From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 1.1-2 (1981): 19-27.
Copyright © 1981, The Cervantes Society of America


Ambiguity in El viejo celoso


THEY WERE MARRIED and lived happily ever after.” The fairy-tale coda brings to a conclusion a number of Cervantes' works, notably such stories as La gitanilla and La ilustre fregona, and the long Persiles y Sigismunda. Unfortunately fictional weddings are not fictional marriages. The marriages Cervantes holds up for his readers' inspection are filled with unhappiness (as his own to Doña Catalina is sometimes thought to have been), and they bode disaster. To be sure, the marriages of Anselmo and Camila, in El curioso impertinente, and of Carrizales and Leonora, in El celoso extremeño, run smoothly at the outset; but both are inevitably destroyed by an act of the wife which is a consequence of a tragic error on the part of the husband. As Marcel Bataillon has pointed out, the husbands, acting as Christians should, forgive the wives they know, or think, to be adulteresses; but since as social beings they cannot go on living with the stigma of cuckoldry and dishonor, they must be allowed to die immediately afterwards.1 These tragic matrimonial alliances may indeed be “matrimonios cristianos” but they are not model marriages. In El juez de los divorcios Cervantes contemplates the institution of a divorce court, an impossibility in Counter Reformation Spain. The married couples

     1 See “Cervantes y el ‘matrimonio cristiano,’” in Varia lección de clásicos españoles (Madrid: Gredos, 1964), pp. 238-55, and especially p. 242, where the author gives an unaccustomed emphasis to his point: “¿Por qué, pues, muere Anselmo después de haber perdonado? En realidad, no puede perdonar más que porque va a morir.”



who bring their cases to this court are so bizarrely miserable in their lives together that we are hardly persuaded by the reconciliation of one such couple, which at the end elicits the musicians' refrain: “que vale el peor concierto / más que el divorcio mejor.”2 This contorted happy ending of a comedy suggests that because marriages have to endure they must be endured.3
     Of course we laugh, and are expected to laugh, at the silliness of the married couples who are seeking a divorce, just as we laugh at Pancracio and Leonarda in La cueva de Salamanca, at Cañizares and Lorenza in El viejo celoso, and at Trampagos' evocation of his quasi marriage to Pericona in El rufián viudo. Unlike the prose fictions, the entremeses present a world of farce, in which nothing, not even marriage, is sacred. Nevertheless, serious concerns protrude from these playlets. In the elegant language of Eugenio Asensio, “Sin forzar la nota, barruntamos ráfagas de hostilidad hacia algunas usanzas e instituciones.”4 This is not to say that the entremeses are satires, for Cervantes was justly proud of having at all times resisted the temptation to indulge in what he regarded as literary backbiting.5 The most that can be claimed is that in them an insistent probing of man and his society takes cover behind the frivolity. The effect on Cervantes' readers —would that he had had spectators!— is to challenge their received ideas without offering them any substitute. To discover the way this effect is achieved, it is necessary to examine his art as a writer of farce.
     El viejo celoso begins surprisingly with the revelation that the protagonist, the hyperjealous Cañizares, has committed a potentially tragic mistake. Although it is his invariable habit to lock up his child bride Lorenza in their house so that she can neither pay nor receive visits, on this day he has forgotten to do so. Ortigosa, a neighbor, has

     2 P. 72. Textual references are to Miguel de Cervantes, Entremeses, ed. Eugenio Asensio (Madrid: Castalia, 1971).
     3 It seems clear to me that in La zapatera prodigiosa Federico García Lorca is transposing into his comedy the Cervantine view of marriage: the motto by which the shoemaker and his wife must learn to live together is “Aguantar,” a verb they both constantly repeat.
     4 Op. cit., “Introducción,” p. 43.
     5 “Nunca voló la pluma humilde mia / por la region satirica, baxeza / que a infames premios y desgracias guia” (Viage del Parnaso, ed. Schevill-Bonilla [Madrid, 1922], p. 55).

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taken this unique opportunity to enter the house and propose to Lorenza a brief adulterous affair with a young, good-looking galán. The stage is thus set for the dishonoring of Cañizares (and thus, as with his counterparts in the short stories, potentially for his tragic death). The old husband's error, however, is magnified to grotesque —and comic— proportions when eventually Cervantes lets Lorenza tell us that her husband has forgotten to turn the key not once but eight times: “Siete puertas hay antes que se llegue a mi aposento, fuera de la puerta de la calle, y todas se cierran con llave” (p. 206). No tragic flaw, his has been a monumental blunder. In this way the playwright has removed adultery and dishonor from their customary tragic dimension in order to make them subjects for comedy.
     Lorenza is a female Midas, rich but hungry: “en mitad de la riqueza estoy pobre, y en medio de la abundancia con hambre” (p. 203). She is hungering of course for sex, and at an earlier age than her impotent husband had expected.6 Ortigosa will contrive a means of satisfying this hunger by deceiving Cañizares. As a beginner (“primeriza,” p. 205), Lorenza is at first afraid to risk her honor for the sake of pleasure. Her fears are allayed by the simple rhetoric of Cristina, her maid and niece who, though presumably younger even than her mistress' fifteen years, is equally starved for sex.

LORENZA.   ¿Y la honra, sobrina?
CRISTINA. ¿Y el holgarnos, tía?
LORENZA. ¿Y si se sabe?
CRISTINA. ¿Y si no se sabe?

Neither girl really harbors any doubt that pleasure is worth any risk. Ortigosa promises soon to bring Cristina a “frailecico pequeñito” (p. 208) with whom she may disport herself. It is evident that the deception of Cañizares is to be repeated.
     When Cañizares is at last introduced to us, he is in conversation with one of his compadres. He tells his gossip that, a setentón, he has married this child because he wanted company and someone to see him through the agony of death. He had not expected to suffer the earlier and continuing agony of fierce jealousy. His greatest anxiety is

     6 Cañizares tells his compadre that he is unhappy at the thought that his wife will shortly discover what has been missing from their marriage: “. . . no pasará mucho tiempo en que no caya Lorencica en lo que le falta” (p. 209).


that his wife may be seduced from her constancy by some female neighbor, for “más conciertos se hacen en su casa y más se concluyen, que en una semblea” (p. 209). We readers know that, as he speaks these words, a vecina has already insinuated herself into Cañizares' house, that a concierto against his honor has already been made, and that therefore it must be “concluded.” Following upon his almost tragic mistake, there is an almost tragic inevitability about the cuckolding of Cañizares. As the Compadre fatidically observes, “éste es de aquellos que traen la soga arrastrando, y de los que siempre vienen a morir del mal que temen” (p. 210).
     Unlike Carrizales, his counterpart in the exemplary tale, Cañizares will not die in this fiction. It is the grotesqueness of his jealousy that prevents him from being anything but a comic figure: he fears that Lorenza may have been soliloquizing “en mi perjuicio” (p. 211); he will allow no male animal and no pictorial representation of a male human being in his house; his abomination of vecinas is such that the noun itself infuriates him.7 It is a piece of stage business tested and tried in the commedia dell'arte that Ortigosa uses to smuggle the young man into Cañizares' house: he is enabled to slip in under the cover of a leather wall-hanging, which she and Lorenza hold up for Cañizares' inspection. The effectiveness of the old trick is, however, enhanced by Cañizares' complete distraction from the deception being practiced on him by his blind rage at having a female neighbor in his house trying to sell him a guadamecí adorned with male figures (lover-knights, no less, from the Orlando furioso). His inattention is so great that he does not realize that Ortigosa's words are, as Lope de Vega would say, deceiving him with the truth.8 When she says to Lorenza, “descojámosle [i.e., the guadamecí], porque no vea el señor Cañizares que hay engaño en mis palabras” (p. 212), he hears her say what he expects her to be saying: “. . . para que vea el señor Cañizares que no hay engaño en mis palabras.” His suspicious nature is so warped by his jealousy that he cannot see the truth even when it is dangled

     7 Such is his behavior in the play. He himself will only concede that “El nombre de vecina me turba y sobresalta” (p. 211).
     8 Technically this is an example of el hablar anfibológico. See José Manuel Rozas, Significado y doctrina del “Arte nuevo” de Lope de Vega (Madrid: Sociedad General Española de Librería, 1976), pp. 139-43. But what Ortigosa is doing is deceiving with words that express the exact truth of her intention and her act.

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before his eyes. He is both blind and deaf to his imminent dishonor. We wonder if he will be enlightened —will suffer a desengaño— at the play's end. But first he is led by his jealousy to make another misperception. So enveloped is Cañizares in his jealous fury that he does not even take in a wholly indiscreet remark made by the fearful Cristina: “Señor tío, yo no sé nada de rebozados; y si él ha entrado en casa, la señora Ortigosa tiene la culpa” (p. 213). of course, he replies, the vecina is at fault for having brought the muffled knight Rodamonte into the house. For all his genuine feelings of jealousy, he vents his anger on a painted figure of a man so that he cannot imagine that a live young man has been brought into the house. It is at this point that Lorenza, relieved that Cristina's faux pas has not been detected and got them into trouble, partially quotes, and significantly misquotes, a strikingly apposite proverb: “quien con muchachos se acuesta, etc.”9 She means that, by associating with a young blabbermouth like Cristina, she is bound to suffer some unfortunate consequence. But it is clear that her mind is on the prospect of lying with the galán.
     The adultery scene is like a radio play: the event takes place before Cañizares' very ears. The always locked-in Lorenza, her husband's prisoner, apparently in a fit of pique has now voluntarily locked herself into one of the cells of Cañizares' jailhouse; in it is the galán, the “muchacho” with whom she is to lie. As she describes, or alludes to, the sexual pleasures she is experiencing for the first time, Cañizares is still raging about “el nombre de vecina” (p. 216), deprived of the truth by his obsession. Although the scene may run for just a few minutes, it has been compressed for aesthetic and practical reasons, since Lorenza was confidently expecting to spend a couple of hours with her lover. She has said to Cristina: “aun quizá no me verá la cara [Cañizares] en estas dos horas; y a fe que yo se la dé a beber, por más que la rehuse” (p. 215). “Dársela a beber” is defined by Correas as “dar a sentir a otro alguna pesadumbre en venganza del disgusto que dio.”10 But Lorenza will transform the idiom into action.

     9 P. 213. The known proverb is: “Quien con niños se acuesta, sucio amanece” (Comedias y entremeses, ed. Schevill-Bonilla, IV [Madrid, 1918], 244). S. Griswold Morley freely translates: “That's what I get for having a child around!” (The Interludes of Cervantes [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948], p. 207).
     10 See Asensio's edition, p. 215, n. 12.


When Cañizares is at last able to enter the room, she dashes into his eyes liquid from the “bacía Ilena de agua de ángeles” (p. 216) with which she was intending to wash her lover's downy beard, and the galán makes his escape. Once again, stage business from the commedia dell'arte has blinded Cañizares to the truth. Moreover, he has again been engañado con la verdad, the “veras” that Lorenza has been telling him through the wall.11
     Cañizares has been sure that Lorenza has not really been making love but only pretending to: “sé que te burlas” (p. 216). Now, however, Lorenza begins to shriek her anger and rage at the old man who she says (incorrectly, in referring to this specific occasion) “de las sospechas hace certezas, de las mentiras verdades, de las burlas veras, y de los entretenimientos maldiciones” (p. 217). The hubbub she makes is such that an alguacil arrives to restore order. Lorenza tells Cristina to open the door to him so that “sepa todo el mundo mi inocencia, y la maldad deste viejo” (p. 217). She may have protested her innocence too much —and Cañizares' wickedness too inopportunely.
     Before the law officer —accompanied by musicians, a dancer, and Ortigosa— enters, Cañizares has said some very ambiguous words: “¡Vive Dios, que creí que te burlabas, Lorenza! Calla” (p. 217). The casual reader supposes that Cañizares is denying Lorenza's charge that in his insane jealousy he has turned “burlas” into “veras.” But the preterit “creí,” so final, set against the earlier “sé que te burlas,” authorizes the additional, more suggestive, reading: “I did believe, but I no longer do, that you were joking.” Lorenza's overacting may well have persuaded her husband that in the back chamber lovemaking had gone on in earnest. The play of engañar con la verdad may have miscarried.
     If this reading is correct, Cañizares recovers at once from his shock, complying with the swiftness of the comic movement (rather than by gradually bringing his emotions under control, like Carrizales in El celoso extremeño). He quickly explains to the officer that the disturbance has been a normal part of married life, “pendencias entre marido y mujer que luego se pasan” (p. 217). Because he lives in the world of comedy, he does not (like Carrizales and Anselmo) forgive his errant wife; instead it is she who forces him to beg forgiveness of

     11 Asensio points out this case of engañar con la verdad, p. 215, n. 13.

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Ortigosa. He is then obliged to listen against his will to a song which maintains that midsummer domestic squabbles assure peace for the rest of the year. At one point, however, the burden —“Las riñas de por San Juan, / Todo el año paz nos dan”— is ironically twisted to read: “Mas las riñas más de veras, / Si suceden por San Juan, / Todo el año paz nos dan” (p. 218). The most genuine disputes? Or those that turn on burlas and veras? The final strophe of the song expresses the ambiguous hope that all domestic disputes will be like this one so that the couples will later cheer up “sin pensar” (p. 219). With amiable thoughtlessness? Or with cynical lack of concern for the cause of the quarrel?
     Cañizares and Lorenza have had to make common cause against the intrusion of society on their private lives.12 In this ironic sense, they are reconciled to one another as well as jointly to society, as befits the ending of a comedy. Yet it is hardly the usual kind of universal reconciliation of which theorists of comedy write.
     Northrop Frye, to take just one theorist, establishes the general rule that

At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings the hero and the heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero . . . .  As the final society reached by comedy is the one that the audience has recognized all along to be the proper and desirable state of affairs, an act of communion with the audience [sc. applause] is in order . . .  Comedy usually moves toward a happy ending, and the normal response of the audience to a happy ending is “this should be,” which sounds like a moral judgement. So it is, except that it is not moral in the restricted sense, but social.13

     The society which emerges from El viejo celoso hardly conforms to this rule. It is in no way affected by the events that have taken place; it is not a new one but the one that existed at the beginning of the farce. A marriage based on deceit will continue to thrive on deceit. And the audience is obliged to withhold moral judgment. Cervantes' entremés bears little resemblance to the paradigm of comedy.
     Like most entremeses, this one by Cervantes is based on an engaño deftly carried out. The butt, as usual, is a character for whom we feel little sympathy. Our sympathies lie, rather, with the deceiving wife

     12 This motif carries over into La zapatera prodigiosa.
     13 Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 163-67.


and with the deception itself. Cervantes has made us want to see her and it succeed. The whole comic movement causes us to approve the cuckolding of Cañizares, and thus Lorenza's adultery. The reader's endorsement of an immoral act comes about because in her marriage to Cañizares Lorenza has herself been royally deceived. In her first taste of sexuality, from her partner's embrace, she has called out to her husband: “Ahora echo de ver quién eres, viejo maldito, que hasta aquí he vivido engañada contigo” (p. 216). Her sexual deprivation has been a deceit of which Cañizares himself was fully aware, for he expressed to his compadre his unease “[d]e que no pasará mucho tiempo en que no caya Lorencica en lo que le falta” (p. 209). His engaño, thwarted by her engaño, leads to her desengaño and, probably, also to his.
     In being led to approve (or, at least, condone) Lorenza's adultery, we are not obliged to approve of adultery in general. It is simply that this unhappy marriage, like others fictionalized by Cervantes, needs a resolution of some sort. As we have seen, the husband's forgiveness of his wife's sin, quickly followed by his own death, is Cervantes' artistic resolution in the tragic short stories. In the comic entremés Cañizares and Lorenza are condemned to put up with each other until at some future date the marriage ends in death and widowhood. By modern standards, in the judgment of most people, it ought to end in divorce. In Cervantes' Spain it could not. But if the history of Cervantes' lifetime had taken a different course, it might have been possible for Lorenza to seek relief from her unhappiness not in adultery but in a divinely sanctioned divorce.
     In the article referred to above, Bataillon reviews some expressions of the conviction held in the Renaissance not only by Protestant divines but also by Catholic humanists that the Church ought to find some means of dissolving loveless marriages. Erasmus wondered: “¿Por qué no admitir que ‘Dios ha unido solamente lo que está legítimamente unido, que Dios corta el lazo que en buen derecho merece cortarse?’ ” p. 248). If God ties the marriage knot, he can for good reason untie it. In post-Tridentine Spain, of course, such speculation was no longer admissible in public. But in the privacy of the mind no censorship is possible. In many of his works Cervantes seems almost to go out of his way to present weddings conforming strictly to the letter of Tridentine law on weddings.14 Like his

     14 I write “law” because Philip II incorporated the decrees of Trent into [p. 27] the statutory law of Spain. An example of the intrusion of these laws into Cervantes' fiction is the refusal of the “tiniente cura ” in La gitanilla to perform an instant marriage ceremony, even at the behest of a Corregidor, on the grounds that neither banns have been published nor an exemption obtained from his superior (Novelas ejemplares, ed. Harry Sieber [Madrid: Cátedra, 1980], I, 132). Conversely, at the end of La fuerza de la sangre the narrator explains that a wedding spontaneously performed without the waiting period during which banns were published was possible because the fictional event occurred before the Council of Trent, “con sola la voluntad de los contrayentes, sin las diligencias y prevenciones justas y santas que ahora se usan” (ed. cit., II, 94). Américo Castro has collected a number of examples both of secret marriages and of scrupulously Tridentine marriages in Cervantes' works (El pensamiento de Cervantes [Madrid Revista de Filología Española, 1925], pp. 349-52, and especially the long footnote).

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Lorenza protesting her innocence too much, in what is after all only fiction Cervantes may be protesting his orthodoxy too much. Underlying the comedic events of El viejo celoso, do we not detect an Erasmist concern for the human need to have a divine end put to a “wrong” marriage? Increasingly scholarship perceives the imprint of Erasmus' thought on Cervantes' works to a degree that in 1935 would have been unthinkable to the pioneering author of Erasme et l'Espagne. But the imprint, though latent, is unmistakable. I do not think that Cervantes' unhappy fictional marriage necessarily leads to the conclusion that he shared Erasmus' views on divorce. But it is worth thinking about.


Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes