From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 12.1 (1992): 93-103.
Copyright © 1992, The Cervantes Society of America

Cervantes on Human Absurdity: The Unifying Theme of La casa de los celos y selvas de Ardenia


JUDGED by contemporary Spanish standards and probably by those of any theatre of a popular and commercial nature, as a writer of comedias Cervantes displays a remarkable disregard for that surface and essentially Classical form of artistic coherence in dramatic works which consists in a unified body of incident (unity of “plot”) and which presupposes that incident, as distinct from characterization or a significant theme (meaning), is the most important thing in a play or that it offers, at least, the best source of common interest. Whilst Lope characteristically develops a single chain of dramatic events or a linked main and secondary chain (main plot and subplot or background action), Cervantes is inclined to imitate the freer, more diversified and episodic structure of the plots of epic and romance, perhaps the most extreme examples of this proclivity being El trato de Argel (probably his first play), Los baños de Argel, and Pedro de Urdemalas (probably his last), in all of which there is an exaggerated tendency for the extended intrigue of conventional drama to dissolve into a series of micro-actions and self-contained episodes linked by subject (captivity in Algiers) or by character (Pedro de Urdemalas).



     Cervantes would doubtless have defended his plots partly by reference to the aesthetic importance of variety. He highlights this in Pedro de Urdemalas, where a statement by the hero retroactively transforms the beauty of variety into a dramatic theme.1 Almost certainly he would also have appealed to the principle of exemplarity and perhaps to the doctrine of verisimilitude, arguing that his diversified plots were, in part, a means of capturing the diversity of truth and that the spectator or, at any rate, the intelligent spectator was expected to look through them to a coherent meollo of meaning. The Parkerian model of the structure of the comedia according to which, in the final analysis, unity is thematic is probably more valid for Cervantes' theatre than for that of any of his competitors. All his comedias have, I suspect, a “deep” unity of theme, dependent upon the complex development of a single theme (e.g. Spanish gallardía [El gallardo español]) or the development of a closely knit set of themes which analyse some subject (e.g. captive life in Algiers). That Cervantes' comedias do, at least, tend to be unified thematically was indicated by Joaquín Casalduero in his study of “sentido y forma” in Cervantes' theatre and has since been confirmed by Edward H. Friedman in a stimulating review of the whole question of Cervantes' approach to structure in the comedia.2 Of plays that continue to be problematical the foremost is La casa de los celos, a highly inverisimilar drama, whose origins lie in chivalresque literature

     1  Dicen que la variación
hace a la naturaleza
colma de gusto y belleza,
y está muy puesto en razón.
Un manjar a la contina
enfada, y un solo objeto
a los ojos del discreto
da disgusto y amohína.
Un solo vestido cansa.
En fin, con la variedad
se muda la voluntad
y el espíritu descansa.

Teatro completo, edited by Florencio Sevilla Arroyo and Antonio Rey Hazas (Madrid: Planeta, 1987), III.2660-69. References to La casa de los celos are also to this edition. Roman numerals refer to Acts, Arabic numerals to lines, except where indicated.
     2 Joaquín Casalduero, Sentido y forma del teatro de Cervantes, second edition (Madrid: Gredos, 1966); Edward H. Friedman, The Unifying Concept: Approaches to the Structure of Cervantes' “Comedias” (York, SC: Spanish Literature Publications Company, 1981).

12.1 (1992) Cervantes on Human Absurdity 95

and chiefly in Boiardo's Orlando innamorato, about chivalresque love (that of Reinaldos and Roldán for Angélica), pastoral love (Corinto and Lauso vs Rústico for Clori), and chivalresque adventure (escapades into the Forest of Arden by Marfisa, Boiardo's female knight-errant, and by a literary Bernardo del Carpio), with mythological accretions (interventions by Venus and Cupid). Although it clearly has certain motifs, like, for example, celos, La casa de los celos is, as yet, far from revealing a definite thematic unity under rigorous critical inspection. Friedman suspects that it is not in fact unified thematically (“conceptually”, Friedman would say) but observes that there is “a unifying point of reference”, namely “literature” (pp. 37-38), and sees in this a certain coherence of purpose. In Friedman's view the play explores the otherness of literary reality: “More than the examination of a specific ideology, La casa de los celos is an exploratory search into the nature of literary reality, and, perhaps, the glorification of literary autonomy” (p. 124). I have suggested elsewhere that Friedman's reading of La casa de los celos is excessively modern and that Cervantes' dramatic treatment of fantasy implies strong neo-Aristotelian critical sympathies.3 In my earlier study I stressed that these sympathies did not produce a uniform, single-minded treatment of the fantastic. I wish to show here that La casa de los celos nevertheless possesses coherence and that it derives its coherence from a theme. That theme is admittedly obscure, but is not, I think, in this respect entirely uncharacteristic of Cervantine drama. La casa de los celos is an extreme example of how the deep, intellectual unity of Cervantes' comedias can be hard to discern and well illustrates what I believe are the causes. One is thematic understatement, a tendency not to articulate themes as explicitly or directly as is required for immediate clarity. A deeper cause is what Friedman calls “multiperspectivism”; in other words, a tendency to examine a subject or to develop a theme with great suppleness of vision and diversity of illustration, which, whilst enriching the drama, veils its artistic wholeness. Other causes are a capacity to devise themes which are dramatically novel or, at any rate, unusual, and a fondness for themes (or sub-themes) of a peculiarly theatrical or aesthetic nature which are worked out in the auditorium, in the

     3 “Cervantes and Inverisimilar Fiction: Reconsidering La casa de los celos y selvas de Ardenia”, in Studies in Honour of John Varey by his Colleagues and Pupils, edited by Charles Davis and Alan Deyermond (London: Westfield College, 1991), pp. 127-36.


“audience response”, rather than by means of conventional, internal or formal exemplarity.4 In La casa de los celos all these sources of difficulty converge.
     La casa de los celos is an ample treatment of the theme of human absurdity, that is to say, the capacity of men and women to behave and think in ways that are unwittingly irrational or wilfully unreasonable. The theme is a comment both on ordinary life, or our relationship with the real world, and on imaginative art and the psychology of aesthetic experience. As a comment on art the theme consists in volatile and mainly parodic satire which I considered in my previous study and whose targets are what Cervantes regards as excessive flights of imagination both in fiction and in poetry (where the target is poetically implausible imagery) and a case of excessive intellectualism: allegory (figurative depiction) as used for moral persuasion. Literary satire is the clearest expression of Cervantes' realistic outlook on imaginative art and is rooted in the view that the power to persuade, intellectually (seducing belief) or morally (moving the will), is proportionate to verisimilitude. It competes with a different approach to fantasy which lies in sensational, typically highly spectacular stage imitation. This approach is justified thematically in that it produces an irrational audience-response in which is revealed the affective power of impressions which deceive only the senses. The spectator marvels at what he knows are simply physical illusions. His awareness that what he observes is fantastic is, paradoxically, an essential ingredient of his wonder, though means that his wonder is liable to be tinged with amusement, as Cervantes recognizes in occasional light-handed and humorous allusions to the fiction's incredibility.5 The dramatic

     4 The most ingenious example is La gran sultana, a play on the subject of the nature of truth which stresses the subjectivity of judgment and thus of verisimilitude, and whose main theme is the gullibility of mosqueteros (intellectually inferior spectators). The main theme is internalized to the limited extent that the comedia contains an ingenious kind of mise en abyme in which Madrigal and the Kadi, who are minor characters viewed simply in the context of the plot, are stage embodiments of Cervantes and the duped spectator. See Paul Lewis-Smith, “La gran sultana doña Catalina de Oviedo: A Cervantine Practical joke”, FMLS, 17 (1981), 68-82.
     5 The most pertinent example is the disbelieving admiratio of Marfisa, a stranger in the drama's miraculous world (the Forest of Arden) who is unable to come to terms with her new experiences. See Lewis-Smith, “Cervantes and Inverisimilar Fiction”, pp. 128-29.

12.1 (1992) Cervantes on Human Absurdity 97

exploration of the power of illusion shows him projecting his theme into the auditorium. It is not, however, to imaginative art and aesthetic experience that the theme refers fundamentally. The main and most carefully deliberated source of thematic unity is Cervantes' kaleidoscopic vision of absurdity in ordinary life, presented through the distancing prism of literature and mythology, suitably adapted. This aspect of the theme is aired, though in a very economical way that consists in making characters condemn each others' conduct, not always, however, on intelligent grounds, using various thematically pertinent terms: desatino, desvarío, one of the corresponding verbs, or negative atinar.6
     The thematic centrepiece is demented sensual love. In the amatory behaviour of Reinaldos and Roldán Cervantes shows in a heavy-handed, more or less caricaturesque way how physical love in men who are young and exceptionally virile in a primal, thoroughly physical sense can incapacitate the intellect (blind or simply overpower it), leading the lover to moral and literal destruction. The knights' disordered moral condition is repeatedly stressed in their failures to respond in a positive way to curative shocks to which they are subjected by the sage-enchanter Malgesí, all of which are appeals to reason and most of which are lessons, employing spectacular allegorical techniques, in which the knights are shown their folly. The first and most elaborate shock is the miniature allegorical drama on the evils of Celos that is vainly staged for the benefit of Reinaldos (II, pp. 143-47) and from which derives the first half of the drama's title. This is followed by other shocks whose purpose is to change the ways of Roldán by making him see how his passion is morally destroying him and by stimulating his love of honour: first come sermons by Mala Fama and Buena Fama (II, pp. 155-59); later comes the appearance of a phantom Angélica who changes into a hideous satyr, a traditional symbol of lust, when Roldán endeavours to grasp the object of his desire (III, pp. 173-74). Reinaldos, meanwhile, is subjected to a vision of Angélica being murdered (III, pp. 166-67). Malgesí makes the strictly rational assumption that the lover's passion will naturally abate if he knows or believes that his beloved has died and thus loses all hope of fulfilment. His ploy, however, badly misfires in a way

     6 This airing of the theme is concentrated in Act I: 47, 342, 437, 463, 504, 629, and 714.


which shows how hopelessness can lead to despair, and thence to the absurdity of physical self-destruction: Malgesí must intervene in person to prevent Reinaldos from taking his own life.
     The knights' failures to respond reasonably to Malgesí's interventions reflect not only their own excessive sensuality and disordered psyches but also the unbalanced temper and the moral inexperience of their self-appointed guardian. They show not only how lust may destroy the power of reason in men who are exceptionally sensual, but also how men of the opposite hue —those who are exceptionally intellectual— are liable to place excessive faith in reason. If Reinaldos and Roldán are fools of the flesh, Malgesí is a fool of the intellect. The voice of true wisdom speaks, laconically, through the ancient Spirit of Merlin, who accuses Malgesí of ignorance on the first occasion of defeat: “Malgesí, ¡cuán poco sabes!” (II.1348).7
     The dramatic dissection of the evils attendant on physical love emphasizes that of celos —an irrational kind of jealousy that originates in curiosity and feeds on fear and suspicion. The dramatic example is Reinaldos. On two occasions curiosity leads him through fear and suspicion wrongly to suspect Roldán of bearing him malice, producing a fit of celos in each case. The first occasion is at the drama's very beginning, where he sees Roldán in the company of Galalón, wonders why the two are laughing, and fearfully imagines that they are jesting at his poor attire. His suspicion flouts probability, for, as is soon revealed, Roldán is good-natured and looks on his cousin with affection. The first to hear Reinaldos' rage is Malgesí, who is quick to condemn it in a remark which initiates the linguistic motif of “absurdity”: “¿No ves que desatinas?” (47). Reinaldos is beleaguered by celos again when he awakens from sleep in the Forest of Arden to discover that Roldán, who is now his rival for Angélica, has come across him and lain down to sleep beside him. He wonders why his cousin has not killed him. He initially makes the correct assumption that Roldán has been motivated by chivalry; but fear intervenes to sow doubt, making him wonder if his rival's behaviour is a gesture of contempt (I, pp. 125-26). When Roldán

     7 The futility of Malgesí's efforts is primarily a reflection of the power of passion but also involves a subtle criticism of allegory as a method of moral persuasion, aimed, perhaps, at allegorical drama. See Lewis-Smith, “Cervantes and Inverisimilar Fiction”, pp. 133-34.

12.1 (1992) Cervantes on Human Absurdity 99

awakens speaking the name of Angélica, fear immediately becomes suspicion, which opens the door to celos. Reinaldos himself dissects his moral condition:

¡Ansias que me consumís,
sospechas que me cansáis,
recelos que me acabáis,
celos que me pervertís! (691-94)

Curiosidad, Temor, and Sospecha appear as guardians of irrational jealousy in the allegorical drama that is subsequently staged for Reinaldos by Malgesí, who vainly hopes that the horror of what Reinaldos sees and the symbolical pain of the touch of Celos will bring the knight to heel.
     Irrational jealousy is a sub-theme which contributes both to the larger sub-theme of demented love and to that of wayward curiosity. The latter extends into the characterization of Bernardo del Carpio, who stands on the periphery of the amatory interest protagonized by Reinaldos and Roldán, and that of the King of Castile, the unseen Alfonso el Casto. In Bernardo del Carpio curiosity leads to absurd behaviour by way of egoistic ambition and bravery. Bernardo is a bold adventurer dedicated to the pursuit of fame. Fueled by curiosity about the Forest of Arden, his ambition leads him to venture abroad when by rational standards it is obvious that he belongs in Spain, for Moors are threatening the Castilian frontier and his father is languishing in prison. The rational point of view is presented through other characters: Bernardo's Biscayan squire, who accuses him of being “loco” (I.341) and “curioso mucho atrevido” (357) and of committing a “desatino “ (342); the Spirit of Merlin, who speaks of his “curioso desvarío “ (I.504); and Castilla, a phantom who echoes Merlin's feelings, is presumably his agent or else Merlin himself in disguise, and who forcibly takes Bernardo home by a subterranean route (III, pp. 178-80). Castilla introduces the figure of King Alfonso. In the King of Castile curiosity leads to absurd imaginings by way of care and a forgetful kind of fear. Castilla returns Bernardo to Spain to rescue his country from the “pensamientos en temor fundados” and “vanos cuidados” (2484-85) which have beset the King on pondering what could happen after his death. The prospect of a Moorish invasion has so worried Alfonso as to cause him to lose sight of Castillas proven resources of valour,

100 PAUL LEWIS-SMITH Cervantes

as a result of which he has decided to bequeath Castile to the King of France. Bernardo's task is to cure him of his mental “dolencia” (2482), revive the depressed Castilian morale, and insure that the transference of power does not take place.
     The desatino committed by Bernardo del Carpio is similar in form to one that is committed by Angélica and her brother Argalia. They too undertake absurd adventures abroad. They, however, are the agents of their father, the unseen King Galafrón, and it is he who is primarily at fault. Galafrón is one of two clownish illustrations, the other being the knight Galalón, of how persons who are unscrupulously ambitious may be led by dreams of self-advancement to behave with extreme impetuosity, failing to make rational, prudent use of imagination or memory. Galafrón would conquer France, but in order to mount a successful invasion he must, first, eliminate the Twelve Peers. He has launched a plan to achieve this aim which requires Angélica to travel to Paris in the company of Argalia, there to announce that her father will give her hand in marriage to any knight who can defeat her brother in combat. Lances alone may be used, and any contender whom Argalia topples will be obliged to become his prisoner (I, pp. 114-15). Malgesí reveals the King's true purpose and how he intends to achieve it: Angélica is merely a lure, her function being to enable her brother to capture the Twelve Peers by using against them an enchanted lance that will knock an opponent to the ground at a single touch (I, pp. 116-17). The plan, which Cervantes adapts from the opening canto of Orlando innamorato, is the product of an absurd lack of prudent imagination. Argalia is little more than a boy (as Angélica points out, doubtless thinking she is being clever [233-34]) and has no protection against an opponent who succeeds in striking the first blow or one who, finding himself at a disadvantage, treacherously draws his sword. The plot is soon undone: before Reinaldos or Roldán can reach him, Argalia has been slaughtered by the unscrupulous Moor Ferraguto, who breaks the terms of combat (“no guardó el concierto / debido a la milicia y su decoro” [I.835-36]). The absurdity of Galafrón's plot is presumably responsible for the incredulous response that Malgesí's revelation of his secret purpose elicits from the Emperor Charlemagne (I.326-28). The latter's disbelief can be seen as both an authorial joke about Galafrón's stupidity, similar in kind to the Spirit of Merlin's contempt for the methods of Malgesí, and an ironical contribution to the drama's theme in which the Emperor's desatino

12.1 (1992) Cervantes on Human Absurdity 101

—his presumptuous disbelief— signifies a failure of imagination whose cause is his very intelligence.
     Whilst the impetuosity of King Galafrón signifies a failure of imagination, that of Galalón involves multiple failures of memory. He commits embarrassing or humiliating blunders in thoughtless attempts at winning favour and influence with his monarch. His initial blunder is mild: he forgets that it takes two to fight, as a result of which he unnecessarily disturbs the Emperor when Reinaldos loses his temper with Roldán, and mistakenly expects to exploit a rift between the two for his own political advantage (I, pp. 109-12). Later he forgets his own nature, and finally he forgets what has happened in the recent past: he hastily undertakes to vanquish Marfisa only to realize when he meets her for battle that he is a coward and incapable of trying (III, pp. 173 and 175-77) and then lays claim to a glorious victory forgetting that Malgesí, his enemy, is in full possession of the facts (III, pp. 183-84).
     Numerous characters illustrate error in the form of gullibility (groundless belief in something they are told). The extreme example is the clownish one of the simpleminded Rústico, a character descended from the sixteenth-century pastor bobo, who is twice deceived by the mocking lies of the mischievous Corinto in the pastoral interest that hinges on Clori's avaricious preference of Rústico to Corinto and Lauso (II, pp. 139-41; III, pp. 161-63).Other examples are Roldán, who cannot see through the friendly exterior of Galalón (I.161-62); Bernardo, who trusts in flattering hearsay about him (III.2355-60) and is corrected by Marfisa (“Contra la razón te pones” [2361]); Angélica, who is taken in by Corinto's gestures of valour (III, pp. 180-81); and Charlemagne, when he believes the vainglorious Galalón (III.2269-70, 2643-56).
     Another of the drama's teeming sub-themes is error as caused by inborn narrow-mindedness. A minor example is Angélica's duenna, who describes her mistress's travels abroad as “desatinos” (I.437) and is accused of talking nonsense in return (“No atinas con la verdad” [463]). The duenna's accusation is rich in irony, for it is accurate in a sense of which she herself is unaware and stupid in the sense in which it is intended, being in the latter respect the reflection of an absurd, blind preoccupation with physical comfort: the duenna's mind is closed to the idea that it may, at times, be worthwhile to tolerate hardship. More striking examples of prejudice are the pastores Corinto and

102 PAUL LEWIS-SMITH Cervantes

Lauso as disdained admirers of the pastora Clori and the disdainful pastora herself. Corinto and Lauso both display an absurdly Arcadian, “spiritual” as opposed to materialistic, view of their merits as suitors, being utterly and therefore unreasonably contemptuous of Clori's preference of the simple, physically grotesque, but industrious and prosperous Rústico to their own charming but idle and impoverished selves. Their presumptuous narrow-mindedness is duly ridiculed by their beloved (II, pp. 136-37).8 Clori, however, is also absurd in her way. Although she claims that her values are rational (“Sigo lo que es razón” [II.1166]), what she herself regards as reasonable is worldliness carried to a ridiculous extreme. Her limpet-like attachment to the clownish Rústico is a caricature of avarice and an implicit satire of modern and especially metropolitan woman. Its satirical significance is revealed through the figure of Amor, an elegantly clothed, whimsically urbane Cupid who reflects on the almighty power of money in modern courtship (II, pp. 149-50) and who personifies, in effect, the worldly-wise modern male.
     Corinto and Lauso illustrate a kind of prejudiced outlook which involves self-conceit. Thus Clori accuses them of retailing “discreción” with “arrogancia” (II.993). Self-conceit is another subdivision of the general theme. The impossible boasts, avowals, and threats which Reinaldos and, to a lesser extent, Roldán both make contribute to it as comic examples of verbal arrogance prompted, in the main, by anger. Another absurdly conceited character is Marfisa, who undertakes the Titanic task, as she herself describes it, of vanquishing the Twelve Peers (III, pp. 171-72). Yet another example is Galalón as he impetuously undertakes to respond to Marfisa's challenge. The final example is Agramante, the unseen Islamic ruler who hopes, like King Galafrón, to conquer France and whose presumptuous ambition, or “torcida y errada fantasía” (III.2701), can be attributed to false religion (mistaken religious faith).
     In sum, La casa de los celos is unified by the theme of absurdity, but shows how the themes and thus the deep coherence of Cervantes' comedias can be difficult to grasp. Lack of thematic explicitness, a fondness for extreme diversification, thematic originality, and a propensity for themes or sub-themes which work

     8 Lauso and Corinto are nevertheless differentiated, Lauso being more absurd than Corinto in as much he is incapable of resigning himself to Clori's disdainful attitude. Corinto condemns him accordingly (III, pp. 160-61).

12.1 (1992) Cervantes on Human Absurdity 103

themselves out in the audience response, rather than formally on stage, are the sources of the problem, of which La casa de los celos is a comprehensive example.
     Cervantes doubtless addresses the theme chiefly to that artistically aware and intelligent public he normally calls discreto. But it is, surely, to be seriously doubted that even the discreto would have grasped the theme or grasped it fully and thus have appreciated the drama's artistic coherence. Modern criticism of La casa de los celos gives further grounds for such doubt. La casa de los celos thus seems absurd itself, in a way that suggests that one of Cervantes' flaws as a dramatist was, if not exactly an excess of intellectuality, like that of Malgesí, a sharpness and flexibility of mind and an originality of inspiration that so distanced him from public wit and sensibilities as to make him prone to extravagant miscalculation.


Digitized with the help of Contessa Marion
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes