From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 8 special issue (1988): 127-33.
Copyright © 1988, The Cervantes Society of America

Did Cervantes Feel Calisto’s Toothache?


In a previous article I have discussed the erotic meaning of the well-known complaint of Calisto that serves Celestina as a subtle way of introducing temptation into Melibea’s frail spirit.1 The go-between indicates that Calisto is suffering: “Yo dexo un enfermo a la muerte, que con sola una palabra de tu noble boca salida, que lleve metida en mi seno, tiene por fe que sanará, según la mucha devoción que tiene en tu jentileza.”2 To the just wrath of Melibea, who rightly sees here the initial step of her seduction, Celestina answers with the apparently innocent clarification that she only meant that Calisto was suffering from a toothache and that what she really meant to do was to request from Melibea “Una oración, señora, que le dijeron que sabías de Santa Apolonia para el dolor de las muelas” (p. 113). Melibea’s reply to this excuse is mystifying and, as Geoffrey West has shown in a recent article, implies a certain knowledge of the ambiguity of Calisto’s suffering:3

     1 “The Stubborn Text: Calisto’s Toothache and Melibea’s Girdle,”Chapter 7 of Literature Among Discourses. The Spanish Golden Age, ed. Wlad Godzich and Nicholas Spadaccini.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp. 132-68.
     2 All quotes from La Celestina, ed. Manuel Criado de Val (Madrid, 1977), for this quote see p. 111.
     3 “The Unseemliness of Calisto’s Toothache.” Celestinesca, 1, 3 (1970), 3-10.


128 JAVIER HERRERO Cervantes

¡O cuánto me pesa con la falta de mi paciencia! Porque siendo él ignorante; tú inocente avéis padecido las alterationes de mi airada lengua. Pero la mucha razón me relieva de culpa, la cual tu habla sospechosa causó. . . .  Y porque para escrivir la oración no avrá tiempo sin que venga mi madre, si esto no bastare, ven mañana por ella muy secretamente  (pp. 116-17).

Obviously, Melibea’s answer works at two levels of meaning. At a superficial level she accepts the excuses of innocence of Celestina and so establishes a pact of apparent respectability. Melibea agrees to accept the convention of Calisto’s sickness and of her ability to provide remedies; Celestina must play her role and keep her suggestions at the level of medical metaphors. At another level, the recourse to postponing the writing of the prayer for another day and, above all, the request for great secrecy (“muy secretamente”) in her next visit clearly show that she knows very well that such innocent respectability is a game, and that she is agreeing to establish, through a tercera, an illicit and dangerous relationship with Calisto. That this is true is confirmed by the remark of Lucrecia, Melibea’s maid, who on hearing her words exclaims:

¡Ya, ya perdida es mi ama! Secretamente quiere que venga Celestina? ¡Fraude ai! ¡Más le querrá dar que lo dicho! (p. 117).

Wonderful intuition! Indeed Melibea is ready to give more, although of how much more she is not even aware. She tells Celestina as a farewell:

MELIBEA Más haré por tu doliente, si menester fuere, en pago de lo sufrido.

     That a toothache was more than a painful physical pain has been established a long time ago by Dominica Legge in her article “Toothache and Courtly Love.”4 Miss Legge shows that medieval poets and

     4 “Toothache and Courtly Love,” French Studies, 4 (1950), 50-54. The “toothache,” in fact, has been used as a symbol of a variety of feelings of anguish and pain, from the metaphysical to the sexual: see, in this respect, the interesting and informative article of Theodore Ziolkowski, “The Telltale Teeth: Psychodontia to Sociodontia,” PMLA, 91 (1976), 9-22. Edward C. Riley kindly informs me of the following, (obviously pure intuitive coincidence) metaphor of D. H. Lawrence: “And again she was gentle, he reassured her, even he wanted her again, with that curious desire that was [p. 129] almost like toothache,” in “The Man Who Loved Islands,” in Full Score, (London: Reprint Society, 1943), p. 530.

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romanciers used the strong suffering and sleeplessness caused by toothache as a metaphor for the pangs of love, and she gives us the precious information that the Larousse includes in the idioms associated with teeth the “locution familière” “mal de dents” to express the sufferings of the lover [“Mal de dents —amour passionné”(p. 54)].
     The fact that such an expression is included in the Larousse as a well-known one clearly indicates that the association between passion and toothache was so familiar to the French that it could hardly be ignored in usual intercourse. But this expression was equally familiar in Spain; very probably the metaphor had in France itself a much stronger erotic connotation than Miss Legge’s article suggests. In fact, one of the fragments quoted by Miss Legge as evidence powerfully suggests it: Guillaume de Lorris compares a lover who dreams that he is with his beloved —“Entre tes bras tres toute nue”— to a man who moves recklessly in his bed suffering from a toothache. In any case the evidence collected by Geoffrey West and by myself leaves no doubt that the strongest connotation of “toothache” was erotic frustration. I shall very briefly sum it up here.5
     In two poems included in the collection of erotic poetry that Alzieu, Lissorgues, and Jammes edited under the title Floresta de poesía erótica del Siglo de Oro6 we find clear references to the pain of erotic frustration under the barely veiled image of “toothache.” The first one has the rather scabrous theme of the dissatisfaction of a woman whose lover rides a slower horse than she does; she asks him to ride faster (“Traidor ¿para qué te tardas?”); the man is upset by her impatience and replies angrily that, if she cannot wait, she can pull out three of her teeth:

Si, cuando en el juego estamos
de otro engaño te recelas,
sacarte puedes tres muelas,
mientras que a Francia llegamos (p. 198).

Remarkable advice! If she cannot wait on their way to France, she can pull out three teeth! Not more astonishing, though, than the suggestion

     5 For a longer discussion of these and other texts see pages 134-45 of my article quoted in note 1.
     6 Floresta de poesía erótica del Siglo de Oro, ed. Pierre Alzieu, Yvan Lissorgues, Robert Jammes (Toulouse: France-Iberie Recherche, 1975).

130 JAVIER HERRERO Cervantes

in another poem of the same collection by a woman whose husband has gone to Cervera (an allusion, of course, both to the city, Cervera, and to ciervo, the animal of huge horns) and who suggests to another woman, a neighbor, whose husband has also gone the same way (“la misma vía”), that they could have a great time by asking the barber to pull their teeth; they could spur him on if he rode slowly:

Pues llamemos al barbero
que nos saque sendas muelas,
y animalle las espuelas
si no anduviere ligero (p. 170).

These poems do not require much commentary: not only is their meaning obvious, but they show that the reader did not need any clarification; he would understand immediately and laugh heartily.
     In previous articles I have shown, I believe, that Cervantes could handle the grossest aspects of the Spanish language with the same elegance as the more refined ones.7 Samples of his shrewd and amusing innuendo can be found in all his works, but especially in his entremeses. It is in the entremés of the Viejo celoso that we find a direct use of “toothache” in the sense just mentioned. The entremés abounds in risqué references to Cañizares’ impotence; such allusions form the thematic background of the play and the mainspring of its comic force. Very early in the entremés Cervantes pokes fun at Cañizares with the suggestion that he has no llave de loba (llave maestra, ganzúa) with which to open Lorenza’s aposento:

CRISTINA Tía, la llave de loba creo que se la pone entre las faldas de la camisa.
LORENZA No lo creas, sobrina; que yo duermo con él, y jamás le he visto ni sentido que tenga llave alguna.8

Robert V. Piluso noticed the wicked intention of Cervantes here;9 Spadaccini, though, gives us bluntly the right reading; “Es decir. Cañizares no tiene pene.” An even stronger irony is found later in the

     7 See my “The Beheading of the Giant: An Obscene Metaphor in the Quijote,” Revista Hispánica Moderna, 39 (1976-1977), 141-49, and “La metáfora del libro en Cervantes,” Actas del Séptimo congreso de la Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas (Roma: Bulzoni Editore, 1982), II, pp. 579-83.
     8 Miguel de Cervantes, Entremeses, ed. Nicholas Spadaccini (Madrid: Cátedra, 1982), p. 261 All quotes are from this edition.
     9 Robert V. Piluso, Amor, matrimonio y honra en Cervantes (New York: Las Americas, 1967), p. 100, n. 130; quoted by Spadaccini, p. 261, n. 22.

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text in the conversation between Cañizares and a compadre in which Cañizares expresses his despair in thinking about the day in which Doña Lorenza will notice that something is missing in their marriage. The compadre wisely comments:

COMPADRE Y con razón se puede temer ese temor, porque las mujeres querrían gozar enteros los frutos del matrimonio.
CAÑIZARES La mía los goza doblados (p. 264).

The pun here is built upon the contrast between enteros and doblados. On the surface enteros qualifies the enjoyment of the fruits of marriage, and doblados would mean (and this is obviously the meaning of Cañizares) that his wife, because of his wealth, enjoys them twice as much as the usual wife. But a look at the Diccionario of the Spanish Academy clarifies any possible doubt; among the meanings of entero we find: “Aplicase al animal no castrado;” “Robusto;” “Recto;” “firme.” By contrast with entero the meaning of doblado (folded) is clear; again Spadaccini has perceived it: “juego de palabras mediante el cual se allude al órgano sexual disminuido (“doblado”) e impotente del setentón Cañizares.”10
     It is in this context, and as a variation on the same theme, that we must read the allusion to muelas later in the entremés. The vecina Ortigosa has succeeded in bringing a young galán into Lorenza’s chamber and the unsuspecting but jealous Cañizares is urging the old woman to leave his house. Ortigosa tries to ingratiate herself with him with all kind of flatteries and offerings of services for him and for la señora Lorenza:

ORTIGOSA Si vuestra merced hubiera menester algún pegadillo para la madre téngolos milagrosos; y si para mal de muelas, sé unas palabras que quitan el dolor como con la mano.
CAÑIZARES Abrevie, señora Ortigosa, que doña Lorenza, ni tiene madre, ni dolor de muelas; que todas las tiene sanas y enteras, que en su vida se ha sacado muela alguna.
ORTIGOSA Ella se las sacará, placiendo al cielo, porque le dará muchos años de vida; y la vejez es la total destruición de la dentadura (p. 269).

Again, and with his usual perspicacity, Spadaccini has seen that madre here means matriz, and he rightly points out Cervantes’ intention of

     10 Spadaccini, p. 264, n. 36.

132 JAVIER HERRERO Cervantes

asserting through Cañizares’ mouth that “doña Lorenza, ni tiene madre . . .:” that is to say, Doña Lorenza’s womb is still unused. But the main suggestion of this exchange has remained unnoticed; parallel to Doña Lorenza’s infecundity runs the leitmotif of her virginity: she does not know sexual fulfillment. This lack is ironically asserted by the old husband who is on the brink of being cuckolded: Doña Lorenza “en su vida se ha sacado una muela.” And the malicious Ortigosa, who is, at that very moment, helping the galán to go through the entrance towards Lorenza’s bedroom, mocks the old man answering “Ella se las sacará;” and to nail in her sarcasm she adds an allusion to the old man’s impotence (and to the obvious fact that somebody else le sacará la muela): “la vejez es la total destruición de la dentadura.”
     Ortigosa’s ironies not only support the sense of sacarse las muelas already established, but show that the double meaning was well known, since the comic force of the farcical dialogue depended upon its immediate perception by the audience. But, then, why would we need to assume that we find here an echo of the Celestina? I think that several reasons support it. First of all, the fact that Cervantes admired profoundly the book, “en mi opinión divino, si escondiera más lo humano,” and that in the Celestina Calisto’s toothache plays a central part in Melibea’s seduction. Also the means by which the toothache is to be cured is identical: in the Celestina “una oración,” here “unas palabras.” These palabras must be either a charm or a prayer. In both cases the remedy is very similar, but we should keep in mind that most ensalmos were prayers in any case.11
     But, in my opinion, the strongest argument in favor of the Celestina as source of Cervantes’ usage of the muelas motif is found in the exemplary novel La ilustre fregona. Tomás de Avendaño is in love with Constanza, and has decided to declare his passion to the beautiful young woman, and to confess to her his true station. Constanza is suffering; what with? Of all things, with the most vulgar affliction, although by now it would not come to us as a great surprise; with a toothache!

Mas habiendo salido aquel día Constanza con una toca cenida por

     11 A good example of the frequent use of prayers to effect these cures is given by the blind man in the Lazarillo, who could apply them to all kind of complaints, especially for those related to sexual affliction: La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, ed. Alberto Blecua, (Madrid: Castalia, 1972), p. 97.

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las mejillas y dicho a quien se lo preguntó que porque se la había puesto que tenía un gran dolor de muelas . . .”12

And, how would Tomás offer to cure her? With a prayer that he writes on a paper. Such prayer is really a proposal of marriage. Since both Constanza and Tomás are young and passionately in love, it is not difficult to guess where Cervantes’ irony is directed: marriage is the right cure, for Constanza’s toothache.
     I said initially that Cervantes can turn his masterful command of language in any direction he wishes, with the supreme skill that we all (except Clemencín) acknowledge. This, certainly, is no major discovery. But very seldom can we find a sample of this ingenuity as subtle and complex as the two usages I have just quoted of the Celestina’s motif of the toothache. In both cases Cervantes is dealing with one of his favorite themes (and a crucial one in the religious controversies of the 16th and 17th centuries): marriage. In condemning the wedding of decrepit old age to youth and beauty, the toothache metaphor is used with devastating sarcasm against the preposterous Cañizares. But in dealing with the young and noble lovers Constanza and Avendaño, Cervantes kindly mocks the Renaissance rhetoric that clothes their expressions of love by raising discreetly the humane veil that, covering Constanza’s beauty, hides . . . what? A toothache.


     12 La ilustre fregona, p. 92; in Miguel de Cervantes, Novelas ejemplares, vol. III, ed. Juan Bautista Avalle-Acre (Madrid: Castalia, 1982).

Prepared with the help of Ruth Hyndman
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes