La Celestina (used as title, synecdoche, one of the characters of the book actually called Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea or Libro de Calisto y Melibea y de la puta vieja Celestina) is a novel published by Fernando de Rojas (about whom we know little) in 1499. This book is considered to be one of the greatest in Spanish literature, and traditionally marks the end of medieval literature and the beginning of the literary renaissance in Spain. The book is written against the servants of the low nobility and advises us to beware of their tricks and lies. The story tells of Calisto, a bourgeois who falls in love with Melibea, the daughter of a nobleman; but following the machinations of Celestina their love has a tragic end after an accident in which Calisto falls off a ladder. On seeing this, Melibea subsequently decides to jump from a tower to her death. The name Celestina has become synonymous with procuress —especially an old woman— dedicated to promoting the illegal engagement of a couple; and the literary archetype of this character (her masculine counterpart is Pandarus).
Upon meeting Melibea, Calisto falls madly in love with her. Melibea rejects Calisto immediately at his open pledge of his love for her. Calisto becomes depressed and lovesick so Sempronio tells Calisto about Celestina, a procuress who owns a brothel with prostitutes, two of them are Elicia and Areusa. Calisto accepts and asks Celestina for help, and Celestina and Sempronio plot to get as much money out of Calisto as possible. However, another servant, Pármeno attempts to warn Calisto of Celestina's dishonorable reputation, but Calisto rejects him. Celestina convinces Pármeno not to warn him any longer, using Areusa, and instead join with her and Sempronio to take advantage of Calisto. Celestina meets with Melibea and gives her a magic thread while telling her of the suffering of a man she knows whose only cure is the word and girdle of Melibea. They talk but when Celestina names Calisto, Melibea gets angry and tells Celestina to leave. Celestina is crafty though, and she finally manages to get Melibea to give her up her girdle for Calisto. Melibea changes her mind and asks Celestina to come back and meet her secretly. Melibea suddenly finds herself madly in love with Calisto, and begs Celestina to arrange a meeting between her and her lover. Once this is done, Celestina informs and Calisto gives Celestina a gold chain. Celestina doesn't say anything to Sempronio and Pármeno, her partners in crime. When they go to Celestina's brothel and find out that Celestina has no intention of sharing her payment, they kill her. Afraid of being caught, they jump out the window, but one of the prostitutes, Sempronio's lover Elicia, sees them killing Celestina, and their broken bodies are executed.
Calisto gets to the date in Melibea's house with his other two servants Sosia and Tristan. Elicia and Areusa, who were lovers of Sempronio and Pármeno, send two thugs; while Calisto is getting to Melibea's balcony with a ladder he hears Sosia and Tristan shouting. He runs to help them, but falls off the ladder and dies. Melibea sees Calisto dead, runs to the highest tower of her house and throws herself off after confessing her affair to her father.
Although it is suspected that there may have been an earlier edition, the first edition is considered to be the Comedy published in Burgos by printer Fadrique Aleman in 1499 with the title Comedia de Calisto y Melibea (Comedy of Calisto and Melibea). It is conserved in the Hispanic Society of New York. Some scholars have expressed doubt about this date, considering the version published in 1500 in Toledo to be the first edition.
The comedy contains 16 acts, and also some stanzas with acrostic verses such as “el bachiller Fernando de Rojas acabó la Comedia de Calisto y Melibea e fue nascido en la Puebla de Montalbán,” which means “the graduate Fernando de Rojas finished the Comedy of Calisto and Melibea and was born in the city of Montalbán.” (This is the reason it is believed that Rojas was the original author of the play.)
A new edition entitled Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (Tragic Comedy of Calisto and Melibea) (Sevilla: Jacobo Cromberger) appeared in 1502. This version contained 5 additional acts, bringing the total to 21.
In 1526 a version was published in Toledo that included an extra act called the Acto de Traso, named after one of the characters who appears in that act. It became Act XIX of the work, bring the total number of acts to 22. According to the 1965 edition of the play edited by M. Criado de Val and G.D. Trotter, "Its literary value does not have the intensity necessary to grant it a permanent place in the structure of the book, although various ancient editions of the play include it."
Some critics see them as allegories. The literary critic Stephen Gilman has come to deny the possibility of analyzing them as characters, based on the belief that Rojas limited dialogue in which interlocutors respond to a given situation, so that the sociological depth can thus be argued only on extratextual elements.
Lida de Malkiel, another critic, speaks of objectivity, whereby different characters are judged in different manners. Thus, the contradictory behavior of characters would be a result of Rojas humanizing his characters.
One common feature of all of the characters (in the world of nobles as well as servants) is their individualism, their egoism, and their lack of altruism. The theme of greed is explained by Francisco José Herrera in an article about envy in La Celestina and related literature (meaning imitations, continuations, etc.), where he explained the motive of the gossipers and servants to be “greed and robbery,” respectively, in the face of the motives of the nobles, which are raging lust and the defense of social and family honor. The private benefit of the lower-class characters forms a substitute for the love/lust present for the upper class.
Fernando de Rojas liked to create characters in pairs, to help build character development through relationships between complementary or opposing characters. In the play in general there are two opposite groups of characters, the servants and the nobles, and within each group are characters divided into pairs: Pármeno and Sempronio, Tristán and Sosia, Elicia and Areusa, in the group of servants, and Calisto and Melibea, Pleberio and Alisa, in the group of nobles. Only Celestina and Lucrecia do not have a corresponding character, but this is because they perform opposite roles in the plot: Celestina is the element that catalyzes the tragedy, and represents a life lived with wild abandon, while Lucrecia, Melibea’s personal servant, represents the other extreme, total oppression. In this sense, the character of the rascal Centurino added in the second version is an addition with little function, although he has something to do with the disorder that calls the attention of Calisto and causes his death.