Baroque Allegory Comedia: The Transfiguration of Tragedy in Seventeenth-Century Spain

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The point of departure of the present study is a consideration of the Spanish Baroque’s apparent ostracism of tragedy, more precisely the terminological peculiarity of comedia having become the generic designation of serious drama during the first decades of the seventeenth century. This surprising development, which has no contemporary European equivalent, is discussed from various cultural-historical, theological, and aesthetic angles.
The cultural-historical hypothesis informing the analysis of this development is that the seventeenth century was a deeply ambiguous period. Socioeconomic and political developments as well as developments in crucial cultural areas such as political theory, science, philosophy, and aesthetics suggest the Baroque as the beginning of what is today referred to as modernity. However, the period was simultaneously characterized by a pronounced tendency to interpret these historical developments through the grid of a Christian morality, which seemed to owe quite a bit to the medieval conception of history. According to this conception, recent historical developments — as crystallized in the Renaissance questioning of the Christian worldview through science and criticism — was seen as a symptom of moral corruption. The same applied to the decadence of the Spanish empire, national bankruptcy, and the internal dissolution that occurred during the first half of the seventeenth century. The Baroque experienced a profound cultural crisis and the answer to this experience was the moral scrutiny of history.
This redemptive strategy wasn’t without antecedents. Since Antiquity, Christian writers had not only interpreted Scripture, but also the agents and events of the historical world as figures of a higher moral reality, that is, allegorically. It is a central hypothesis of the study that the allegorical boom characterizing Baroque culture on all levels was intrinsically intertwined with the Counterreformation revitalization of the Christian tradition through reference to the early Christian era and medieval Christianity. The relation between this allegorical boom and the incipient secularization of seminal fields of cultural life is studied in detail and the allegorical interpretation of history is seen to be the strategy by means of which Baroque Christianity sought to secure its religious, cultural, and ideological status vis-à-vis the omnipresent decadence and what was conceived of as Paganism and Heresy’s siege on history. Baroque allegory is, accordingly, seen to be resting on a conflictive ground: the need to reconcile the great contradictions of contemporary culture. In accordance with the period’s cultural climate, seventeenth-century allegory was thus fundamentally paradoxical, at once a symptom and an overcoming of the Baroque conflict between medievalism and modernity.
The present analysis of the Baroque ostracism of tragedy rests on an examination of the precarious relation between cultural conflict and allegory in seminal parts of seventeenth-century culture such as political theory, education, mythography, literary criticism, and dramatic theory. The upsurge of the term comedia as a hegemonic concept of serious dramatic art is shown to be the logical outcome of the allegorical outlook dominating these fields and to be particularly dependent on the re-moralization of aesthetics so vividly expressed in the famous literary feuds of the period. Accordingly, the peculiar terminological development in the field of dramatic theory and practice must necessarily be related to the Baroque revival of the Christian notion of the world as a theatre and history as a drama, which may contain certain tragic elements, but is still securely rooted in a metaphysical ethics and, hence, essentially a divine comedy. The Baroque ostracism of tragedy appears as a central element of the period’s revitalization of the Christian tradition as an antidote to contemporary decadence, but in accordance with the Baroque conflict between medievalism and modernity, it is paradoxical and ambiguous. As the final interpretation of Calderón’s La vida es sueño demonstrates, the subject of this quintessential serious comedia is exactly the refutation of the tragic, in the sense of historical pessimism, tragic paganism, and ancient tragedy. However, although tragedy may be ostracised on a terminological level it is far from absent from the troubled universe of the Baroque serious comedia, which is essentially a tragicomic Christian theatrum mundi rather than comedy in the traditional, Aristotelian sense.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKassel
Publisheredition reichenberger
Number of pages327
ISBN (Print)978-3-937734-60-6
Publication statusPublished - 2010

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Humanities - Renaissance, Baroque, Modernity, Medievalism, comedia, tragedy/comedy, poetics, allegory

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