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ArribaAbajo Aristotle in Africa: History, Fiction, and Truth in El gallardo español

E. Michael Gerli

Georgetown University

El gallardo español es una comedia temprana que hace eco de los preceptos neoaristotélicos al declarar que su propósito es el de «mezclar verdades con fabulosos inventos». A la vez que Cervantes inscribe la preceptiva neoaristotélica, sin embargo, la somete a un detenido examen crítico que expone su misma artificiosidad. Al situar la comedia dentro de un contexto histórico reciente que incorpora elementos transparentemente ficticios, elabora un sutil juego entre la verdad y la mentira en que, al textualizarse, la una no llega a distinguirse de la otra. A través de intervenciones intencionadamente narrativas en el texto dramático, rompe la ilusión de la verosimilitud de lo dramatizado y llama la atención a la artificiosidad de lo representado. El gallardo, como tanta otra obra cervantina, interroga y somete a juicio los mismos preceptos críticos que constituyen las bases de la teoría de su composición.

«Ein mal ist keinmal,»

Milan Kundera                

El gallardo español is one of Cervantes's least known, little read, and most misunderstood plays. The few extant critical statements dealing with it address only its supposed «nationalist» spirit (Casalduero, 54-55), its putative autobiographical resonances of Cervantes's North African experiences18, its inscription of myth (De Armas), its historical verisimilitude (Canavaggio, 53-56) and novelistic elements (Zimic), or the contrasting of myth, honor, and reality (Stapp; Friedman, 29-30; Hughes). While critics remain at odds as to the play's sense, however, the text itself offers its own explicit instructions regarding its purpose and meaning. In the closing statement to the audience, Guzmán, an actual historical personage inscribed in the text, observes in a metafictional gloss that it is time to end the play:

cuyo principal intento
ha sido mezclar verdades
con fabulosos inventos.



The problematics of truth and fiction are, thus, according to one of the characters in the play essential to its understanding. This specific intentional statement, of course, leads us to one of the abiding concerns in all of Cervantes's works -the nature of fiction itself and its ability to depict and replicate the truth.

Using this specific declaration of intention as a point of departure, it is in fact possible to read El gallardo backward -that is, examine the text closely in light of its concluding statement and pursue those instances in it where Cervantes has sought to juxtapose fiction and truth. This reading strategy reveals that the play is primarily concerned with its own status as a fictional construct, and that Cervantes in writing it was responding to issues raised by contemporary critical theory. El gallardo español, it becomes clear, was conceived not just with the intention of forging a naive merger of fact and fiction, but to probe the limits, possibilities, and difficulties of integrating historical and strictly imaginative (essentially mendacious) discourses. In this way, it emerges as an early and profound Cervantine inquiry into the legitimacy of Aristotelian doctrine within a specifically dramatic context.

To begin to understand the significance of the closing lines of El gallardo it is necessary to turn to Chapter 48 of the first part of Don Quijote where, using the same terms, the Neo-Aristotelian canónigo de Toledo holds forth on the notion of the ideal comedia, from which «saldría el oyente alegre con las burlas, enseñado en las veras, admirado de los sucesos, discreto con las razones, advertido con los embustes, sagaz con los ejemplos, airado contra el vicio y enamorado de la virtud; que todos estos afectos ha de despertar la buena comedia en el ánimo del que la escuchare, por rústico y torpe que sea, y de toda imposibilidad es imposible dejar de alegrar y entretener, satisfacer y contentar, la comedia que todas estas partes tuviere...» (Ed. Riquer, I, 487)

Staged in a recent historical setting, the siege of the Spanish North African fortress of Oran in 1563, and doubtless based upon oral testimony as well as the events recorded in Luis de Mármol's Descripción general de Africa [Málaga, 1573] (Canavaggio, 54-55), El gallardo, mimicking Neo-Aristotelian doctrine, purports to claim verisimilar legitimation through the invocation of historical referents. Indeed, Canavaggio has traced the play's fidelity to history and how it reflects not only incidents up to the assault on Mersel-Kébir and the fortress of San Salvador, but the central role of D. Martín de Córdoba in the encounter, the heroics of D. Fernando de Cárcamo in the siege, the intervention of the Spanish military   —45→   engineers in reinforcing the fortifications, and the final, unexpected arrival of the flotilla of D. Alvaro de Bazán, as well as the details of razzia warfare along the African frontier as reported by Braudel and other historians of Christian-Moslem conflicts in the sixteenth-century Mediterranean.

The play's historical foundations and its explicit closing references to the constraints of Neo-Aristotelian theory seem to suggest that it is a programmatic implementation of the latter. Quite to the contrary, Cervantes appears to inscribe the Neo-Aristotelian model in order to test and subvert it. For example, the most noteworthy consideration in Cervantes's manipulation of history in El gallardo is not its fidelity to actual circumstances, or its adherence to particulars, but the very recent vintage of the events he portrays and their permutations in their textualization. Although Tasso, in Del poema eroico, had counseled the invocation of history to persuade that the things treated by poets are worthy of belief and authority ( «siano degne di fede e d'autorità» [85], he went on to recommend that they confine their choice to historical occurrences in the distant past. Tasso did this because the poets' audience may know, or even have lived, the inscribed events and be enticed to point out inaccuracies in their representation19. What, then, are we to make of Cervantes's use of the siege of Oran in El gallardo, and his evident departure from Neo-Aristotelian orthodoxy? Is the siege of Oran there to lend verisimilitude to the play, or is it, perhaps, there to provoke a subversion of the very authority of history itself and fly in the face of his Aristotelian contemporaries? These are some of the questions I wish to explore.

In his exploitation of the recent historical past Cervantes doubtless knew he ran the risk of confronting contradiction from his audience and that he should avoid, in Cascales' words «haver quien con vista de ojos se lo contradiga» (Tablas poéticas, 104). Indeed, he elaborates upon just this point in a self-consciously theatrical episode of the Persiles, where two student dramatists professing to have been captives in North Africa are tempted to capitalize upon the recent historical past, and run headlong into living, contradictory witnesses of the events they seek to enact. Historia / history in the Persiles episode is judiciously transformed into historia / story, until a magistrate in the audience, himself a former captive in Africa,   —46→   demands topographical details of Algiers which the performers fail to provide, thus exposing their play as a barefaced lie. They are, of course, denounced as prevaricators, but, invoking the virtue of justice tempered by mercy, they are finally forgiven by the magistrate for their dishonesty. More than mere entertainment, the episode of the bogus captives in the Persiles, with its deliberate representation of recent, easily contradictable historical events, serves a significant literary purpose in that it offers to a critical audience an opportunity to perceive the artificious uses of history in the construction of verisimilar texts, as it exposes the essential fictionality of the «true» events the captives allege to represent (see Forcione, 170-176). So too in El gallardo.

El gallardo deconstructs its own claim to historical verisimilitude. The unmasking of its claim to historicity is registered repeatedly in the intrusive, overly emphatic, and parodic first person narrative interjections scattered in the play's stage directions. For example, prior to the introduction of Buitrago, a figure cut from the cloth of the miles gloriosus and the gracioso who offers his mediation on behalf of the souls in Purgatory, the stage notations indicate that he carries «una tablilla con demandas de las ánimas de purgatorio, y pide para ellas» . They then go on to stress that «esto de pedir para las ánimas es cuento verdadero, que yo lo vi, y la razón por que pedía se dice adelante» (87). Such a unique and vigorous narrative intervention punctuating the veracity of what is portrayed (and at the same time calling it a «cuento verdadero») in a discursive space customarily reserved in theatrical texts for the agentless passive voice, points more to the self-conscious awareness of the possibility of questioning the truth, and hence its instability, in what is represented.

These parenthetical narrative comments suggest an uneasiness -indeed, by their very presence, an invitation to contradict the text's certification of historical actuality- and, through their extravagance, deliberately draw our attention to the essential artificiality of the events being portrayed -to their radical textuality and detachment from the reality which the play purports to duplicate. The very gesture of invoking textual credibility and seeking to ratify the truth of Buitrago's portrait calls our attention to the fact that it, and everything else in El gallardo, is shaped by language and is in effect fictive. By its impertinent insistence that it contains some kind of specific verifiable link to an extratextual world, the play disrupts its own mechanism for constructing a viable willing suspension of disbelief. Indeed, it is at moments like this that we are led to question whether Cervantes ever meant El gallardo to be staged at all, and to   —47→   consider the possibility that it was a drama destined solely to be read -an elaborate experiment in dramatic craft meant to invite a meditation upon the abiding Aristotelian question of the legitimacy of texts which profess to stage empirical historical truths20.

Instead of seriously emphasizing the verisimilitude of the events, the anomalous parenthetical ex abruptos of El gallardo strike a discontinuous, humorous note. In fact, the commentary in these stage directions seems purposefully transgressive since it amusingly establishes the proximity of an authorial voice in the play and undermines its objectivity, as well as its theatricality and power of illusion. It is an unmistakable reminder of the play's artificiality, its fundamentally fictive constitution, and the creative imagination which has crafted it. At the same time, it proves a flagrant trespass of the Aristotelian precept that the poet, in El Pinciano's words, «deve hablar lo menos que él pueda» (Philosophía antigua poética, III, 208). It serves as a reminder that even eyewitness accounts professing to be historical are mediated authorial constructs ever incapable of adequately recuperating the past. While the Aristotelians presumptuously sought to affirm the mimetic autonomy of texts, in El gallardo Cervantes boldly questions their independence from within and asserts the author's persistent power over them.

As El gallardo parodies the Aristotelian claims to historical verisimilitude, it appropriates intentionally obtrusive imaginative elements and motifs from medieval romance, romancero balladry, and renaissance epic, further complicating through speech and action the problematics of the representation of the truth in language, text, and artifice. The transparent fictive antecedents of the noble Moor, the single combats, the amorous triangles, and the love quests, the chance encounters, the exotic disguises, and the stylized, ambiguous language of the play would all not have been lost upon its late sixteenth-century reader. They would, in fact, doubtless have led to a sense of teasing déjà vu and to a heightened awareness of the play's artificiousness. For example, Don Fernando de Saavedra, the gallant hero of the piece, while purporting to be modeled upon the historical Don Fernando de Cárcamo, is conspicuously reminiscent both in name and deed with the intrepid captive Sayavedra of the well-known «Río verde» ballads, which serve to close Part I of Pérez de Hita's Guerras civiles de Granada (ed. Bryant,   —48→   pp. 308-10), not to mention the Sayavedra in other Cervantine works (for example, Los tratos de Argel; Don Quijote, I, 40). Similarly, the character Guzmán invokes resonances of other ballads and other legendary sieges (cf. the «Romance de don Henrique de Guzmán», Solalinde, 109-10; as well as the chronicle accounts of the deeds of Guzmán el Bueno), while the name of the Moorish heroine, Arlaxa, summons echoes of Lindaraxa (Pérez de Hita, 292-3), as well as one of the female protagonists from the popular sixteenth-century song, «Tres morillas me enamoran en Jaén» (see D. Alonso, 17). More importantly, however, the play's very title also flaunts its literary genealogy through an explicit reference to Ercilla's well-known epic, La Araucana, which invokes the prowess of an anonymous «gallardo español» (I, 169) during the siege of the fortress of Tucapel-a celebrated episode played out in Ercilla's text amidst his narrator's insistence upon the historical veracity of the incredible deeds he narrates:

   Es cosa que en mil gentes han parado
y están en duda muchos hoy en día,
pareciéndoles que esto que he contado
es alguna ficción y poesía...

(I, 164)                

The resonances of La Araucana thus go deeper than superficial allusions to the feats of «el gallardo español» described in Canto II. In the latter, Ercilla introduces his own abiding concern with the Neo-Aristotelian tension of history and poetry in his text, emphatically championing the historical veracity of what is told there, and in this way foreshadows El gallardo's engagement with the same themes. Cervantes's admiration for Ercilla is, of course, well-documented and unambiguously registered in Chapter VI of the first part of Don Quijote, where he includes La Araucana among three of «los mejores [poemas] que en verso heroico, en lengua castellana están escritos, y pueden competir con los más famosos de Italia» (I, 75). The origins of El gallardo español are hence steadfastly rooted in Cervantes's reading of Ercilla's poem, and reflect both his and humanism's broad-ranging preoccupation with the Neo-Aristotelian problematics of history and fiction in epic texts21.


Quite aside from its conspicuous references to romance, balladry, and vernacular epic, Cervantes's play is also richly allusive to classical textual antecedents and to the troublesome questions of history and poetry in them raised by their humanist readers and critics. Through a complex interplay of intertextual references, Cervantes places El gallardo squarely within the sixteenth-century Aristotelian debate on verisimilitude in ancient epic poetry. Not only is the siege of Oran meant to reflect contemporary history, it is expected to evoke another disputed historical siege portrayed in classical texts -the paradigmatic siege of Troy. Cervantes explicitly signals his Trojan subtext when Alimuzel, at the walls of Oran, goads Don Fernando to single combat:

Y para darte ocasión
de que salgas mano a mano
de verte conmigo agora,
de estas cosas te hago cargo:
que peleas desde lejos,
que el arcabuz es tu amparo
que en comunidad aguijas
y a solas te vas despacio;
que eres Ulises nocturno,
no Telamón al sol claro.


There are, in fact, numerous, repeated references to Troy throughout the play: at other junctures, Oropesa, Arlaxa's Christian captive, for example, compares his mistress to Medea (89), and Don Fernando to both Hercules and Hector (102)22.


However, perhaps the most provocative allusion to Troy, and most significantly to Homer's critical reception of Aristotelian humanists, is found in Alimuzel's double death and double resurrection. In two instances, by both word and deed, he is slain -first by Buitrago and then by Don Fernando. In the first encounter, Alimuzel exclaims «¡Muerto soy; Alá me ayude!» while Arlaxa cries out «acude Lozano, acude, / que han muerto a tu grande amigo» , as the stage direction says «Cae Alí dentro, y éntrase Arlaxa tras él» (116). In the second, Alimuzel reappears anew without explanation and Don Fernando strikes him down with his sword. Again, the Moor falls «dentro del vestuario» as he pronounces the words «¡Muerto me has, moro fingido / y cristiano mal cristiano» (141), just to rematerialize in the last scene of the play where Arlaxa gives him her hand, and where both he and his three lives pass in silence.

These episodes doubtless recall Priam's two deaths in the Homeric poems, which proved one of the polemical centerpieces of Renaissance literary theory. It is, in fact, Priam's double death (he is inexplicably killed twice by different antagonists in two different situations), as well as several other logical inconsistencies in Homer's poems, which led theorists to invoke repeatedly the Horatian topos of «aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus» (Poetica, 359), or the instances of «when good old Homer slept», to rationalize the Greek poet's infractions against historical verisimilitude23.

The glaring puzzling events at the close of El gallardo lead the careful observer to marvel at them, though they are never satisfactorily explained. In fact, the Count of Alcaudete, properly astonished by all the discontinuities and transformations of the things he has witnessed in the last scene, points to them and exclaims with mock Aristotelian amazement «estoy tan suspenso, / porque de ellas veo   —51→   el fin, / y no imagino el comienzo» (148), underscoring the very artificiousness of the dramatic conventions employed in the comedia of which he is a character. The count's remarks emphasize the indeterminacy of the play's closure and its ultimate non-compliance with Aristotelian precepts. Though the action has come to a final resolution, few can logically tell how it got there. In a droll comeback to the count's confusion, too, Don Fernando responds: «te lo diré a su tiempo» (148), the equivalent of «Trust me, I'll have to tell you later». Rather than stressing a finale rendering all that has transpired credible and comprehensible, the Count marks his bewilderment and consternation, his lingering desire for suitable believable explanations -which are never forthcoming. Though the threads of the action have been gathered together, they are clearly left more tangled than tied at the close of the play. With this in El gallardo, and with turns like Alimuzel's incredible double death, the construction of a rational, verisimilar whole comprising a feasible mimetic covenant between the author and an audience becomes unworkable. By calling attention to his forced denouement, the play itself tells us it has failed to achieve both formal coherence and willing suspension of disbelief, the seamless synthesis of burlas and veras lying at the center of the Neo-Aristotelian ideal.

The dialectics of truth and fiction are inscribed in the play at a deeper level-at the level of language itself. The mediating nature of language is constantly highlighted, and the complications of envisioning it as transparent are sharpened through the play's ongoing inscription of lies. The self-conscious repetition of permutations on the word mentir saturates the text to the point of being obtrusive, as the characters rightly question the truth of all they see. Don Fernando, despite his gallantry, is in fact an inveterate liar, and his mendacity is ironically highlighted by Cervantes through one of the Count of Alcaudete's credulous remarks. In the closing scene, the count turns to the hero and says innocently: «siempre vuestras palabras / responden a vuestros hechos» . To which Don Fernando replies: «entiende que ya no miento» (147).

Indeed, all of the characters in the play, in one form or another, embrace some type of duplicity. But perhaps none is more interesting than Doña Margarita, who, cross dressed, appears suddenly in Oran not only as a man but then as a Moor, considerably complicating the instability of the representation of the truth in the ostensibly easy questions of gender and cultural identity. Her cross cultural cross dressing incarnates ambivalence, indeterminacy, and conjecture -the ongoing transfiguration of all that is seen and heard. A   —52→   protean figure, Doña Margarita is something different to everyone she encounters24.

Both the characters in the drama and the observer outside of it are intentionally compelled to act as interpreters of the words as well as the deeds constituting the comedia and enter into the elaborate interplay of fiction and truth. Dialogues are constructed polysemously and produce a wealth of different resonances and echoes, cognizant of the power of speech to transfigure imaginatively surface appearances. Don Juan believes he recognizes his sister, the disguised Doña Margarita, yet he is told repeatedly she is the Moorish maiden Fátima. Cervantes ironically marks Don Juan's self-doubt and alarm at what he hears and sees through the equivocal use of the noun and the verb mora:

Por ser grande la distancia
que hay de mi hermana a ser mora,
imagino que en mí mora
gran cantidad de ignorancia.
Extraño es el devaneo
con quien vengo a contender,
pues no me deja creer
lo que con los ojos veo.


Finally, driven beyond Neo-Aristotelian admiratio, don Juan is farcically propelled to the edge of madness by the contradictions of all he perceives, exclaiming:

      Que me admiro,
y en juicio me apoco.
Por dicha, ¿hace Mahoma
¿Y hace transformaciones?


Facts themselves are destabilized, made relative and contingent, in El gallardo as they are related through language. The ambivalence of truth and lies resides at the level of words themselves and is demonstrated by alternating their transparency and opacity to produce calculated misreadings and misinterpretations. From our privileged ironic perspective, what is verbally fabricated is then visually denied;   —53→   and what is physically embodied as real is subsequently verbally deconstructed. The persistence of speech and appearances which deceive the observer is insistently brought to our attention. The force of the subjectivity underpinning all notions of the truth is suggested by the fact that words and things are represented only in relation to the angle from which we and the characters in the play grasp them.

Through the ironic interplay of hearing, seeing, and believing, followed by radical disabuse, we are led to realize that the distinction between the factual and the fictive is really only one of hierarchy, never one of substance, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. By means of the extensive use of dramatic irony, and the construction of lies which define the links between all his characters, Cervantes toys with the notion that there is more than one way to compose truths.

Cervantes in El gallardo thus takes us beyond a facile Neo-Aristotelian convergence of history and poetry to the very threshold of the Verfremdungseffekkt, and to the calculated contemplation at all levels of the uncertainty of the actual and the fantastic. Through the overt utilization of stylized language and easily recognizable motifs from imaginative literature, particularly romance, balladry, and classical and vernacular epic, he sought to heighten the awareness of the ambivalence of both burlas and veras -to create moments of critical detachment from the play, in order to remind us that it was indeed just that -a play- not life but its textual representation. As he stated later in the «Adjunta al Parnaso», the intention behind publishing his plays in book form was «para que se vea de espacio lo que pasa apriesa, y se disimula, o no se entiende, cuando las representan» (Ed. Gaos, 183). His goal was thus not to make burlas indistinguishable from veras, but to signal their kinship in dramatic texts, and render an evaluation of theater itself by exposing and manipulating the very devices through which it creates illusions and purports to represent reality. In this way, El gallardo offers a kind of ontological critique of theater which discloses at every step the semiotic strategies it exploits to represent the truth.

The play organizes a confrontation between self-consciously fictive and historical discourses in order to highlight the effacement of the boundaries between the two and place into question linguistic and textual referentiality, leading us ultimately to a mise en abîme. The troublesome cohabitation of veras with undisguised burlas unmasks the way dramatic texts seek to create real-seeming illusions and, from beginning to end, through its artificiousness, ambiguous language, the intrusion of extradiegetic commentary and even a   —54→   point of view in the stage directions, the names and allusive identities of the characters and what occurs to them, there is a consistent attempt to convey the sense of a fictional world, a construct, set up against a background of well-known historical facts. Even the truth on stage is disguised, distorted, and transformed as we, along with the characters, are led to ponder the nature of what we hear and behold and formulate conclusions about it just to be denied, contradicted, and confounded in the end. As in his best known dramatic pieces exploring the nature of theater (Pedro de Urdemalas and El retablo de las maravillas), in El gallardo Cervantes gathers all the artifices of the stage and integrates them into a structure that constantly calls attention to them and to their persistent counterfeit of truth. Although the play's concluding statement parallels the Neo-Aristotelian canon's agenda for the ideal theater in Don Quijote (I, 48), a retrospective reading of El gallardo underscores Cervantes's awareness of verisimilitude's abiding fictionality -his questioning of it and his final refusal to yield simplistically to the Neo-Aristotelian program25.

If El gallardo was in fact written as early as 1594, as Cotarelo y Valledor claims (261-66), it is perhaps Cervantes's earliest critical response to the paradoxes posed by Neo-Aristotelian aesthetics and deserves our careful scrutiny26. Whatever its date of composition, however, it is clear that the play illustrates far more than a clever excursion into the comedia nueva (Marrast, 61) or a slavish imitation of Neo-Aristotelian fashion. In its quest to merge burlas with veras it   —55→   ultimately undermines the very possibility of ever reconciling the two, calling into question the capacity of texts to represent empirical truths. As it does this, it interrogates the very critical abstractions which provoked its composition. As in all of Cervantes's work, El gallardo is at once a creative and self-scrutinizing gesture which confronts the very theoretical underpinnings upon which it rests and, ultimately, the foundations of writing itself. El gallardo does, in fact, partially accomplish the artistic goals set out by the canon of Toledo for the theater-to instruct and to entertain. However, in its interrogation of verisimilitude, and its awareness of itself as a text, it constitutes a departure from them and designates one more profound Cervantine inquiry into the ability of language to fabricate illusions.

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