Queering the Nation: 

Performing Gender and Ethnicity in Jerónimo de Cáncer’s Los Putos



Lucas A. Marchante-Aragón

College of Staten Island – CUNY



In recent years there has been a growing scholarly interest around issues of masculinity in early-modern Spain (1). Many studies have especially revolved around a perceived loss of masculine values that, according to representations found in historical documents and the literature of the period, was thought to be brought about by the progressive degradation of morals and customs of a growingly self-indulgent urban culture. Some of these studies have focused on an exhibitionist elite class that displays itself awash in the riches provided by their imperial dealings: a dandified youth that cares excessively about their physical appearance, i.e. the “lindo” (2); some have focused on how sodomy and sodomites -the so called nefarious sin and its practitioners- were treated by civil and church law, and how this treatment was depicted in dramatic literature (3); and in some other cases they have focused on the figure of the marión, the man whose gender performance does not match his sex (4). In general these images of eroded masculinity have been interpreted as a trope for the representation of the perceived waning power of the Spanish monarchy. This is, to imply that the feminization of Spanish men had brought about the weakening of a formerly mighty nation.

While these lindos, mariones, and sodomites that are objects of these studies are presented as the cause of the nation’s decadence, Jerónimo de Cáncer’s (†1655) Los putos places the cause of this decadence on a different factor, of which the crisis of masculinity would be a byproduct. I will argue that both the choice of characters -all of which have a rich ancestry in the Spanish literature of the period and the period immediately preceding it- and the way the plot develops place the blame on the Spaniards’ ease at cohabitation and dangerous proximity to unorthodox faiths and ethnicities. The toleration of a coexistence with the enemy of the Christian Empire and of everything for which the Empire stands is what causes the feminization and consequent weakness.

Published in the 1668 compilation of popular dramatic interludes La ociosidad entretenida, and probably written around 1550, Los putos was one of Cáncer’s twenty six entremeses (Huerta Calvo 228). Cáncer had been an acclaimed entremesista and it seems that in many cases his interludes were the reason why the audiences were drawn to the theater, Los putos being one of his most popular works(5). These types of dramatic pieces, the entremeses, were an integral part of the theater-going experience in baroque Spain. Inserted between the acts of the main dramatic performance, the genre of the entremés served as comic relief for the haughtier dramatic aspirations of the comedia.  Even when a comedia might be of the lighter kind, their approach to comedy would be for the most part by means of a more or less sophisticated kind of wit (6). In contrast, the entremés would commonly resort to crude humor and slapstick.

It is precisely in the context of this kind of laughter producing events when one can take the temperature to the popular state of mind of a culture. Finding what an audience is expected to find worth of laughter or of grief, reveals much about what that culture’s fears and anxieties are. In a society in constant crisis, like that of Spain in the seventeenth century, where the satisfaction of basic human needs is denied to many of its members, we see that these works become a relief valve. The entremés turns the strict societal hierarchy upside down in a carnivalesque fashion. Celebrating pleasure, they put on stage characters who prank others by breaking the societal norms in order to satisfy in many cases the appetite for nourishment or for sexual intercourse (Huerta Calvo 13-14).  

Los putos plays with the last issue: the source of laughter is the failed attempt by the main character at satisfying his sexual appetite. His dishonest dealings to achieve his goal result in him becoming the object of other male characters’ illicit appetite for sexual intercourse. In this sense, the study of this entremés can be even more revelatory of this culture’s particularities since, as Trumbach puts it: “sexual behavior (perhaps more than religion) is the most highly symbolic activity of any society. To penetrate the symbolic system implicit in any society’s sexual behavior is therefore to come closest to the heart of its uniqueness” (Trumbach 24). This little work in particular plays with the spectator’s sexual identity anxieties by means of the dramatization of a “homosexual panic” which, according to Hutcheson, starts in the Spanish early modern period as a “defensive reflex [of this society] against the realization of its own queerness” (Hutcheson “Sodomitic Moor” 101). This queerness, represented overtly as sexual in the play, is subtly related to ethnicity, so that “homosexual panic” is also “ethnic panic”. As it will be shown, the pressures of the fear to be thrown out the gender and ethnic closet will determine not only the premise of the plot, but also the complicated chaos which ensues and the precarious return to order as the piece comes to closure. Thus, Los putos by Jerónimo de Cáncer represents dramatically the masculine imperial anxiety of the Spain of the first half of the seventeenth century. Such an anxiety is in this case created by the imagination of the power that the subaltern (in terms of gender and ethnicity) can exert in an attempt to subvert patriarchal and imperial order at a time of great insecurities in the psyche of the Spanish “nation”.

The basic plot of this entremés is one that had also appeared, with variations, in another short dramatic piece of the period: Quiñones de Benavente’s La hechicera. In both plays the main character, a young man in love, or rather in heat, obtains a spell -from a sorcerer in La hechicera, and from a witch en Los putos (7). This written spell is meant to make the girl fall in love with the boy as soon as she reads the note. The problems start for the main character when the note intended for the girl is read successively by three men who, now under the spell, pursue him aggressively in order to get the sexual favors that their bewitched wills crave. What sets Cáncer’s work apart from Benavente’s is the careful selection of characters in Los putos, whose literary and cultural genealogies allow the audience to conjure up a series of rich associations in a very economical way. While Cáncer’s characters are chosen for their evocative richness, Benavente’s seem randomly selected.  Hence, the trigger of laughter in the La hechicera is just the action, while in Los putos, laughter is triggered by both the action and the types of people who are forced by the author to suffer the plot described above. The social and cultural critique becomes thus not only more nuanced in Cáncer’s case but also redirected.

The main action in Benavente’s piece is preceded by a long introduction in which the undesirable genealogy of the character Badulaque, who will end up fooled, is suggested.  The anti-Semitic tone which is meant to insult this character starts with him running away from a fire. Making allusions to the fires of inquisitorial autos de fe, Badulaque tries to escape the flames by voicing out loud his claim of blood purity:

            ¡Oh fuego de un judío!

¿A mí te atreves? ¿A don Badulaque,

De linaje sin mácula ni achaque,

Más rancio que tocino tras añejo,

Más que vino hipocrás, cristiano viejo? (258).

[Oh fires of a Jew!

 Do you dare come close to me? Don Badulaque,

of lineage without stain nor blame,

more rancid than old bacon,

more Old-Christian than Hippocras wine is old?]


In terms of dramatic construction, Los putos avoids Quiñones’ long preamble which, funny as it might have been for his audience, seems superfluous since it does not work towards supporting the central action. Cáncer goes directly to the point and continues with a neatly developed and cohesive three part structure which contains an introduction that sets the action in motion; a central complication of chaotic nature; and a solution at the end which somehow returns the characters and their community to their initial stable state. This last play lends itself to a much more organized and dynamic performance in contrast with the static quality, almost tableau like, of La hechicera (Quiñones de Benavente 257-269). Cancer’s, also unlike Quiñones de Benavente’s play, does not attach a subaltern status to the characters that become the unintended victims of the witch’s spell in his entremés. Rather, the character who is in control of, and is responsible for the action is the one who is marked by her belonging to a part of the population of suspicious cultural origins.

The play opens with Toribio lamenting his lack of success in conquering the love of Menga, whom he calls disdainful and cruel. His speech, far from that of the urban gentry that populates the comedia, is also a mock attempt at the refined language of the characters of the Renaissance pastoral poetry. His country folk efforts at emulating the classically inspired similes of Renaissance love poetry turn the disdainful Anaxarete of the Ovidian story -the one who was transformed into stone by Venus for her lack of emotion at the death of her suitor- into “Anaxarra,” a mountain in the vicinity of Madrid.  Similarly, the Virgilian Hyrcanian tiger becomes a “beast from Arcaña,” and Marte (Mars) becomes Martes, this is Tuesday. The unsuccessful attempt to mimic the sophisticated love language of the comedia marks Toribio as the uneducated country bumpkin that is usually the butt of the joke in the realms of this dramatic genre.  Although in the beginning this setting fulfills the expectation of the audience, we will see how the joke will transcend the expected bashing of the ignorant character and will offer a satirical reading of the author’s society as a whole. The protagonist’s string of malapropisms, in themselves acts of corruption of the classical literary knowledge, is a sign of his own society’s departure from the Roman inspired Hapsburg imperial values that guided the previous century--one much revered in the national imaginary. This will devolve into the state of degeneration of morals that the play will display in its central action.

This degeneration is first hinted at in Toribio’s complete lack of the sense of honor, a value which was central not only to the conventions that ruled the plots of the comedia genre, but also to the patriarchal organization of Renaissance Spain’s respectable society. He wonders aloud why Menga denies him the love for which he yearns, but also reveals that the object of his desire liberally offers it to others: she loves the sexton, the apothecary, the scribe and the sheriff (lines 6-9). Since a good deal of the concept of honor resides in the societal perception of the proper sexual conduct of the female members of a family, in pursuing this woman’s love, Toribio is openly placing himself outside the paradigm of propriety of this society. His romantic desire is aimed at a woman who not only rejects him, but one who also happily offers her affection to anyone who can offer something in return. This not so veiled allusion to prostitution will become clearer as the association is made between the girl and the character that appears next in the play: the witch.

Witchcraft, sorcery, matchmaking, and illicit ethnicities

As Toribio relates his unsuccessful attempts at love with Menga, the character of the witch enters the stage. She comes out at night to collect a hangman’s teeth: “por las muelas de un ahorcado / me traen aquí mis desvelos”(lines 20-21). [ My vigil brings me here for the teeth of a hangman.] Right away she declares the ancestry of her craft linking it to the rich celestinesca tradition: “con traje y presencia tal / como manda el ritual / de la madre Celestina” [Dressed in the clothes and looking the way mother Celestina’s ritual commands.] (lines 25-27). The mere reference to the famed character created by Fernando de Rojas in the turn from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries opens a whole array of associations. As it happens to Toribio himself, who comically screams in terror invoking the help of the Christian God: “¿Qué fantasma es esta cielos/válgame un credo cantado” [What kind of a ghost is this? A sung Creed (God) help me.] (vv.22-23), the audience should fear this threatening presence, as she embodies a double danger. As a follower of the mother figure, who is Celestina, on the one hand she displays the sexual power of the feminine and, on the other, her Semitic descent (8). Both aspects become entangled in a threatening representation in which inadequate race and gender are conflated to fuel the anxiety of being placed under the influence of the Other in such a way that the virile values of the imperial self are turned upside down. The play continues rehearsing this fear as the plot develops in such a way that the male dominated Christian society becomes subject to the control of the Semitic female.

Even though historically speaking witchcraft and sorcery had been practiced by members of the three cultures of medieval Spain -the Christian, the Jewish, and the Islamic- and the character of Celestina in Rojas’ work is not presented other than Christian (Russell 293), the imaginary of early modern Spain assigned the origin of these practices to the cultural Other within the society. Assigning witchcraft and sorcery to the Conversos (Christians of Jewish descent) may have been the effect of the pervasive presence of widely read treatises on magic by Spanish authors of Jewish culture, such as Clavicula Salomonis, or the thirteenth-century Liber de Raziel by the Saragossan Jew Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (Rusell 289). Assigning them to the Moriscos (converts of Islamic origin) could be more a product of a social reality. Menéndez y Pelayo (267-68) mentions several Inquisitorial cases against Moriscos in the sixteenth century, such as that of D. Felipe de Aragón in 1563; or the other in 1564 against a Morisco of Orihuela; and finally the case of Román Ramírez from Deza in 1600; cases that appear suspiciously close in time to the periods of great pressure against Morisco culture that gave way to the uprisings between 1568 and 1571, and the mass expulsions between 1609 and 1614.

These beliefs slipped into literature right around the same dates, in fact, the story of the last Morisco mentioned above found itself on the stage in Quien mal anda en mal acaba (ca. 1616), a play attributed to Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (1581?-1639). Earlier on, Lope de Rueda (¿1505?-1565), the alleged founder of Spanish national theater, had introduced a Grenadine Morisco called Muley Búcar as a sorcerer in his Comedia Armelina (published in 1567). And in the early seventeenth century, La pícara Justina (1605) offers us a Morisco model of Celestina that the main character encounters: “Una morisca vieja, hechicera, experta, bisabuela de Celestina” [An old Morisca, expert sorcerer, great grandmother of Celestina.](405). Of this celestina-like woman, Justina says “Siempre entendí della que era bruja”[ I always understood that she was a witch.] (407), and tells us what made her so by describing activities that we also see performed by the witch in the entremés:


Era pura dama de ahorcados. El día que los había era el día de sus placeres, y, con ser coja, todos aquellos tres días siguientes no cojeaba, antes con gran prisa salía todas aquellas tres noches de casa. Lo cierto era que no iba a rezar por ellos, sino que la primer noche traía los dientes que podía. (407)

[She was a lover of hang-men. The day there was one, that day she was most pleased. Even though she was normally lame, she would not limp the next three days.  She would even get out of her house in great hurry each of those three nights. The truth is that she didn’t go there to pray for them. Rather, the first night she would bring home as many of their teeth as she could.]



María de Zayas also makes the protagonist of her La inocencia castigada the victim of a Muslim necromancer. But above all, the great story teller of the period, Miguel de Cervantes, identifies the sorceress Cenotia in his Persiles as Morisca.  Morisca were also the sorceress who drove Tomás crazy in his Licenciado vidriera, and the famous Cañizares, who turned the boys into the dogs who converse in his El coloquio de los perros. Within the ideology of the Counter Reformation, it was easy to place witches and sorceress, because of their relationship with the Devil, on the side of the non-Christian element of the society (Díez and Aguirre 48). To this day, as Julio Caro Baroja pointed out:


Los “moros” sea como gentes inferiores, sea como personajes antiguos, dados a encantos, u objeto ellos mismos de encantos y más aún las “moras,” han quedado como entes proverbiales en el folklore de cantidad de partes de España, incluso en aquellas que experimentaron en menor grado los efectos de la invasión islámica. (63)

[The male Moors, whether because they are considered inferior, or because they are seen as  members of an ancient people given to enchantments—or they themselves being victims of such—even more so than the female Moors, have remained as  proverbial beings in the folklore of innumerable regions of Spain, even in those that suffered the Islamic invasion to a lesser degree.]


The layering of the character of the witch continues to gain in complexity as the interaction with the main character proceeds in a sequence of alternating movements with which she and Toribio come close in order to identify the person they have in front, and then withdraw in terror. Toribio fears the witch first and screams for her to go away “Apártese allá/mas, vive Dios, que esta es bruja” [Get off of me!/for sure this is a witch.] (lines. 30-31). After his initial panic, Toribio seems to recognize the woman and comes closer: “mas ¿no sois vos la doctora?” [But, aren’t you the Doctor’s wife?] (lines 32-33). She is thus revealed as the doctor’s wife making the sign of her dangerous ethnicity to keep growing in strength as another layer is added.

Even though the typical character of the doctor in the short plays of the Spanish Renaissance has much in common with the same type in the Italian commedia dell’arte (Huerta Calvo 31), it had acquired the stereotypical genealogy of the practitioner of medicine established by the popular lore. As Maire Bobes reminds us, even when the ascendancy of the doctor was not ostensibly declared in these dramatic interludes, the popular belief associated them to a Semitic lineage (1227). The tradition of medicine in the Islamic and Jewish culture of the Iberian middle ages was renowned (Glasser 54-55); a tradition that was heavily persecuted by the Inquisition in the following historical period (Gutiérrez Nieto 682). This led to the representation of doctors as ridiculous figures in many instances of Golden Age Spanish literature (Cull 321) where they were feared and disrespected as incompetent professionals who were suspicious of provoking disease, rather than curing it. Following the stereotype, they were accused of doing this as a means of feeding their greed for financial wealth (Cull 326). García Ballester, though, explains that since Moriscos were not allowed to enter the university (Medicine in a Multicultural Society 160), they might not have been referred to as doctors, but almost all the converso physicians who appeared in the Inquisition’s courts had undertaken university studies (Medicine in a Multicultural Society 158). In any case, García Ballester explains that male Morisco healers enjoyed in Spain some social prestige and were never called witch or sorcerer, names which were applied to northern European healers (Moriscos y medicina 70). The social reality is one in which the Morisco healer is at the same time sought after as a medical professional by the king himself to cure his children (9), and persecuted by a church that tries to undermine their close contact with his Old-Christian fellow Spaniards (García Ballester Moriscos y medicina 70), at the same time desired and feared. 

In the case of the woman in the play, though, the association is negative. If the scared one at the beginning was Toribio, the one who panics now is the woman as she finds herself recognized by her neighbor. She is the one who withdraws in fear of being associated with a profession and ethnicity that can put her in serious danger:  “El sufrimiento me apura./¿La Doctora yo? ¿Qué dices?”[ This suffering is killing me./ I? The Doctora? What nonsense is that?] (lines 36-37).  When she realizes that she cannot hide her identity as Toribio screams for her husband:  “¡Ah, señor Doctor,/señor Doctor, venga a ver/cómo es bruja su mujer!”[ Doctor, Doctor, come see that your wife is a witch!]

 (lines 40-42), she pleas for her honor : “No me quites el honor,/mi desatención pregona”[ Do not rob me of my honor! Do not call attention to me!] (lines 43-44) As it was mentioned before, honor rested on the perception of the rectitude in term of sexual mores of the female members of a family. However, it also depended on the social perception of the purity of a family’s lineage. Toribio could compromise the Doctora by outing her ethnic ancestry, which apart from destroying her honor, would also bring her all sort of problems not only with the Inquisition, but also with the state, since the Moriscos had been ordered to abandon the country earlier in the century (10).  The publication of her practicing of witchcraft or sorcery would compromise her honorable standing in society.

As for this outing having an effect on the woman’s sexual propriety, we have to have in mind that witchery and sex were deeply related in the imagination of the early modern period. The belief was that women became witches, especially in old age, so that her sexual appetites might still be satisfied by the devil.  In his Tratado de supersticiones y hechicerías (1529) (Treatise on Superstitions and Sorceries) Fray Martín de Castañega reproduces the common thought of his time:


Los unos y los otros que por pacto expreso están al demonio consagrados, se llama por vocablo familiar brujos. […] De estos ministros […] más mujeres hay que hombres. Y más son de las mujeres viejas y pobres que de las mozas y ricas porque, como después de viejas, los hombres no hacen caso de ellas, tienen recurso al demonio, que cumple sus apetitos. (cit. by Lara 523)

[Those who are consecrated to the Devil by means of a pact are commonly called witches. […] Among these ministers […] there are more women than men. And most are old and poor women rather that young and rich.  Since men do not pay attention to them as they grow old, they turn to the Devil, who satisfies their appetites.]



Then, in turn, the witches would market their knowledge to others in order to provide for their livelihood. Celestina, of whom la Doctora claims to be an heir, was called a witch and earned her living in the sexual trade. She worked as a procuress, restored virginities, cured female maladies, and above all offered her services as a matchmaker. This last activity was commonly associated both in the social as the literary tradition to sorcery since it was believed that these matchmakers did not have qualms in getting the love for her client by means of a love potion or spell, the philocaptio (Russell 289).

By offering Toribio what is expected from someone who proclaims herself an heir to Celestina, her matchmaking services in the form of a love spell in exchange for his discretion, the Doctora manages to change Toribio’s attitude from fear and righteousness to a playful interest. He calls her now “bruja mía,” [My witch] (line 52), promises to conceal all she wants (v 54), and rejoices in the contemplation of the possibility to make Menga desire him. Together with her reputation as a witch or sorceress, which was connected to her Muslim or Jewish origin, this other occupation of Celestina’s, the one for which her own name has become synonym in the Spanish culture, was also understood as inherently Semitic in the Spanish tradition. Matchmaking was used by the Inquisition as proof of judaizing tendencies (Márquez Villanueva 23). The association of this practice with the Jewish or Muslim origin of its practitioners was common in the literature of the Spanish Golden Age and even in earlier examples. Márquez Villanueva reminds us as well that the matchmaking skills for which Celestina was sought after were also attributed to the “judeos casamenteiros” in Gil Vicente’s Farsa de Inez Pereira (1523) (19-20). The tradition also existed in texts of Islamic Spain, as it appears in Ibn Hazm’s The dove’s neck-ring (ca. 1023) (28). The literary ancestor of Celestina, Trotaconventos, in Arcipreste de Hita’s Libro de buen amor (1343) is a character of clear Islamic pedigree (88-89). These medieval types were still alive in the Spanish imagination of the sixteenth century, as Morisco women were often accused of practicing this profession (173). As Celestina was a doctor for the love-sick (Márquez Villanueva 31), la Doctora  will initially offer her services to Toribio, who had opened the play crying: “ ¡Que me muero, señores, que me muero/de amores…!”[ I die, I die of love, gentlemen!] (lines 1-2). The medicine that Doctora offers Toribio is a written spell which, according to her, “tiene tan fuerte violencia,/que ha de morirse por ti/la persona que le lea” [It has such a strong violent power, that whoever reads it will die for you.] (lines 59-61). But this not only will not solve Toribio’s problem: Toribio’s dishonest dealings with the Other are going to be the source of disease for his community.

Subject to female power: the community queered under the spell

Toribio marches happily to town with the witch’s spell in order to get the girl of his dreams. His happiness, though, will be short lived. When he runs into Menga and hands her the note, she claims not being able to read it and turns it to the man who is next to her, one of her suitors. The spell then takes effect on this man and two other more who read the spell. They eagerly pursue a horrified Toribio demanding the satisfaction of their lust for him. The men that Cáncer chooses to be under the witch’s spell are not randomly selected. The male characters who find themselves infatuated by Toribio are stock characters of the comedic literary tradition of early modern Spain, however, at the same time, they perform specific functions in their society. Their roles are closely related to the style of rule of religious as well as civil law and order imposed by the Renaissance empire.

The first man to read the note is the town’s sexton, also one of Menga’s suitors. This character, a secular member of the Church, appears abundantly in these types of plays.  Because of the pressure from the Inquisition, and also from the state that champions the ideas of the Counter-Reformation, the sexton takes the place of the priest or the monk of medieval satires as the embodiment of the vices of the members of the Church. It shares some of the personality features of his medieval ancestor, such as his expression in unsophisticated Latin, the obsession for food, and the romantic pursuit of local girls. The next men to be affected by the spell had also been named by Toribio in his introduction  as those who easily got Menga’s attention: the scribe and the sheriff. Both scribe and sheriff were commonly target of satire as people who used their state sanctioned power in their own benefit at the expense of the rest of the members of society (Menchacatorre 70) (11).

The three men that are affected by the spell are representatives of the governmental and religious order of imperial Spain. Sexton, scribe, and sheriff are the embodiment of Church, law and order. They are members of the male dominated bureaucracy created by early modern universities to serve the administration of the nascent nation states; an educational system that according to El Saffar pushed ever more the realm of the feminine to the margins of society (180). It is this group, as a metonymy of imperial Spain, what finds itself turned upside down. The agency of the witch -with all she represents- is responsible for the ultimate undermining of Renaissance masculine order transforming Spain into a nation of sodomites, in chaos, and at the verge of collapse.

The title of the play, Los Putos, is clear about the transformation that operates in the men affected by the spell. These are not lindos, or effeminate men. These men still perform their gender as masculine and show some of the traits that are expected from such performance, including the aggressive chasing of the object of their desire. However, their sexuality is altered. If in other plays we see the representation of a masculinity in crisis in the figure of lindos and mariones, the figure here is that of the puto, the man who engages in same sex practices. The Spanish early modern lexicographer Sebastián de Covarrubias makes the distinction clear in his dictionary. Marión, or maricón, is “el hombre afeminado que se inclina a hazer cosas de mugger” (fol. 103r). Puto, on the other hand is too extreme a concept to find itself defined in print. Covarrubias defines it in Latin: “notae significationis, et nefandae” (fol. 152r) [of notorious and abominable meaning]. These characters have been turned into what they most fear, the ultimate threat to the social order. In early modern Spain the adjudication of the label of sodomy had been used in the colonial enterprise against Jews, Moors, and Indians. And as Horswell has explained, it became:


A performative term, a speech act that invoked an increasingly heightened notion of the abject and simultaneously condemned the referent to a marginal and subservient state of being. In the act of pronouncing the word in reference to another person or class of persons, the speaker performatively positioned that objectified person or class in subaltern status. (Horswell 32 )


The contact with the female Other, either Jewish or Muslim, in this case has rendered the Spanish imperial administrator a sodomite, a marginal and subservient subject. In the words of the code of law of the Catholic Monarchs put forth in 1497, the act of sodomy is one that “offends God our Lord and gives a bad name to our land…unspeakable crime…by which nobility is lost and hearts become cowardly” (qtd. By Horswell 60).  The loss of nobility and the becoming cowardly is a result of the allowance for the loss of control to take place because of an excessive indulgence of the dominant caste in the pursuit of their desire. That control has been allowed to fall in the hands of the enemy.  The errors of this society- this is the ease of cohabitation with the Semitic Other -has placed the Spanish men under a category of sexuality that evokes chaos and destruction as MacFarlane explains:


Conceptualized as the embodiment of a disorder at once sexual, cultural, political and religious, the sodomite represented an anarchic force that threatened to undermine the nation and against which the nation might define itself … the formation of the sodomite as a social type was to a considerable degree the product of a displacement of social crisis, anxiety and disruption -a process that figures typically in the construction of the ‘unnatural’ and ‘perverse.’ (MacFarlane 78-79)


The association of Islam and sodomy was a relatively new phenomenon in the Iberian Peninsula. The Arab in the medieval Iberian culture had never been depicted as sodomite, as it was the case the rest of Europe. Hutcheson argues that the close contact with and knowledge of the Islamic culture that happened in Spain during almost eight hundred years prevented medieval Christian Spain from constructing the Moor as sodomitic: 


Sexual binarisms -perhaps better rendered as sodomy versus purity, that is, absolute license of the body versus absolute self control- were not spontaneously conflated with notions of racial/cultural difference…Such binarisms may work for …a Europe from whom the Saracen, the unknown and unknowable Other, serves readily as the archetype of perversion, but they lose their sharp edges in Iberia. (106)  

According also to Hutcheson, the emergence of the image of the sodomitic Moor will appear strongly as Spain comes to terms with the “recognition of its variance from the “normative” histories and identities of Western Europe” (101). This is: the recognition of the hybrid ancestry of Spanish culture. The new representation will strengthen under the reign of the Hapsburg dynasty. With the imperial enterprises of the sixteenth century, Castile and Spain have been constructing their identity on a model based on narratives of conquest and domination. Enrobed in aristocratic images of chivalric deeds, the Castilian ideal self image in the Renaissance is one of militant chivalric Christianity constructed over a scaffold of virtuous values of masculine power. Castilian superiority is explained as the natural outcome for a people who lead by virtuous leaders have managed to recover the homeland from the infidel who took it away, and who have also been engaged in successful imperial endeavors. The self portrayal of this society as a virile society was often achieved by means of the feminization of the foreign adversaries in this imperial quest. The fact that for a long time in the sixteenth century the ruler of the international antagonist, England, was a woman supported this view. The Ottomans, for example, that we see in Don Quixote’s cuento del cautivo, and in the Ricote and Ana Felix episode in part II, are somehow accused of practicing sodomy. But there was also a progressively growing practice of feminization of those internal Others who did not fit the national mold fostered by the state and the hegemonic group of Cristianos Viejos. As George Mariscal has pointed out, All heterogeneous groups with origins perceived to be outside the peninsula, especially Muslim and Jews, were necessarily represented as both non-male, and non-Spanish” (Mariscal 58). And so we see the orientalized portrayals of the Moor of the maurofilia tradition subtly described as displaying and effeminate sophistication which in Abencerraje, for example, was represented by his submission to the control of the woman he loves. But we also find not so subtle descriptions, like the one of the Moriscos provided by father Aznar Cardona (1612) in his apology of the expulsion. This is, “a sort of ‘homosexual panic,’ Spain’s defensive reflex against the realization of its own queerness” (Hutcheson 101) when comparing its hybrid history to the Northern European norm.   

The imperial triumphs, numerous and spectacular in the first three quarters of the sixteenth century, came to a halt during the last decades of Philip II’s rule. The continued bankruptcies and the disaster of the great Armada to invade England in 1588, the impoverishment of most of the Spanish society drowned financially by inflation, managed to erode the Spanish confidence on this virile construction of its self-image. If the imperial victories of the earlier years allowed for the application of a feminized image to the Other, the perception of current inadequacies creates the fear of seeing all those feminine constructions of the other applied to the Self. The disasters in the imperial enterprises during the reigns of Phillip II’s successors kept deepening the sense of loss of prestige, of damaged reputation, of loss of the honor based on masculine values, all of which became a great source of anxiety. The production of the text of Los putos happens in a moment for the Castilian national psyche when the construction of its own self image as a virile society is being dismantled, and a fear of becoming the opposite, this is an effeminate society, exists.

Sidney Donnell has asked the question in psychoanalytical terms about the effect on the community of the ruler’s perceived weakness: “What happens to a nation when a certain lack appears in the formative function of the very figure who attempts to fill the role of the father?’ (49) Which he answers with regards to Spain: “Signs of decline in the empire and an erratic behavior of Church and State led to a spiritual crisis in Spain’s collective relation to the father (king and god). The result was a crisis of masculinity in the ruling classes -characterized by cultural anxiety, homosexual panic and eventually hysteria” (121).  As it is the case in Cáncer’s play, as I would like to argue, the pointing finger which results from this panic an hysteria is directed at the potentially contaminating presence of the Other inside. It had happened already, according to Hutcheson, that it was “less the Moorish subject who bears the name of sodomite in fifteenth-century Spain than it is the Christian subject associated in vital and dangerous ways with Moorish presence in Iberia.” (111) The Spaniard panics at the thought of having to recognize the connection of his culture and race with the undeniable presence of the Semitic. 

In the case of the entremés by Cáncer, the danger posed by the contact with the ethnic other is also conflated with the fear to a turning of the tables in which the male supremacy becomes overturned by a regained female agency represented in the figure of the Semitic witch, the “madre Celestina.” The witch has the power to undo all the constructions of masculinity created in the previous century. She can bring the patriarchal order of the Renaissance empire back to what Severin has seen in the witch tradition of Celestina: the return to an “alternative anti-paternalistic society of empowered women and weak men,” (8) a society created by the witch, which “is at the same time seductive and destructive” (8). The witch that Toribio finds becomes a puppet master in this society, and in her hands, which are the hands of the Other (female and Semitic), we see placed the symbolic agency. The witch character, as presented in the entremés, conjures up all this fears. The blame of the crisis of masculinity which is bringing down the imperial system has found its target in the toleration of the participation of marginal ethnicities in mainstream society. Quevedo’s criticisms of the conversos’ ability to climb in ranks that the writer thought should be only a privilege of the old Christian caste have been well studied. The virulent attack against the Moriscos by the above mentioned Aznar Cardona made them responsible for many of the maladies of a nation that was losing the grip on its destiny. In the entremés, the position of control that belonged to the father is appropriated by the mother Celestina. The spell she has created transforms the images of the nation’s father (god and king) in openly declared sodomites that pursue Toribio shamelessly and lustfully.

Another woman saves the day

As the characters affected by the witch’s influence turn their attention from the potentially productive, and reproductive, pursuit of the female, to the nonproductive, and thus sinful attempt at the unspeakable act with Toribio, the displaced Menga takes charge in the protection of order. Menga will become the only voice that will claim for the restoration of the order upset by the witch’s actions. Menga, originally a passive character that receives the attention of the village men, is forced to action in order to uphold a crumbling patriarchal system. She represents an acceptable model of femininity, despite the allusions to her sexual promiscuity. She cannot read, she is uncultivated, what allows her to remain safe from the evil actions of the witch. She will not fall under the spell. When all the men are under the power of the creature of the night, the witch, Menga as Venus, the morning star, will herald the return of the Sun, and with it the restoration of male order. It is Menga who twice screams for the help of justice “¿No hay quien llame a la Justicia?” [Isn’t there anyone who calls for justice?] (lines 99 and 115)

Like the virile Laurencia of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, she calls for order. She invokes the help of male figures, but these become successively sodomitic. Her screems “Que se enamoran dos hombres!” [Two men are loving each other!] (101) and then “Que tres hombres se requiebran” [Three men are courting each other!] (118) reproduce the action and attitudes that Allatson has seen when Laurecia enters the town council and insults the villagers who haven’t been able to defend her calling them “maricones” (sissies) and “amujerados” (womanly) (1779-1780):


…the conventionalities of phallocentric rhetoric, driven by an overt misogyny and homophobia, are utilized by Laurencia to goad the men into action. Her insults signify not only the extent to which ascribed and expected gender behaviors have been disrupted by the Comendador’s actions, but the limits in anxiety that such actions have elicited. (267)


Like Laurencia in Fuenteovejuna, she finally summons the whole village to help end this sodomitic rule, this disordered state: “Aquí de la vecindad” [Neighbors, help me!] (138). At this time the witch comes out again and tears the note breaking thus the enchantment. Interestingly, Menga, who was the object of the protagonist’s love, is also the source of the first feminization: the first weakness which lead to requesting the spell from the witch. The argument is that the witch does not completely create the sodomization of this town, but rather, she seizes the opportunity of Toribio’s weakness (his irrational passion for Menga) to fool the village’s men.

As they come back from the influence of the spell and are confronted with the realization of their acts, they react violently against Toribio. At the linguistic level they describe his appearance with insulting names “notable bestia,” “salvaje,” “extraña fiereza.” [Extraordinary beast… savage… strange fierceness.] (lines145-47). In order to clarify their allegiances, restore their masculine image, and exorcise their panic, all three characters affected first will invoke the Christian God  then move to beat Toribio to a pulp, which the town prevents them from doing. They have called for Divine protection, but it was the pressures of the institutions that represent this God in Earth which originated the problem in the first place since La Doctora gave Toribio what he wanted so her practices would not be reported to the town and the Inquisition.

When the play comes to an end, the community’s world reverts to its original state. The witch is not punished, she is rather understood as a member of the community, she is the doctor’s wife. Menga calls her “amiga,” which may signal Menga’s belonging to this Celetina-like character’s circle of procuresses and love dealers. She is just some neighbor who is allowed to do this entertaining mischief. The consequences of this permissiveness are made evident in the story, though. This piece displays the fact that the threat posed by the tolerance of the marginal element’s agency (or the active presence of the Other) at a moment in which the decadence of the empire is consciously feared, exists in this society because it allows it; because this society looks the other way. The witch character is the richest one in terms of condensation of meaning as she is the agent of the actions in the play, and the character who embodies the fear to the female and the fear to the Other as controller of a society’s destiny.


(1). Some recent monographs include the works by Sidney Donnell, and José Cartagena Calderón. Also, a volume of essays on the topic of masculinity in early modern Italy and Spain compiled by Gerry Milligan and Jane Tylus was recently published.


(2). See the works by Matthew Stroud.


(3). See Peter E. Thompson, Sherry Velasco and Michael Horswell.


(4). See Pablo Restrepo-Gautier’s article.


(5). Cotarelo y Mori mentions not only the popularity of this author, but also of this particular play, which, according to him, was often staged and reworked well into the first half of the XVIII century.


(6). The type of humor that some gracioso types use in the comedias sometimes resemble that of the entremeses.


(7). It is not clear that at the popular level there was a difference between witchcraft (brujería) and sorcery (hechicería) in the Spanish seventeenth century.   Scholars who have treated the characters of Celestina and Cervantes’ Cañizares have debated if each can be considered one or the other.  The distinction is made in early modern manuals, as Maravall (141) explains, which define witchcraft as a demonic cult, while sorcery consists of the manipulation of elements of nature that have an occult power that is unavailable to the uninitiated.  The character in Los putos is called a witch (bruja), but her products are spells, or “hechizos.”  The other entremés , by Quiñones de Benavente, that shares with Cancer’s many traits of the plot, is titled La hechicera (The Sorceress). Because of all this I conclude that for the purpose of the analysis of Cáncer’s play the distinction is not relevant.


(8). I use the word Semitic to refer both to Jewish and Islamic ancestries.


(9). García Ballester mentions that Philip II hired  a Morisco doctor from Valencia called Pinerete to cure his son Carlos (Moriscos y medicina 68-69), and later another Morisco doctor, Jerónimo Pachet, to cure the future Philip III (Moriscos y medicina 110).


(10). Vicente García explains how Cañizares, the witch in Cervantes’  Dialogue of the Dogs, panics and reacts violently when she is identified as sorcerer because in the popular lore such practices were associated with the Moriscos (“La Cañizares”  2)


(11). Francisco de Quevedo in particular attacked often the corruption of the sheriffs in his satires representing them as the ultimate evil. In one of his satires, The Bedeviled Sheriff, a demon complains to be possessed by a sheriff, calling himself a “Besheriffed demon” and hopes to be exorcised.      

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Vicente García, Luis Miguel. "La Cañizares en el Coloquio de los perros: ¿Bruja o hechicera?" Mester. 18.1 (Spring 1989): 1-7.