Lope de Vega’s classic play Fuente Ovejuna ends in a glorious reconciliation between rulers and their subjects, as a town magistrate, King Ferdinand, and a peasant close the three act drama as follows:
Esteban: Your Majesty, we wish
To be your loyal vassals. You are
Our rightful King, and so we have displayed
Your coat of arms in our town.
We pray you will be merciful,
Accepting our innocence as our defense.
King: There is no written evidence
As proof of your guilt, and so
Although this was a serious crime,
You must be pardoned. Since you have sworn
Your loyalty, I shall assume
Responsibility for your town,
Until a new Commander can
Frondoso: Your majesty has shown
Himself to be in this the wisest ruler.
And so, my friends, we end Fuente Ovejuna1.
And so it ends with a merciful king, a local magistrate seeking mercy for his town, and a peasant who praises his monarch as most wise. Nonetheless, while this ending is a happy one, the disagreements between different conceptions of the grounds of legitimacy that de Vega’s play uncovers in the course of his play do not vanish so easily. A tension remains between different grounds of legitimacy, as the play reveals numerous perspectives potentially in conflict.
It is the purpose of this essay to deal with these different conceptions of legitimacy as portrayed by various characters in the play. However, before we can do this, it is first necessary to provide the historical and religious context that provided for the tension in responses from the various characters. It must be remembered that since Fuente Ovejuna is based on a real historical incident, and involves a very important matter—the justification of a peasant’s revolt against a cruel and tyrannical leader while securing the approval of the King and Queen of Castile and Aragon after the fact. Therefore, it is to the historical and ethical foundation to Fuente Ovejuna that we now turn.
The Historical and Religious Background of Fuente Ovejuna
Fuente Ovejuna is a play that is pregnant with historical and religious importance, and is based on historical events. There are at least three levels of such historical importance. The first is the historical background of the events that inspired the play Fuente Ovejuna, which took place in a Castillian village in the 1470’s. The second level of historical background is the contemporary Spanish political scene when Lope de Vega wrote the play in the 1610’s. The third level of historical importance is in the biblical ideals of government that gave legitimacy to the rulers of Castille and Leon and which provided the context for the tension in views of authority in this play.
The Historical Context of Fuente Ovejuna: 1476
The year 1476 was an important one for this play because three interrelated events occurred that shaped the events of Fuente Ovejuna and that demonstrated the ambiguity of loyalty in Spanish society very clearly. In addition, this era is part of the closing era of the citizen militias who play a role in the events of the play. Each of these elements in its own way provides a glimpse into a complicated and ambiguous picture of contested authority.
The first element of the historical situation of 1476 in Fuente Ovejuna that merits discussion is the fact that in March of 1476 the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand, later to become the famous monarchs who ended the Muslim political presence in the Iberian peninsula, defeated the rival claimants to the throne of Spain Juana la Beltraneja and her husband Alfonso of Portugal in the battle of Toro. Thus 1476 was a year of civil war, in which two women and their husbands, who represented the areas of Aragon and Portugal, struggled over who would dominate the Iberian Peninsula. Even though Isabella did not take the throne until the death of her half-brother Enrique IV in 1479, the battle of Toro established her claim to the throne on the field of battle2. This particular aspect of the historical context reminds us that the legitimacy of the throne of nations was often contested between rival claimants, without a clear answer, other than battle, to the question of which leaders were to be followed.
The second element of the historical situation of interest moves into more tangled aspects of Spanish history. Also in 1476, the forces of the Master of the Military Order of Calatrava, a 17-year-old named Rodrigo Tellez Giron, seized control of Ciudad Real, a strategic city near the border of Castille, in support of the claims of Alfonso and Juana to the throne of Castille3. These particular forces were part of a widespread group of raiders who sought plunder in the wars against the Muslims and who also fought among different Iberian states during the lengthy period of the Reconquista, instability which ended with Ferdinand and Isabella’s victory in 14764.
The ominous development of the activities of the Military Order of Calatrava were further complicated by the events which took place in the small town of Fuente Ovejuna in Cordoba. This town, enraged by the cruel and brutal behavior of one Fernan Gomez de Guzman, a Commander of the Order of Calatrava, rose up in rebellion and killed him as punishment for his crimes against them. The royal authorities investigated and even tortured the villages, but could uncover no individual action, only the collective “Fuente Ovejuna killed him5.” Lacking evidence to punish any individuals, no individuals were punished. Here again, we see the complexities of loyalty—the loyalty of the people of the town to each other allowed them to escape punishment from the throne for a crime committed against a rebellious military leader, who had himself stolen the city from its rightful previous allegiance to the city of Cordoba in 14686.
It is interesting to note another aspect of the historical situation in 1476 in passing. Upon the establishing control over Castille, Ferdinand and Isabella utilized the town militias (such as that of Fuente Ovejuna) in an undertaking called the Santa Hermanadad (“Holy Brotherhood”) to patrol the roads and stop lawlessness in the countryside. Within a few years these miliitas had restored order all over Castille. After this success, Ferdinand and Isabella turned the power of the civic militias against the last Muslim State, Grenada, which fell to the Spanish in the fateful year of 14927. Here we see that the loyalty of the town militias (like that of Fuente Ovejuna) to the Spanish throne gave them an honored role in the final defeat of the Muslims in Spain, which furthered the legitimacy of the monarchy in Spain.
The Historical Context of Fuente Ovejuna: 1610’s
Why did Lope de Vega write the play he wrote about the events of 1476 in the 1610’s? It is that question we seek to answer by looking at the political situation in Spain during that time and the way in which de Vega utilized his sources to use history to speak about the events of his time. As any good playwright would do, de Vega carefully selected from his sources to speak about his concerns in a powerful and dramatic way, one which gave contemporary relevance to the ambiguities to be found in the historical record.
The way in which de Vega used his sources for Fuente Ovejuna was distinctive. The main source of Fuente Ovejuna is the Chronica of Francisto de Rades y Andrada, who provides a detailed account of the events of the play. In addition, two other sources by Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco may have provided some historical context as well: the Emblemas morales of 1610 and the Tesoro de la lengua castellana of 1611, which were both published shortly before the play’s probable origin between 1612 and 1614. Two critical changes are made to the history, though. The first makes the Order of Calatrava’s attack on Ciudad Real the result of Fernan Gomez’ urging. The second change was to make the behavior of King Ferndinand and Isabella strong, decisive, fair, and just8.
What is the significance of these two changes to the historical record concerning the relevance of Fuente Ovejuna in its times? For one, making the master of Fuente Ovejuna the one who urges the young Rodrigo Tellez Giron to betray Ferdinand and Isabella and seize the town of Ciudad Real makes him a particularly evil villain, showing that the abuse of political power as it the heart of this play, whether it is in treachery towards one’s rulers or in tyranny towards one’s citizens. What political significance did this have? It just so happens that in the 1610’s, the political power of Spain was in the hands of the Duke of Lerma, a political favorite in court, making the play a subtle criticism of the king’s favored minister. Second, what is the significance of the portrayal of Ferdinand and Isabella as strong and decisive monarchs who act in the best interests of their people, and whose restoration of order ends this play? For one, the portrayal of the strong monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella is a contrast with the weakness of Philip III, who ruled Spain during Lope de Vega’s time9. Second, ending the play with the restoration of order by the king and queen helps to smooth over the unpleasant reality of peasants rebelling to avenge themselves against oppressive nobles. The threat of popular uprising, something few rulers or nobles looked forward to, was a reminder of the need for rulers to be responsive and respectful of their people.
The Biblical Context of Fuente Ovejuna
While it may seem unusual to reflect on the religious importance of plays in these times, the biblical standard of Christianity is an implicit foundation of much of the action and ambiguity over legitimacy in Fuente Ovejuna. It should not be neglected that the cry of the villagers rebelling against the wicked Commander in Act Three is: “Fuente Ovejuna! Long / Live King Fernando! Death to all / False Christians and foul traitors!10” Therefore, in order to understand the judgment of the Commander by the villagers of Fuente Ovejuna, it would be useful to reflect upon the Christian standards for rulers, as well as the scriptural example of divinely sanctioned popular uprisings. Two passages, one in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), and one in the New Testament (Romans 13:1-7), give a great deal of legal commands concerning the behavior of civil leaders. Furthermore, a particularly important passage in 1 Kings 12 gives the rather sobering example of a divinely sanctioned popular uprising against a tyrannical monarch, a prospect few civil rulers view with equanimity.
As this author has already commented extensively on the implications of Deuteronomy 17:14-20 for civil leaders, it is not necessary to repeat such observations here except in passing11. Of most relevance to the events in Fuente Ovejuna is the command for the ruler of God’s people to write a copy of the laws of God and to be careful in obeying them, so that he can avoid lifting his heart above his brethren and therefore prolong his days in power (verses 19 and 20). Obviously, this is a lesson that could have been learned better by the wicked master. Had he obeyed the laws of God, he would have not tyrannized them or sought to exploit the young ladies of the town sexually, and if he had respected the people he led, and treated them fairly, he almost certainly would not have been killed in the rebellion against his rule.
Concerning the second passage of interest in providing examples of civil responsibility, Romans 13:1-7, this author has also written extensively, and so a replication in detail of this passage is not necessary12. Nonetheless some passing comments about the responsibilities of civil authorities is worthy of mention. Verses 3 and 4 of Romans 13 state that rulers are not terrors to good works but of evil, and that civil rulers are God’s minister to people for the good, possessed of the power of the sword to protect the people from evildoers. Therefore, those in positions of civil authority are to judge according to God’s laws and have a rightful function within God’s plan in order to punish evil according to biblical standards. The implication is that those leaders who do not punish evil according to God’s laws are themselves acting in rebellion against God, thus risking their legitimacy to rule.
Finally, it would be remiss in commenting about the biblical background of Fuente Ovejuna without some brief comments on the biblical passage par excellance on popular uprisings against tyrants, the rejection of Rehoboam by the 10 tribes of Northern Israel in 1 Kings 12. Faced with an angry crowd of Israelites who longed for a relief from the heavy burden of taxes and labor laid upon them by Solomon, Rehoboam’s father, the young and foolish king decided instead to make the burden harsher, and so the people rebelled, chose Jeroboam as their king, and when Rehoboam sent his tax collector to them, they killed his emissary and made good their rebellion. With such a divinely sanctioned rebellion as an example, it is a wonder that more rulers have not sought to mollify the concerns of their people rather than rule harshly over them.
Contested Legitimacy In Fuente Ovejuna
Having introduced the historical context behind Fuente Ovejuna, we can now examine just how legitimacy is presented and defended for various characters. On what grounds does the legitimacy of authority stand, and on what grounds is it questioned? A variety of characters possess their legitimacy for a variety of different reasons, and face a variety of challenges to their “honor” from other characters. Let us take these examples among the authority figures in the play individually, to show the extensive nature of the ambiguity of legitimacy in this play.
Contested Legitimacy By Character
Commander (Fernan Gomez)
As the villain of Fuente Ovejuna, the legitimacy held by the Commander Fernan Gomez is an important matter in the play. For one, from the beginning he claims a legitimacy earned by his name and rank, and insists that leaders treat those who follow them with respect in order to avoid making enemies13. Nonetheless, he fails to apply this sound and wise advice to his own dealings with the people of Fuente Ovejuna, seeking to despoil the virtue of the young lady Laurencia (daughter of Esteban, a town alderman) right after the seizure of Ciudad Real14. When in his lustful attempts to rape Laurencia he is surprised by the noble Frondoso, who seeks to save the life of the girl he loves (though she does not appear to love him in return), and he is unable to handle the harm done to his “honor” by having a peasant stand up to him15. Even his subordinates, like Flores, note that the Commander cannot be bothered to hear the grievances of the people, and does not even pretend to hear them, because he cannot bear to view them as equals16. In his attempts to take vengeance upon Frondoso through judicial murder, he spins the defense of Laurencia’s honor as an act of treason against the order, even as Esteban defends his son-in-law by appealing to virtue and the loyalty due to their rulers (whom the Commander has opposed)17. His rashness in underestimating the people of Fuente Ovejuna, and in assuming his legitimacy to them on mere title alone, does not suffice to save him from bitter justice18.
Master (Rodrigo Tellez Giron)
The young master of Calatrava himself has an ambiguous legitimacy as well, which allows him to be manipulated by the wicked Commander. For example, he is constrained by the will of his family to engage in a battle on behalf of the dynastic claims of Alonso and Juana19. Therefore, his weakness in legitimacy in deeds due to his youth influences him to undertake a risky and arguably treasonous endeavor in siezing Ciudad Real in order to prove his legitimacy in the eyes of his Commander. Nonetheless, his polite response in dealing with the news that the rebellious peasants of Fuente Ovejuna had transferred their allegiance from the Order to the King and Queen directly shows considerable humility, especially given his initial threat to raze the little village20. Furthermore, his apology to the King and Queen for his treachery to them is forgiven, thus giving him legitimacy in their eyes, and showing how his desire for legitimacy in the eyes of Commander Gomez had led him to behave against his legitimate sovereigns21. Nonetheless, the forgiveness of Ferdinand and Isabella allows him the opportunity to gain further legitimacy by deeds against the Muslims of Grenada. Therefore, despite his early mistake, he demonstrates himself to have a sound grasp of the source of his legitimacy and of how to maintain it through loyalty to the crown and the support of its aims.
Esteban, who plays an important role both in the love story as well as the political undertones within Fuente Ovejuna, is perhaps the most important character among the peasants of Fuente Ovejuna who have achieved legitimacy. His legitimacy combines a reputation for wisdom and justice with his own title as a town magistrate. Though his legitimacy is challenged by his own daughter, who claims it is his fault that she was not married yet (to Frondoso, who loved her even if she was somewhat cold towards him), he affirms his manly taking on of the responsibilities to defend the honor of his daughter22. By this he proves his legitimacy in deeds. Nonetheless, he also possesses legitimacy in title, being called the man who justly rules over Fuente Ovejuna23. Besides deeds of valor, he is also demonstrated to be a kind man with wise advice for his future son-in-law, the brave and noble Frondoso, in graciously accepting Frondoso’s suit to marry Laurencia, and in insisting the young man take a dowry from Esteban for marrying his daughter24. He shows great justice in deeds and in words and in title, and therefore stands as one of the most visibly recognized legitimate authorities in the play.
Ferdinand and Isabella
Nonetheless, it is the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella that stand as the play’s main legitimate authorities on this side of heaven. They have this source of legitimacy even before they show up themselves on the state. For one, the revolting villages claim the King and Queen as their rightful rulers and, by implication, (correctly) judge the Commander as a traitor25. Furthermore, the King responds to the revolt in Fuente Ovejuna by sending a magistrate with powers to punish the evildoers, to demonstrate his desire in defending legitimate authority26. Furthermore, when face with the united witness of the town concerning their actions, he pardons their tyrannicide of the Commander and accepts the loyalty of the people of Fuente Ovejuna, thus earning their gratitude at play’s end, where we began27. Thus the legitimacy of the throne that is contested in the beginning between Alonso and Juana and Ferdinand and Isabella is affirmed at the end through the justice and mercy of Ferdinand and Isabella and the love of respect of their people. Legitimacy in deed and word thus reaffirms legitimacy of title.
The Sources of Legitimacy in Fuente Ovejuna
In Fuente Ovejuna, the tension over legitimacy is over the question of the sufficiency of title in determining legitimacy. There is, though, another question about legitimacy that is not asked at all in the play. From where does legitimacy spring? It would appear that Fuente Ovejuna seeks to solve the question of legitimacy by means of a two-step process that is filled with tension. First, it is title, whether by birth or some other means, that sets someone else up as an authority. Second, it is that person’s behavior as an authority that legitimizes the authority they already hold by title. It is important to realize that this merely pushes the problem of legitimacy back one step, failing to solve the question of how one is worthy of holding the titles in the first place, but it manages to salvage the legitimacy of the current system of nobility and royalty while adding to these systems the check of the conduct of people in those positions to show their worthiness after the fact.
First, let us note what all of the legitimate authorities in Fuente Ovejuna have in common. They all have a title. Even Esteban and the other aldermen of Fuente Ovejuna we see have that title, giving them the legitimacy to rule over their own. The Commander and Master of the Order of Calatrava have titles conferred by the People and recognized by monarchs. Of course, Ferdinand and Isabella have the title of King of Aragon and Queen of Castille. However these titles were acquired (and it would appear that birth is important in most of the titles, particularly those of the nobles), they are an accepted fact in the action of Fuente Ovejuna. There is not even the suggestion that these titles could be removed except by the action of higher authorities, which is why the action of the townspeople of Fuente Ovejuna is so threatening to the existing social order, and why their loyalty to the King and Queen and the mercy of the King and Queen in forgiving their deeds is so essential in preserving the existence of their town and the survival of its people.
Nonetheless, though this legitimacy of title is of vital importance, necessary to hold and exercise authority in either a town (Esteban), a military order (Rodrigo) or over the entire realm (Ferdinand and Isabella), it is not sufficient. Titles must be justified by words and deeds. The words that justify authority throughout are words of kindness, a fact that is recognized in nearly all parts of the play. The mercy shown by Ferdinand towards the people of Fuente Ovejuna spurs their gracious recognition of his wisdom28. Even the wicked Commander realizes the importance of graciousness shown by authorities towards their subordinates in the opening of the play, when he is upset at the unkindness shown to him by the young Master Rodrigo29. Furthermore, words and deeds are not enough. The young Master of Calatrava must justify his position through the seizure of Ciudad Real. Ferdinand and Isabella must justify their hold on the thrones of Castille and Aragon through the defeat of rival claimants to the Spanish throne. Esteban must justify his authority as town magistrate and as a father through defending the honor of his daughter against the tyrant who rules over their town. Furthermore, the legitimacy of Ferdninand and Isabella is not only justified by their defeating rival claimants, but also by bringing peace to their lands and ridding their lands of the many enemies to law and order30. It is only by behaving worthy of one’s title and by looking out for the well-being of the people that rulers maintain legitimacy.
Implications of Fuente Ovejuna For Legitimacy of Authority
In concluding this essay, let us look at the implications Fuente Ovejuna has concerning the legitimacy of authority. For one, let us note that de Vega is at pains to point out the severity of the wrongs of the Commander to avoid making the rebellion of the town of Fuente Ovejuna a precedent for future rebellions. That is, the rebellion of townspeople against their rulers, however unjust those rulers are, is still seen as a horrible wrong within the worldview of this play. Therefore, we must not see in the revolt of the townspeople against tyranny the true statement of how Lope de Vega or his contemporaries viewed the legitimacy of government, even if that is how the historical situation may seem most natural to the modern reader.
Rather, we must see in Lope de Vega’s classic play a strenuous effort to argue for a dual legitimacy of authority. As demonstrated earlier, authority comes from the possession of titles, and this play speaks nothing of how those titles are to be obtained (whether it is by birth or through the recognition of one’s deeds). Nonetheless, this play speaks powerfully that those who are in power need to act according to their position through good deeds, rather than rely on their possession of title alone to dominate others according to their own wills. Since it is required to back up your title with appropriate action (obeying the law, serving your own superiors loyally, treating those below you with kindness and respect, looking out for the interests of those you lead), this play therefore serves to support a moral view of leadership in accordance with the biblical foundation of godly government, representing one of the more fair and morally upright versions of the divine right theory of leadership.
Where legitimacy is contested or ambiguous, it results from a tension between opposing grounds of legitimacy, and this play portrays those tensions very excellently, seeking to harmonize them in a more complicated conception of legitimacy as based on title and one’s actions. Whether we agree or disagree with de Vega’s conception of legitimacy, we should recognize that he took the material of history and made a brave defense of morality and duty on the part of leaders. The mere possession of a title does not imply the rightness of all you do with those you are responsible for governing. Nonetheless, authority is to be honored and respected. The legitimacy of authority is only sure when people honor authority and when authority figures themselves act honorably. The lack of one may well trigger the loss of the other condition, as it does in Fuente Ovejuna, where the tyranny of the Commander induces the revolt of previously peaceful peasants to defend their honor and their lives, and brings him to a well-deserved death. Let other leaders profit from the example.
1Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 79,
2Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), xii.
3Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), xii.
4Peter Turchin, War & Peace & War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations (New York, NY: Pi Press, 2006), 178-179.
5Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), xii-xiii.
6Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 268.
7Peter Turchin, War & Peace & War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations (New York, NY: Pi Press, 2006), 179.
8Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), xiii-xiv.
9Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), xiii-xiv.
10Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 61.
11Nathan Albright, “The Law of Kings: Deueronomy 17:14-20.” Unpublished manuscipt.
12Nathan Albright, “The Implied Social Contract of Romans 13.” Unpublished manuscript.
13Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3.
14Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 19-20.
15Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 24-26.
16Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 32.
17Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 50-51.
18Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 61-62.
19Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4-5.
20Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 70.
21Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 76.
22Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 56-57.
23Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 54.
24Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 43-44.
25Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 61.
26Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65.
27Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 78-79.
28Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 79.
29Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3.
30Lope de Vega, Three Major Plays, translated by Gwynne Edwards (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 54.