1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vicente, Gil

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VICENTE, GIL (1470–1540), the father of the Portuguese drama, was born at Guimaraes, but came to Lisbon in boyhood and studied jurisprudence at the university without taking a degree. In 1493 we find him acting as master of rhetoric to the duke of Beja, afterwards King Manoel, a post which gave him admission to the court; and the Cancioneiro Geral contains some early lyrics of his which show that he took part in the famous seroes do paco. The birth of King John III. furnished the occasion for his first dramatic essay—The Neatherd’s Monologue, which he recited on the night of the 7th–8th June 1502 in the queen’s chamber in the presence of King Manoel and his court. It was written in Spanish out of compliment to the queen, a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and because that language was then the fashionable medium with the higher classes. This manger-hymn, which was a novelty in Portugal, so pleased the king’s mother, the infanta D. Beatriz, that she desired Gil Vicente to repeat it the following Christmas, but he composed instead the Castilian Pastoral Auto, a more developed piece in which he introduced six characters. The infanta, pleased again, required a further diversion for Twelfth Day, whereupon he produced the Auto of the Wise Kings. He had now established his reputation as a playwright, and for the next thirty years he entertained the courts of Kings Manoel and John III., accompanying them as they moved from place to place, and providing by his autos a distraction in times of calamity, and in times of rejoicing giving expression to the feelings of the people. Though himself both actor and author, Gil Vicente had no regular company of players, but it is probable that he easily found students and court servants willing to get up a part for a small fee, especially as the plays would not ordinarily run for more than one night. The Auto of the Sybil Cassandra (produced at the monastery of Euxobregas at Christmas 1503), the Auto of St Martin (played in the church at Caldas on the feast of Corpus Christi 1504), and a mystery play, the Auto of the Four Seasons, all belong, like their predecessors, to the religious drama, but in 1505 Gil Vicente wrote a comedy of real life, Who has Bran to sell? a title given it by the public. It is a clever farce depicting an amorous poor squire and his ill-paid servants, and opens a rich portrait-gallery in which the dramatist includes every type of Portuguese society, depicting the failings of each with the freedom of a Rabelais. The next three years saw no new play, but in 1506 Gil Vicente delivered before the court at Almeirim a sermon in verse on the theme Non volo, volo, el deficior, in which he protested against the intolerance shown to the Jews, just as in 1531 he interfered to prevent a massacre of the “New Christians” at Santarem. The Auto of the Soul, a Catholic prototype of Goethe’s Faust, containing some beautiful lyrics, appeared in 1508, and in 1509 the Auto da India, a farce which has the eastern enterprise of his countrymen for background, while the Auto da Fama (1516) and the Exhortation to War (1513) are inspired by the achievements that made Portugal a world-power. If the farce of The Old Man of the Garden (1514) breathes the influence and spirit of the Celestina, the popular trilogy of the Boats of Hell, Purgatory and Glory (1517, 1518, 1519) is at once a dance of death, full of splendid pageantry and caustic irony, and a kind of Portuguese Divina Commedia. The Auto of the Fairies (1516), the Farce of the Doctors (1519) and the Comedy of Rubena (1521) ridicule unchaste clerics and ignorant physicians with considerable freedom and a medieval coarseness of wit, and the Farce of the Gipsies is interesting as the first piece of the European theatre dealing professedly with that race. Ignez Pereira, usually held to be Gil Vicente's masterpiece, was produced in 1523 before King John III. at the convent of Christ at Thomar, and owed its origin to certain men of bom saber, perhaps envious partisans of the classical school. They pretended to doubt his authorship of the autos, and accordingly gave him as a theme for a fresh piece the proverb: “I prefer an ass that carries me to a horse that throws me.” Gil Vicente accepted the challenge, and furnished a triumphant reply to his detractors in this comedy of ready wit and lively dialogue. The Beira Judge (1526), the Forge of Love (1525) and The Beira Priest (1526) satirize the maladministration of justice by ignorant magistrates and the lax morals of the regular clergy, and the Farce of the Muleteers (1526) dramatizes the type of poor nobleman described in Cleynart’s Letters. The Comedy of the Arms of the City of Coimbra (1527) has a considerable antiquarian interest, and the facetious Ship of Love is full of quaint imagery, while the lengthy Auto of the Fair (1527), with its twenty-two characters, may be described as at once an indictment of the society of the time from the standpoint of a practical Christian and a telling appeal for the reform of the church. In an oft-quoted passage, Rome personified comes to the booth of Mercury and Time, and offers her indulgences, saying, “Sell me the peace of heaven, since I have power here below”; but Mercury refuses, declaring that Rome absolves the whole world and never thinks of her own sins. The play concludes with a dance and hymn to the Blessed Virgin. The Triumph of Winter (1529) exposes the unskilful pilots and ignorant seamen who cause the loss of ships and lives on the route to India, and the Auto da Lusitania (1532) portrays the household of a poor Jewish tailor, ending with a curious dialogue between “All the World” and “Nobody.” The Pilgrimage of the Aggrieved (1533) is an attack on discontent and ambition, lay and clerical. After representing the Auto da festa for the Conde de Vimioso (1535), and dramatizing the romances of chivalry in D. Duardos and Amadis de Gaula, Gil Vicente ended his dramatic career in 1536 with a mirthful comedy, The Garden of Deceptions. He spent the evening of life in preparing his works for the press at the instance of King John III., and died in 1540, his wife Branca Bezerra having predeceased him. Four children were born of their union, and among them Paula Vicente attained distinction as a member of the group of cultured women who formed a sort of female academy presided over by the infanta D. Maria.

The forty-four pieces comprising the theatre of Gil Vicente fall from the point of view of language into three groups: (1) those in Portuguese only, numbering fourteen; (2) those in Spanish only, numbering eleven; and (3) the bilingual, being the remainder, nineteen in all. They are also from their nature divisible as follows: a. Works of a religious character or of devotion. Most of these are a development of the mystery or miracle play of the middle ages; and they may be subdivided into (1) Biblical pieces; (2) pieces founded on incidents in the life of a saint; and (3) religious allegories. In this department Gil Vicente reaches his highest poetical flights, and the Auto of the Soul is a triumph of elevation of idea and feeling allied to beauty of expression. b. Aristocratic works, or tragicomedies, the composition of which was the result of his contact with the court; these, though often more spectacular than strictly dramatic, are remarkable for opulence of invention and sweetness of versification. c. The popular theatre, or comedies and farces. Gil Vicente's plays contain some evidence of his knowledge and appreciation of French poetry; e.g. The Beira Judge wears a general likeness to the products of the Clercs de la Basoche, and his Testament of Maria Parda is reminiscent of the better-known work of Francois Villon. Most of the plays are written in the national redondilha verse, and are preceded by initial rubrics stating the date when, the place where, in whose presence, and on what occasion each was first performed, and these make up the annals of the first thirty-four years of the Portuguese drama. Most of them were put on the stage at the different royal palaces; some, however, were played in hospitals, and, it is said, even in churches, though this is doubtful; those of which the subjects are liturgical at the great festivals of Christmas, Epiphany and Maundy Thursday, others on the happening of some event of importance to the royal family or the nation. Many of the plays contain songs, either written and set to music by the author, or collected by him from popular sources, while at the close the characters leave the stage singing and dancing, as was the custom in the medieval comedies.

Though so large a proportion of his pieces are in Spanish, they are all eminently national in idea, texture and subject. No other Portuguese writer reflects so faithfully the language, types, customs and colour of his age as Gil Vicente, and the rudest of his dramas are full of genuine comic feeling. If they never attain to perfect art, they possess the supreme gift of life. None of them are, strictly speaking, historical, and he never attempted to write a tragedy. Himself a man of the people, he would not imitate the products of the classical theatre as did Sá de Miranda and Ferreira, but though he remained faithful to the Old or Spanish school in form, yet he had imbibed the critical spirit and mental ferment of the Renaissance without its culture or erudition. Endowed by nature with acute observation and considerable powers of analysis, Gil Vicente possessed a felicity of phrase and an unmatched knowledge of popular superstitions, language and lore. Above all, he was a moralist, with satire and ridicule as his main weapons; but if his invective is often stinging it is rarely bitter, while more than one incident in his career shows that he possessed a kindly heart as well as an impartial judgment, and a well-balanced outlook on life. If he owed his early inspiration to Juan de Encina, he repaid the debt by showing a better way to the dramatists of the neighbouring country, so that he may truly be called the father of the rich Spanish drama, of Lope de Vega and Calderon. Much of his fame abroad is due to his position as an innovator, and, as Dr Garnett truly remarked, “One little corner of Europe alone possessed in the early 16th century a drama at once living, indigenous and admirable as literature.”

Gil Vicente perhaps lacks psychological depth, but he possesses a breadth of mental vision and a critical acumen unknown in any medieval dramatist. In his attitude to religion he acts as the spokesman of the better men of his age and country. A convinced but liberal-minded Catholic, he has no sympathy with attacks on the unity of the Church, but he cries out for a reform of morals, pillories the corruption and ignorance of the clergy and laity, and pens the most bitter things of the popes and their court. He strove to take a middle course at a time when moderation was still possible, though, had he lived a few years longer, in the reign of religious fanaticism inaugurated by the Inquisition, his bold stand for religious toleration would have meant his imprisonment or exile, if not a worse fate. He is a great dramatist in embryo, who, if he had been born fifty years later and preserved his liberty of thought and expression, might with added culture have surpassed Calderon and taken his place as the Latin and Catholic rival of Shakespeare.

Some of the plays were printed in Gil Vicente’s lifetime, but the first collected edition, which included his lyrics, was published after his death by his son Luiz (Lisbon, 1562), with a dedication to King Sebastian. A second edition appeared in 1586, with various omissions and alterations made at the instance of the Inquisition. A critical edition of the text in 3 vols. came out at Hamburg (1834), with a glossary and introductory essay on Vicente’s life and writings, and a poor reprint of this edition is dated Lisbon 1852. He has never found a translator, doubtless because of the difficulty of rendering his form and explaining his wealth of topical allusions.

Authorities.—Dr Theophilo Braga, Gil Vicente e as origens do theatro nacional (Oporto, 1898); J. I. de Brito Rebello, Gil Vicente (Lisbon, 1902); “The Portuguese Drama in the 16th Century—Gil Vicente,” in the Manchester Quarterly (July and October 1897); introduction by the Conde de Sabugosa to his edition of the Auto de festa (Lisbon, 1906).  (E. Pr.)