The Siglo de Oro

Spain’s Golden Age

by Dr. Matthew V. Desing—Assistant Professor of Spanish Medieval and Early Modern Literature, University of Texas at El Paso

The term “Siglo de Oro” is the Spanish phrase used to describe the “Golden Age” of literary and artistic production in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the most enduring aspects of this flourishing of art was the country’s achievements in drama and theater. The International Siglo de Oro Drama Festival at Chamizal pays tribute to that period’s excellent dramatic production, and a concise description of the period, its authors, and their plays will enhance your appreciation of the festival.

By the end of the 1500s, Spain was a central player in world events. The Spanish monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, had consolidated their power within their realms and were now expanding their influence throughout the rest of Europe and the Americas. By the middle of the 16th century, their successors were ruling over a world empire. But Spanish society had its share of problems including poverty, internal conflicts, and wars. This combination of triumph and turmoil created circumstances ripe for artistic production.

Although there are differences of opinion about the precise years that constitute the artistic period known as the Siglo de Oro (some would have it begin as early as 1492), there tends to be agreement that it reaches its apex in the century between 1550 and 1650. This period is roughly contemporary to England’s Elizabethan era, with Shakespeare being that country’s most famous representative. Spain’s artistic endeavors reached beyond the stage and into all genres and media of the period. The country gave birth to many important works of architecture including the Monastery/Palace of El Escorial as well as the Plaza Mayor of Madrid. Two of the period’s most influential artists, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) and Diego Velasquez, painted their masterpieces in an atmosphere of artistic achievement.

Literary splendor is the artistic triumph most associated with the Siglo de Oro. Spain gave birth to the picaresque genre with the publishing of the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554, and around that same time Spanish mysticism began to flourish with the writings of Teresa de Ávila and San Juan de la Cruz. Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Góngora took poetry to new levels during the era, but perhaps the crowning literary achievement of the time was the publishing of the first modern novel, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, known in English as simply Don Quixote.

Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra, the author of Don Quixote, was also an accomplished playwright, but the most famous dramatist of Spain’s Golden Age was undoubtedly Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio. This dramatist, known as the Spanish phoenix, wrote so many three-act plays and other dramatic works that Cervantes nicknamed him a “monster of nature.” Lope wrote many of the best-known plays of the period including El castigo sin venganza, Peribáñez y el comendador de Ocaña, and the unforgettable Fuenteovejuna. His comedias (three-act plays) were a mixture of humor, intrigue, and drama, a genre that he pioneered and that another dramatist would perfect.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca was the most philosophical and refined dramatist of his age, and after the death of Lope de Vega, he also became the most popular. One of his longer plays, La vida es sueño, is renowned for its entertaining yet insightful treatment of the theme of free will, but Calderón was also known for shorter dramatic works. Comical one-act plays, known as entremeses or interludes because they were often performed during the intermissions of longer plays, were also popular during the Golden Age. Calderón wrote many of these, but he is better known for his autos sacramentales, short allegorical works on religious subjects, usually the Eucharist.

The themes of the Siglo de Oro plays range from religious, to tragic, to comical in nature, and there are so many excellent playwrights from the period that it truly deserves the denomination of the Golden Age. Although space does not allow us here to provide a detailed listing of all the dramatists of the period, we invite you to explore further the lives and works of other famous playwrights such as Tirso de Molina, Agustín Moreto, and Juan Ruiz de Alarcón. These and other dramatists’ works graced Spain’s stages and public spaces during the Siglo de Oro.