Auto de los Reyes Magos

Auto de los Reyes Magos
   The Auto de los Reyes Magos (Play of the three wise kings) constitutes the one and only example of a 12th-century liturgical play in Castilian—the romance “dialect” that is now modern Spanish.
   While there was a significant tradition of liturgical drama in Latin, the emergence of such a tradition in the vernacular is noteworthy because Castilian was not adopted as the official language of the administration until the reign of Alfonso the Learned (1252–84). Since its modern publication in 1863 by Amador de los Ríos, however, the play has remained at the center of a critical controversy over the very existence of a vernacular liturgical tradition west of Catalonia. Early critics asserted the existence of such a tradition and claimed that the lack of examples is predicated on the destruction of so many Castilian manuscripts during the many wars that engulfed medieval Castile. Subsequently, opinion has begun to change and since the 1950s, critics have come to acknowledge that the lack of a manuscript record may attest to the fact that medieval Castile did not possess a tradition of religious drama.
   Comprising only 147 poetic lines of varying syllabic length, the Auto de los Reyes Magos that we know today may be only a fragment of what was originally a much longer work. Some critics have nevertheless suggested that the surviving version of the play may indeed be complete. Structurally, the play is divided into five scenes that focus on the soliloquies by Gaspar, Baltasar and Melchor, their journey on the road to Bethlehem, their visit with King Herod, a soliloquy by Herod, and the rabbinical response in Herod’s court.
   Aside from being composed in vernacular romance, the play is remarkable for the realism of its characters and several dramatic innovations. The responses of King Herod and the three kings forge the central conflict between belief in Christ’s birth and non-belief. For his part,Herod is skeptical and cannot believe in the existence of a king more powerful than himself. The reactions of the three kings reveal a preoccupation with verisimilitude— or believability.While each of them ultimately accepts the validity of the sign, their responses vary and model a variety of plausible human responses.
   While Gaspar is the most skeptical of the three, Baltasar immediately accepts the star as a sign of the Messiah’s birth. Melchor initially doubts the veracity of the star but ultimately accepts it. The play is also unique in that the gifts that the kings bring to Bethlehem do not function simply as signs but as tests of whether the baby is an earthly king, a mortal man or, indeed, the Messiah.Another noteworthy innovation is the final scene in which the rabbinical authorities disagree on how to respond to Herod’s appeal for guidance and ultimately denounce themselves for not speaking the truth. These innovations reveal the degree to which early vernacular drama was free to experiment in ways not possible in the liturgical Latin tradition. Certainly another area of experimentation centers on the use of the vernacular dialect Castilian and multiple metric forms. In attempting to examine possible sources of the Auto de los Reyes Magos, critics have dedicated considerable effort to the cultural identity of the author.Was he a Gascon, a Catalan, a Mozarab—a Christian living in Muslim Spain—or someone else? To answer this question, one must examine word choices, the presence of (im)perfect rhyme, and the manner in which short Latin vowels become diphthongs—two vowels forming a single syllabic unit.
   ■ Donovan, Richard B. The Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1958.
   ■ Hardison,O. B. Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages: Essays in the Origin and Early History of Modern Drama. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.
   ■ Regueiro, José. “El Auto de los reyes magos y el teatro litúrgico medieval,” Hispanic Review 45 (1977): 149–164.
   ■ Shergold, N. D. A History of the Spanish Stage from Medieval Times until the End of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
   ■ Sturdevant, Winifred. TheMisterio de los Reyes Magos”: Its Position in the Development of the Mediaeval Legend of the Three Kings. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literaturas and Languages, 1927.
   ■ Wardropper, Bruce W. “The Dramatic Texture of the Auto de los Reyes Magos,”MLN 70 (1955): 46–50.
   John Parrack

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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