Classics

The Celestina: A Play That Changed Medieval Spanish Literature

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In 1499, an anonymous 16-act play was published in the Spanish town of Burgos that influenced the flourishing of the Spanish language and literature. Known as the La Comedia of Calisto and Melibea, it became widely popular. As a result, other editions were published in the next three years. A second edition came off the press in 1500, and a third edition was printed in 1502. In this 1502 edition, readers could put a name to the author – Fernando de Rojas, who added five more acts with an introduction and concluding material. The title was then changed to the La Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, but this masterpiece later became known simply as La Celestina – the name of the cunning and seducing protagonist.

Celestina is an elderly woman who has lived a life of sin and vice. Known for cosmetics, sex, prostitution, murder, corruption, envy, betrayal, recycled virgins and money, it’s no wonder she is the star of the work. She engages the reader as a “go-between” for Calisto, a young nobleman who has lost his mind, lovesick for haughty Melibea, also a young woman from a noble family. Two prominent characters are Sempronio and Parmeno, bother servants of Calisto. Sempronio secretly schemes to make money off of her helping Calisto arrange a meeting with Melibea. To do that, she entices Melibea to fall in love with Calisto. Parmeno does not trust Celestina but ultimately decides to work with Sempronio to obtain money from the old woman’s services. However, all the two receive are two prostitutes who “work” at Celestina’s home – Elicia and Are├║sa. Sempronio and Parmeno never get what they truly want which is Celestina’s money, and this begins a chain of tragic plots that concludes with the deaths of the five main characters.

Not much is known about the author. Fernando de Rojas was born circa 1470 and died circa 1540. He was a law student at the University of Salamanca when he wrote La Celestina. As far as scholars know Rojas did not write any other literary works. He became a successful lawyer and later mayor of a Spanish town where he lived for three decades. But, Rojas was born into a family of “conversos” – Jews who converted to Christianity. He grew up during a time in Spain when the Inquisition tried and tortured and converted Jews into becoming Christians.

Rojas was extremely well educated. His library not only included books about law, but many other books about the works of ancient Roman and Greek writers, plus many medieval and Renaissance Italian writers, novels of chivalry, sentimental novels, poetry. This is evident since he incorporates so many references and quotes from such classical sources that abound in this work.

Rojas’ only literature was a big contribution to Spanish culture that is considered the Golden Age of Spain which marked the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance. He was a true humanist because of his references to the classics were stimulated by the philosophy of secularism, the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression.

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