Thursday 20 June 2024

The Surgeon of Honour by Pedro Calderón de la Barca [with addendum]

Before I begin, here’s some context: Calderón, born in 1600, is Lope de Vega’s successor on the Spanish stage. Wikipedia says “Calderón is widely regarded as the perfecter of Spanish Baroque theatre and is regarded as Spain’s greatest dramatist.” The Surgeon of Honour was, according to my edition, written in 1635, the year Lope de Vega died. 

So what was happening on the English stage at this time? I’m not sure. Shakespeare had been dead nearly 20 years. John Webster, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Thomas Middleton were all dead. Ben Jonson was in the last few years of his life. I guess not much was happening. 

1/ The play begins with Prince Enrique falling off his horse and losing consciousness. When he opens his eyes, before him is Doña Mencía, a woman he once loved. 

“ENRIQUE I could believe

It if the happiness I feel 

Were not, through being mine, 

To vanish suddenly. But now 

I am obliged to ask myself 

If I am dreaming while asleep

Or wide-awake while I now dream. 

For I both seem to be awake

And still asleep. But why insist, 

If putting to the test the truth 

Of things involves an even greater risk? 

If it is true I am sleep, 

Then let me never be awake; 

And if it’s true I am awake, 

Then never let me fall asleep.” 

(Act 1) 

(translated by Gwynne Edwards) 

I like that. 

Poor Enrique, Mencía is now married to a Don Gutierre Alfonso Solís. 

2/ Mencía is jealous that when Don Gutierre travels to Seville, he might meet his ex, Leonor. 

“GUTIERRE […] Consider how the flame burns at

Its brightest in the dark of night, 

And seems to occupy the sphere of 

The wind; but when the sun appears, 

All other light is quickly put 

To flight and dazzled by this one 

Superior majesty….” 

(Act 1) 

What a smooth-talking bastard. 

But soon we get to see Leonor’s perspective, when she petitions to the King and complains about what Don Gutierre has done to her—it makes me think about Measure for Measure and a few subplots in Don Quixote—but the play develops and we realise that it’s more like Othello. Don Gutierre breaks up with Leonor because he gets a glimpse of a man leaving her chamber and suspects her of infidelity, without asking her and giving her a chance to defend herself, and then a similar thing happens with his wife Mencía. 

I like this exchange when Enrique, thanks to the help of Mencía’s servant Jacinta, enters the house and meets Mencía: 

“ENRIQUE […] I do not wish to kill my prey; 

I wish to see my lovely heron speed 

Away through skies of blue and soar

Towards the golden palace of the sun. 

MENCÍA The heron does, my lord, have this

Ability. They say that instinct drives

It to aspire to the heavens, 

Like some bright comet lacking its 

Bright tail of fire, winged lightning

Without its flame, or feathered cloud 

Possessing instinct, or fiery flash 

Endowed with great spirit. But soon 

It’s seen by birds of prey who block

Its path, and even though it tries 

To fly away from them, it’s said 

That it already knows the hawk 

On whose account it soon must die…” 

(Act 2) 

This is good, I like this. 

The Surgeon of Honour is like Othello without Iago: it’s about jealousy, honour, and an honour-killing. 

3/ I will not compare Calderón and Shakespeare—there are only a handful of writers who can stand next to Shakespeare—I will judge The Surgeon of Honour as its own thing. 

The long soliloquies, in which Don Gutierre reasons about what he has seen and what it might mean, and struggles against his jealousy, are good. The development of his jealousy and misunderstanding, and of the actions, is good. 

Britannica says

“In this direction, Calderón developed the dramatic form and conventions established by Lope de Vega, based on primacy of action over characterization, with unity in the theme rather than in the plot.”

In a way, it is true, but Britannica also says: 

“For two centuries after his death, his preeminence remained unchallenged, but the realistic canons of criticism that came to the fore toward the end of the 19th century produced a reaction in favour of the more “lifelike” drama of Lope de Vega. Calderón appeared mannered and conventional: the structure of his plots seemed contrived, his characters stiff and unconvincing, his verse often affected and rhetorical.”

I very much disagree, at least when it comes to The Surgeon of Honour. Don Gutierre’s misunderstanding and false reasoning are convincing—if you only know what he knows, you would think the way he thinks (though of course I hope you wouldn’t actually kill your wife). Mencía’s actions are also convincing.

I also like the scene where Don Arias (the man who Don Gutierre saw leaving Leonor’s chamber) proposes to Leonor and she rejects him, saying that marrying him would make others (especially Don Gutierre) think that they were involved when they were not, and it would taint her honour—she’s crazy, but she’s like the heroines in Henry James or Edith Wharton who choose dignity and self-respect over their own happiness. 

But it has to be said that Act 3 doesn’t work very well.

First of all, the killing is done by someone else and happens off-stage, which, in a way, places the tragedy of Mencía’s death below Don Gutierre’s mental struggle and suffering.

Secondly, the ending is rather ridiculous. Don Gutierre is never told about his wife’s innocence. And the King?

“KING You know, 

Gutierre, there’s a sure way 

To deal with it. 

GUTIERRE But how, your majesty? 

KING I recommend the remedy

You’ve used already. 

GUTIERRE Which remedy? 

KING You have to let her bleed a little. 

GUTIERRE What can you mean? 

KING But then be sure 

To clean the bloodstain from your door.” 

(Act 3) 

The King approves of honour-killings! And nobody tells Don Gutierre that he was wrong, that Mencía was innocent! That it was an utterly senseless death! 

His order to Don Gutierre (I’m not revealing it) is also silly. 

The ending makes me angry.

Addendum: Nearly 7 hours since my blog post, having read the introduction by Gwynne Edwards and an essay by Roberta J. Thiher called “The Final Ambiguity of "El médico de su honra"”, I continue to find the play’s ending repellent.

As Don Gutierre, within the play, never learns the truth, he gets off both before the law and in his own conscience. I don’t mean that there must be justice in the ending—I know in life there often isn’t, and many people get away with their evil acts—but does it not matter that Don Gutierre killed his wife because of his jealousy and fancy, because he only got a few pieces of the puzzle and imagined the rest? 

Even the way it ends is distasteful. 

“GUTIERRE Do not forget. I have already been 

The surgeon of my honour. It is 

A skill, I promise you, that lasts forever. 

LEONOR If I am ever sick, Gutierre, do

Not hesitate to cure me.

GUTIERRE Then here’s my hand, my dear. And now 

We end The Surgeon of Honour.” 

What the hell is this? 

I also don’t like Thiher’s arguments about the ambiguity of Mencía. It’s true that Mencía doesn’t love Don Gutierre. It’s true that she seems to still have feelings for Enrique. But so what? The fact remains that she does nothing wrong, that she has no affair, that she arranges no meeting with Enrique, that she defends her honour and reputation, that she stays loyal to her husband. It’s barbaric enough to kill a wife over an affair, let alone her thoughts! 

The play left a bad taste in my mouth. 


  1. Lots going on in English theater. The one masterpiece I know is John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" (1631), the decadent end of the revenge tragedy tradition. That is a lot of what was going on, decay and exhaustion.

    But there was also a vogue for city comedies. The big hit of 1635 was Richard Brome's "The Sparagus Garden", as unlikely as that sounds. Likely of more historical than artistic interest, but I am curious.

    It might be interesting to consider that Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca were both Catholic priests at some point in their lives.

    1. That's cool. Is the John Ford good?
      Do you think that Calderón may have agreed with the honour-killing?

  2. Yes, good or perhaps good-bad. A nightmare.

    Maybe agreed, maybe disagreed but fatalistic, what can you do.

    1. I'm idly wondering whether to get more Spanish plays or go back to English, next time I'm at the library.


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