"?Que He De Hacer?": The Comedia as Casuistry

By Kallendorf, Hilaire | The Romanic Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview

"?Que He De Hacer?": The Comedia as Casuistry


Kallendorf, Hilaire, The Romanic Review


The Spanish Golden Age comedia as a genre has proven notoriously difficult to explain fully. Since Lope de Vega first published in the early seventeenth century his Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo, scholars and critics have been trying to generate a more or less complete history and poetics of the genre. (1) Scholars writing within such diverse critical frameworks as New Criticism, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, and New Historicism have all attempted to answer certain fundamental questions: what was the artistic process by means of which the comedias were generated, especially in such astonishing numbers? With playwrights like Lope producing literally hundreds of these dramas within a relatively short time, were there certain loci of tension within lived experience to which they returned continuously for inspiration? Did the playwrights themselves see their genre as essentially comic, or was comedia simply synonymous with "drama," as the numerous tragicomedias would seem to indicate? What are we to make of the riotous subplots which tend to crowd out the "main" line of action? The comedia has been seen by some as merely the didactic arm of the hegemonic state which controlled its authors as mere puppets or pawns. It has also been seen as an inherently popular form, written for the vulgo in the corrales and defined in opposition to more erudite and lavish courtly masques and entertainments. It has been understood to be fundamentally "about" honor, certainly a key concept in early modern Spanish society, but hardly all-encompassing enough to cover every comedia. As I shall attempt to show in this essay, explanations like these fail to account fully for the genesis and development of the Golden Age comedia. A more complex mechanism is at work here, and it is one that is only just now beginning to be described.

This essay is intended as a contribution to that endeavour, coming from an area which has not been explored much by Hispanists. (2) There have been quite successful attempts by scholars in other fields--for example, English literature-to relate casuistry to other genres such as the novel, and it is upon these studies that I would like to build. (3) In this article I will argue that casuistry, or the spectacle of a conscience in action, is a fundamental process by means of which the comedia as a genre completes its artistic and social function.

Renaissance European Casuistry and Its Manifestations in Spain

Casuistry in the sense it is meant here may be defined as case morality. It is the practical science of applying general moral principles to concrete specific circumstances. As such, it has a long and illustrious (not to mention infamous) history. Casuistry may be said to have originated at least as far back as Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Cicero's De officiis. It may have owed its rise to the flowering of classical rhetoric (Pichl 905). It certainly received valuable contributions from the fields of Roman jurisprudence and rabbinical disputation (Toulmin and Jonsen, 47-88). The Christian tradition of casuistry began at least as early as the Celtic Penitential Books of the sixth century (Mahoney 5). The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 published a decree on annual confession which demanded that priests inquire about the specific circumstances of their parishioners' sins (Mahoney 17-19). The Dominican order became active in casuistry as an extension of its didactic ministry, and the Franciscans followed suit during the thirteenth century. But the Jesuits were the ones to bring casuistry to both its zenith and its nadir of international esteem.

As John O'Malley recounts in The First Jesuits, as early as 1555 the Society of Jesus sponsored lectures on casus conscientiae to mixed audiences of clergy and laity (145). Sometimes these lectures were held in the schools, but other times they were held in churches or cathedrals. By 1556 the rector of the Collegio Romano was prescribing daily lectures on cases of conscience (146). …

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