Rhonda Sharrah and Aina Soley Mateu
Like the Minotaur itself, Love is the Greater Labyrinth (Amor es más laberinto, 1689) is a chimerical mix of elements, skillfully weaving the myth of Theseus and the Cretan labyrinth with threads of romance, humor, and sociopolitical commentary. The play demonstrates the variety and playfulness of Baroque drama in the late seventeenth century and provides a dazzling showcase for the pen of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the famous Mexican philosopher, poet, playwright, and nun. The result is a mythological play that finds its Greeks acting suspiciously like seventeenth-century courtiers, matching wits and swords in messy love pentangles as their servants crack sly metatheatrical jokes behind their backs. The plot moves nimbly between emotional registers, from a ranting tyrant spewing death threats one moment to a flirtatious musical interlude at a masked ball the next, as Sor Juana explores the epic consequences of emotion run amok. This new translation of Love is the Greater Labyrinth, her final play, provides the English theatrical canon with another example of Sor Juana’s timeless brilliance.
After defeating Athens in war, Minos, the tyrannical ruler of Crete, institutes a yearly tribute of fourteen Athenian youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a beast that lives deep inside the labyrinth in his palace. Teseo, prince of Athens, is selected as one of the tributes, chosen by lots. He is taken to Crete as a prisoner, accompanied by his servant, Tuna. Minos is delighted by this opportunity to avenge his beloved dead son, Androgeus, killed in Athens. Neither the intervention of Athens’ ambassador, Licas, nor Teseo’s account of his own heroic deeds soften Minos’ desire for bloodthirsty vengeance.
Meanwhile, the two princesses of Crete, Fedra and Ariadna, both fall in love with Teseo at first sight. They decide to save him from his fate. Fedra tells Teseo not to lose hope, since Fortune might yet save him. She stops short of confessing that she loves him, mindful of decorum, but he falls for her as well. Ariadna overhears this, becomes jealous, and decides that she will save Teseo before her sister does, in order to redirect his love towards her.
Baco, the prince of Thebes who has been courting Ariadna, overhears her talking about how she loves the man who is courting her sister (meaning Teseo), and wrongly deduces she is talking about Lidoro, the prince of Epirus who has been unsuccessfully wooing Fedra. Baco’s servant Vinny suggests that Baco should make Ariadna jealous by pretending to court Fedra. Baco reluctantly attempts this, until Lidoro walks in and jealously challenges him to a fight. Minos interrupts them and Fedra makes up a story to cover for them, as the act ends with asides from everyone about their tortured feelings (along with Vinny’s mockery for their dramatic behavior).
As Act II opens, Teseo has been led into the labyrinth, presumably to his death, but Minos remains overcome by grief over his son and thirst for vengeance. Unbeknownst to him, Teseo has escaped the labyrinth thanks to Ariadna thread. Ariadna and Fedra organize a masked ball at the temple of Diana in Minos’ honor. Each sends her servant with a gift for Teseo, so they can recognize him at the dance. Fedra sends Laura, with a sash, while Ariadna sends Cintia, with a feather. Teseo and Tuna have a talk about both women courting Teseo—Teseo feels indebted to Ariadna because she saved his life, but he loves Fedra, so he decides to go with his feelings. He takes the sash and gives the feather to Tuna.
Once at the ball, Teseo overhears Fedra asking about the sash, approaches her, and they dance. Baco recognizes Ariadna by her dress, approaches her, and they dance. Lidoro mistakes the servant Laura for Fedra and dances with her. Tuna has Ariadna’s feather, but while dancing with Cintia, he drops it on the floor. Baco picks it up and recognizes it as Ariadna’s. Baco thinks Ariadna has given the feather to Lidoro because of what he overheard earlier. Baco wears the feather, and Ariadna, believing he is Teseo, arranges a meeting with him later that night. Lidoro sees Teseo talking to Fedra and thinks he is Baco, since he is under the impression Baco is courting Fedra. Everyone but the princesses (and their servants) still believe Teseo is dead. Meanwhile, Fedra arranges a meeting with Teseo later that night.
The dance ends, and Ariadna and Fedra, separately, wait outside in the garden for Teseo. When Teseo arrives, he runs into Ariadna. Because it’s dark, he thinks she is Fedra and begins a romantic conversation with her, in which they both confess their feelings without ever mentioning each other’s names. Fedra overhears them and believes that Teseo loves Ariadna. Teseo, however, eventually refers to Ariadna as “divine Fedra” and Ariadna realizes his mistake. Ariadna decides to pretend to be Fedra and rejects Teseo harshly, much to his confusion.
Baco arrives, thinking he is going to meet Ariadna, and both Ariadna and Teseo leave, afraid her father Minos is about to discover them. Baco sees Fedra and mistakes her for Ariadna in the dark. Fedra, for her part, thinks Baco is Teseo and decides to be cruel to him to test his devotion. Ariadna, returning, sees Baco talking to Fedra and assumes he is Teseo, causing her to feel further betrayed. However, as she overhears their discussion, she realizes that Fedra was the person who sent Teseo the sash as a token, and this mysterious man with the feather –her own token– is someone else. Ariadna, then, comprehends that Teseo has chosen Fedra over her. Teseo, also eavesdropping, soon realizes that Fedra thinks she is talking to him instead of Baco, so he decides to interrupt their conversation and Baco’s attempts to woo her.
Teseo leaps out of hiding and begins to fight Baco, as the two princesses call for their servants to bring a light. Teseo and Tuna flee into the labyrinth to avoid being discovered just as Lidoro, drawn by the sound of swords clashing, enters and begins to fight Baco himself. Laura and Cintia enter with the torches, and all the characters remaining onstage finally recognize each other. Fedra and Ariadna are relieved Teseo has escaped and attempt to deflect attention from their own compromising position outside at night by chastising Lidoro and Baco for their indecorous behavior. Lidoro and Baco privately swear vengeance on each other, and each character closes the act lamenting that they are now truly caught in the labyrinth of love.
Act III begins with Baco seeking to challenge Lidoro to a duel, because he now believes Lidoro is courting both sisters. While Baco’s servant Vinny is on his way to Lidoro with a letter bearing the challenge, he runs into Tuna. Vinny thinks Tuna serves Lidoro, and gives him the letter, assuring him Lidoro will reward him for his services. Secretly, Vinny hopes to avoid being punished as the messenger delivering bad news. Tuna assumes the letter is from one of the two princesses, and Vinny, hoping to encourage him to take over the delivery, tells him it is from Fedra. Tuna is excited about his upcoming reward.
Before Tuna can find Lidoro, Teseo enters and assumes Tuna is bringing him a letter from Fedra. When Teseo reads it, however, he finds it is a challenge to a duel and assumes it was intended for him. He takes out his anger on Tuna (just as Vinny feared) and goes to fight Baco in the garden, leaving the letter behind. Tuna, who can’t read, thinks Fedra must have named Lidoro in what he believes is a love letter, causing Teseo’s anger. Nonetheless, Tuna still hopes for a reward from someone, so he reseals the letter and goes off again to find Lidoro.
Meanwhile, Baco is delayed from going to the duel by Minos, who has news that Athens, outraged by Teseo’s supposed death by Minotaur, is sending an army to destroy Crete in revenge. They leave to discuss the situation just before Teseo arrives at the garden for the duel. Lidoro, who has finally received Baco’s challenge, arrives as well. They each mistake the other for Baco and begin to fight. Teseo kills Lidoro, but then realizes he will be in great danger if he is found next to Lidoro’s body, so he flees the scene.
Baco comes back and finds Lidoro dead. The captain of the guards, Tebandro, and his soldiers enter to find Baco next to Lidoro’s body, and Baco’s letter to him challenging him to a duel over the princesses. Despite Baco’s efforts to deny his involvement, Tebandro accuses him of murder and leaves to notify King Minos, since only he can arrest a foreign prince such as Baco. Baco decides to escape Crete to avoid being sentenced for a murder he didn’t commit. He heads for the harbor, where he has ships ready to depart.
Ariadna enters, with Tuna at her heels updating her on the situation. Tuna tells her it was Teseo who killed Lidoro. Ariadna fears this will lead to Teseo’s execution and resolves to help him escape and flee with him, since she will be blamed for helping him escape the labyrinth in the first place. She continues to hold out hope that he will reward her assistance and ingenuity by marrying her. She tells Tuna to go find Teseo and bring him to the balcony facing the gardens, and they leave.
Fedra and Teseo enter, with Teseo explaining to Fedra that he had to kill whom he thought was Baco (still not knowing it was really Lidoro), as he had somehow discovered that Teseo was still alive and in love with Fedra. Though still indebted to Ariadna, Teseo declares his love for Fedra and asks her to go back with him to Athens, where they will both be safe. Fedra agrees, finally declaring her love for him but still careful to maintain decorum, and tells him to hire an Athenian boat that she will pay for with her jewels. They agree to meet in the garden, and Teseo leaves.
Baco enters to bid farewell one last time at Ariadna’s window. Ariadna comes out on the balcony and, mistaking him for Teseo, tells him they must depart at once since he is wanted for murder. Baco is unsure why Ariadna has had a change of heart and wants to be with him now, but decides to go along with this stroke of luck. As Baco is waiting for Ariadna to come down from the balcony to the garden, he runs into Fedra who is there to meet Teseo. Mistaking each other for the one they are waiting for, they leave together. Teseo arrives just in time to meet Ariadna, whom he mistakes for Fedra, and they also leave for the harbor together.
Tuna appears, chasing Teseo to deliver Ariadna’s message. Fedra and Baco, who are walking ahead of Teseo and Ariadna, hear them approaching and hide. Tuna addresses Teseo by name, so that Fedra realizes the man she is hiding with cannot be Teseo. Ariadna realizes that Teseo has mistaken her for Fedra, while Baco realizes he is not with Ariadna. Fedra calls for Teseo’s help, since she thinks she is being kidnapped by a stranger. Teseo and Baco start fighting and, in the darkness and confusion, Fedra and Ariadna switch places while trying to locate the real Teseo.
Vinny enters, chased by Tebandro and some guards, and they all stumble upon Baco and Teseo’s fight. Tebandro and the guards try to stop the fighting, as King Minos arrives and orders everyone to be arrested. Upon realizing his daughters were fleeing with two strange men, Minos becomes furious. Baco reveals himself and intervenes on behalf of Ariadna. Teseo, although surprised because he thought Baco was dead, also reveals himself to save Fedra. This causes a general shock as all present (except for Fedra, Ariadna, and Tuna) believed Teseo had been killed in the labyrinth. Minos, in his wrath, orders all of them executed, including his daughters for their immoral behavior.
Just then, soldiers rush in to inform Minos that Athenians have breached the palace and Crete’s fall is imminent. Licas, the Athenian ambassador, returns and declares he will kill Minos to avenge Athens’ prince, but Teseo reveals himself and announces he intends to spare Minos’ life because the king’s daughters saved him from the Minotaur. With this gesture of mercy, Minos’ insatiable desire for revenge finally dies, and he agrees to let Teseo marry Fedra. Ariadna, realizing she has no hope of marrying Teseo, settles for Baco, who is cleared of Lidoro’s murder. Vinny and Tuna ask for Cintia and Laura’s hands, respectively. The End!
REMAKING THE MYTH
In Love is the Greater Labyrinth, Sor Juana freely adapts the Greek myth of Theseus and the Cretan Minotaur, adding and subtracting elements of the story in order to fill out her intricate love plot and make it into the kind of witty, modern entertainment her courtly audience would enjoy. Her adaptation choices enhance both the roles of the female characters and the political significance of the conflicts, which scholars have interpreted as Sor Juana’s subtle warning against the temptations of tyranny directed to the newly arrived Viceroy Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza, and, perhaps, the male religious and secular authorities who sought to repress her voice throughout her life.
The basic setting and background of the action follows the myth fairly closely. King Minos of Crete has gone to war with Athens to avenge the death of his son Androgeus. As the victor, Minos demands a yearly tribute of Athenian youths to sacrifice to the Minotaur, a fierce beast that is half-bull, half-man. Minos sends the sacrifices into the bloodthirsty Minotaur’s lair, a labyrinth so complex that no one could ever find their way out, doubly ensuring his victims’ doom. Theseus (Teseo), the prince of Athens, finally arrives and defeats the monster, ending Minos’ reign of terror. All this is present in the play, but Sor Juana tellingly omits some details, such as the misogynistic implications of the Minotaur’s birth, while adding and amplifying others, including the agency of the Cretan princesses, Ariadne (Ariadna) and Phaedra (Fedra).
The myth provides an origin for the Minotaur which portrays uncontrolled female sexuality as a threat to order and humanity itself. After King Minos refuses to sacrifice a pure white bull to the ocean god Poseidon, the offended god makes Minos’ wife Pasiphaë fall in love with the bull. She then gives birth to the monstrous Minotaur, which wreaks havoc in the kingdom until Theseus kills it, having already proved his manly prowess by seducing Minos’ daughter Ariadne and procuring her help. The play, however, makes no mention of Pasiphaë or the Minotaur’s birth. The monster instead becomes a symbol of Minos’ unchecked rage and barbarity, which the king has allowed to undermine his own humanity.
In this he is contrasted with Prince Teseo, whose rationality and mercy are emphasized. In Act I, Teseo narrates his life story with a focus on victories over bloodthirsty villains and beasts who terrorized citizens with their excessive appetites and moods (Corynetes, Creon, Sciron, Procrustes, etc. – ll. 452-513). Teseo displays his selfless virtue and self-control when he recounts his aid to his friend Pirithous, whose wife was abducted by centaurs. Even when Teseo briefly succumbs to the temptation to abduct the beautiful Helen, he swiftly returns her. He says he was moved by pity to “restore her to her land and her family,” even when “[he] had in [his] grasp / the prize of her beauty.” He calls this “that greatest of victories: / to triumph over myself” (ll. 533-42). He also notes that he eschewed “a tutor in courtly manners” and preferred instead to gain distinction through his actions rather than his noble birth (ll. 418-26). He eloquently sets forth a theory of the natural state of freedom in man, displaying the good judgment befitting a hero associated with Athens, the city ruled by the goddess of wisdom, Athena.
Teseo’s most famous triumph in myth is slaying the Minotaur and escaping the labyrinth, so an audience member might expect to see this heroically reenacted during the climax of the play. Instead, Sor Juana subverts expectations by placing the battle entirely offstage between acts. The labyrinth and its monster are often mentioned, but never explicitly shown. (A production may choose to have a dumb show or some other depiction of the battle in between Act I and Act II, or maintain the somewhat tongue-in-cheek withholding of the monster-fighting spectacle.) It becomes clear through this unexpected swerve in the narrative that the play is more interested in emotional, rather than physical, challenges, and heroism of a different sort.
Scholars suggest the comparison between Teseo and Minos could have been designed by Sor Juana to impart political and moral advice to the incoming viceroy. Minos, of course, is the ranting, over-emotional, vengeful tyrant that no enlightened ruler would ever want to emulate. Teseo, on the other hand, behaves valiantly but selflessly, offering himself as a sacrifice for his people in the beginning and finally showing extraordinary mercy to Minos, which ends the cycle of violence and inaugurates a new age for the kingdom. Teseo also distinguishes himself through his constant concern for the courtesy and gratitude he owes to the female characters. Throughout the play, Teseo mostly follows the princesses’ lead—first with Ariadna’s life-saving plan to escape the labyrinth and then with Fedra’s remarkably assertive attempts to arrange an amorous rendezvous with him. This is opposed to Minos, who rages about his daughters’ supposedly lost virtue and goes to nearly fatal lengths to avenge his tarnished patriarchal honor. Nonetheless, Minos’ grief over his dead son is his driving motivation throughout, which makes him somewhat sympathetic. His lack of self-control has driven him away from being the “generous king” and “glorious lawgiver” that Teseo describes in the beginning (ll. 344-50), but once his “desire for revenge is undone by [Teseo’s] reason” he may be able to return to that earlier self (l. 3178).
The addition of Fedra to the Cretan section of the story is another major change. In the myth, Ariadne is indeed in love with Theseus and helps him in the hopes that he will marry her. He takes her off the island with him, only to abandon her on another island, Naxos, where she then catches the eye of Dionysus (Bacchus, or Baco here), the god of wine. Dionysus makes Ariadne his bride while Theseus later marries her sister, Phaedra (though their marriage also ends tragically, due to Phaedra’s deceit and adultery). In the play, Fedra is present from the beginning and there is a genuine love triangle (plus some other complications with the princesses’ suitors, Lidoro and Baco).
There is also a greater emphasis on comparison between the two sisters. Ariadna proves herself to be resourceful and assertive by saving Teseo and attempting to advance their relationship, drawing scholarly comparison to a female author figure who pulls the strings of the plot. However, Fedra is in the end a better match for Teseo because she shows the kind of emotional self-restraint that he praises in the beginning and embodies at the end when he spares her father’s life. Ariadna is more volatile throughout, but she is not a villain, nor is she punished, except by not getting the man she wants. Baco, though no longer a god, proves his devotion to Ariadna throughout the play despite various setbacks and seems to be a good match for her. In the end, they return to their status quo at the beginning, with Ariadna charmed by Baco’s “handsome looks / [which] lead [her] bit by bit / to return his fine affections” (ll. 131-3).
Sor Juana uses the myth of the labyrinth loosely, as a source of larger-than-life characters to populate her world and as a metaphor for the overwhelming and disorienting power of love, for good or ill. For theaters today, it can offer design inspiration for productions (palaces, temples, robes and laurels, labyrinth motifs) and establish intertextual connections with other mythological plays, which were a robust genre in Spanish comedia drawn from a well of cultural references shared across Europe (see Theseus in another tale of confused, wandering lovers: A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Sor Juana’s playful attitude toward adapting the classics is matched by her metatheatrical engagement with the audience, as discussed below.
Theater was a very popular diversion in seventeenth-century Spain, and people from all backgrounds would often gather at the corrales de comedia to watch the latest play. The audience was well acquainted with recurring themes, plots and characters, and plays often contained self-referential remarks or jokes written with this sophisticated audience in mind. Characters would comment on the action, make judgements about a situation, or make jokes that broke the fourth wall. Much of this metatheatrical play falls to the gracioso, who often voices what the author assumed would be the thoughts of the audience.
The gracioso is the hero’s sidekick, belonging to a lower class than the protagonist and usually portrayed as their servant. Graciosos are often characterized as street smart or at least the ones in charge of cracking self-aware jokes. In Love is the Greater Labyrinth, the role of the gracioso is embodied by Tuna and, to a lesser extent, Vinny. Both of these characters take turns commenting on the development of the play in a metatheatrical key, as if momentarily realizing they exist within a performance. Thus, Vinny complains in Act I about having to enter the stage with his master Baco, only to be sidelined: “Oh that I might have my revenge, / for having to keep my mouth shut. / I came on stage and didn’t say a word!” (ll. 616-8). Similarly, Vinny is the one to notice at the end that “the lackeys and maids were left in the wings, / with no time for love-plots” (ll. 3239-40), referencing the fact that, although comedias often feature servants parodically mirroring the love scenes of the upper-class characters, Love is the Greater Labyrinth leaves little space for the development of such a subplot (although Tuna is a constant flirt). Vinny points this out in a tongue-in-cheek gesture that successfully, and swiftly, ties up the romance of all four servants. It is a last-minute arrangement, true, but its metatheatricality makes it an entertaining flourish at the end.
The main voice for the audience is, without a doubt, Tuna. His remarks, especially at the beginning of Act II, anticipate what spectators might expect in that section of the play. After the first act, which closely follows the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Love is the Greater Labyrinth shifts completely into full farcical mode, with plenty of misunderstandings, masked balls, and secret meetings under the cover of darkness, all of which lead to mistaken identities and unexpected consequences. When Teseo receives both Fedra’s and Ariadna’s invitations to the dance, Tuna muses: “This must be the second act / of this comedy of love, / where the beauties come in pairs” (ll. 1327-9). He also predicts the mix-ups that will take place in the aforementioned ball, when Teseo gives Ariadna’s feather to Tuna himself: “They’ve got a big party planned, / where princes and nobles will mingle / in masks, costumes and finery, / so no one will know who they are” (ll. 1186-9). And he is right: for the remainder of the play, the main characters rarely know whom they speak to at any given moment, a situation often exacerbated by their self-conscious performance of courtly love conventions, such as when Baco responds to Fedra asking who he is with a complicated metaphor of himself as a sunflower, rather than simply stating his name (ll. 2822-7).
Tuna observes the events on stage and shares his conclusions with Teseo, yet this role as a partial spectator also connects him with the audience, placing him in a liminal space between performance and reality. The gracioso, despite his lower status, proves he sees more clearly than the upper-class characters through his metatheatrical sense, and delights the audience by pointing out tropes they too would recognize, proving their own discernment. At the same time, by speaking through Tuna and Vinny, Sor Juana demonstrates her grasp of the conventions of the stage.
Throughout the play Sor Juana cleverly mixes the mythical and the modern, subtly commenting on her contemporary society while winking at humanity’s perennial foibles. With metatheatrical humor and a fresh take on a classical story, Love is the Greater Labyrinth is a lively display of Sor Juana’s impressive learning and her keen eye for the eternally relevant complexities of life and love, from ancient Greece to colonial Mexico and all the way to today.
The play originally premiered on January 11th, 1689, celebrating the appointment of Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza as viceroy of New Spain, as Mexico was known under Spain’s imperial rule. The play was also performed in 1708 in Manila, then part of the Spanish East Indies, at royal festivities celebrating the birth of Prince Luis Felipe of Spain.
In 2018, an adaptation of Amor es más laberinto by Gilberto Guerrero, Paola Izquierdo and Ortos Sayuz, was presented at the Benito Juárez Theatre and at the cultural center Foro Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, both in Mexico City. In 2019, the Almagro Festival hosted a production by the Mexican theater company Teatro de la Rendija. This same company also performed Amor es más laberinto in Mexico City in 2020, as a part of the Mexican Compañía Nacional de Teatro’s initiative En compañía de la compañía. In September 2021, a Zoom reading of this English translation, directed by Melia Bensussen, was performed as part of a series presented by Diversifying the Classics and Red Bull Theater in New York, which also included an online reading of the play’s original Spanish text by Repertorio Español.
ABOUT THIS TRANSLATION
The original text used for this translation is based on two editions of Amor es más laberinto: Vern Williamsen (1998) and Celsa Carmen García Valdés (2010).