From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 4.1 (1984): 25-33.
Copyright © 1984, The Cervantes Society of America


The Butt of the Satire in El retablo de las maravillas


OF El retablo de las maravillas Eugenio Asensio has written: “No hay pieza cervantina más intencionalmente ambigua y cambiante, con más interpretaciones que no se excluyen.” He illustrates this assertion by proposing three valid interpretations of the work.

     Es una parábola de la infinita credulidad de los hombres que creen lo que desean creer. Es una estratagema para proyectar la crítica de la morbosa manía de limpieza [de sangre], mentira creadora de falsos valores que envenenaba la sociedad española. Y es una sátira del villano contemplado no como fuerza ascensional, que aspira a plena dignidad, sino como objeto cómico, bueno para desatar las carcajadas del espectador: tras el aparentemente gratuito juego de la imaginación está agazapado un antagonismo social. Tal es la riqueza de posibles perspectivas.1

To these interpretations must be added the esthetically most important one, namely, the exploration of the limits to which the creation of credible artistic fiction may be pressed.

La fiction qu'on nous présente est . . . double: nous rirons de voir les villageois se convaincre et tâcher de convaincre leur voisin de la réalité du spectacle imaginaire qui leur est présenté. Nos

     1 Eugenio Asensio, “Entremeses,” in Suma cervantina, ed. J. B. Avalle-Arce and E. C. Riley (London: Tamesis, 1973), pp. 190-91. See also his Itinerario del entremés (Madrid: Gredos, 1965), p. 109, where he offers on1y two possible readings.



complices sont alors les baladins, intermédiaires d'une part entre le retable —fictif pour nous, imaginaire mais tenu pour réel par les spectateurs dont nous sommes les spectateurs— et la salle —fictive, mais non imaginaire pour nous, où sont assemblés les paysans. C'est ce jeu complexe entre la réalité et l'illusion, différent selon le plan où l'on se situe, qui révèle l'extrême subtilité de l'art de Cervantès.2

It is scarcely conceivable that a short farcical interlude, inspired by widely diffused folk tales,3 could carry such an intellectual, and esthetic burden: the positive enterprise of inquiring into the nature of fiction and the creative act, and the negative enterprises of satirizing, on the one hand, mankind in general and, on the other, a specific social class and a specific political institution. And yet it is certain that all of this is present in El retablo de las maravillas. I have no intention of adding to this burden by proposing yet another interpretation; rather I shall reveal more fully the “stratagem” of criticizing limpieza de sangre to which Asensio refers. Full disclosure of this stratagem will nevertheless show that the burden carried by Cervantes' playlet is in fact much greater than we have imagined.
     As befits an entremés, the plot of El retablo de las maravillas is simple. Two swindlers, the man Chanfalla and the woman Chirinos, persuade the authorities of a village to let them put on a paid performance of their marvelous puppet show as part of a wedding celebration. The marvel of their show is that it cannot be seen either by bastards or by New Christians (that is, by descendants of ancestors who professed a faith other than Christianity). The performance consists of the verbal evocation by the tricksters of a succession of

     2 Robert Marrast, “Intermèdes,” in Théâtre espagnol du XVIe siècle, ed. Robert Marrast (Paris: Gallimard,1983), p. 1057. The interplay of reality and illusion is also discussed in Joaquín Casalduero, Sentido y forma del teatro de Cervantes (Madrid: Gredos, 1966), pp. 205-08; Jean Canavaggio, “Variations cervantines sur le thème du Théâtre au théâtre,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, 37 (1972), 53-68, and again in his Cervantès dramaturge: un théâtre à naître (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977), pp. 375-77.
     3 Marcel Bataillon, “Ulenspiegl y el Retablo de las maravillas de Cervantes,” in Homenaje a J. A. Van Praag, ed. L. J. Veen (Amsterdam, 1957), pp. 16-21; rpt. in his Varia lección de clásicos españoles (Madrid: Gredos, 1964), pp. 260-67; Isaías Lerner, “Notas para el Entremés del Retablo de las Maravillas: Fuente y recreación,” in Estudios de literatura española ofrecidos a Marcos A. Morínigo (Madrid: Insula, 1971), pp. 37-55. In Cervantes: raíces folklóricas (Madrid: Gredos, 1976), pp. 35-214, Maurice Molho explores the folk traditions exhaustively, and also proposes an ingenious psychosociological reading of the play.

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wondrous appearances, since they have no puppets. The villagers, ashamed at seeing nothing and fearful of betraying themselves to be New Christians, at first pretend that they see the various acts; it is evident that they soon come to delude themselves into believing that they do see them. A stranger, a billeting officer, arrives, and frankly admits that he does not see the show. The spell of the swindlers' fiction is not broken, however, for the villagers turn on the officer and mock him for being a New Christian. The entremés ends with a brawl, as the tricksters congratulate themselves on the success of their deception: the next day they will make more money with a show played to the general populace.
     Upon first consideration, Chanfalla's imaginary retable seems to confirm Covarrubias' account of this kind of retablo: “Algunos estrangeros suelen traer una caxa de títeres, que representan alguna historia sagrada, y de allí les dieron el nombre de retablos.”4 But if El retablo de las maravillas as a whole belongs to Asensio's “tercera modalidad” (“aliando la reseña de personajes a una tenue, de cuando en cuando interrumpida acción que los encuadre, armoniza el retratismo y el movimiento hacia un desenlace”), the interior duplication, Chanfalla's nonshow, more closely resembles his second (“la pieza estática, sin anécdota, ni encadenamiento de sucesos”).5 The retable purports to present, not “alguna historia sagrada,” but a discontinuous succession of discrete exhibits. Cervantes' departure from the norm laid down by Covarrubias should alert us to the significance of his innovation. Let us consider the seemingly random events of Chanfalla's imaginary show.
     First Chanfalla pretends to produce Samson in the act of demolishing the temple. (The remaining nonevents are of course equally imaginary, but to economize on words I present them as if they really happened in the fiction.) Samson is followed by “el mesmo toro que mató al ganapán en Salamanca” (p. 177). Next appear some mice, descended, as Chirinos observes, “por línea  recta de aquellos que se

     4 Sebastián de Covarruvias, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española [1611], ed. Martín de Riquer (Barcelona: Horta, 1943), p. 907. See also J. E. Varey, Historia de los títeres en España (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1957); Cervantes' entremés is discussed on pp. 232-37.
     5 Eugenio Asensio, “Introducción,” in his edition of Cervantes' Entremeses (Madrid: Castalia, 1971), p. 18. Quotations from El retablo de las maravillas are from this edition.


criaron en el arca de Noé.”6 Then the fictional spectators are doused with a shower of water “de la fuente que da origen y principio al río Jordán” (p. 178 ). After this they are treated to some bears and lions. The last figure to come forth is a dancing girl , wrongly called Herodías because she is really this lady's daughter, Salome.7 The mayor's nephew is dancing the lascivious saraband with the feigned Salome when the unfeigned quartermaster arrives to seek billets for his troops, thus putting a violent end to the performance of the puppet show.
     The deceptive show begins with a scene from the Old Testament and ends with one from the New Testament. Between these poles of the retable, Samson and Salome, there is the fleeting reference to Noah's ark and the supposed enactment of the rain of Jordan water. The sacred river belongs to both Testaments, being the place where Elisha caused Naaman to be cured of his leprosy (II Kings 5) and where John baptized Jesus (Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3). It serves as a transition between the Jewish start and the Christian end of the little show. Moreover, according to Chanfalla, who in this respect is following an ancient tradition,8 the water of its source has the magical virtue of rejuvenating those it touches. Therefore, as a part of his retable, “Toda mujer a quien tocare en el rostro, se le volverá como de plata bruñida, y a los hombres se les volverán las barbas como de oro” (p. 178). The peasants' reaction to this intelligence is interesting because it provides the clue to Cervantes' “stratagem.” The women gratefully expose their faces (no doubt, swarthy ones, of which they are ashamed9) to the feigned shower so that they will

     6 P. 177. This detail is clear evidence that the fictional spectators' critical sense has been completely undermined by Chanfalla's fiction: for Christian believers, whether “Old” or “New,” all mice are direct descendants of the pair Noah received into the ark. Lerner notes only the incongruity of Chanfalla's comment: “como si otra fuera la posibilidad” (p. 45).
     7 “Really” is necessarily an ambiguous adverb in a discussion of the compounded fiction of this work. The fact is, as Marrast points out, that Cervantes intentionally substituted the name Herodías for that of Salomé: “ces ‘vieux chrétiens’ se ridiculisent un peu plus en ne la [cette substitution de noms] relevant pas, ajoutant l'ignorance à la sotte vanité” (p. 1076). But, as we shall see further on, the name of Herodias is actually called for by the play's thematic sense.
     8 Marrast, p. 1075. See also Bataillon's account of the Inquisition proceedings against the false Juan de Espera en Dios, in Varia lección, p. 119 and note 51.
     9 A large number of Spanish folk songs reflect the anxiety that peasant girls (morenas) feel because of their dark complexion. See Bruce W. [p. 29] Wardropper, “Meaning in Medieval Spanish Folk Songs,” in The Interpretation of Medieval Lyric Poetry, ed. W. T. H. Jackson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 176-93.

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become beautifully white; but Juana Castrada warns her father to cover his: “Cúbrase, padre, no se moje.” And Juan replies on behalf of all the men: “Todos nos cubrimos, hija” (p. 178). Neither the text nor its editors explain why the men are so afraid of the prospect that their graying beards might turn golden. The answer surely is that, according to legend, Judas Iscariot had a red beard, a facial feature that by extension was identified with all traitors.10 None of the male spectators of Chanfalla's retable wants to be associated, however remotely, with the disciple who betrayed his Master.
     This hitherto enigmatic moment in El retablo de las maravillas opens our eyes to what the polar episodes have in common: they are classical examples of treachery.
     When Samson fell in love with Delilah, he was bewitched by a traitor. Each one of the lords of the Philistines offered her “eleven hundred pieces of silver” (Judges 16.5) if she would discover for them the secret of Samson's great strength, an offer that she accepted. Three times she asked Samson about the source of his might; three times he lied to her, thereby himself betraying the love he felt for her. The fourth time, Delilah appealed to him through his love for her; and Samson, “his soul . . . vexed unto death,” betrayed himself by revealing his holy secret: “I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother's womb: if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man” (Judges 16.17). Delilah then betrayed Samson to the Philistines. Only by the grace of God was he able one last time to summon his supernatural strength, destroying the temple, and killing both the Philistines and himself. It

     10 In Quevedo's Las zahurdas de Plutón, the narrator sees Judas “sin cara.” “No sabré decir sino que me sacó de la duda de ser barbirrojo, como le pintan los extranjeros por hacerle español, porque él me pareció capón” (Sueños, ed. Julio Cejador y Frauca [Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1949], pp. 141-42). In Tirso de Molina, El vergonzoso en Palacio (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1932), p. 19 appear the lines: “tenéis el cabello rubio, / no hay que fiar dese pelo”; Américo Castro's long note to these lines abundantly establishes the tradition associating the barba rubia with Judas and other traitors.
     Lerner's explanation of the different reaction of the sexes to the Jordan water is inadequate: “La sabiduría popular que calificaba de rejuvenecedoras a estas aguas tiene sus límites en el conocimiento de Juana: seguramente resfriarán a su padre” (p. 51). Molho advances the more acceptable but ultimately unprovable hypothesis that the rejuvenating rain has a male sexual charge; it is a “lluvia espermática” (p. 209).


is with this complex history of treachery that Chanfalla's wonder show opens.
     Toward its close, Chirinos, who is narrating this part of the show, calls Salome “la llamada Herodías, cuyo baile alcanzó en premio la cabeza del Precursor de la vida” (p. 179). According to Matthew (14.1-12), the Precursor, John the Baptist, who had baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, was imprisoned by Herod the Tetrarch because John had declared it unlawful for Herod to have sexual relations with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. To please and avenge Herodias, Herod would have had John put to death had he not feared a revolt by the common people, who regarded John as a prophet. Taking matters into her own hands, Herodias had her daughter Salome dance before Herod to celebrate his birthday. Rashly Herod swore “to give her whatsoever she would ask.” “And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, ‘Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger.’” An act of treachery thus brought about the saint's death.
     The fake puppet show turns on cases of treachery in three Biblical contexts: Samson and Delilah, against one another; Judas, against Christ; and Herodias and Salome, against John the Baptist.11 If we now recall a Latinism used by Chirinos before the retable begins, we find ourselves in the presence of yet another case of Biblical treachery. Chirinos wants to know if her accomplice has collected in advance the fee for their services that Juan Castrado, the father of the bride, has agreed to pay. She asks: “¿Esta ya el dinero in corbona?” — that is, “in the treasury” (p. 175). A more colloquial expression, such as en la talega (“in the bag”), might seem more appropriate; but because we know that Chirinos has a propensity to Latin tags (her ante omnia has already confused Benito Repollo [p. 172]), we are not inclined to pay much attention to her pedantry. We should, however, take note of these words, for they refer us yet again to a treacherous act, once more to Judas' betrayal of Christ. After betraying Jesus with a kiss, Judas repented, and tried to return to the chief priests and elders the thirty pieces of silver with which they had suborned him. He threw the coins onto the floor of the temple, left the place, and hanged himself. “And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said ‘It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury [Vulgate: “in corbona”],

     11 It is now clear that Cervantes introduced Herodias into his play rather than Salome because his theme of treachery required the agent of the betrayal rather than her accomplice to illustrate it. See note 7 above.

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because it is the price of blood’” (Matthew 27.6). They thereupon bought the legendary potter's field with the money, to be a burial place for strangers. In using the Latin words, Chirinos is, then, alluding facetiously to the greatest treachery known to the history of Christendom. Because the entremès called El retablo de las maravillas is essentially a farce, the grotesque comparison is morally acceptable: in such a context no one is likely to make a serious comparison between the betrayal of God and the betrayal on a minor scale —an “embuste”— of a village of stupid peasants.
     But these peasants are not so stupid that, to protect their own interests, they are incapable of pretending to see what they do not see. This initial attempt to deceive others quickly turns into self-deception, and eventually into hallucination. It is a hallucination created both by the statutes of limpieza de sangre and by the trickster Chanfalla.12 Chanfalla's cruel trick cannot be complete without a propitiatory victim on whom the villagers can vent their spleen. The scapegoat arrives in the figure of the quartermaster. When the Furrier sees not a couple of dancers but only one —the mayor's nephew but not Salome— they all (including the Governor, who has admitted in several asides that he can see no puppets and who is thus suffering no hallucination) chant the most infamous words of betrayal in Christian history.


      ¿Qué diablos de doncella tengo de ver?


Basta: de ex illis es.


De ex illis es, de ex illis es.


Dellos es, dellos el señor Furrier, dellos es.

(p. 182)

They all taunt the Furrier with being “one of them,” a member of the despised and hated caste of New Christians. Just like in corbona, the phrase ex illis es sends us to the Biblical literature of treachery. It consists of the words with which, following Christ's betrayal by Judas, some bystanders tempted Peter to deny his Lord for the third time.

     12 “L'hallucination collective à laquelle mène finalement la superstition raciste de ses paysans est comme la transposition théâtrale et symbolique d'une hallucination sociale réelle qu'il [Cervantes] pouvait constater tous les jours et dont, espirit lucide et non mystifié, il semble avoir dénoncé ailleurs les expressions juridiques et les préjugés.” (Noël Salomon, Recherches sur le thème paysan dans la “comedia” au temps de Lope de Vega [Bordeaux: Féret, 1965], p.121.)


     And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them [Vulgate: “Vere et tu ex illis es”]; for thy speech betrayeth thee.
     Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew (Matthew 26.73-74).

     The interior duplication thus establishes the theme of treachery in some sacred contexts within a frame which refers to the double betrayal of Christ, voluntarily by Judas and involuntarily by Peter. We must ask why Cervantes insists so much on this horrendous theme.
     As we know, the conditions for seeing the retable are that the viewer be neither a bastard nor a New Christian: “ninguno puede ver las cosas que en él [el retablo] se muestran, que tenga alguna raza de confeso, o no sea habido y procreado de sus padres de legítimo matrimonio” (pp. 171-72). The disqualification by reason of bastardy is promptly subordinated to the disqualification by reason of impure blood. Illegitimacy as an obstacle to vision is a legacy from the sources in European folklore that Cervantes draws on. Cervantes' originality in his treatment of this subject is his adaptation of the international popular material to the racist situation in his own country. If a spectator is to see the show, he must be an Old Christian, with no trace of Jewish or Muslim blood in his ancestry. The dramatic fiction reflects a historical reality, which contended that there were two kinds of Christians: the qualified, who could be trusted with public office, the so-called Old Christians; and the disqualified, who could not be trusted with public office, the so-called New Christians. But this apparent historical reality is in fact a historical fiction: whether Christians are good or bad ones, trustworthy or untrustworthy ones, depends not on their pedigree but on the sincerity and fervor of their faith. The division of believers into sheep and goats can be made only by God, who alone can penetrate a human being's heart of hearts. For man or the state to undertake to judge Christians on the basis of historical or genetic accidents is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to offend God, to betray him. Through and beyond the cases of betrayal presented in the entremés —Samson betrayed by Delilah and betraying her; John the Baptist, betrayed by Herodias and her daughter Salome; Jesus, by Judas and Peter— Cervantes points to the officially sanctioned blasphemy against God, betrayed by the Spanish state and the Spanish people. This is the full import of Cervantes' stratagem that Asensio has discerned in El retablo de las maravillas. The political and religious judgment contained in the entremés transcends the simple

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satire of the effects of limpieza de sangre that he and other critics have recognized: it goes so far as to accuse Spaniards of having betrayed their God by reason of their institutionalized racial prejudices.
     Paralleling this subtle denunciation of the statutes of clean blood is an analogous one in El coloquio de los perros, where Cipión observes:

     Muy diferentes son los señores de la tierra del Señor del cielo; aquéllos, para recebir un criado, primero le espulgan el linaje, examinan la habilidad, le marcan la apostura, y aun quieren saber los vestidos que tiene; pero para entrar a servir a Dios, el más pobre es más rico; el más humilde, de mejor linaje; y con sólo que se disponga con limpieza de corazón a querer servirle, luego le manda poner en el libro de sus gajes, señalándoselos tan aventajados, que, de muchos y de grandes, apenas pueden caber en su deseo.13

Here limpieza de sangre is clearly ranged against “limpieza de corazón.” The verbal contrast enables one to see the impassable gulf that separates state religion from personal religion. The fact that, in its concern for purity of blood, the Spanish state has institutionalized the Christian religion has led to its perversion, which is a blasphemy, the fundamental denial and betrayal of the God in whose name the religion exists.14


     13 Novelas ejemplares, ed. Harry Sieber (Madrid: Cátedra, 1980), I, 311. Salomon, loc. cit., notes the relevance of this passage to the entremés.
     14 Some readers may object to my reading of the sense of the retable on the grounds that it ignores the presence in it of the bull, the mice, the lions, and the bears. Indeed, I do not think that the animals contribute to the theme of treachery. I am inclined to accept Molho's interpretation of them as symbolizing male aggression (pp. 206-10).

Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes