Sunday 16 June 2024

The Dog in the Manger by Lope de Vega, contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes

Born 15 years after Cervantes and 2 years before Shakespeare, Lope de Vega died 19 years after the two of them and claimed to have written something like 1,500 plays*, about 400 of which survive. In Spain, he was a successful playwright when Cervantes wasn’t (Nabokov called Cervantes a frustrated playwright who found his medium in the novel). But most importantly, Jonathan Bate argues in The Genius of Shakespeare that if the Spanish Armada hadn't been defeated by England and Spanish had become the international language rather than English, Lope de Vega would have taken the place of Shakespeare.

Well, I have to find out for myself. 

(But how many of those 400 plays—or let’s say 50, the number of plays that have been translated into English—do I have to read before I can deliver my judgement?) 

1/ The Dog in the Manger is, in the original, El Perro del hortelano. I read Jill Booty’s translation from 1961. 

Was the play originally written in verse? Jill Booty translates it into prose.

The trouble with reading classic non-English language plays is that sometimes you think you found the play but it’s “adapted by…” or “a version by…”. That’s what happened with quite a few Spanish plays I picked up. So I got this one, but found in the small print that “Miss Jill Booty would describe her translations as ‘acting versions’” and she “has had to sacrifice much Golden Age rhetoric in the interests of producing credible dialogue”, and now I have no idea how far it is from Lope de Vega’s text. 

Oh well. 

2/ Lope de Vega can be quite funny. 

The play begins with Diana, Countess of Belflor**, shouting that some man’s just in her chamber in the middle of the night. Her people find a hat. 

“DIANA But the feathers I saw… why the hat was loaded with plumes, how can they have shriveled to this? 

FABIO They must have got burned when he threw it at the lamp, madam. Feathers would go up like chaff, you may be sure. Why, did not the same thing happen to Icarus? As soon as he flew too near the sun, his feathers caught fire, and down he fell into the foaming sea. That is what must have happened. The lamp was the sun, the hat was Icarus, its feathers were consumed by fire, and it fell on the stairs—where I found it. 

DIANA I am in no mood for jesting, Fabio...” 

(Act 1) 

Diana then finds out that the man is Teodoro, her secretary, and he’s in love with one of her maids, Marcela. She’s jealous, she has always had a thing for Teodoro. The premise of the play is that she cannot have him, as he’s socially beneath her, but she doesn’t let anyone else have him either—that’s why the play is called El Perro del hortelano, the Spanish equivalent of “dog in the manger”.

Anyway, upon finding out, Diana comes to Teodoro and makes up a story about a friend of hers, a highborn woman, as a roundabout way of confessing to him her feelings: “this lady […] had never felt any loving desire for him. But when she saw him love another, the jealousy she felt awoke her love for him…” 

This bit is interesting: 

“TEODORO You reason well. And yet Icarus, and Phaeton too, plunged down to their destruction, the one with his wax wings destroyed by the furnace of the sun, and the other the golden horses cast headlong upon a rocky mountain, because they aimed too high. 

DIANA But the sun is not a woman…” 

(Act 1) 

Icarus again. Note that Diana says “the sun is not a woman.” 

Now look at the scene where Diana’s suitors are watching each other: 

“CELIO Have you never seen a fair May morning break, when the sun shines in the sign of the bull—the white bull, the poets call him—that grazes among the ruddy clouds of dawn? So came she forth, and yet more perfect, for Diana, the Countess of Belflor, shines with two suns, while the heavens boast only one. 

RICARDO […] You do well to depict so fair a landscape and to portray Diana as the sun, for so she is, and as the sun passes through each sign of the zodiac in turn, so her eyes pass over her suitors, resting on none. See, there is Federico, waiting for his share of the golden beams. 

CELIO Which of you will prove the bull this morning? Upon whom will her spring light fall? 

RICARDO Federico was here before me, and so wins the sign of Taurus, but I will be the Lion, and hope her warmer gaze shall shine on me.” 

(Act 2) 

The sun imagery and the Icarus metaphor recur throughout the play. Teodoro says “my reason is to blame, that allows my hopes to soar too near the sun” and at some point says “Oh, sun, melt to nothing the waxen wings that bore me up so presumptuously to set myself beside an angel!” (Act 2). 

3/ There is a scene where Diana, in anger and jealousy, gives Teodoro a bloody nose, spoiling his handkerchief.

Then she comes back. 

“DIANA Show me your handkerchief. 


DIANA Give me it. 

TEODORO Why do you want it? 

DIANA I want it, Teodoro. Go and speak to Octavio. I have ordered him to give you two thousand escudos. 

TEODORO For what? 

DIANA You will need some new handkerchiefs. [She goes

TEODORO Did you ever hear such madness? 

TRISTÁN She must be bewitched.” 

(Act 2) 

Not hard to understand Lope de Vega’s popularity in the Spanish Golden Age. There isn’t much depth in The Dog in the Manger, but it’s a fun play. I will not compare him to Shakespeare (for now), but if we compare him and Christopher Marlowe, Lope de Vega scores two points against Marlowe: firstly, his characters are more individualised whereas Marlowe tends to have one important character (either a Machiavelli or an overreacher) and everyone else speaks with the same voice; secondly, Marlowe isn’t good with female characters whereas Lope de Vega’s Diana is a rather good depiction of a proud, unpredictable woman who keeps changing and keeps contradicting herself (just don’t expect Cleopatra). Marcela is also all right—in some ways, she mirrors Diana in her games with Teodoro, but she is different. 

(Obviously I’m being unfair, Marlowe’s power is mostly in his poetry—“his mighty line”—rather than characterisation and psychology). 

If I’m not mistaken, in Spain women were allowed to perform onstage in the late 16th, early 17th century—this means that Lope de Vega had an advantage over Shakespeare, John Webster, and other English playwrights. 

I’m going to read more Lope de Vega. 

*: Most likely a shameless exaggeration, but he probably wrote about 500, which is already a lot. The Shakespeare canon has fewer than 40 plays. 

**: I don’t know where that is, but the play is set in Naples.  

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