Romanticismo en Don Juan Tenorio

One of the most familiar figures in world literature is Don Juan, whose name has become the label of the reckless rake and triumphant libertine. There was, apparently, a Don Miguel Mañra in fourteenth century Seville, who seduced a trusting maiden, then killed her father, and spent his later days doing penance in a monastery. Out of his story grew the play El Burlador de Seville (The Seducer of Seville) by Tirso de Molina (pseudonym of the Spanish monk Gabriel Tellez, 1570-1648), the first dramatization of the Don Juan tale.

In this telling, the statue comes into action. After Don Juan has seduced Dona Anna, he kills the Commandant Don Pedro, her father, who has come seeking vengeance. In the graveyard, the statue of Don Pedro warns Don Juan to repent and change his ways. Don Juan laughs, and in mockery invites the statue to a banquet – at which the statue plunges Don Juan down to hell (Mansour 45-78). However, the most widely popular of the dramatic retellings of the Don Juan story is Don Juan Tenorio, 1844, by José Zorrilla y Moral (Spanish, 1817- 1893).

March 18, 1844, saw the debut in Madrid’s Teatro de la Cruz of what is undoubtedly the most popular production of the Spanish stage, Don Juan Tenorio. It is not easy to determine Zorrilla’s sources in writing this work, since not even his own words on the subject are reliable. The issue has been studied widely by scholars such as José Luis Varela (1975), García Castañeda (1975), Picoche (1986), and Fernández Cifuentes (1993) in their respective editions of the play.

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Regardless of which sources might have inspired him, Zorrilla maintained the setting and the characters created by Tirso. He added many new situations, created the character don Luis Mejia, Don Juan’s antagonist, and introduced Brígida, who combines the role of “graciosa” with that of go-between in the tradition of Celestina. The servant Ciutti is not his master’s conscience, like Tirso’s Catalinón, but rather the executor of his wishes. However, the principal theme of the play is Zorrilla’s main innovation: the redeeming power of pure love, a purpose that voids the Counter-Reformation character of Tirso’s play (Mazzeo 76).

Don Juan Tenorio is a Romantic drama devoid of any theological, moralizing, or didactic value. The supernatural intervention of Don Gonzalo and Doña Inés’s offer to God to make her salvation contingent upon that of Don Juan, lack any religious meaning, belonging to the realm of fantasy. The melodious fluidity of the rich verse, the liveliness of the action, the brilliancy of the spectacle, and the impact of the plot made Don Juan Tenorio the greatest creation of the Spanish Romantic theater.

Zorrilla was an innovator of the historical drama that flourished in the 1840s (Mandrell 56). In Don Juan Tenorio he carried on the national tradition. Like other contemporary authors of historical plays, Zorrilla modified history. He also complicated his plot with elements of intrigue that maintain suspense until the end of each play. In his drama, there is a mysterious character, intelligent and powerful, who is in possession of a secret that will change the course of events. This character embodies justice and always prevails over the villains. The protagonist of Zorrilla’s drama is a charismatic character taken from Spanish history, and the author places him in the center of a plot full of action.

The fact is that Zorrilla’s work is full of the romance, the cheap spiritual flights, the sentimentalities, and the scenic crowding that all but killed the theatre in the nineteenth century. When the curtain goes up on to the set of Zorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio, the spectator immediately enters the leveled world of carnival: “Don Juan, wearing a mask, sits at a table writing. . . . When the curtain rises, people in masks, students and townspeople are seen passing by. . . .” The setting is appropriate; in fact, don Juan, “the first hero of modernity” ( Serres 1982, p. 3), seems quite at home in this world of carnival. Moreover, his entire life, like carnival, knows no boundaries, respects no hierarchies: “My love has spanned the whole of our social scale . . . ; From the haughty princess to the wench who fishes in a miserable boat . . . ; I descended to humble cabins, I rose to palaces, I climbed the walls of cloisters and everywhere I left a bitter memory of myself, I recognized the sacredness of nothing and my audacity respected not a single place or occasion. Nor have I bothered to distinguish between the religious and the secular.”

Don Juan defies death because his Tantalic love makes him seek the annihilation of his temporal existence in order to reunite with the absolute, which contains in its engulfing unity his perfect beloved. Don Juan displays a suicidal courage, as if actually courting death. In the play Don Juan is longing for his perfect love is linked, or even equated, with his quest to partake of the grace of God. Don Juan Tenorio declares:

I worship Dona Ines ( Donna Anna). I’m convinced that Heaven has granted her to me to turn my steps in the paths of righteousness. I didn’t love her beauty nor did I worship her charms. Don Gonzalo, what I adore in Dona Ines is her goodness. That which judges and bishops could not bring me to with threats of jail and sermons was accomplished by her purity. Her love has transformed me into a new man; it has renewed my whole being. She can make an angel of one who was a devil.

The figure of Don Juan lends itself to many meanings (Parker 19). It has been viewed as embodying the constant impulse of man’s body, as Faust represents the tireless impulse of man’s mind. It has been viewed as showing the attempt of man to hide from his fears. It is best presented when the dramatist, like Zorrilla, presses no single symbol of his own, but shows within Don Juan qualities and urges that in lesser measure every man can recognize within himself, so that the universal human figure takes the unique and individual aspect of each one. Thus Don Juan Tenorio becomes another, a less Puritan and more catholic Pilgrim, on blundering, destructive, yearning, pathetic progress toward a goal he can only dream (Kristeva 67). The view that Zorrilla’s version presents the struggles of an individual against the interests of a repressive and unyielding social hierarchy is equally apposite, as is the notion that the basic tenets of orthodox Catholicism are glossed over in order to reconcile salvation with the rights of an individual as construed in terms of Romantic ideologies (Kern 66-70).

Don Juan Tenorio begins with a letter. Play begins, thus, by transcribing one of the “central” motifs in its model (Mandrell 234). To be sure, there are important differences between the romantic melodrama and the modern esperpento. Don Juan’s esperpento opens with the writer sitting at a table sealing the envelope. In point of fact, Don Juan Tenorio, though not an overt repetition of its precursor, both includes El burlador de Sevilla and thematizes its inclusion thereof, making this process of rewriting into the stuff of drama. The entire first part of Zorrilla’s drama turns on issues related to writing and rewriting; the continuing conflict between Don Juan and Don Luis, depicted most clearly during the second bet, is an outgrowth of just this sort of thematic interest (Blue 78). To be sure, the interest in writing is obvious in the opening scene, in which a masked Don Juan pens a letter.

The notion of this commingling of souls and uniting of destinies as presented in drama is nothing new. Yet it serves to underline the cardinal importance of the letter – and all texts – in Don Juan Tenorio and in Don Juan’s story, indeed, the complicity of narration and literature in the very act of romance. In terms of Don Juan and Doña Inés, this commingling of souls picks up the notion of the daemonic Don Juan and that of the reading of a narrative scenario in a letter, fashioning of these different materials the mutual dependency of Don Juan and Doña Inés. Doña Inés, “soul of my soul,” becomes the soul of love, the Psyche of Eros, the manner in which, in a skewing of Platonic and Christian doctrine, Zorrilla’s Don Juan can reconcile himself with God. The joining of the two souls and destinies (lines 1662-63; 502) means that the spiritual future of each is dependent on the other. Not only does Doña Inés save Don Juan’s soul, but Don Juan saves the soul of Doña Inés. In this sense, Zorrilla’s Don Juan is a daemon, his testimony to Doña Inés’s love for him is the deciding factor in the fate of each. The fact that Don Juan repents -“¡Señor, ten piedad de mí!” [“God, have mercy on me!”] (line 3769; 537) – overrides the Statue’s grim sentence, “Ya es tarde” [“It is too late!”] (line 3770; 537). Doña Inés’s investment of her soul is repaid in kind.

Doña Inés’s love for Don Juan derives from reading, in this case not of a book, but of the letter sent to her by Don Juan:

¡Ay! μQué filtro envenenado me dan en este papel, que el corazón desgarrado me estoy sintiendo con él? ¿Qué sentimientos dormidos son los que revela en mí ¿Qué impulsos jamás sentidos? ¿Qué luz que hasta hoy nunca vi? ¿Qué es lo que engendra en mi alma tan nuevo y profundo afán? (lines 1732-41)

[Oh! What poisonous filter is hidden in these words? It tears my heart apart! What hidden, sleeping thoughts these words reveal in me. What strange feelings they arouse. They cast a light upon me unlike any I have ever seen before. What has sown my soul with such new and deep desire? (503)]

Once disseminated by Don Juan’s papel, the poisonous filter takes hold of the novice and she begins to repeat the content of the letter, to learn her papel or dramatic role: “¡Ah! Bien dice: juntó el cielo / los destinos de los dos, / y en mi alma engendró este anhelo / fatal” [“Oh, he spoke true! Heaven joined our destinies and engendered in my soul this fatal longing”] (lines 1748-51; 503). Don Juan’s letter is not, then, just a point from which poetic and dramatic coherence originate but also the means by which Doña Inés completes her brief cursus in the ars amatoria. The letter is the text from which her actions in the drama derive, that which provides her with her papel, or role. Thus, the Don Juan of Don Juan Tenorio writes not only his own role, the list or papel, but writes other roles as well, demonstrating in the process the power of men’s words with respect to female resolve. To restate the remark of Dante’s Francesca, “Don Juan fu ‘l libro e chi lo scrisse” [“Don Juan was the book and he who wrote it”].

Despite its late appearance in the play, and despite the fact that it is a secondary text in terms of Don Juan’s identity, the letter sent to Doña Inés is of primary importance for understanding the temporal ordering of the drama, and, in turn, the role played by “El burlador de Sevilla” in regard to the dependency of Don Juan Tenorio on its precursor. The papel is actually read in the third scene of the third act, roughly midway through the first part of the play, but it is being written as the drama opens. The effect of this lapse between the writing and the reading of the letter is to divide past actions from future developments, to create a dramatic parenthesis into which the past is interpolated. This means, of course, that Don Juan intended to abduct Doña Inésbefore he met with Don Luis to settle their bet. Doña Inés enters into Don Juan’s second wager with his rival, but more to the point, the second wager with Don Luis already enters into Don Juan’s future plans.

The division between the past and future plans, as well as the elliptical presentation of the letter that points up these differences, fits into a linear pattern of increasingly obsessive passion (“pasión insensata”), one that is best described by Don Juan himself: “Empezó [esta pasión insensata] por una apuesta, / siguió por un devaneo, / engendró luego un deseo, / y hoy me quema el corazón” [“It began (this obsessive passion) with a bet and grew into a frenzy which later engendered a desire – and now my heart is consumed with fire”] (lines 1310-13; 496). Construed in terms of strict diachrony, “Don Juan Tenorio” begins with a wager, follows with a recapitulation of that first bet, and continues with the inception of another bet that corresponds to Don Juan’s growing desire. This desire finally becomes overwhelming in its force, burning Don Juan’s heart (Shipley 56).

But with which wager, the first or the second, does Don Juan Tenorio really begin? Linearity notwithstanding, the division between the first and second bets, the reading and discussion of the papel, marks the point at which the two key figures, Tirso’s burlador and Zorrilla’s Don Juan, begin to differ. Only the list of misdeeds allows the protagonist of Don Juan Tenorio to be identified as a Don Juan at all. Without a legendary past, which is to say, without Don Juan’s literary past as embodied in the list, Don Juan is just one more Romantic roué who finds true love and, determined to secure the object of his adoration, infringes upon various social conventions much to the delight of his cohorts (Abrams 67). The circularity of the first part of Don Juan Tenorio thus features the pertinent information of the past, El burlador de Sevilla, in order to render the future drama intelligible, doing so by means of incorporating entire an earlier text that both explains the past (and past texts) and engenders the future of the drama (as well as the drama itself). Yet even as the prior text is included in the refundición, it is rewritten by the other text that constitutes the basis for a new series of actions: Don Juan’s letter to Doña Inés, and, by extension, Don Juan Tenorio.

As the second part of the play opens, the sculptor of the sepulchral statues is in the Tenorio pantheon, and he addresses his creations. This monologue constitutes an extended consideration of artistic glory and immortality:

¡Ah! Mármoles que mis manos pulieron con tanto afán, mañana os contemplarán los absortos sevillanos; y al mirar de este panteón las gigantes proporciones, tendrán las generaciones la nuestra en veneración. Mas yendo y viniendo días, se hundirán unas tras otras, mientra en pie estaréis vosotras, póstumas memorias mías. ¡Oh! frutos de mis desvelos, peñas a quien yo animé y por quienes arrostré la intemperie de los cielos; el que forma y ser os dio, va ya a perderos de vista; ¡velad mi gloria de artista, pues viviréis más que yo!

(lines 2656-75)

[Oh, my marble beauties, carved so lovingly with these hands. When Seville comes tomorrow, wide-eyed, to contemplate your grand proportions and the beauty of this pantheon, our age will earn the veneration of generations to come. Days will come and go, men will come and go while you still stand, my posthumous memories. Oh, children of my labor, stones I brought to life and for which I was at the mercy of the heavens. He who gave you form and being is now going to lose sight of you. Watch over my artistic glory. You will live longer than I. (519)]

A typically Romantic creative genius, the Escultor depicts himself as a little god who creates and gives life to the statues, all the while defying the undeniably greater forces at work in the world. Moreover, the statues will bear forth the glory of the sculptor, will grant him the possibility of artistic fame and immortality. Zorrilla also uses the Escultor to advance a subtle polemic relative to compensation for artistic endeav- ors. When Don Juan attempts to slip him something for the statues -“Pues bien merece algo más / un retrato tan maestro. / Tomad” [“Such a likeness deserves something more. Here”] (lines 2866-68; 522) – the Sculptor replies, “Mirad que están bien pagadas” [“But they are well paid for”] (line 2872; 522). If, as I suggest, the Escultor represents Zorrilla, then we ought to understand this brief exchange in terms of the relative status of authors in early nineteenth-century Spain (Ford 66).The monuments of the statues correspond, therefore, to the document that is Don Juan Tenorio; the pantheon of the dead is the gallery of great authors.

In his play we find elements characteristic of Romantic drama, such as deadlines to be met, settings in cemeteries, dungeons, castles or hermitages, characters believed to be dead that unexpectedly reappear, anagnorises, intrigues, and a wide diversity of secondary characters that add a picturesque touch. Zorrilla’s play gives a sentimental version of love and patriotism and invariably end with Good triumphing over Evil. Although the majority of Spanish Romantics had a Neoclassical formation, with models such as Lista and Quintana, young Zorrilla read the Duque de Rivas and Espronceda. His work lacks intimacy and does not present ideological problems; instead, it depicts a conventional chivalric Spain of the past, populated with valiant cavaliers and noble ladies. His literary Catholicism manifests itself in great sins, great repentances, and exemplary miracles. He was responsible for extending the Romantic drama until well into Galdós’s times. Every year, during the days of the commemoration of the dead, the blessed souls in Purgatory, the people come as to a mass, a procession, a funeral, to hear and see, to admire, to fear, and to pity Don Juan, and to adore Dofia Inés – ‘doéa Inés of my soul’ – maternal and virginal at the same time” (Fernández 123).



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Romanticismo en Don Juan Tenorio. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Romanticismo en Don Juan Tenorio
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