Marriage, Honour, and Moral Behaviour on the Spanish Golden Age and English Restoration Stages

Essay, 2011

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Marriage, Honour, and Moral Behaviour on the Spanish Golden Age and English Restoration Stages

This essay will examine the social attitudes towards women in terms of marriage, honour and moral behaviour, as reflected in the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age and English Restoration periods. The concepts of marriage, honour and moral behaviour are interwoven in the theatre of these two time periods, which is why I have chosen to discuss all three. I will demonstrate how the attitudes towards these concepts changed according to the social structures of both time periods. Using the character of Rosaura in Calderon de la Barca's Life is a Dream, and the character of Angellica in Aphra Behn's The Rover, I will demonstrate not only how the playwrights portrayed these changing attitudes, but also how the plays reflect their own attitudes towards them. The main sources I will be citing are Melveena McKendrick's book on women in Spanish Golden Age drama, and the collection of essay son Women in Restoration Theatre compiled by Katherine Quinsey. Other works will be cited when appropriate to further substantiate the arguments presented.

In Life is a Dream, we learn of how Rosaura's mother became impregnated by a courtier who abandoned her after promising his hand in marriage (Calderon 469 - 70, Küpper 509). Rosaura had likewise been wronged by the nobleman Astolfo who, after having promised to be her husband, left her to pursue the princess Stella (Calderon 470, Küpper 509). Angered by the dishonour done to her, she takes up the sword the courtier left to her mother, and upon her mother's instructions decides to avenge herself (Calderon 470 - 71, Küpper 509). Angellica is a courtesan who falls in love with the cavalier Willmore in The Rover (Behn 183 - 88). Like Rosaura, she too feels that her honour has been jeopardised, as she discovers that the promises Willmore makes to her have been similar promises made by him to other women (Behn 187 - 88, 193 - 97, 213 - 21). Feeling betrayed, she decides to avenge herself by planning to shoot him (Behn 235 - 39, Boebel 68). While Rosaura's motivation is out of duty to restore what rightfully belongs to her, Angellica's motivation is to obtain what her society will not allow her to have. It is the differing motivations between Rosaura and Angellica that we see the changes in attitudes towards the concepts of marriage, honour and moral behaviour in the Spanish Golden Age and the English Restoration period. The following historical developments will explain how these changes occurred.

Beginning with the life of women in the Spanish Golden Age, we turn to McKendrick for information. She states in her introduction that although Spanish Golden Age theatre reflected the issues concerning women in their society, it should not be taken as "gospel," seeing as much of the literature of the time displayed distorted and often exaggerated portrayals of contemporary customs, in order to make a statement about them (3 - 4). She refers to Calderon's wife-murder plays as an example of how some commentators believed that wife-murder happened regularly at the time (3). The opposite proved to be true later when twentieth century historians compared the "testimonies of contemporary observers" with the texts; the earlier historians were making "dangerous [...] generalizations" based solely on the "imaginative literature" of the time period (3). She also explains that the ideas that Spanish Golden Age playwrights presented about women reflected the "contemporary [...] attitudes" towards women of the time, but not necessarily the real circumstances in which they lived (5, italics added).

McKendrick argues that the laws governing the Spanish Golden Age help us understand women's legal status of the time, particularly in regards to sexual offences (15). The Neuve recopilacion law, which was established in 1569 and observed up until 1803, stated that if a woman committed adultery and it was discovered by her husband, he had the right to turn both his wife and her lover over to the law, who would then in turn judge them and return them to the husband to punish them as he thought fit (15). However, if a man committed adultery and his wife found out about it, she was not able to take her husband to court, although she could take out action against the other woman involved (15 - 16). Adultery, in the eyes of the law, was merely a "one-sided" offence that could only be committed by a woman (15). While the law in this instance appeared disadvantageous towards women, other laws outside of sexual relations granted protection to women, particularly if they were married (16 - 17). For example, the married woman, while she could not take any form of legal action without her husband's consent, could appeal to the court to compel her husband to give her that permission (17). She was free of responsibility for any contracts or debts accrued by her spouse, and she had equal entitlements to all possessions accumulated between her and her spouse (17). Should her husband pass away, the woman was entitled to take head of the household, "controlling its affairs and arranging the marriages of her sons and daughters" (17).

Marriage, in McKendrick's view, was woman's key to freedom in Spanish Golden Age society (28). She explains that the life of an unmarried girl was quite restricted, being rarely allowed to leave the house unaccompanied (28). On the other hand, married women were freely allowed to visit their female friends, go to the theatre, attend bull-fights, go on walks, go hunting or fishing, and even playing cards and other forms of gambling, provided such activities were done with "propriety" (28). It would be implied from McKendrick's explanations that marriage was something most women in the Spanish Golden Age desired (263), as it granted them more privileges and freedom as opposed to remaining single.

Viewing this historical context, Rosaura's character can be seen as a representation of the social and political issues pertaining to women of the time. Rosaura, having been "robbed" of the freedom and rights that only marriage provides, decides to fight for it by breaking other social codes, seeing as the law of the time does not protect her as a single woman. Such "violations" include traveling around unaccompanied (while Clarion accompanies her in the beginning (Calderon 409 - 19), she travels separately for most of the performance (Calderon 430 - 52, 464 - 65, 469 - 80)), and deciding to take vengeance herself, which is explained in the next paragraph.

Vengeance is the driving force behind Rosaura's actions. McKendcrick explains that the honour-vengeance code in the Spanish Golden Age era was one that was theoretically upheld, but was illegal under written law (35 - 36). Whenever an injustice was inflicted upon a woman, the socially accepted notion was that vengeance be carried out by her nearest living relative; women were supposed to display forgiveness and compassion, rather than seek vengeance (94 - 96, 261). This attitude is reflected in various plays of the time, such as in Castro's Las mocedades del Cid, where Jimema is encouraged to forgive Rodrigo of his trespasses and marry him (94), and in Lope's La moza de cantaro, where Dona Maria is criticised for avenging her father, because the rightful duty belonged to her son (268). The only exception to the rule was when the father/husband was physically incapable of performing the act himself, and had no son or male relative to act in his stead (267). Such approval is evidenced in Moreto's La negra por el honor, where Leonor challenges her aging fathers' opponent to a duel in his place (267). While Rosaura's decision to avenge herself seems "justifiable" according to the honour-vengeance code, it no longer becomes "justifiable" when it is revealed that Clotaldo is her real father, and therefore should be the one to commit vengeance on her behalf (Calderon 417 - 19). This he fails to do out of loyalty to Astolfo (Calderon 444 - 45), leaving Rosaura no choice but to continue "illegally" seeking vengeance for herself (Calderon 464 - 68). Both Rosaura and Clotaldo eventually behave according to the honour code when the truth about Rosaura's paternity is revealed and Astolfo is reminded of his duty to Rosaura (Caldeorn 478 - 80). Rosaura in turn acts according to the honour code by forgiving Astolfo and accepting him as her husband (Calderon 479 - 80).

It would seem from the play that Calderon's attitude towards the honour code was a mixture of support and criticism (Jones 208 - 09). Argued to be quite a "feminist" for his time (McKendrick 331), Calderon's play appears to argue that the flaws within the honour code lay within the fact that it was a patriarchal-devised system (Jones 209). C. A. Jones argues that: [...] honour as reputation may be been for [Calderon] a very good, second-best motive of conduct, capable of inspiring unselfish actions and of maintaining the order and integrity of individual and social life; but since it was only a man-made weapon it was imperfect, and if handled without care and skill, was liable to explode with disastrous results [...]; it was something which through abuse could become barbaric and inhuman [...] Calderon [...] was capable of realising this and exploiting it to the full (209).

What better way to describe a system that seems to "protect" Clotaldo and Astolfo from their past misdeeds, but does not allow Rosaura or her mother to reclaim their honour without stepping outside the confining boundaries of that system? I therefore surmise that Calderon wished to display the double-standards that existed within the honour code. Like Calderon, Behn also seems interested in representing the double-standards within the "honour" codes of her day. According to Dagny Boebel, Behn's play cleverly exposes these double-standards (54), the historical context of which is given below. When Charles II returned to power in 1660 and the Puritan government was dismantled (Boebel 55, Hunt 184, Seaward, "The Restoration," 1), many social changes were introduced to relax the rigid moral codes the Puritan government imposed upon the people (Boebel 55, Hunt 184, Seaward, "The Cavalier Parliament," 103 - 96). For example, past-times such as celebrating Carnival and going to the theatre were re-established (Boebel 55 and Hunt 179). With the re-establishment of theatres also came the introduction of female actors to the English stage (Hunt 180 - 82, Marsden 187). It was a time when, generally speaking, men and women were more sexually liberated (Hunt 183 - 84). Naturally, English Restoration playwrights - including Behn - reflected on these radical changes in their plays (Gill 193). However, it is important to remember that just like Spanish Golden Age Drama, the theatre of the Restoration period has also been "subjected to ill-founded generalization" (Cordner xii), and should therefore be treated as representations of the changing social attitudes, and not the depiction of real-life accounts.

Marriage was just as important in the Restoration period as it was in the Spanish Golden Age, albeit the emerging libertine behaviours the people displayed (Hunt 183 - 84, Thompson 71 - 72). Admittedly, those attitudes had also spread throughout Spain by that time (McKendrick 32). However, unlike in England where even the King himself participated in such frivolities (Keeble 171 - 72), the Spanish government attempted to maintain "conservative" behaviour by imposing reforms which were never taken seriously by the people (McKendrick 32 - 35). Marriage in Restoration England was viewed as imperative for women, partly for religious reasons (Keeble 191), and partly out of duty to their parents to forge ties with other reputable, influenctial families (Thompson 72 - 73). "Old Maids" and "Spinsters" were socially frowned upon (Keeble 191), and prostitutes and courtesans even more so, as the vagrant flaunting of their virtue was considered a violation of their distinguished "nature" (Thompson 84).

Virtue was considered in the eyes of the law as a type of "property" during the time (Boebel 66). If a woman was violated and it was proven that she had been a virgin prior to the offence, then the offender would be convicted of "damaging property" (Beobel 66). However, if it was proven that the woman was unchaste prior to the assault, then no such charges were laid against the offender (Boebel 65). The law, in other words, protected women's virtue, but did not protect women themselves (Boebel 65). Gender inequality in terms of libertine behaviour was further exemplified within marriage itself. The married man could freely "sow [his] wild oats" without facing criticism, but the married woman who did this was harshly condemned (Thompson 73). It is this double standard of moral behaviour that Behn harshly condemns in her play.

As a courtesan, Angellica has already given up her virtue (Behn 178), and therefore would have no rights in the eyes of the law. Yet she insists on seeing "justice" done for the "dishonour" done upon her by Willmore (Behn 221, 237). This claim alone tells us that the definition of "honour" has already been altered, as it no longer refers solely to "virtue", which was partly how the term was viewed in the Spanish Golden Age era. Further explanations given by Angellica reveal that "honour" seems to be more equated with "loyalty" to one person as opposed to remaining chaste (Behn 193 - ff., Gill 194). For example, she explains to Moretta on two occasions that she has given Willmore her whole heart (Behn 193, 231). In Act Four she demands to know from Willmore why her "generous passion" has been returned with constant infidelity (Behn 217). And in the Final Act she explains to Willmore that while her "honour" (virtue) cannot be taken back (Behn 237), his heart has taught her heart "to love" (Behn 236), and that it is love that deserves more attention rather than "virtue" (Behn 237). As a courtesan, Angellica is condemned by a society that frowns upon women exercising libertine freedom, but which at the same time supports her business (namely the single and married men, to whom libertine freedom is socially encouraged). While she would not be remotely considered eligible for marriage due to her profession, she argues that love should be enough grounds to consider herself eligible to spend her life with someone, and seems frustrated that her society fails to see that she deserves to be loved just as much as any other "chaste" woman (Behn 221). Furthermore, Willmore, who has been attempting to "sow his wild oats" with virtually every woman in te play, manages to settle down with Hellena, the ideal virginal bride (Behn 241 - 43, Thompson 90), thereby denying her the privilege of getting married and illustrating the hypocritical double-standards of marriage, honour and moral behaviour between men and women during the Restoration period.

Marriage out of love rather than out of duty is another important concept the play explores. Pat Gill argues that Behn was critical towards marrying out of duty to family which, as has previously been mentioned, was the reason why most women married at that time (193, Thompson 72 - 73). She backs her statement by listing a small handful of Behn's plays which openly criticises this, emphasising that "the unhappy, mismatched alliances [in them] serve[d] as gentle rebukes to any who would forfeit true love for financial gain" (193). Behn implicitly notes in The Rover that it is more "honourable" to marry out of true love rather than out of duty by contrasting Angellica's devotion to Willmore with the eventual ending of the play - the supposed "honourable" duty to marry a virtuous woman.

Comparing the plays themselves, it is evident how the changes of social attitudes towards marriage, honour and moral behaviour are demonstrated within them. In terms of honour, we can see how the application of the word is used differently in both plays. In Life is a Dream, we read that "honour " is a term which applies to "virtue", as well as to "duty" and "dignity." For example, the story of Rosaura's conception demonstrates that "honour" is connected with "virtue", as her mother's "honour" has been taken by Astolfo (Calderon 469). Her sought-after revenge upon Astolfo demonstrates "honour" being equated with "dignity" (Calderon 472). And her surrender of loyalty to Segismund demonstrates "honour" as being associated with "duty" (Calderon 472). On the other hand, "real honour" is described in The Rover as "true love" and "devotion", rather than "duty" or "virtue". For example, the fact that Willmore's heart has taught Angellica's how to love (Behn 236) brings Angellica to believe that this alone entitles her to the "honour" of being in an honest and meaningful relationship. This is opposed to Willmore's marriage to Hellena at the end (Behn 241 - 43), which fulfils society's expectations of what "honour" is, but is more equated with "duty" than with "true love," and is therefore not how Angellica views "honour." In terms of marriage, we see that Rosaura is fighting for the freedoms that women of her time were entitled to as married women. Even Stella, who at the beginning is Rosarua's rival, does not become deprived of such freedoms, as Segismund pledges to marry her out of duty to acknowledge her honour (Calderon 479). In contrast, we see the rather hypocritical attitudes towards marriage in Angellica's time through both Angellica and her contrasting character, Florinda. Florinda, in the beginning of the play, is forced to face the reality of marrying only those whom her father and brother approve of (Behn 162 - 64), while Angellica is denied all chances of marrying at all because of her profession. Even when Florinda is "allowed" to break free from the societal structures of her time by marrying someone neither her father nor brother initially approve of (Behn 233 - 35), Angellica is still denied the privilege of marriage while all the "chaste" women in the play are married off (Behn 233 - 35, 241 - 46). In terms of moral behaviour, the behavioural codes presented in Life is a Dream seem pretty clear. Rosaura is conscious that she is breaking those parts of the honour code which do not assist her in obtaining her goal (Calderon 464 - 68). However, once it no longer becomes necessary for her to rebel against those behavioural structures, she knows better to conform back to the established practices of her society (Calderon 479 - 80). The Rover, on the other hand, portrays blurred images of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The libertine behaviour displayed by some of the men in the play (Behn 198 - 99, 201 - 03, 225 - 28) does not seem to be condemned by anyone, but Angellica's lifestyle is. While marriage is once to be honoured as an agreement between familie (Behn 162 - 64), it later becomes morally acceptable to break free from such arrangements and marry whoever one chooses (Behn 233 - 35). Such changes in behavioural codes beg to question why allowances could not be made for Angellica's situation as well, and why it is only "chaste" woman and "immoral" men who are allowed to dictate these changes. To conclude, it goes without saying that this essay barely touches all of the historical aspects pertaining to Spanish Golden Age and English Restoration theatre. It certainly does not touch all of the relevant issues pertaining to the two plays that have been examined. However, it does serve as a reflection of how theatre represents the ever-changing attitudes of society, and also demonstrates how playwrights effectively reflect upon these ever-changing attitudes in their writing.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. The Rover or the Banished Cavaliers. In Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works. Ed. Janet Todd. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1992. Print.

Boebel, Dagny. "In the Carnival World of Adam's Garden: Roving and Rape in Behn's The Rover". Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama. Ed. Katherine Quinsey. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1996. 54 - 70. Print.

Cordner, Michael. Ed. Four Restoration Marriage Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Calderon de la Barca. Life is a Dream. In The Classic Theatre. Vol. 3. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: Doubleday, 1959. 407 - 80. Print.

Gill, Pat. "Gender, Sexuality and Marriage."The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre. Ed. Deborah Payne Fisk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Hunt, Hugh. "Restoration Acting: Modes of Satire."Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 6: Restoration Theatre. Eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1965. 179 - 85. Print.

Jones, C. A. "Honor in Spanish Golden Age Drama: Its Relation to Real Life and to Morals."Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 35.4 (1958): 199 - 210. Print.

Keeble, N. H. The Restoration: England in the 1660s. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Print.

Küpper, Joachim. "The Case of Rosaura's Honour, and the Problem of Modernity."MLN 124.2 (2009): 509 - 17. Online. 13 Sept. 2010.

McKendrick, Melveena. Woman and Society in the Spanish Drama of the Golden Age: A Study of tje Mujer Varonil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Print.

Marsden, Jean I. "Rape, Voyeurism and the Restoration Stage."Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama. Ed. Katherine Quinsey. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1996. 187 - 200. Print. Seaward, Paul. The Restoration, 1660 - 1688. Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991. Print.

The Cavalier Parliament and the Reconstruction of the Old Regime, 1661 - 1667. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.

Thompson, Peggy. "Closure and Subversion in Behn's Comedies."Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1996. 71 - 88. Print.


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Marriage, Honour, and Moral Behaviour on the Spanish Golden Age and English Restoration Stages
University of Queensland  (St. Lucia Campus)
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This essay discusses the comparisons between the socio-political status of women during the Spanish Golden Age and the English Restoration time periods, and how the theatre of the time (and indeed the society of those time periods), reflected those socio-political ideas.
Drama Theatre Spanish Golden Age Restoration Theatre Aphra Behn Calderon De La Barca
Quote paper
Raymond Teodo (Author), 2011, Marriage, Honour, and Moral Behaviour on the Spanish Golden Age and English Restoration Stages, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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