Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Greek, the Roman, and the Persian King: Lope De Vega's Use of Historical Source Material for the Play Contra Valor No Hay Desdicha

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Greek, the Roman, and the Persian King: Lope De Vega's Use of Historical Source Material for the Play Contra Valor No Hay Desdicha

Article excerpt


Exeter College, Oxford

The play Contra valor no hay desdicha, attributed to Lope de Vega, was first published in Madrid in 1638 by María de Quiñones, and is based on the early life of King Cyrus the Great of Persia. accounts of the life and deeds of Cyrus are found primarily in sources such as the cuneiform documents (principally the Cyrus Cylinder), the Greek historians (such as Herodotus, Xenophon and Ctesias), and the Old Testament books of II Chronicles, Ezra and Isaiah.1 The history of his reign as king of Persia is well documented, although accounts of his earlier years are fewer and less reliable and it is this period of his life upon which lope de Vega draws as the subject matter for Contra valor no hay desdicha. as is often the case with great heroes and warriors of the past, descriptions of the birth and childhood of the Persian king have become a mixture of myth and legend and are therefore to be viewed as having more of a cultural and societal significance than historical accuracy.

An important account of Cyrus' early life appears in Book i, sections 107-130 of the Histories by the Greek, Herodotus, a seminal work written in c. 450-420 BC that gives an account of the rise of the Persian empire and the Graeco-Persian wars, in addition to providing much additional information of cultural interest. marcus Julianus Justinus, or Justin, also tells of the early life of Cyrus in Book i, sections 4-6 of his summary of the writings of Pompeius Trogus, the Epitome of Pompeius Trogus' 'Historica Philippica', thought to have been written in the late second century aD (although there is no consensus as to the exact date). albeit more brief, Justin's account is in many ways very similar to that written by Herodotus, and it is clear that lope used the accounts of both of these historians as the source material for his play, as will be shown. Conversely, lope's narrative line varies greatly from other histories of Cyrus' early life, such as those by Ctesias (On Persia) or Xenophon (The Education of Cyrus found in his Cyropaedia), and we are therefore able to discount them from his possible sources. moreover, we can conclude through analysis of certain significant divergences between the two accounts that lope relied more heavily on Herodotus as his source for Contra valor. This is certainly the view taken by Menéndez y Pelayo in his introduction to the play for the sixth volume of the fifteen-volume collection, Obras de Lope de Vega, which has the subtitle 'Comedias mitológicas, comedias históricas de asunto extranjero', first published by the Real Academia Española in 1896:

Tal es la leyenda que nos ha transmitido Heródoto, y que lope tomó principalmente de su Historia, y no de Justino, que también la trae, aunque abreviada y con algunas variantes, en el lib. I de su epítome de Trogo Pompeyo. Así nos lo persuade el nombre del vaquero Mitrídates (Mitradates [sic] en lope) que está en Heródoto, pero no en Justino; el que Ciro mande azotar a un solo muchacho, y no a varios, como dice el compendiador latino, y algunas otras diferencias que entre ambos textos se notan. No queremos decir con esto que lope, cuya lectura, como ya hemos visto, era muy extensa y variada, dejase de consultar también a Justino. el germen, por ejemplo, del sueño de Ciro, de que Lope sacó tan admirable partido dramático, está en Justino. (Menéndez y Pelayo 1896: 264-65)

In this study, i shall demonstrate that lope used the work by Justin more than is implied here, although I support Menéndez y Pelayo's conclusion that Herodotus was a key source for the dramatist.3

Lope would have had no trouble in acquiring a copy of the works by both historians. in Spain, Herodotus' Histories was widely available in latin translation from at least the early sixteenth century. The original latin version of Justin's Epitome abounded all over europe from the early 1500s; additionally, an edition of the text was printed in Spanish by Juan de Brocar at alcalá de Henares as early as 1540, and also by martin Nutius (antwerp) in 1586. …

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