thereby learn to acquit themselves with whatever distinction a situation required, as when Teodoro performs a convincing Don Pedro for Florencio’s benefit.
In foregrounding the figure of the secretary, Women and Servants revisits some of the terrain that Lope covered in The Dog in the Manger, a play from much the same period. Dog is the story of a countess, Diana, who marries her secretary, also named Teodoro, and of the plots devised to make their union more seemly. Part of what makes the play so interesting—and gives it its title—is that Diana mostly has herself to please in making her decision for or against Teodoro. In Women, Lope revisits the issue of unequal marriage, but takes it further: in this play there are not one but two women choosing men of lower social standing over competitors of higher rank, and the women themselves willingly sacrifice the possibility of social advancement for the sake of their true loves. In both plays, a secretary named Teodoro perpetrates the necessary deceptions to secure his union with a woman of a higher class.
But whereas the Teodoro in Dog is the servant of the very woman he would marry, in a household with no father at the helm, in Women and Servants Luciana herself scandalously introduces Teodoro into her father’s household. Moreover, in Dog the famous trick that resolves the play is mainly the stuff of romance fantasy, as a noble origin is invented for the secretary who must marry a countess. In Women, by contrast, the audience actually watches Teodoro impersonate a certain Don Pedro, as he effectively convinces Florencio and all around him of his nobility. While Dog suggests that carefully constructed and shared fictions sustain the social order, Women and Servants proposes, perhaps even more daringly, that those of a lower social standing can mimic and successfully impersonate their betters. No elaborate, outlandish trick is required here, no story of captivity or lost children. Instead, Women simply underscores how an enterprising fellow raised with access to aristocratic behavior can easily acquire or, at least, reproduce the marks of social distinction. Whatever one might believe about the relationship of blood to status, urbanity is eminently an acquired trait.
The women of Women and Servants have a remarkable amount of control over their own fates, and particularly their love lives. They live by their wits, and by their power to persuade. Luciana not only convinces Teodoro to open his master’s letter, as discussed above, she also manages to have her father harbor a strange man in the same house as his unmarried daughters. For her part, Violante convinces Don Pedro that, despite her dazzling wit and intelligence, she is not the right match for him, as she simply does not love him.
Much of the sisters’ power in the play comes from their own urbanity, and the possibilities afforded by an urban setting. After becoming Philip II’s capital in 1561, Madrid grew rapidly, its development intertwined with both the court and the popular theater. Despite a brief hiatus when the court relocated to Valladolid (1601-1606), Madrid quickly became a privileged stage for the display of both political power and cultural brilliance. By the early seventeenth century, the city had become a spectacular, theatrical space in its very architecture, with buildings, streets, and plazas designed for show. It was a city in which to see and be seen, where fashions and fads quickly came and went. At the same time, the scale of the city and its rapid transformation altered social interactions within the urban space. Anonymity and dissimulation became newly possible, a feature that many comedias, including Tirso de Molina’s Don Gil of the Green Breeches (Don Gil de las calzas verdes), exploit brilliantly. Veiled, disguised, or discreetly hidden in a carriage, women in the urban space could choose to be seen or unseen in a way that afforded them unprecedented agency and control over their own sexuality.6
Acutely conscious of urban fashions, Lope wove them through his plays and, on occasion, organized entire plots around them. One of the best known cases is The Steel of Madrid (El acero de Madrid, c. 1608), which centers on the comic and erotic possibilities of the fashion for steel-water (acero) as a cure for young women’s oppilation.7 Oppilation—technically the obstruction of any organ—was an urban disease of female self-fashioning, a kind of anemia caused by young women eating clay in order to appear fashionably pale. Both the disease and its cure—drinking water in which a heated iron rod had been doused and following the treatment with a long walk—were de rigueur in Madrid in the early seventeenth century, as their appearance in a number of plays, including Women and Servants, confirms. Yet both were also uneasily connected to female sexuality, and ripe for literary satire. A supposed oppilation could be pregnancy instead, and the exercise that young women sought as part of the cure often provided their best excuse to escape the surveillance of their elders. Thus in The Steel of Madrid the treatment serves as the pretext for Belisa to meet her suitor, Lisardo, and the supposedly oppilated heroine is pregnant by the end of the play.
In Women and Servants, Lope exploits not just the fashion for steel-water but the entire conceptual universe for steel. In Act. I, Teodoro asks his master which steel (p. 18) he would prefer to wear. The synecdoche, which comes before steel-water is ever mentioned in the play, prepares us to recognize the treatment as a weapon for women, just as the blade is a weapon for men. Just a few scenes later, Luciana and Violante wield the cure as a powerful device to trick their father.
Before the sisters ever leave Florencio’s house, they and the servants flout his authority. Inés makes up a pretext to get Florencio out of the room, and Luciana promptly orders Lope to throw out the steel-water that their father has had prepared for them. In perfect complicity, they all trick Florencio into believing the sisters have taken their medicine. Then they go out for the exercise that completes the supposed treatment, which provides the perfect occasion to meet their suitors in the park. The steel-water topos thus effectively establishes the sisters’ independence very early in the play, and provides the occasion for the important park scene in Act I, in which the hidden Próspero confirms that Luciana and Teodoro love each other.
The park [campo] in this play is not yet the fashionable space that the Retiro gardens will become in the 1630’s, but most likely the early Prado, an erotic green world bordering the city. The Prado was a tree-lined promenade that served as a border between the city and the countryside, and a frequent meeting place for assignations. Primarily a place for leisurely strolls and picnics among the flowers, it also functions as a space of disorder, as the scene of the Count ignominiously hidden in the trees confirms. Act III of Lope’s text refers to the Prado by name, and also invokes the Calle Mayor—both fashionable urban spaces of leisure in which to see and be seen. The Calle Mayor—the main street of seventeenth-century Madrid—provided a place for men and women of different classes to cross paths, and was also a space for coquetry and rendezvous.
Women and Servants opens with a vision of louche, aristocratic male privilege in the city: Count Próspero returns from a night of gaming, at which he has lost a good deal of money, and idly considers whether he might find a prostitute to complete the evening (pp. 16-17), while his servants despair of ever being able to visit the ladies they court. As the plot develops, Próspero’s status trumps the gender prerogatives of his servant, so that Teodoro cannot act as his masculine honor might demand. As his fellow servant Claridán points out, Luciana cannot disdain Count Próspero, and Teodoro must simply put up with the situation (p. 23). Similarly, Claridán must suffer through Don Pedro’s courtship of Violante, and cannot resort to violence. Although in the end the men of lower standing make out very well in this play, the plot requires them to renounce a belligerent masculinity as they turn to their wits to outsmart those of higher rank.
The play ironizes the notion of a masculine honor that must resort to violence in response to jealousy or any other perceived slight, showing how flexible gender norms become as they are performed. Próspero finds that he cannot really fight his own servant, and must resort to his wits instead (pp. 34-35). Using her wits, Luciana invokes a supposed swordfight as the reason that “Don Pedro” must be sheltered in Florencio’s house, but there is no such altercation: the fictional violence is instead a pretext for installing Teodoro where she can see him. When the real Don Pedro discovers a man hidden in the house of the woman he is supposed to court, he finds himself, like his rival, incapable of taking any action in response: “and so we hid there, eyeing each other like two figures on a clock!” (p. 43). Well beyond the ironically named Mars, the braggart who hides when he fears a street fight (pp. 19-20), the play pokes fun at the violent masculinity that men must display to uphold their public selves. Meanwhile, the private space of the house—that privileged stronghold of patriarchal authority—becomes increasingly porous, as a veritable crowd of unmarried men frequent Florencio’s daughters. Teodoro stays at the house as the false Don Pedro; Próspero takes advantage of the plot to visit Luciana constantly; Claridán follows his master and gains new access to Violante; and the real Don Pedro, to his dismay, finds “behind an arras a pair of suitors” (p. 44), of which he is but one.
The play’s resolution deprives even the upper-class men of the recourse to violence. As Próspero, Don Pedro, and Florencio realize how the lovers have tricked them, they all seem on the verge of taking out their swords. Florencio even wonders aloud, “What I am waiting for, to look to my honor?” (p. 77). Emiliano, Don Pedro’s father, takes him aside to whisper what the play cannot openly say: Florencio’s honor is already undone, and the best remedy is for him to accept the unions that his daughters have orchestrated for themselves. The accommodative, conciliatory honor of comedy is a far cry from the absolutes that patriarchy seems to exact in other plays and other contexts. Beyond the requirements of genre, however, Women and Servants exposes honor and vengeance as ill-suited to the performative, fluid universe of a burgeoning Madrid. The most powerful weapon in a world of newly skilled, empowered middle classes may well be the wit that these lovers brandish so effectively.
Although Mujeres y criados was so recently rediscovered, it is fast acquiring a wide performance history across the Atlantic. The world premiere since rediscovery was a production directed by Leo Cabranes-Grant (UCSB) at the eighteenth-century Corralón de San José in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in October 2014. April 29, 2015 marked the opening of a production co-directed by Laurence Boswell and Rodrigo Arribas at the Teatro Español in Madrid. Also on April 29, 2015, Chalk Repertory Theatre offered a staged reading of Women and Servants at UCLA, directed by Larissa Kokernot.
My translation is based on the wonderful edition by Professor Alejandro García-Reidy of Syracuse University, whose inspired research led to the rediscovery of the play in the Biblioteca Nacional in 2013, and to whom the entire field owes a huge debt. I have focused on making the text as fluent as possible for actors, while preserving the original. Where there is a significant departure from the Spanish, I have included a note to that effect. One key change, of course, is my decision to translate the text into prose, as I find it more conducive to successful productions in an Anglo-American context.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Alejandro García-Reidy for his extraordinary generosity and gracious assistance on this translation, which was made feasible by his fine edition of Lope’s play. The PROLOPE team, under the direction of Ramón Valdés Gázquez, and the Fundación Siglo de Oro, led by Rodrigo Arribas, have also been models of collegiality and generosity, as we all work together to promote the work of Lope de Vega. They have also graciously granted permsission to post the Spanish edition online. Meg Greer was kind enough to connect me to these scholars, thus facilitating the entire project. Laurence Boswell kindly reviewed the translation with a director’s keen eye, and I am grateful to him for his comments. Chalk Repertory Theatre gave the translation a staged reading at UCLA, which was immensely helpful in refining it. My thanks especially to Larissa Kokernot and all the fine actors whom she directed. Juan de la Cuesta, which is publishing the translation as a print book in 2016, graciously agreed to our posting it on this website. The translation underwent a rigorous workshopping process during Fall 2014 in the UCLA Working Group on the Comedia in Translation and Performance. I would like to thank the members of the group—Marta Albalá, Christine Avila, Paul Cella, Adrián Collado, Nitzaira Delgado-García, Verónica García Moreno, Jennifer Monti, Laura Muñoz, Javier Patiño, Juan Jesús Payán, Veronica Wilson, and especially Payton Phillips Quintanilla—for their invaluable assistance, their good humor, and their enthusiasm for the larger project of diversifying the classics. I dedicate this translation to them.
1 See Alejandro García-Reidy, “Mujeres y criados, una comedia recuperada de Lope de Vega,” Revista de Literatura 75.150 (July-Dec. 2013): 417-38, and his subsequent edition of the play, Lope de Vega, Mujeres y criados, ed. Alejandro García-Reidy (Madrid: Gredos, 2014).
6 See Laura Bass and Amanda Wunder, “The Veiled Ladies of the Early Modern Spanish World: Seduction and Scandal in Seville, Madrid, and Lima,” Hispanic Review 77.1 (Winter 2009): 97-144, and Enrique García Santo-Tomás, “Eros móvil: encuentros clandestinos en carruajes lopescos,” in Amor y erotismo en el teatro de Lope de Vega. Actas de las XXV Jornadas de teatro clásico, F.B. Pedraza Jiménez, E. E. Marcello and R. González Cañal, eds. (Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha: Almagro, 2003), 213-34.
7 On oppilation, the “steel cure” and its literary versions, see Maríaluz López-Terrada, “‘Sallow-Faced Girl, Either It’s Love or You’ve Been Eating Clay’: The Representation of Illness in Golden Age Theater,” in Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire, eds. John Slater, Maríaluz López-Terrada, José Pardo-Tomás (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 167-187.