Nicknamed "The Phoenix of Wits" and "Monster of Nature" (because of the sheer volume of his work) by Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega renewed the Spanish theatre at a time when it was starting to become a mass cultural phenomenon. He defined the key characteristics of it, and along with Calderon de la Barca and Tirso de Molina, he took Spanish baroque theatre to its greater limits.
Because of the insight, depth and ease of his plays, he is regarded among the best dramatists of Western literature, his plays still being represented worldwide. He was also one of the best lyric poets in the Spanish language, and author of various novels. Although not well known in the English-speaking world, his plays were presented in England as late as the 1660s, when diarist Samuel Pepys recorded having attended some adaptations and translations of them, although he omits mentioning the author.
Some 3,000 sonnets, three novels, four novellas, nine epic poems, and about 1,800 plays are attributed to him. Although he has been criticised for putting quantity ahead of quality, nevertheless at least 80 of his plays are considered masterpieces. He was a friend of the writers Quevedi and Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, and the sheer volume of his lifework made him envied by not only contemporary authors such as Cervantes and Gongora, but also by many others: for instance, Goethe once wished he had been able to produce such a vast and colourful work.
Themes and sourcesThe classification of this enormous mass of dramatic literature is a task of great difficulty. The terms traditionally employed – comedy, tragedy, and the like – do not apply to Lope's oeuvre. Another approach to categorization is needed. In the first place, Lope's work essentially belongs to the drama of intrigue: be the subject what it may, it is always the plot that determines everything else. It is from history, Spanish history in particular, that Lope borrows more than from any other source. It would in fact be difficult to say what national and patriotic subjects, from the reign of the half-fabulous Kint Pelayo down to the history of his own age, he did not put upon the stage.
Nevertheless, Lope's most celebrated plays belong to the class called capa y espada or "cloak and dagger", where the plots are almost always love intrigues complicated with affairs of honor, most commonly involving the petty nobility of medieval Spain.
Among the best known works of this class are El perro del hortelano (The Dog in ther Manger), La viuda de Valencia (The Widow from Valencia), and El maestro de danzar. In some of these Lope strives to set forth some moral maxim and to illustrate its abuse by a living example. Thus, on the theme that poverty is no crime, we have the play entitled Las Flores de Don Juan. Here, he uses the history of two brothers to illustrate the triumph of virtuous poverty over opulent vice, while simultaneously (but indirectly) attacking the institution of primogeniture, which often places in the hands of an unworthy person the honor and substance of a family when the younger members would be much better qualified for the trust. Such morality pieces are, however, rare in Lope's repertory; generally, his sole aim is to amuse and stir his public, not troubling himself about its instruction. His focus remains fixed on the plot.
Lope encountered a poorly organized drama: plays were composed sometimes in four acts, sometimes in three, and though they were written in verse, the structure of the versification was left far too much to the caprice of the individual writer. Because the Spanish public liked it, he adopted the style of drama then in vogue. Its narrow framework, however, he enlarged to an extraordinary degree, introducing everything that could possibly furnish material for dramatic situations: the Bible, ancient mythology, the lives of the saints, ancient history, Spanish history, the legends of the Middle Ages, the writings of the Italian novelists, current events, and everyday Spanish life in the 17th century. Prior to Lope, playwrights barely sketched the conditions of persons and their characters; with fuller observation and more careful description, Lope de Vega created real types and gave to each social order the language and accoutrements appropriate to it. The old comedy was awkward and poor in its versification; Lope introduced order into all the forms of national poetry, from the old romance couplets to the rarest lyrical combinations borrowed from Italy. He was thus justified in saying that those who should come after him had only to go on along the path which he had opened.
PlaysListed here are some of the better-known of Lope's plays:
- El maestro de danzar
- El acero de Madrid
- El perro del Hortelano
- La viuda valenciana
- Peribáñez y el comendador de Ocaña
- El anzuelo de Fenisa
- El cordobés valeroso Pedro Carbonero
- El mejor alcalde, el Rey
- El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón
- El caballero de Olmedo
- La dama boba
- El amor enamorado
- El castigo sin venganza
- Las bizarrías de Belisa
- El mayordomo de la duquesa de Amalfi
- Lo Fingido Verdadero
- El niño inocente de La Guardia (The Innocent Child of La Guardia) (What you Pretend Has Become Real) (The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward) (Justice Without Revenge) (The Stupid Lady; The Lady-Fool) (The Knight of Olmedo) (The New World Discovered by Christopher Columbus) (The Best Mayor, The King) (Fenisa’s Hook) (The Widow from Valencia) (The Gardener’s Dog, a variation of The Dog in the Manger fable) (The Steel of Madrid) (1594) (The Dancing Master)