Nov 252017

Today is the birthday (1562) of Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, usually called simply Lope de Vega, Spanish playwright, poet, and novelist of the Spanish Golden Century of Baroque literature. In the Spanish-speaking world he is generally ranked only second to Cervantes for classic literature. I would rank him first, but who am I? I find Cervantes rather tedious in comparison. So – one vote for Lope de Vega as king of Spanish literature. The sheer volume of his literary output is unequalled, making him one of the most prolific authors in the history of literature in any language, although this fact is not, in and of itself, a qualification for top billing. Cervantes himself called him Fénix de los Ingenios (The Phoenix of Wits) and Monstruo de la Naturaleza (a Monster of Nature), the latter because of his “monstrous” output. De Vega was the main force in renewing Spanish theater, and took it to great heights. His plays, like those of Shakespeare, are still produced on a regular basis worldwide. He was also one of the best lyric poets in the Spanish language, and an accomplished novelist. About 3,000 sonnets, 3 novels, 4 novellas, 9 epic poems, and about 500 plays are attributed to him. He has frequently been criticized for putting quantity ahead of quality, yet, at least 80 of his plays are considered masterpieces, and Cervantes himself, who was his contemporary, envied his works.

De Vega was born in Madrid to a family who had recently arrived from Valle de Carriedo in Cantabria. His father, Félix de Vega, was an embroiderer. Little is known of his mother, Francisca Fernández Flórez. De Vega later added the distinguished name of Carpio (from one of his in-laws) as his maternal name in place of Flórez. De Vega’s family history is rather obscure. His father moved to Madrid in 1561, ostensibly to take advantage of possibilities in a new capital city, but de Vega wrote that his father arrived in Madrid because of a love affair while a married man, but his (future) mother came to “rescue” him. Thus, de Vega became the fruit of this reconciliation, and owed his existence to the jealousies and rivalries in love he would analyze so much in his dramatic works.

De Vega was obviously a child prodigy in writing although some of his feats are probably exaggerations. Did he, for example, write his first play, El verdadero amante, when he was 12, as he claimed? Probably not, but he was certainly a more than competent writer at that age. At 14 he studied at the Colegio Imperial, a Jesuit school in Madrid, from which he absconded to take part in a military expedition in Portugal. Following that escapade, he had the good fortune of being taken into the protection of the Bishop of Ávila, who recognized his talent and got him enrolled in the University of Alcalá. De Vega had planned to follow in his patron’s footsteps and join the priesthood after getting his degree, but he fell in love instead and realized that celibacy was not for him. In the process he failed to get a degree and made what living he could as a secretary to aristocrats or by writing plays.


In 1583 de Vega enlisted in the Spanish Navy and saw action at the Battle of Ponta Delgada in the Azores, under the command of his future friend Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquis of Santa Cruz, to whose son he would later dedicate a play. Following his stint in the navy he returned to Madrid and began his career as a playwright in earnest. He also began a love affair with Elena Osorio (the “Filis” of his poems), who was separated from her husband, actor Cristóbal Calderón, and was the daughter of a leading theater director. After 5 years Elena spurned de Vega in favor of another suitor, and his vitriolic attacks on her and her family landed him in jail for libel and, ultimately, 8 years’ banishment from the court and 2 years’ banishment from Castile. He went into exile undaunted, taking with him the 16-year-old Isabel de Alderete y Urbina, known in his poems by the anagram “Belisa,” the daughter of Philip II’s court painter, Diego de Urbina. The two married under pressure from her family on 10 May 1588. Just a few weeks later, on the 29th of May, de Vega signed up for another tour of duty with