NVCC Logo -- Go to NVCC's Home Page

Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last Update: November 16, 2007

Spanish Theatre During the Renaissance

Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 12 (cont.)

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

The Golden Age of Spanish Theatre

Spanish Religious Drama

Spanish Secular Drama

Two Major Playwrights


The Golden Age of Spanish Theatre

The Output of the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre – 1500 – 1700

By 1700, 30,000 plays were written.

In quantity and vigor, the Spanish theatre was equal to England’s between 1585 and 1642,

But it fails to probe deeply into man’s destiny.

A preoccupation with a narrow code of honor limits it.

Spanish drama flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, like England, but came form different influences,

Catholicism was able to become secure in Spain while religious infighting was rampant in the rest of Europe:

Ferdinand and Isabella, after 1479, were able to unite much of Spain establish the Inquisition to hunt down and punish heretics, expel Moors and Jews—Catholicism became secure.

{Top of Page}

Influences of Spanish drama:

Moorish influence: women and honor

Christian influence: religious faith and doctrine

Spain was a dominant power by 1550, but after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, its influence and power declined.


Spanish Religious Drama

Extensive in the N.E. areas because the Moorish influence was less there. As Moors were expelled, religious drama expanded. It was similar to much of the rest of Europe till 1550, then took on distinctive characteristics.

Auto sacramentale – associate with Corpus Christi – the sacraments – combined characteristics of morality and cycle plays, human mixed with allegorical, drawn from many sources as long as it illustrated dogma.

Trade guilds were responsible for the productions, but professional troupes took over by the mid-1500’s. But they were still religious.

Toured neighboring towns.

Usually done on carros, or wagons. First 2, then 4. They were wooden frames covered with painted canvas. By the 1690’s, they were 16 feet long by 36 feet tall. Similar to the English pageant wagon staging.

By 1647, fixed platforms were also used.

Performed first in front of churches, then courtyards, then streets; no evidence that they were ever performed in the church itself.

The autos were forbidden in 1765 – called too carnival in spirit. Some of the farces and dances elements considered objectionable. Also, having the plays performed by possibly immoral actors was objectionable. However, the autos were an adjunct for professional acting for 200 years.

Spanish Secular Drama

1470-1550 – Spain and Italy were close, they both had an interest in classical learning; in 1508, a University was founded, which studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, classical dramas. Many works were translated.

Some secular works written, but not widely performed.

By 1454, many actors were paid at Corpus Christi, and by 1550 there were a number of professional troupes.

Lope de Rueda (c. 1510-1565), often called the father of Spanish professional theatre (but was probably just the most successful), toured widely, wrote plays resembling medieval farces. There were not yet any permanent Spanish theatres.

Juan de la Cueva (1550-1610) – used Spanish history and classical themes as subjects.

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) [Don Quixote]– 36 plays about contemporary Spanish life, but came to be seen as stilted after the plays of de Vega.

By the end of the 16th century – full-length plays, serious or comic, 3 acts (the 5-act form was never adopted in Spain).


The Two Major Playwrights:

The first was also the most prolific playwright:

Lope Félix de Vega Carpia [known as Lope de Vega] (1562-1635).

Member of the Armada, secretary to noblemen, many love affairs, a priest after 1614.

By 1609 he had written 483 comedies (he claimed) – some estimate 1800 plays. 450 have survived, some written in a few days. By the end of his life, it was rumored that he wrote 2 plays per week.

General characteristics of de Vega’s plays:

    1. clearly defined actions, arousing suspense, dealing with conflicting claims of love and honor
    2. happy resolved endings
    3. characters representing every rank and condition of people
    1. female roles among his best
    2. extended the simpleton character (gracioso)
    1. natural and lively dialog – MANY FORMS USED -
    Spanish equivalent of blank verse.

He was never ranked with Shakespeare – never penetrated deeply into human life, the darker side glossed over.

de Vega was the most popular playwright of his time, though there were many minor playwrights.


The second major Spanish playwright was:

Pedro Calderón de la Barca [known as Calderón] (1600-1681)

Challenged de Vega’s preeminence.

Wrote primarily for the court theatres rather than public theatres (many see this shift to court theatres leading to the decline of Spanish theatre after 1650).

Son of a court official, university-educated, entered the service of a nobleman. Became a priest after 1651 (**both major playwrights becoming priests later in life—Catholicism, remember, was strong influence).

Approximately 200 plays, 100 survive, eighty are autos.

His best secular plays came between 1622 and 1640. Two categories:

Cape and sword – capa y espada – revolving around men of minor rank -- dealing with intrigues and misunderstandings

Serious – dealing with jealousy and honor

His most famous play: Life is a Dream (c. 1636).

Philosophical allegory about the human situation and mystery of life.

Summary: Segismundo, prince by birth, reared in anonymity, is returned to his former state after being terrible (killing people, etc.) – he believes the interlude at court is a dream.

Calderón’s secular plays were usually short and light, based on classical myth—with choral passages, much of the dialog set to music.

In his autos, he embodied Catholic dogma in symbolic stories, using lyrical dialog.

Again, Spanish influence declined, including theatrical influence, after 1700, and had almost no influence on the world’s theatre.


Important terms:

de Vega



You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...


The Next Section: Neoclassicism in France



This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

Page last updated : November 16, 2007