Lope de Vega found the Spanish drama a mass of incongruities without form, preponderating influence, or type, he left it in every detail a well-organized, national drama, so perfect that, though his successors polished it, they added nothing to its form. When or how he began this great work, it is not certain. He says in his works that he wrote plays as early as his eleventh year and conceived them even younger, and we have one of his plays, El Verdadero Amante, written, as has been mentioned, when he was twelve, but corrected and published many years later. Of all his plays written before his banishment, little is known but it is natural to suppose that they resembled in a measure the works of predecessors, for this period must be considered the apprenticeship of Lope. Though written for the author's pleasure, they were evidently numerous, for Cervantes says that Lope de Vega "filled the world with his own comedias, happily and judiciously planned, and so many that they covered more than ten thousand sheets." That his merit was soon appreciated is evident from the fact that theatrical managers were anxious to have these early compositions and that during his banishment he supported himself and family in Valencia by selling plays and probably kept the best troupes of the land stocked with his works alone. Of the number of his works the figures are almost incredible. In El Peregrino en su Patria, published in 1604, he gives a list of his plays, which up to that time numbered two hundred and nineteen; in 1609 he says, in El Arte Nuevo de hacer Comedias, that the number was then four hundred and eighty-three; in prologues or prefaces of his works Lope tells us that he had written eight hundred plays in 1618, nine hundred in 1619 and one thousand and seventy in 1625. In the Égloga á Claudio, written in 1632, and in the concluding lines of La Moza de Cántaro, revised probably the same year, he says that he is the author of fifteen hundred comedias. In the Fama Póstuma, written after his death in 1635 by his friend Montalvan, it is stated that the number of dramatic works of Lope included eighteen hundred comedias and four hundred autos. From the above figures it is evident that Lope composed at times on an average a hundred comedias a year, and this after he had passed his fiftieth year! Yet still more astonishing is his own statement in regard to them:
«Y más de ciento, en horas veinte y cuatro,
Pasaron de las musas al teatro.»
And it is a matter of history that he composed his well-known La Noche de San Juan for the favorite, Olivares, in three days. This, in addition to his other works, offers us a slight insight into the wonderful fertility of the man's genius and gives reason to Cervantes and his contemporaries for calling him "el monstruo de la naturaleza" and "el Fénix de los ingenios."
To his plays Lope de Vega has given the general name of comedias, which should not be confused with the word "comedies," for the two are not synonymous. They are divided into three acts or jornadas of somewhat variable length and admit of numerous classifications. Broadly speaking, we may divide the comedias into four groups: (1) Comedias de capa y espada, which Lope created and which include by far the greater number of his important works. In these plays the principal personages are nobles and the theme is usually questions of love and honor. (2) Comedias heroicas, which have royalty as the leading characters, are lofty or tragical in sentiment, and have historical or mythological foundation. (3) Comedias de santos, which represent some incident of biblical origin or some adventure in the lives of the saints. In them the author presents the graver themes of religion to the people in a popular and comprehensible manner, in which levity is often more prominent than gravity. (4) Comedias de costumbres, in which the chief personages are from the lower classes and of which the language is even lascivious and the subject treated with a liberty not encountered in other dramas of the author. To these various classes must be added the Autos sacramentales, which were written to be represented on occasions of religious festivals. Their theme is usually popular, even grotesque, and the representation took place in the streets.
Lope de Vega took the Spanish drama as he found it, and from its better qualities he built the national drama. He knew the unities and ignored them in his works, preferring, as he says, to give the people what they wished, and he laid down precepts for composition, but even these he obeyed indifferently. Always clever, he interpreted the popular will and gratified it. He did not make the Spanish drama so much as he permitted it to be made in and through him, and by so doing he reconciled all classes to himself; he was as popular with the erudite as he was with the masses, for his plays have a variety, facility, and poetic beauty that won the favor of all. His works abound in the inaccuracies and obscurities that characterize hasty composition and hastier proof-reading, but these are forgotten in the clever intrigue which is the keynote of the Spanish drama, in the infinite variety of versification and in the constant and never flagging interest. For over fifty years Lope de Vega enriched the Spanish drama with the wonders of his genius, yet from El Verdadero Amante, certainly in its original form one of his earliest plays now in existence, to Las Bizarrías de Belisa, written the year before his death, we find a uniformity of vigor, resourcefulness and imagination that form a lasting monument to his versatility and powers of invention, and amply justify his titles of "Fénix de los ingenios" and "Monstruo de la naturaleza."
III. LA MOZA DE CÁNTARO
This interesting comedia was written in the last decade of the life of Lope de Vega, in the most fertile period of his genius. Hartzenbusch is authority for the statement that it was written towards the close of the year 1625 and revised in 1632. It is evident that the closing lines of it were written in 1632, for the author says in the Égloga á Claudio that he had completed that year fifteen hundred comedias. As evidence of its popularity, we have the following resumé and appreciation from the same critic in the prólogo of his edition of Comedias Escogidas de Lope de Vega: «Iba cayendo el sol, y acercábase á la peripecia última, precursora del desenlace, una comedia que en un teatro de Madrid (ó corral, como solía entonces decirse) representaban cuatro galanes, dos damas, un barba, dos graciosos, dos graciosas y otros actores de clase inferior, ante una porción de espectadores, con sombrero calado, como quienes encima de sí no tenían otra techumbre que la del cielo. Ya la primera dama había hecho su postrera salida con el más rico traje de su vestuario: absorto su amante del señoril porte de aquella mujer, que, siendo una humilde criada, sabía, sin embargo, el pomposo guardainfante, como si en toda su vida no hubiese arrastrado otras faldas; ciego de pasión y atropellando los respetos debidos á su linaje, se había llegado á ella, y asiéndole fuera de sí la mano, le había ofrecido la suya. El galán segundo se había opuesto resueltamente á la irregular y precipitada boda; pero al oir que la supuesta Isabel tenía por verdadero nombre el ilustre de doña María Guzmán y Portocarrero, y era, aunque moza de cántaro parienta del duque de Medina, su resistencia había desaparecido. Hecha pues una gran reverencia muda á la novia, se adelantó el actor á la orilla del tablado para dirigir esta breve alocución al público:
Puso fin á esta comedia
Quien, si perdiere este pleito,
Apela á Mil y Quinientas.
Mil y quinientas ha escrito:
Bien es que perdón merezca.
De las gradas y barandillas, de las ventanas y desvanes, de todos los asientos, pero principalmente de los que llenaban el patio, hubo de salir entonces, entre ruidosas palmadas, un grito unánime de admiración, de entusiasmo y orgullo nacional justísimo. «¡Vítor, Lope!» clamaba aquella alborazada multitud una vez y otra; «¡Viva el Fénix de los ingenios! ¡Viva Lope de Vega!» And in no less laudatory terms, Elías Zerolo says: "En ella,... agotó Lope todos los sentimientos resortes propios de su teatro... Esta comedia es una de las más perfectas de Lope, por lo que alcanzó en su tiempo un éxito ruidoso." In enumerating the plays of Lope which were still well known and represented in Spain in the nineteenth century, Gil de Zárate names La Moza de Cántaro among the first, and doubtless on this authority Ticknor speaks of it as one of the plays of Lope which "have continued to be favorites down to our own times."