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by Bamber Gascoigne

Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla (1607-1648)


Prolific Spanish dramatist, a member of the order of Santiago, author of tragedies, comedias, autos sacramentales, and entremeses. Rojas Zorilla was noted for a new type of Baroque drama, the comedias de figurón, in which an eccentric character, or a jester (el gracioso) is the most important person in the play, preparing way for the Beaumarchais's (1732-1799) famous clever servant Figaro. Rojas Zorrilla's best know drama is Del rey abajo, ninguno (None Beneath the King), which was published in 1651, three years after the death of the author. The story deals with a peasant who mistakenly believes that the King has violated his honor by breaking into his house and acting dishonorably toward his wife. Because he cannot move against the King, he must save his honor by killing his innocent wife.

Pero en tanto que mi cuello
esté en mis hombros robusto
no he de permitir me agravie
del rey abajo, ninguno
(from Del rey abajo, ninguno by Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla)

Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla was born in Toledo. He was the first of six children. His father, Francisco Perez de Rojas, served in the Royal Navy, and after resigning, he moved to Madrid, where Rojas grew up. The family lived  on the Plaza del Angel. Rojas' mother was Dona Mariana de Besga y Zorrilla. For some reason, he later created his name from the second surname of each parent. In Madrid Rojas attended the same schools as Pedro and José Calderón.

It is believed that Rojas studied in Toledo and Salamanca, before returning to Madrid by 1631. Early in his life, Rojas became a close friend with Calderón, Pérez de Montalbán, and Antonio Coello. In the 1630s he started to gain fame as a playwright, borrowing the plots from such French dramatists as Corneille, Lesage, and Scarron. In the latter half of the century, French dramatists extensively borrowed from Rojas's work. Along with Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Augustin Moreto, he represented the second phase of the Spanish Golden Age comedia; the first cycle had centered around Lope de Vega, Guillén de Castro and others. Madrid was the main center of theatrical creativity.

At the beginning of his career, Rojas Zorrilla mostly collaborated with other dramatists, especially with Coello, Calderón, and Luis Velez de Guevara, but in 1635 he wrote more plays on his own than in collaboration. At least fifteen of Rojas's works were written in collaboration with other poets. Persiles y Sigismunda, a tragic melodrama based on the novel by Cervantes, was probably his first independent play. It was performed on February 23, 1633, for the king and queen.

When Lope de Vegan died, Rojas contributed a sonnet on the occasion of the author's death. From 1640, his plays were staged in the new theatre in the Palace of Buen Retiro. Rojas's Los Bandos de Verona (1640), based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, was performed at the opening ceremonies. 

Rojas's dramatic career was brief, it covered only twelve or fourteen years. Many of his plays had a violent ending. He also was fond of extravagant theatrical effects, which added to the popularity of the productions. The first volume of a collection of his plays came out in 1640. Its second volume, published at his own expense, appeared five years later. King Philip IV, who was a huge supporter of the theater, honored Rojas in 1643 by awarding him a knighthood in the Order of Santiago. This did not go without difficulties because of his origin – he was accused to hide the fact that he had Moorish and Jewish ancestors. Moreover, his former neighbors in Toledo insisted, that one of his ancestors had been executed by the Inquisition.

Theaters were closed between 1644-1649 by royal orders to mourn the deaths of Isabel de Borbón (1602-1644) and Prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646). The performance of both plays and the auto sacramentals staged in the church's atrium were banned. Rojas Zorrilla died suddenly during the ban in Madrid, on January 23, 1648. He may have suffered a violent death but there is no evidence of this. His illegitimate daughter, Francisca Bezón, became the famous actress La Bezona. Rojas was married from 1640 to Doña Catalina Yáñez de Mendoza.

Del Rey abajo ninguno (None But the King) was a play about the so-called punto de honor, the conflict between honor and loyalty, and in this particular story loyalty to the king and doubt's about wife's reputation. Some questions have arisen concerning its authorship, because the play was first attributed to Calderon when it was published as part of  Parte Cuarenta y des de comedias de difererentes autores (1651). According to the 17th-century Spanish logic, if the king put a married woman to shame, it was the husband's duty make the wife to pay for it – the king is above honor code rules. Moreover, even if she is not the offender, it always the wife who is punished in conjugal honor conflicts. The protagonist is the noble García del Gastañar, who lives a simple life in the country with his beautiful wife Blanca. When King Alfonso XI prepares war against Moors, García's substantial contribution to the effort attracts king's attention, and he decides to meet him. The king visits García's house with Count Don Mendo, who approaches in the night Blanca with questionable intentions. García confuses the king for the count, and sees no other alternative than to take the life of his innocent wife. "A muerte te ha condenado / mi honor, cuando no mis celos, / porque a costa de tu vida, / de una infamia me prevengo. / Perdóname Blanca mía, / que, aunque de culpa te absuelvo, / sólo por razón de Estado, / a la muerte de condeno." Bianca escapes to the mountains and eventually ends up in the care of the queen and king. García struggles with his consciousness and the code of honor. Understanding García's hesitation, Bianca offers to die. Finally Alfonso appears on the scene, García' mistake is revealed, and Don Mendo is killed by the king. 

Rojas Zorilla also wrote Cada cual lo que le toca (1645, To Each His Due), in which he unconventionally approached the feminine honor. When it was performed in Madrid, the audience booed to Rojas's twisting of the old theme, in which a wife has been discarded by another man before her marriage. The husband, Don Luis, is reluctant to kill Doña Isabel, his  wife whom he loves, and eventually she kills don Fernando, her former lover and saves her husband's honour. At the end Don Luis forgives his wife.

Casarse por vengarse (1636) was a tragedy of a woman, Blanca, who wants to take a revenge on her former lover, Enrique. When he becomes a king, Enrique leaves her. Blanca marries a man she does not love, but her behaviour hurts the honour of her husband, too. A secret door to Blanca's bedroom has a central role in the plot; it ultimately leads to her death. The play was still popular in the eighteenth century. It was Rojas's only wife-murder play; Calderón wrote three of them. Earlier these "honour plays" were simply read as portraying practices of sixteeth-and seveenteeth-century Spaniards, but feminist literature critics have pointed out that the brutal endings force spectators to be horrified by what happens and acknowledge the moral wrongness of a certain set of social values.

Rojas Zorrilla emphasized in his plays humane solutions in conflict situations and challenged the aristocratic code of honor. One must listen the voice of heart and not obey blindly traditional rules of behavior. He dealt with uncommon directress with such issues as unfaithfulness, the rights of women, and the fallibility of institutions. To Each His Due defended female equality and El desafío de Carlos V (1635) had an female character, an Amazon type, who has led a free and adventurous life. In Progne y Filomena  (1636), performed in the Royal Palace, sisters emerge as successful avengers. This play championed equality for women in enforcing the code of honour.

Entre bobos anda el juego (written 1638), partly inspired by Alonso de Castillo Solórzano's El marqués del Cigarral, is generally considered Rojas' best comedy. Rojas wrote it while recuperating from an assassination attack. It has been suggested that the attack was a result of a lampooning. In the play a young couple, Doña Isabel and her poor cousin Pedro, revolt against plans of their parents. Isabel wants to marry for love, not financial security. Thomas Corneille took the plot from this lively play for his Don Bertrand de Cigarral. Rojas's treatment sometimes infuriated his audiences. According to Ramón de Mesonero Romanos (1803-1882), he composed some 80 stage works. The last piece he is known to have written was En gran patio de palacio, an auto sacramental (sacramental act) for the feast of Corpus Christi; he was given only three days to finish it.

For further reading: Don Francisco de Rojas Zorilla by E. Cotarelo y Mori (1911); Dramaturgos de la escuela de Calderón: Rojas Zorilla by F.C. Sainz de Robles (1947); Francisco de Rojas Zorilla and the Tragedy by R.R. MacCurdy (1958); Francisco de Rojas by R.R. MacCurdy (1973); 'Del rey abajo, ninguno, y la inversion venatoria del hostigamiento' in Linguistica indoamericana y Estudios Literarios, ed. by Elizabeth Luna-Traill (1992); Francisco De Rojas Zorilla Y Agustin Moreto: Analisis by Ann MacKenzie (1994); Spanish Dramatists of the Golden Age: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Mary Parker (1998); Echoes and Inscriptions: Comparative Approaches to Early Modern Spanish Literatures, edited by Barbara Simerka and Christopher B. Weimer (2000); An Annotated Critical Edition Of Francisco de Rojas Zorilla's Casarse for vengarse by Linda L. Mullin (2002); The Criminal Baroque: Lawbreaking, Peacekeeping, and Theatricality in Early by Modern Spain by Ted L. L. Bergman (2021)

Selected works:

  • Persiles y Sigismunda, 1633 (prod.; publ. 1636; based on a novel by Miguel de Cervantes)
  • Peligrar en los remedios, 1634 (prod., publ. 1640) [A Risk amid Remedies] 
  • El primer marqués de Astorga, y fronterizo español, ca.1634 (prod.) [The First Marquis of Astonga, or Spanish Frontier]
  • Santa Isabel, Reina de Portugal, 1635 (prod.; publ. 1638; ed. Armando Texeira Carneiro, 1964) [St. Isabel, Queen of Portugal] 
  • El profeta falso Mahoma, 1635 (prod.; publ. 1640) [Mohammed, the False Prophet]
  • Obligados y ofendidos, 1635 (prod.; publ. 1640; ed. Raymond R. MacCurdy, 1963) [Obliged hough Offended] 
  • Casarse por vengarse, 1636 (prod.; publ. 1636) [Marrying for Revenge]
  • No hay amigo para amigo. (Las cañas se vuelven lanzas), 1636 (prod.; publ. 1640) [True Friends Do Not Exist)]
  • Progne y Filomena, 1636 (prod.; publ. 1640) [Progne and Philomena]
  • Donde hay agravios no hay celos, y amo criado, 1637 (prod.; publ.1640; ed. Brigitte Wittmann, 1962) [No Jealousy Without Cause, or The Servant Master]
  • El más impropio verdugo por la más justa venganza, 1637 (prod.; publ. 1645) [The Most Unlikely Executioner for the Most Just Revenge]
  • Los celos de Rodamonte, 1638 (publ.)
  • La Confusion de Fortuna, 1638/39 (written)
  • Nuestra Señora de Atocha, 1639 (prod.; publ. 1645) [Our Lady of Atocha] 
  • Los bandos de Verona, 1640 (prod.; publ. 1645) [The Rival Houses of Verona]
  • Los encantos de Medea, 1640 (prod.) [Medea's Sorcery]
  • No hay ser padre siendo Rey, 1640 (based on Guillén de Castro's La justicia en la piedad) [A King Cannot Act as a Father]
  • Primera parte de las comedias de Don Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla, 1640
  • Abre el ojo, 1640 (prod.; publ., 1645) [Keep Your Eyes Open]
  • La traición busca el castigo, 1640 [Treachery Seeks Punishment] 
  • Los trabajos de Tobias, 1642 [The Labors of Tobias]
  • Morir pensando matar, 1642 (ed. Raymond R. MacCurdy, 1961) [To Die Intending to Kill]
  • Segunda parte de las comedias de Don Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla, 1645
  • Cada cual lo que le toca, 1645 [To Each His Own]
  • Lo que son mujeres, 1645 [The Ways of Women]
  • Entre bobos anda el juego, 1645 (ed. Raymond R. MacCurdy, 1972; Maria Grazia Profeti, 1984) [Merry Sport with Fools]
  • Los áspides de Cleopatra, 1645 - Cleopatra (tr. Gwynne Edwards, 2005)
  • Lo que quería ver el Marqués de Villena, 1645 [What the Marquis of Villena Wanted to See]
  • Sin honra no hay amistad, 1645 [Without Honor There Is No Friendship]
  • Abre el ojo, 1645
  • Los encantos de Medea, 1645 [Medea's Spells]
  • El gran patio de palacio, 1647 [The Great Courtyard of the Palace]
  • Del rey abajo, ninguno; o el labrador más honrado, García del Castañar, 1651 (ed. Brigitte Wittmann, 1970; Jean Testas, 1971) - None Beneath the King: Spanish Classical Tragedy in Three Acts (tr. Isaac Goldberg, 1924)
  • El Caín de Cataluña, 1651 [The Cain of Cataluña]
  • Don Diego de noche, 1654 [Don Diego by Night]
  • La difunta pleiteada, 1663 [The Disputed Corpse]
  • La vida en el ataúd, 1669 (ed. Raymond R. MacCurdy, 1961) [Life in the Tomb]
  • Selva de amor y celos, 1669 [Forest of Love and Jealousy]
  • La hermosura y la desdicha, 1671 [Beauty and Misfortune]
  • La prudencia en el castigo, 1678 [Prudence in Punishment]
  • Comedias escogidas de Don Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla, 1861 (ed. Ramón de Mesonero Romanos)
  • Primero es la honra que el gusto, 1861
  • El desafío de Carlos Quinto, 1861 (prod. 1635) [The Challenge of Charles V]
  • Cada cual lo que le toca y La viña de Nabot, 1917 (ed. Américo Castro)
  • Teatro, 1917 (ed. F. Ruiz Morcuende)
  • Teatro, 1931 (2, ed.)
  • García del Castan̂ar, 1935 (edited with introduction by J. W. Barker)
  • Los bandos de Verona, 1953 (ed. Herbert Koch)
  • Lucrecia y Tarquino, 1963 (edited, with an introd. and notes, by Raymond R. MacCurdy. Together with a transcription of Agustín Moreto y Cabaña: Baile de Lucrecia y Tarquino)
  • Del rey abajo, ninguno, 1970 (edited by Raymond R. MacCurdy)
  • Numancia cercada. Numancia destruida, 1977 (ed. Raymond R. MacCurdy) 
  • Abre el ojo, 1979 (versión de J. M. Caballero Bonald)
  • Entre bobos anda el juego, 1984 (estudio preliminar, edición y notas de María Grazia Profeti)
  • Progne y Filomena, 1994 (edición, introducción y notas de Alfred Rodríguez y Saúl E. Roll-Vélez)
  • Del rey abajo, ninguno, 2006 (edited and with notes by Annette G. Cash)
  • Casarse por vengarse, 2007 (critical edition, introduction and notes by Linda L. Mullin)
  • Obras completas, 2007-<2012> (4 vols.; edición crítica y anotada del Instituto Almagro de Teatro Clásico, dirigida por Felipe B. Pedraza Jiménez y Rafael González Cañal; coordinadora del volumen, Elena E. Marcello)

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