Tuesday 18 June 2024

Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega

Fuenteovejuna, sometimes spelt Fuente Ovejuna, is another famous play by Lope de Vega. I read Jill Booty’s translation from 1961.

It was originally in verse and translated into prose. 

1/ Look at this conversation between two women: 

“LAURENCIA The Commander may think I am just a spring chicken, but he will find me tough meat for his table. I do not want his so-called “love,” Pascuala, I had rather have a sizzling rasher of bacon for breakfast, with a slice of my own baked bread, and a sly glass of wine from mother’s jar. […] For all their wiles and tricks, their so-called love serves no other purpose than to get us to bed with pleasure, to wake in the morning with disgust.” 

(Act 1) 


“PASCUALA […] Men are just the same [as sparrows]. When they need us, we are their life, their being, their soul, their everything. But when their lust is spent, they behave worse than the sparrows and we are no longer “Sweety-hearts” or even “idiots,” but drabs and whores!

LAURENCIA You cannot trust one of them. 

PASCUALA Not one, Laurencia.” 


That reminds me of Emilia in Othello

“’Tis not a year or two shows us a man:

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;

To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,

They belch us…” 

The difference is that Shakespeare depicts the contrasting perspectives of the ordinary, earthy Emilia and the saintly and naïve Desdemona, whereas Laurencia and Pascuala agree with each other. 

Anyway, note “spring chicken”, “tough meat”. 

Later on, there’s a moment when Fernando Gómez the Commander wants to have Laurencia. 

“LAURENCIA Flores, let us go. 


FLORES Mind what you say! You are plucky little chicks! 

LAURENCIA Has not your master received enough flesh for one day? 

ORTUÑO But yours is the kind he wants.” 

(Act 1) 

The Commander is “a whore-master and a tyrant”. He forces all the women, virgin or married, to have sex with him, and has the men beaten up.  

“COMMANDER Oh, these easy women. I love them well and pay them ill. If only they valued themselves at their real worth, Flores! 

FLORES When a man is never put in doubt, the delight he gains means nothing to him. A quick surrender denies the exquisite anticipation of pleasure. But has not the philosopher said that there are also those women who as naturally desire a man as form desires its matter? And that it should be so is not surprising, for—

COMMANDER A man crazed with love is ever delighted to be easily and instantly rewarded, but then as easily and instantly he forgets the object of his desire. Even the most generous is quick to forget that which cost him little.” 

(Act 2)  

Again, these two characters agree with each other. 

2/ Fuenteovejuna is among the Lope de Vega plays most frequently translated into English, and I’m under the impression that it’s also among his most famous and acclaimed plays in general (all right, I don’t speak Spanish, but I can see its multiple mentions on the Spanish Wikipedia page about the playwright). 

Is it so popular because it’s essentially a revolutionary play? 

“ALDERMAN Die, or bring death to the tyrants, for we are many, they are few. 

BARTILDO What, rise in arms against our master? 

ESTEBAN Only the King is master under heaven, not Fernando Gómez. If God is with us in our zeal for justice, then how can we go wrong?” 

(Act 3) 

Laurencia’s angry, accusatory speech in this scene is excellent. “Well may this village be called Fuenteovejuna for its people are nothing but sheep. A flock of bleating sheep who run from curs.”

It is an exciting play—Lope de Vega knows how to hook your attention, and he’s also good at the crowd scenes. The mutiny scenes are good; the scene where the judge interrogates the entire village after the murder of the Commander, and everyone under torture still says “Fuenteovejuna did it”, is very good. It’s good fun. 

But there isn’t much depth or complexity in the play. Fernando Gómez (the Commander) is a two-dimensional villain and the peasants are good people. Consider Shakespeare: Shakespeare always explores different aspects and depicts contrasting viewpoints; there’s no play in which he doesn’t do something to complicate things, to make it impossible to know with certainty where he stands. Cervantes does something similar in Don Quixote, which is why there have been lots of different views, different interpretations. 

The disagreement over Fuenteovejuna may be about whether Lope de Vega has sympathy for “the mass” rising up and killing their “oppressor” in a general sense, or only sympathises with this particular case (a real event from the 15th century) because of Fernando Gómez’s tyranny and cruelty, but there is no doubt that he thinks the Commander has it coming because of his actions towards the villagers. Lope de Vega does nothing to humanise the villain, to complicate the revenge of the villagers. 

I should add that this is not an early play. Fuenteovejuna was published in 1619, and R. D. F. Pring-Mill writes in the introduction that it “may have been written as early as 1611 (Morley and Bruerton place it between 1611 and 1618, and probably between 1612 and 1614).” Lope de Vega was born in 1562 (2 years before Shakespeare) but lived for a relatively long time, till 1635, and Fuenteovejuna belongs to the middle period of his career. 

That said, it’s a fun play and Laurencia is a vivid character. 

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