Archive for January, 2012

The Widow from Valencia (La viuda valenciana) was written by the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. The first version of the play was probably written around 1604, around the time when the author was visiting Valencia. It was rewritten between 1618-1619 and eventually published in the fourteenth part of Lope de Vega’s Comedias.

I could not find an English translation of The Widow from Valencia, which is a real shame, because it’s a fun play with great characters, apt comments about marriage, love and honor as well as great story loosely based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Leonarda, a young and beautiful widow residing in Valencia, is devastated by the death of her husband and vows never to marry again. She shuts herself up in her house, devoting all her time and energy to pious thoughts, pious books and pious images.  She remains unmoved by her three illustrious, if somewhat buffoonish suitors, LisandroOtón, and Valerio, and her uncle, who is constantly trying to get her married off again. But her resolution doesn’t last; she sees a young man named Camilo and falls madly in love with him. To enjoy her love and to avoid scandal she comes up with a clever plan. The young man is invited to her house,  but is made to cover his eyes and is only allowed to visit her at night in a dark chamber with herself and two of her servants wearing masks at all times.

Camilo is brought to Leonarda, La viuda valenciana (Estudio 1, 2010)

Camilo, who has become disillusioned with his love for a city woman Celia, decides to embark on this adventure when prompted by Leonarda’s masked page Urban. In the dark of the night, with the widow’s face hidden behind a mask, Camilo meets her and falls in love with her. Their love proceeds with all the usual trappings including jealousies, frustrations and fear of detection. In the end, all is happily resolved with the marriages of Leonarda and Camilo, Celia and Camilo’s servant Floro and Urban and Leonarda’s maid Martha. The ex-suitors have no ill-will towards the happy couple and the uncle is just glad that the widow has finally found a husband.

This play is not a literary masterpiece like The Dog in the Manger – it has too many unnecessary scenes and characters, plot threads that lead nowhere, and the resolution comes too quickly and abruptly to be wholly satisfying, yet the language is doubtlessly beautiful, the plot is engaging and the characters are interesting.

Aitana Sánchez-Gijón as Leonarda

Unlike most English plays, Spanish plays, and this one in particular, is driven by the female, not the male, protagonist. She is at the center of the narrative, she is the primary planner and schemer and she is the one the audience is asked to identify and sympathize with. Leonarda is clever, willful and strong.  She is also flawed, which certainly makes her even more compelling. She sets out to be the most pious woman in Valencia, but falls short of this goal. Yet she embraces her love and feels no shame about it. She is keenly aware of the disgrace that would befall her if her love is discovered and takes precautions to avoid detection. When she thinks that her secret may be discovered she comes up with another ruse   putting the honor of another person in danger and claiming that to protect one’s reputation it is acceptable to smear someone else. Camilo, the ‘blind’ lover, is both a valiant knight who protects those who are weaker and an adventurer who is not afraid to pursue an unseen lady, but also a callous lover who has left his old girlfriend and is now going after another. At the end, when her is frustrated with loving an unseen lady he had dubbed Diana, he is not above bringing a hidden lamp and discovering the identity of his secret mistress against her wishes.

The Widow from Valencia plays out the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but switches the genders around. In this version it is the lady and not the man who remains unseen and it is the man’s and not the woman’s curiosity that is the central conflict of the story. Interestingly, while Psyche’s curiosity is treated as a character flaw that nearly destroys all chances of happiness, Camilo’s curiosity is not condemned; it is deemed natural; and in the end his desire to know and his subterfuge bring about the happy ending.

Is this happily-ever-after or the begging of a horrible and abusive relationship?

The issue of marriage and love take center stage in this play. One of the opening scenes of the play is Leonarda’s argument with her uncle regarding marriage. She, as a widow, who in the 17th century had a lot more rights and privileges than a maid or a married woman, delivers a very apt speech regarding the precarious state of marriage and how it puts women at the mercy of unscrupulous and abusive husbands. Throughout the play she never even mentions a desire to wed her lover Camilo.She seems perfectly happy with the arrangement where she can see him and enjoy his company without being tied up in marriage or endangering her honor. In the end, it is Camilo’s rash act and her discovery that forces her to pronounce to her uncle that she and Camilo are engaged to be married. There is no guarantee that the two would be happy in this state and that her dark predictions regarding marriage would not come true.

There's nothing Leonarda would not do to protect her honor

Honor is another persistent theme in the play. Leonarda’s uncle warns her about the dangers of her widowhood. He points out that even if she does nothing wrong, her honor would be in danger from the gossips and insinuations of others. This proves to be true when the three rejected suitors, feeling that their own honor has been injured, begin a smear campaign against the widow implying that she is involved in an illicit relationship with her page. To guard her own honor, Leonarda endangers the honor of her cousin and also shows contempt for Celia, who makes a scene in the middle of the street because of her jealousy over Camilo. Honor is shown to be both precious and fragile. It is also shown to be at the mercy of others. It can be taken away easily and there would be almost no way to get it back once it is lost.

The Widow of Valencia, Teatres de la Generalitat (2009)

The play has many dark undertones – the uncertainty of marriage, the danger of putting too much emphasis on honor, the unstable nature of love – yet the overall tone of The Widow from Valencia is light and breezy, and a little decadent. With masks and secret lovers and all sorts of pleasures that come with masked anonymity. While it may be modernized and updated, it bests suits a historical or faux-historical setting where rigid norms of behavior live side by side with love affairs and fun romps.

Find out more about Lope de Vega and his works.

Read an essay about The Widow from Valencia (only in Spanish). 

Hear the music from The Widow from Valencia ballt by Aram Khachaturian.



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