A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “The Legend of Don Juan,” 29 October 1999, Part 3

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Don Juan Tenorio as staged in Teruel, Spain, in 2011


A Guidepost Reprint
29 October 1999


Cont. from Part 2

The Legend of Don Juan: From Real Life to Myth and Back Again,
Part 3

By John Dawkins

Will the real Don Juan come out?

Attempts have been made to link Don Juan to a real character, and the most likely candidate is the count of Villamedina, whose real name was actually Don Juan Tassis. Both real and fictional Juans were good horsemen, swordsmen and poets, and their escapades included numerous seductions. But here a curious element enters the story, as there have been claims over the years that Villamedina was actually a homosexual, and that his murder in 1622 outside the church of San Ginés in calle Arenal was in revenge for his seduction of a high noble’s son. Thus one of the psychological explanations of the “Don Juan syndrome” – repressed homosexuality had hatred of women – finds an echo in a possible real-life original Don Juan.

Whatever the truth of this, court life in the seventeenth century was full of “Don Juan”, and there were numerous scandals at the time involving amorous intrigues. Tirso de Molina, who was actually a monk called Gabriel Téllez, was also the confessor to many ladies high standing, and no doubt heard enough stories of going on in society to give employment to a hundred Don Juans. So here were have yet another twist to the tale: What at first sight appear to be the typical manifestations of male desire become the result of female experiences and fantasies. Two hundred and fifty years after the playwright confessor, the Viennese psychoanalyst Ziegmund Freud was to turn into fantasies the confessions of his Viennese clients when they spoke of their sexual experiences in childhood. Whereas Téllez penned El Burlador, Freud invented the Oedipus complex and wrote The Interpretation of Dreams.

The literary legend of Don Juan has no strong unifying metaphysical force, unless Don Juan is taken as a symbol of anarchistic liberty; a sacrilegious, defiant blasphemer and libertine, who in the original versions keeps his daring  right to end and refuses to repent even when faced with the stone guest at his table. His fate is sealed, and he ends up in hell. “Such is the end of Mozart’s opera (a finale which has at times been cut, on the grounds of weakening the scene of the descent into Hell). Zorilla, however, makes him repent his misdeeds through the love of Doña Inés.

Versions and popularity

Whatever the literary origins of the legend of Don Juan may be, he certainly caught the imagination of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Italians took a pantomime version to france in 1657, and there, after attempts by Dorimund and De Villiers, it rooted in a successful version by Molíère. It reached England in1669 and found favour in Thomas Shadwell’s version. Byron then gave it a runaway success in a huge, playful and virtuosic performance which domesticated it by mingling it with the autobiographical. At the beginning of the twentieth century George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman in 1905 reversed the roles in keeping with modern developments and made the women chase the Don Juan hero, John.

In Spain, a hundred years after the Tirso de Molina version, Antonio de Zamora recast the same, but did not quite improve on it. Then came Espronceda’s Estudiante de Salamanca, which gave Don Juan a new name. Zorilla’s Don Juan Tenorio resuscitated the legend in such a winning way that it has eclipsed all efforts in Spanish before and since; though in all, there have been no fewer than 30 plays on the theme in Spanish alone.


Featured image/Turol Jones via Flickr, CC BY2.0

About Guidepost
The GUIDEPOST was founded on 28 February 1958. It has been published continuously since then, first as a printed magazine. It is now completely online, in keeping with the times. For which fact the GUIDEPOST is Spain’s oldest existing publication in the English language, The Dean of English-language Publications in Spain.