Gil Vicente () (1465 – 1537), called the Trobadour, was a Portuguese playwright and poet who acted in and directed his own plays. Considered the chief dramatist of Portugal he is sometimes called the "Portuguese Plautus" and often referred to as the "Father of Portuguese drama."
Vicente was attached to the courts of the Portuguese kings Manuel I and John III. He rose to prominence as a playwright largely on account of the influence of Queen Dowager Leonor, who noticed him as he participated in court dramas and subsequently commissioned him to write his first theatrical work.
His plays and poetry, written in both Portuguese and Spanish, were a reflection of the changing times during the transition from Middle Ages to Renaissance and created a balance between the former time of rigid mores and hierarchical social structure and the new society in which this order was undermined.
While many of Vicente's works were composed to celebrate religious and national festivals or to commemorate events in the life of the royal family, others draw upon popular culture to entertain, and often to critique, Portuguese society of his day.
The year 1465, the date proposed by Queirós Veloso, is the commonly accepted year of Vicente’s birth. However, Braamcamp Freire proposes the year 1460, while de Brito Rebelo proposes between 1470 and 1475. Vicente’s own works indicate contradictory dates. The Velho da Horta ("Old Man of the [Vegetable] Garden"), the Floresta de Enganos ("Forest of Mistakes"), and the Auto da Festa ("Act of the Party") indicate 1452, 1470, and before 1467, respectively. Since 1965, when official festivities commemorating the 500th birthday of the writer were held, the date of 1465 has been almost universally accepted.
Though Frei Pedro de Poiares conjectured Barcelos was Vicente's birthplace, evidence for this is scarce. Pires de Lima, on the other hand, proposed Guimarães, which better accounts for Vicente's identification as a jeweller. The people of Guimarães have embraced this theory; a municipal school in Urgezes is named after the playwright. There's some stories about Gil Vicente's father,that was from this parish in Guimarães, so, people believe that Gil Vicente have lived here too. Another conjecture places his birthplace at Lisbon. The Beira region is also a candidate because of various references to it in his plays, more exactly the location of Guimarães de Tavares, that has been mistaken with Guimarães.
Gil Vicente married Branca Bezerra, who bore him two sons: Gaspar Vicente (died 1519) and Belchior Vicente (born 1505). After her death, he married Melícia or Milícia Rodrigues (abbreviated as Roiz), of whom were born Paula Vicente (1519-1576), Luís Vicente de Crasto (who organised the compilation of Vicente’s works), married to Mór de Almeida and had issue, Joana de Pina (died 1584) (daughter of Diogo de Pina de Baião and wife Mécia Barreto, daughter of Francisco de Aguiar and wife Madalena Barreto) and had issue, and Isabel de Castro, without issue, and Valéria Borges (or Vicente), who was married firstly to Pero Machado, without issue, and secondly to Dom António de Meneses, son of Dom Luís de Meneses, of the bastards of the Lords de Cantanhede, and wife Brites de Aguiar, and had issue
Vicente died in an unknown location, some say Évora. The year of his death is commonly recorded as 1536, the year after which he ceased writing; no further reference to him is found in subsequent documents of the era.
His first known work, O Monólogo do vaqueiro ("Monologue of the Cowherd"), was written in Spanish and acted in the rooms of Maria of Aragon, wife of King Manuel, to celebrate the birth of Prince John (later John III of Portugal). The first performance, recited by the playwright himself, took place on the night of June 8, 1502, in the presence of the king; the queen; Leonor of Viseu, former Queen of Portugal and widow of John II; and Beatriz of Portugal, mother of the King.
O Monólogo do vaqueiro contains several elements clearly inspired by the Adoration of the Shepherds which takes place in accounts of Christ’s birth. Its staging included offerings of simple and rustic gifts, such as cheese, to the future king, from whom great achievements were expected.
Though Leonor asked him to give an encore performance of the play at the Christmas matins, Vicente decided to write a new play for the occasion, the Auto Pastoril Castelhano ("Castilian Pastoral Act"). Because of the influence of Queen Leonor, who would become his greatest patron in the years to come, Gil Vicente realized that his talent would allow him to do much more than simply adapt his first work for similar occasions.
Vicente, who was in charge of organizing events in the palace, also directed the commemoration in honour of Eleanor of Spain, the third wife of Manuel I, in 1520. In 1521, he began serving John III of Portugal, and soon achieved the social status necessary to satirize the clergy and nobility with impunity. His popularity even enabled him to contradict the opinions of the king, as he did in a 1531 letter defending the New Christians.
In 1881, Camilo Castelo Branco wrote the letter "Gil Vicente, Embargos à fantasia do Sr. Teófilo Braga" ("Gil Vicente, Refutations of the Opinion of Mr. Teófilo Braga"), which argued that Gil Vicente the writer and Gil Vicente the goldsmith were two different people. Teófilo Braga, who initially believed them to be the same man, later adopted a different opinion after reading a study by Sanches de Baena which showed the different genealogy of two individuals named Gil Vicente. However, Brito Rebelo demonstrated the historical inconsistency of these two genealogies by the use of documents from the Portuguese national archive.
The masterpiece of Vicente the goldsmith’s art was the monstrance of Belém made for the Jerónimos Monastery in 1506, which was crafted from the first gold exported from Mozambique. The design of this monstrance resembles the decorations of the southern portal of the church Santa Maria de Belém of this monastery.
Three years later, he became overseer of the patrimony of the Convento de Cristo in Tomar, Nossa Senhora de Belém, and the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos in Lisbon. In 1511, he was nominated vassal of the King, and a year later he was the representative jeweller in the Casa dos Vinte e Quatro. In 1513, as master of the balance of the Casa da Moeda, the Portuguese national mint, Vicente the goldsmith was elected by the others masters to represent them in Lisbon.
Vicente’s oeuvre spans the years between 1500 and 1536. Most of his plays were intended for performance at court, where he and the ladies and gentlemen of the court participated in their production. He wrote no fewer than forty-four pieces, ten of which are in Spanish, fourteen in Portuguese, and the remainder in mingled Portuguese and Spanish. His plays may be grouped into four main categories: acts, or devotional plays; comedies tragicomedies; and farces.
He was also a noted lyric poet in both Portuguese and Spanish, as represented by several poems in the Cancioneiro of Garcia de Resende. He wrote a number of vilancetes and cantigas ("songs") which were influenced by a palatial style and the themes of the troubadours.
Some of his works are profoundly religious, while other are particularly satirical, particularly when commenting upon what Vicente perceived as the corruption of the clergy and the superficial glory of empire which concealed the increasing poverty of Portugal’s lower classes.
Luís Vicente, his son, classified Vicente’s sacred plays as acts and mysteries and his secular plays as farces, comedies, and tragicomedies. His plays may be further divided into pastoral acts, religious allegories, biblical narratives, episodical farces, and narrative acts. However, many of his works blend both secular and sacred elements; for example, Triologia das Barcas ("Trilogy of the Ships") contains both farcical and religious motifs.
Vicente is one of the most important satirical authors of the Portuguese language. His satires were severely critical, anticipating Molière’s later epigram, castigat ridendo mores ("[Satire] criticises customs through humour"). He portrayed Portuguese society of the 16th century with perceptiveness and insight, using many characters inspired by Portuguese social stereotypes of his time. In addition, characters, such as sailors, Gypsies, and peasants, are common, as are more fantastical characters such as fairies and demons. Though he commonly referenced popular dialects, Vicente maintained the lyricism of his words.
Positive aspects of Vicente’s works include imagination, originally, and a proficiency in technical knowledge of theatre. Though spontaneous, sardonic, and emotive, his works maintain a directness and simplicity of dialogue which is lyrical without being florid or exaggerated. He expresses himself in an unexpected, Dionysian way which does not always obey the aesthetic and artistic principles of balance. Vicente’s works seem to show a spirit in conflict: his portrayals of the flaws of others appear almost rash and cruel, while his devotional and pastoral works, and those scenes in which he defends the oppressed, give an impression of tenderness, docility, and humaneness. In contrast, his works sometimes include a romanticism which combines eroticism and waggery with more erudite influences such as Petrarch.
His satirical works depict the second world, in which human flaws are caricatured with little regard for actual or historical truth. Though critics call attention to these anachronisms and narrative inconsistencies, it’s possible that Vicente considered these errors trivial in his portrayals of an already false and imperfect world. In contrast, his representations of the mythic, symbolic, and religious aspects of Christmas, such as the figure of the Virgin Mother, the infant Jesus, and Christmas eve, demonstrate a harmony and purity which is not present in his social commentary.
Unlike plays which echo Manichaeism by presenting the dichotomy of darkness and light, Vicente’s work juxtaposes the two elements in order to illustrate the necessity of both. Christmas eve, one of his common motifs, is symbolic of his philosophical and religious views: the great darkness borders the divine glory of maternity, birth, forgiveness, serenity, and good will. The darkness is necessary to provide contrast with the light.
Though his patriotism is apparent in works such as Exortação da Guerra ("Exhortation of War") and Auto da Fama ("Act of Fame"), or Cortes de Júpiter ("Courts of Jupiter"), it doesn’t merely glorify the Portuguese Empire; instead, it is critical and ethically concerned, especially with the newly available vices which arose due to commerce with the East.
One of his first devotional plays was Auto da Fé ("Act of Faith") in 1510. Like a morality play, it explores the journey of the Soul as it travels to the arms of the Mother Church. On its way, it is waylaid by the Devil and led to goodness by an Angel.
His magnum opus is considered to be the Triologia das Barcas ("Trilogy of the Ships"), which consists of the three plays Auto da Barca do Inferno ("Act of the Ship of Hell"), written 1516; Auto da Barca do Purgatório ("Act of the Ship of Purgatory"), written in 1518; and Auto da Barca da Glória ("Auto of the Ship of Heaven"), written in 1519. These plays combine morality narratives with criticism of 16th-century Portuguese society by placing stereotypical characters on a dock to await the arrival of one of the ships which will take them to their eternal destination. The characters are of a variety of social statuses; for example, in Auto da Barca do Inferno, those awaiting passage include a nobleman, a prostitute, a corrupt judge, a dissolute friar, and a Jew (who would have been considered bound for Hell in Vicente’s time).
His religious lyricism shows the influence of the Cantigas de Santa Maria ("Songs of Saint Mary") and is exemplified in such works as Auto de Mofina Mendes ("Act of Mofina Mendes", literally, in the Portuguese of that time, "Act of Disgrace [Mofina] It Self [Mendes]), Anunciação ("Annunciation"), and in the prayer of Saint Augustine in Auto da Alma ("Act of the Soul"). For this reason, Vicente is sometimes called the "Poet of the Virgin."
His other notable religious works include Auto Pastoril Castelhano ("Castilian Pastoral Act") written in 1502; Auto dos Reis Magos ("Act of the Magi Kings") written in 1503 for Christmas celebrations; and Auto da Sibila Cassandra ("Act of the Sibyl Cassandra") written in 1503, a play which announced the Renaissance ideals in Portugal.
Vicente’s comedies blended slapstick and satire; in addition, his use of dialect clearly delineated the social classes of his characters. The staging of these plays maintained the simplicity of morality plays. For example, two simultaneous scenes might utilize a single curtain to divide them.
Auto da Índia ("Act of India"), written in 1509, was one of his first comedies. This play, which shows his proficiency with the form, is comparable to a modern bedroom farce. Vicente wrote farces throughout the rest of his life; one notable example is Farsa de Inês Pereira ("Farce of Inês Pereira"), written in 1523.
Prior to Vicente, few dramatic stagings had taken place in Portugal. However, a few notable performances had established theatrical precedence in courtly and religious contexts.
During the reign of Sancho I of Portugal (1185-1212), Bonamis and Acompaniado, the first recorded Portuguese actors, put on a show of arremedillo and were paid by the King with the donation of lands.
In a document dated 1281, Dom Frei Telo, Archbishop of Braga, refers to liturgical dramas which were performed during Catholic festivities.
According to the Portuguese chronicles of Fernão Lopes, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, Rui de Pina, and Garcia Resende, spectacular stagings took place in the courts of John I of Portugal, Afonso V of Portugal, and John II of Portugal. For example, Rui de Pina refers to one instance in which King John II himself played the part of The Knight of the Swan in a production which included a scene constructed of fabric waves. During the action, a fleet of carracks with a crew of spectacularly dressed actors entered the room accompanied by the sound of minstrels, trumpets, kettledrum, and artillery.
Other significant Portuguese theatrical works include the eclogues of Bernardim Ribeiro, Cristóvão Falcão, and Sá de Miranda, and the Pranto de Santa Maria (1435), an early liturgical drama by André Dias. Garcia de Resende, in his Cancioneiro Geral, designates a few other works, such as Entremez do Anjo by D. Francisco of Portugal, Count of Vimioso, and the lay#Nouns of Anrique da Mota. Vicente likely assisted in the production of these works, which include comedic scenes.
Though Vicente did not invent Portuguese theatre, his works surpassed any done before that time. His writing in Portuguese and in Spanish shaped both modern Spanish and modern Portuguese drama. His contribution to creating new forms, such as the farce, and raising the morality play to its apotheosis created the base upon which Portuguese and Spanish drama would be built. Though some of his works were later suppressed by the Inquisition, he is now recognized as one of the greatest dramatists of the Renaissance and the leading name in Portuguese theatre. According to Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, Vicente is "the most important figure of the primitive peninsular playwrights…[There was no one] who surpassed him in Europe in his time."
Since that time, various composers, such as Max Bruch (who made Von den Rosen komm' ich (Von dem Rosenbusch, o Mutter) from Vicente's De la rosa vengo my madre [from the rose I come my mother], which also had a version by Schumann) and Robert Schumann (who made his Spanische Liebeslieder [Spanish Love Songs] no. 7. Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen from Vicente's Sañosa está la nina [Irritated is the little girl] and no. 3. Lied, op. 29 no. 2 from Vicente's Canción [Song]; and two of his Spanisches Liederspiel no. 1. Erste Begegnung, op. 74 no. 1 and no. 3. Intermezzo, op. 74 no. 2), have set Vicente’s poetry to music in the form of lieder. Most of these were translated into German by Emanuel van Geibel.
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