Lope de Vega’s Muslims & the problem with “tópicos convencionales”

From Hadith Bayad (MS Arab. 368, Vatican Library)


I recently read a relatively new dissertation written on sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish literature that depicts the Muslim, Moorish inhabitants of al-Andalus in the Middle Ages. In their analysis of one particular play, the author – unprompted and not quoting the original text – refers to a Moorish man, described as being of small stature, as a “criatura“. A creature. I was at once taken aback and horrified by the loaded, dehumanising nature of the scholar’s choice to use the term. Did they think they were adding a ‘baroque flavour’ to their criticism by embodying what they presume were the beliefs of either the play’s Christian characters or Christian author? Or was this a case of present-day prejudice echoing back several centuries? Either way, I resolved then and there that it’s time for a wholesale rethink of how we approach the literatura fronteriza of the Golden Age starting with Lope de Vega, the most prolific playwright of the period.

The comedias fronterizas and comedias moriscas (referring to plays of a historical nature that deal with the medieval Moors of al-Andalus, and those that portray moriscos – Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity after the fall of Granada in 1492 – respectively) still remain an under-studied group of plays from Lope’s vast oeuvre. I venture to say that together with the rest of the plays thematising Spain’s medieval history they’ve suffered from the widely-held critical belief that Lope’s attitude towards the Middle Ages was merely nostalgic, at worst idealised and lacking complexity – readings that are often tied up with misguided notions of literary ‘quality’. That is, something along the lines of “if I can’t find something aesthetically innovative or at least allegorical, I’ll go ahead and call a literary work sub-standard, completely ignoring the possibility that it could be my own inadequacies or prejudices that are preventing me from really reading a text.” (Excuse my crude paraphrasing, but it happens all too often in some strains of criticism).

For many it’s a foregone conclusion that Lope’s portrayal of Moorish, Muslim characters is nothing more than maurophilia, a term defined by Barbara Fuchs as “the corpus of sixteenth century texts that portray Moors in a positive fashion” which is often “dismissed […] as idealising and remote from the realities of early modern Spain or the marginalised moriscos” (2011, 4).  This is concordant with Thomas Case’s view of Lope de Vega, who in the monograph Lope & Islam (1993) reinforces the idea that for Lope,

“There was little or no interest in protesting political and social ills or in promoting liberal reform as we know it today. Any attempt to show that Lope and his fellow dramatists were seriously thinking about sociology […] would end in failure.” (1993, 5)

Now I’m not proposing that Lope’s comedias moriscas or fronterizas are somehow revolutionary or anachronistically ‘liberal’ in their scope. What I do think is necessary is a re-think of how we employ the term maurophilia, not as a catch-all by-word for romantic nostalgia but rather a problematic and self-reflexive literary form in the context of Christian-authored texts at the time of the morisco expulsion from Spain, which took place in 1609-14.

Fuchs has already rightly worked to reinterpret supposed maurophile texts by suggesting they are not merely nostalgic; on the contrary, they “participate fully in the urgent negotiation of Moorishness that is not only a historiographical relic but a vivid presence in quotidian Spanish culture” in the sixteenth century (2011, 5). I’d venture that the same can be said of Lope’s comedias moriscas. Take, for example, El cordobés valeroso, Pedro Carbonero, a play in which the eponymous protagonist plays with paradigms of Moorish and Christian identity from the outset as a borderland bandit, ready to physically and linguistically disguise himself as Muslim. Pedro has Muslim friends in Granada, Cerbín and Hamete, both of whom are depicted struggling with the ethical question of whether kinship loyalty to another human being ought to triumph over their religious affiliation. Yet the portrayal of Muslims in this play has thus far been deemed a collection of well-known maurophile tropes, “tópicos convencionales”, simply because they are Moorish men of high social standing who are on friendly terms with Christians and are not wholly morally degenerate.

Such an idea was first suggested in the early scholarship of the 1920s, which seems to have stuck to this day. For example, Montesinos argued that:

“La configuración de los personajes moros se resiente, pues carecen de identidad propia, por esto Cerbín no es sino ‘un noble vestido a la morisca.'”

[The characterisation of Moorish characters is weak and they lack an individual identity, meaning Cerbín is nothing but a ‘noble dressed in morisco style.’] (1929, 186)

Such an interpretation is reductive in the case of  Pedro Carbonero, as it simplifies the portrayal of Moorish characters and their experiences on the basis of subjective literary quality. It’s also often justified by a biographical reading that assumes Lope’s Christianity meant that he wouldn’t put any effort into the characterisation of Muslims beyond a few well-worn tropes. Yet more space is given to the thematising of inter-Muslim conflict between the Abencerraje family and those nobles of lower socio-economic means, than to the exploits of Pedro and his retinue. Pedro thinks so highly of his close Muslim friend Cerbín that he goes out of his way to save him from a treacherous death, despite the latter ultimately aligning himself to the rulers of Granada. Meanwhile, the characterisation of Pedro’s vassal Hamete goes far beyond the stereotypical ‘moro gracioso’: despite his lack of noble status he is granted substantial portions of dialogue to moralise against the essential importance of religious identity, and ultimately commits himself to die alongside Pedro.

A further example is Lope’s recasting of medieval epic legend in El bastardo Mudarra, which in its thirteenth-century chronicle form as Los siete infantes de Lara can be read as highly critical of the Christian, Castilian milieu it depicts in contrast to the entirely morally upstanding Muslims of al-Andalus. Los siete infantes de Lara goes beyond fetishisation and basic maurophilia, revealing a crisis of consciousness on the part of the male, Castilian nobility.  Lope noted the tone of the medieval text and expanded upon it by including a new character in El bastardo Mudarra, Lope de Vivar, a Christian in Moorish disguise akin to Pedro Carbonero. Lope therefore overtly acknowledges the performative and constructed nature of cultural identity. El bastardo Mudarra resists Maurophilia which is in fact a simplistic topos that would hypothetically reinforce the difference that the text thematically works to efface.

I therefore propose that more attention ought to be paid to Lope’s construction of Moorish identity to move away from the assumption that the playwright never went beyond stereotype. The catch-all concept of maurophilia cannot be used to explain away the presence and actions of Moorish, Muslim characters who are in many cases as complex as their Christian counterparts. Moreover, Lope acknowledges the performativity of identity and creates physical, visual tension on stage through the use of disguise. The flimsy nature of the cultural categories Christian and Moor therefore becomes an open secret between playwright and audience; an idealistic view of cultural identity as nothing more than a physical costume that can be cast off or worn at will.


Works cited

Case, Thomas. 1993. Lope and Islam: Islamic personages in his Comedias. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta

Fuchs, Barbara. 2011. Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Montesinos, Jose Fernandez. 1929. El cordobés valeroso, Pedro Carbonero. Madrid, Centro de Estudios Históricos