Lopé Felix de Vega Carpio was born at Madrid on the 25th of November, 1562, fifteen years after Cervantes. His relations, who were noble, though poor, gave him the basis of a liberal education, and in consequence of their death before he entered the university, he was sent there by the inquisitor-general, Don Jeronimo Manriquez, completing his studies at Alcala. Prodigies of imagination and learning are related of him even at this early period. The duke of Alva, soon after his marriage, took him into his employment as secretary, but being forced into an affair of honor, Lopé inflicted a dangerous wound on his adversary and was compelled to seek safety in flight. He passed some years in exile, and on his return lost his wife. The grief which he felt upon this occasion, added to his religious and patriotic zeal, drove him into the army, and he took service with the "Invincible Armada," which was intended to place England under the Spanish yoke and was itself almost annihilated. On his return to Madrid he again married, and for some time lived happily in the bosom of his family; but the death of his second wife determined him to renounce the world and enter into orders.
Notwithstanding this change, Lopé continued, to the end of his life, to cultivate poetry with so wonderful a facility that a drama of more than two thousand lines, intermingled with sonnets and enlivened with all kinds of unexpected incidents and intrigues, frequently cost him no more than the labor of a single day. He tells us himself that he has produced more than a hundred plays, which were represented within twenty-four hours after their first conception. What has before been said of the wonderful facility of Italian improvisatori applies with equal truth to the Spaniards, in whose language and metres it was more difficult to compose; but of the hundreds of Castilian improvisatori, who expressed themselves in verse with the same ease as in prose, Lopé was the most remarkable, for the task of versification seems never to have retarded his progress. His friend and biographer, Montalvan, has remarked that he composed more rapidly than his amanuensis could copy.
While Cervantes did much for the Spanish drama, it was by Lopé de Vega that its national forms were permanently established. Selecting from his ruder predecessors all the varieties that were best worth preserving, he molded them into the shapes best adapted to the capabilities of the stage, as he found it, toward the close of the sixteenth century. While others aided in the work, Lopé was the true founder of the modern drama, not only in Spain, but to a great extent in all European countries, which borrowed largely from the two great southern nations that gave to the secular stage its earliest development, after emerging from the darkness of the middle ages. Not only in giving form and cohesion to the drama, but in the fertility and variety of his own productions, Lopé has no rival among modern authors. His plays and other works almost taxed the powers of the printing press, so that their very number greatly injured his reputation, notwithstanding their general excellence. It is estimated that his writings contained more than 21,000,000 lines and covered about 133,000 large and closely written sheets of paper, a quantity which few ordinary men could copy within the span of a lifetime. Doubtless, if he had written one-tenth as much, his labors would have been ten times as effectual; yet in his own special line, as a comedian, he is unrivaled except by Calderon.
The managers of the theatres, who always kept him on the spur, left him no time either to read or revise his compositions, and with inconceivable fertility he produced 1,800 comedies and 400 autos sacramentales, in all 2,200 dramas, of which about 300 have been published in 25 quarto volumes. His other poems were reprinted at Madrid in 1776, under the title of the detached works of Lopé de Vega, in 21 volumes in quarto. His prodigious literary labors produced money as well as glory, and he amassed 100,000 ducats; but his treasures did not long abide with him. The poor ever found his purse open to them, and the pomp and extravagance characteristic of Castilians soon dissipated his wealth. After living in splendor, he died almost in poverty.
No poet ever enjoyed in his lifetime so much of glory and adulation. When and wherever he showed himself, a crowd surrounded him and saluted him as "the prodigy of nature." Children followed him with cries of pleasure, and every eye was fixed upon him. The religious college of Madrid, of which he was a member, elected him their president; Pope Urban VIII presented him with the cross of Malta, the title of Doctor of Theology and the diploma of treasurer of the Apostolic chamber, marks of distinction which he owed at least as much to his fanatical zeal as to his poems. In the midst of the homage thus rendered he died on the 26th of August, 1635, having attained the age of seventy-three. His obsequies were celebrated with royal pomp. Three bishops in their pontifical habits officiated for three days at the funeral of the "Spanish phoenix," as he is called in the title page of his comedies, his writings being alone sufficient to furnish forth a library of no insignificant proportions. He wrote negligently and he matured nothing; his great and incontestable merit was that he gave the Spanish stage a range and scope of which it had not before been thought capable, and taught his contemporaries how to find dramatic situations and develop a plot.
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