Resistance to rape in Persiles y Sigismunda and The Custom of the Country
T.L. Darby

In chapters XII and XIII of Book One of Persiles y Sigismunda, Cervantes relates an incident of attempted rape of a new bride. Transila, one of the story’s heroines, is to be forced to have intercourse with her new husband’s male relatives as part of the marriage rites practised in the primitive, far-northern society in which they live. It is the custom of the country, "the worst of all those that are wickedly observed".1 As the first of the predatory brothers approaches her chamber door, Transila bursts forth carrying a spear, "faire as the Sun, but furious like a Lionesse". She passes through the crowd to the shore where she escapes alone, in a boat which she rows out to sea, leaving husband and father behind.

Along with other material from Persiles y Sigismunda, this incident was presented on the Jacobean stage by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger in their play The Custom of the Country, first acted by the King’s Men sometime between 1619, when the source was published, and Fletcher’s death in 1625.2 Cervantes’s scene is so striking and dramatic that one might have expected it to have been ripe for staging, but Fletcher and Massinger make some significant modifications. Their heroine, called Zenocia, is threatened by the local aristocrat, a certain Count Clodio who claims droit de seigneur. She challenges him armed with bow and arrow and backed by her husband and his brother; she escapes in their company. Count Clodio’s reactions range from amused titillation to rage. This transformation typifies the shift in emphasis from Cervantes’s "christian romance"3 to Fletcher and Massinger’s "trashy"4 play. I will be seeking to suggest to what extent that shift originates in the constraints of stagecraft and to what extent in broader issues.

Persiles y Sigismunda is the story of a pilgrimage, made by two royal lovers in disguise from their "barbaric" northern kingdoms to Rome, where all problems are resolved and they are fully received into the Catholic church. During their travels they suffer many misadventures and collect a variety of companions, including Transila and, eventually, her husband and father. The first two of the four books are set roughly in the area of Scandinavia and the North Sea and are full of myth and the marvellous : witches fly on magic cloaks, werewolves are a travellers’ hazard, horses leap from cliffs without injury; knights die for love, pirates duel on the ice, lovers live as hermits and the king of Orkney’s palace is consumed in flames by the power of love. The third and fourth books, which take the pilgrims by land from Lisbon to Rome, are more firmly located in recent history and are more willing to provide a rational explanation for the unexpected and the unlikely; thus when a woman is thrown from a tower and lands unharmed, it is because the skirts of her farthingale have billowed out and saved her. Among the tales recounted in Book III is that of a Polish traveller to Lisbon who accidentally kills a stranger in a street brawl. He flees into a nearby house to escape pursuit and is promised shelter by the lady who lives there; but immediately after him come his pursuers, with the body of his victim, the son of his protectress. She honours her promise of hospitality and shields him, but charges him never to let her know who he is. He leaves and does not see her again.

The Custom of the Country takes two of its major plot strands from Persiles y Sigismunda: the flight from marriage-ceremony rape and the noble lady of Lisbon; and it adds further complications. Zenocia is the Transila-figure; as we have noted, she escapes with her husband and his brother Rutilio, who is all in favour of the "custom of the country" as long as it does not involve his sister-in-law. Before they can reach safety in Lisbon, they are captured by Leopold, a pirate, and Zenocia is given as a gift to Hippolita, whom Leopold is unsuccessfully courting. Arnoldo and Rutilio swim ashore, where Arnoldo is lured into the house of Hippolita, who is besotted with him. Rutilio follows the street-brawl/noble hostess action of Persiles y Sigismunda’s Polish traveller, with the exception that the son (Duarte) recovers and Rutilio eventually marries the mother (Guiomar). Meanwhile, Hippolita in her attempts to seduce Arnoldo first falsely accuses him of theft, then when she discovers she has a rival suborns a witch to kill Zenocia, desisting only when she realised that Arnoldo will die of grief (this, too, is lifted from Persiles y Sigismunda). The plots are concluded by the arrival in Lisbon of count Clodio, who has now reformed and devotes his life to chastity.

That Fletcher and Massinger should turn to Cervantes for plot-material is unremarkable. The Custom of the Country was written at the time of James I’s negotiations for a Spanish match for Prince Charles and there was a vogue for plays with Spanish sources or at least Spanish settings. Cervantes’s Novelas Ejemplares were a particularly fruitful source of ideas, providing the inspiration for four plays from the Fletcher canon (The Chances, Love’s Pilgrimage, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife and The Fair Maid of the Inn) and Middleton and Rowley’s The Spanish Gipsy. Fletcher also drew on the work of Céspedes y Meneses, translated into English by Leonard Digges as Gerardo the Unfortuante Spaniard, for The Spanish Curate and Middleton and Rowley took from it the sub-plot of The Changeling. The Novelas in particular lent themselves to dramatisation, having strong story-lines, a limited number of characters and a compact form which was easily manageable. Significantly, Don Quixote was used only for one of its inset narratives, "el curioso impertinente", a source of Fletcher’s early play The Coxcomb, and the Cardenio story, probably the source of the lost Fletcher and Shakespeare collaboration.

Dramatising Persiles y Sigismunda was a much more ambitious task than adapting the Novelas, requiring a tight control of incident and character and a focus on a limited number of issues. Cervantes, writing at epic-length, has a cast if not of thousands, at least of several dozen. The author of prose fiction is limited only by the scope of imagination; characters can come and go as the story requires. The first character to be named in Persiles y Sigismunda for example, in the first line of the first chapter, is Coriscurbo, a barbarian. It is his only appearance; if he has a significance, it is thematic, signalling the work’s overarching structure of a journey from barbarity to christianity. Fletcher and Massinger cannot allow themselves this luxury; as Martin Wiggins has pointed out in writing of the stage assassin, usually a walk-on part, "everythin on stage has its own substantive existence".5 If Corsicurbo had walked onto the stage of the Globe, the audience would have been wondering who he was and how he fitted into the plot, distracting attention from the play’s central action. More importantly from the acting company’s point of view, he would have needed an actor to play him. Writing for the King’s Men, Fletcher and Massinger could have expected to have at their disposal a cast of about twenty for speaking roles, including boys for the women’s parts, and they are accordingly economical in their creation of characters; by careful use of narrative material, The Custom of the Country reduces Cervantes’s cast to ten major roles. Of these, the Governor of Lisbon is their own fabrication; he is Guiomar’s brother and count Clodio’s host, and is the link between the Arnoldo main-plot and the Rutilio sub-plot. Zenocia and Arnoldo, as we have seen, are the equivalents in function of Zenocia and her husband, but they also have the characteristic preoccupation with chastity and nobility of Persiles and Sigismunda themselves, who are otherwise extraneous to the play and do not appear. Count Clodio provides the initial sexual threat which sets the action moving. Cervantes has a Prince Arnoldo of Denmark who wooes Sigismunda and pursues her across the North Sea and Europe; his function is split between the wooer Leopold and the menacing Clodio. The role of Rutilio (but not the name) is an invention - brothers in Persiles y Sigismunda are generally malevolent and to be fled from - but has the plot-functions of the Polish traveller; his obsession with promiscuous sexual intercourse may be inherited from the courtesan Rosamund, who figures in books I and II of Persiles y Sigismunda. The other major roles in The Custom of the Country (Leopold, Hippolita, Duarte, Guiomar and Sulpitia) have simple counterparts in Cervantes’s fiction, although not necessarily by name.

The naming of parts is a significant feature of Fletcher and Massinger’s adaptation. Anne Barton identifies two practices in the naming of characters in Renaissance English drama: cratylic, in which the name is related to the holder, and arbitrary ascription.6 Of Fletcher and Massinger she remarks that they "can be observed veering sharply in the direction of cratylic naming whenever they chose London, as opposed to some more remote, exotic place ... as a comedy locale".7 The Custom of the Country renames the major roles taken from Persiles y Sigismunda. Absent-mindedness on the parts of the playwrights is unlikely, since the dialogue between Guiomar and Rutilio in Act 2 is very close to the source, sufficiently so to suggest that they had it to hand. Cervantes’s Clodio is a back-biter who has been exiled from the English court and bears no functional resemblance to the character in the play; as we have seen, Transila’s husband is not Arnoldo, who is a different character entirely; and his Rutilio is an Italian dancing-master flown to the far north by witchcraft. The choice of Zenocia as the name of the play’s heroine is unexpected: it was the stock-name of Andalusian witches, as Fletcher and Massinger would have known since there is a witch called Zenocia in Persiles y Sigismunda, at the court of the king of Orkney, who alludes to the fact. I would suggest that the name was chosen for its exotic sound: the setting of The Custom of the Country is firmly southern-European and ‘Transila’ has the wrong ring to it. Cervantes set his novel in the north because, seen from the Iberian peninsula, it had a strange, dangerous aura; the north was the land of Amadís de Gaula, where anything could happen. Writing from the northern edge of Europe, Jacobean playwrights chose southern locations for the same reasons. In the present case, this left a mismatch of names and this explains why Transila/Zenocia’s husband is transmuted into Arnoldo. ‘Clodio’ and ‘Rutilio’, however, can hardly have been chosen at random. ‘Clodio’ inescapably suggests ‘clod’ and must have been thought to have comic undertones, while ‘Rutilio’ brings to mind ‘rutting’: a suitably cratylic name for the character who begins the play boasting of his conquests and envying Clodio his right to maidenheads, and spends the middle scenes in a male brothel. Following Anne Barton’s suggestion, this implies that, despite the exotic locale, the play was closer to contemporary society than might have been expected, generically looking towards the satiric rather than the tragicomic which Duarte’s miraculous recovery would otherwise have suggested.

The very fact that Fletcher and Massinger chose to depart from their source and preserve Duarte alive exemplifies their desire to move to a comic resolution. But once they had decided they were in comic rather than tragic mode, in practice they had no option but to resurrect the character. A death would have been inappropriate but manageable; Shakespeare had achieved the feat in The Winter’s Tale, which has two deaths. It would, however, have stretched the plot-lines beyond the bounds of credibility. The play requires Rutilio to choose matrimony in preference to his previous irresponsible life and the only available partner for him is Guiomar, Duarte’s mother. Confined within the narrow scope of the sub-plot, Rutilio has not the space in which to woo the mother of a man he has murdered, as might have been the case in a prose fiction; therefore Duarte must be kept alive as a cog in the wheel that brings about the happy ending.

The Custom of the Country is unabashedly a play about sex. Rutilio’s wounding of Duarte is serendipity, but every other important incident in the play is driven by sexual energy. We can catalogue the relationships within the plot as follows: (1) Arnoldo marries Zenocia; (2) Clodio desires Zenocia; (3) Leopold desires Hippolita; (4) Hippolita desires Arnoldo; (5) Hippolita is jealous of Zenocia; (6) Rutilio is desired by the women of Lisbon; (7) Rutilio desires Guiomar. The pattern is broken when Clodio steps out of the dance and opts for chastity and the plot resolution brings about the pairings of Leopold with Hippolita and Rutilio with Guiomar. There is nothing psychologically convincing about these marriages, or about Clodio’s reformation; they are merely what are needed to end the play with dramaturgically-appropriate unions. It is noticeable that it in the sub-plots it is the men who are permitted gratification: Hippolita’s pursuit of Arnoldo is continually frustrated and she is married instead to a man whom she has been resisting for some time; Guiomar is married to Rutilio because he wants to settle down with one partner. It is only Rutilio who actually lives out his sexual fantasy of a different woman every night; his reward is the satisfaction of his new fantasy, monogamy.

This brings us back to Transila and Zenocia and their respective escapes. Looking at Persiles y Sigismunda from the context of Jacobean theatre, the most remarkable thing about Transila’s flight is that she achieves it alone, without male help; she is allowed to identify with masculine action. Cervantes’s description of her emergence from her chamber is redolent of images both sacred and profane. Certainly the virgin warrior Athena is there and the Amazon queen Penthesilea; the continual stress on virginity ("for what richer dowrie can a maid bring to her husband, then her virginity?") suggests the female saints; comparison with the sun implies deity, properly the Virgin Mary. The phallic symbolism of the spear is evident. Zenocia, however, is portrayed "with Bow and Quiver, an Arrow bent, Arnoldo and Rutilio after her, arm’d".8 The bow is a hunting weapon, by the 1620s no longer a weapon of war; it is the men who are "armed", presumably with swords or firearms. Clodio is unable to take the tableau seriously:

Top of page

Clod What Masque is this?
What pretty fancy to provoke me high?
The beauteous Huntress, fairer far, and sweeter,
Diana shows an Ethiop to this beauty
Protected by two virgin knights.
I can no longer hold, she pulls my heart from me.


Zenocia’s role is presented as less as assertive than Transila’s; unlike Transila she cannot act on her own but has to have the support and protection of two men; and whereas the reaction to Transila’s appearance is something akin to awe, Zenocia is seen as actress in a titillating masque. Clodio cannot perceive Zenocia as an independent personality, but only as the object of his desires, a function of his sexual pleasure. The masque which he alone is seeing is one based on romance material, of the Sir Percival kind where virginity lives unsullied in the woods; hence his inappropriate reference to two "virgin knights" which Rutilio challenges: "That’s a lye / A loud one". Clodio’s expectations of what to expect from Zenocia - virginity - are so strong that he is unable to interpret correctly the evidence of his eyes. It is inconceivable to him that Zenocia should confront him.

There is no reason in terms of plot for Zenocia, Arnoldo and Rutilio to flee together; if anything, the dramatists thus create complications for themselves. Zenocia and her protectors need to arrive in Lisbon separately, so that the two strands of the plot can be developed: Arnoldo could not be lured to Hippolita’s house with Zenocia in his company. The solution adopted means that dialogue has to be provided in the scene between Zenocia and Leopold to explain how Arnoldo and Rutilio have jumped overboard and swum for the shore after being captured by the pirates; from the purely mechanistic point of view, it would have been simpler for Arnoldo and Rutilio to have followed in search of Zenocia. I would suggest that the three escape together because Fletcher and Massinger were simply not happy with the idea of a heroine effecting her own rescue; that an assertive heroine would simply not carry credence.

Underlying this is the Jacobean fear of the masculine woman, well attested in the pamphlet controversy which included the publication of Hic Mulier, or, The Man-Woman in 1620.9 Possibly published at the instigation of the king and bishops, this anonymous work took women to task for their fashions, which were thought to have become unbecomingly unfeminine. Women were cutting their hair short, wearing hats instead of caps and French doublets which both hid their shapes but were open at the neck. The anxiety evidently went deeper than a concern with dress, however; fashion was just the outward display of a more serious problem:

For since the daies of Adam women were neuer so Masculine; Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother, to the yongest daughter; Masculine in Number, from one to multitudes; Masculine in Case [dress], euen from the head to the foot; Masculine in moode, from bold speech to imprudent action; and Masculine in Sense: for (without redresse) they were, are, and will be still most Masculine, most mankinde, and most monstrous.10

By the terms of this author, Cervantes’s Transila is "monstrous" in usurping a masculine role, that of defiance. Masculine action in a woman was "unnaturall", offensive to God and "Barbarous, in that it is exorbitant from Nature, and an Antithesis to kinde" (B1) . Specifically of interest in this context, women are criticised because "[they] will bee man-like ... in euery condition: ... man in nature by aptnesse to anger, man in action by pursuing reuenge, man in wearing weapons man in vsing weapons." (B2)

Transila, then, can be allowed into Cervantes’s fictional world carrying a spear and looking after herself; but Zenocia cannot be allowed anything more offensive than a hunting weapon, and the playwrights seek to make clear that her safety is only assured when she acts in consort with her male protectors. It would be naive to assume that the views of the author of Hic Mulier were unanimously those of the theatre-going public, but the evidence suggests that the King’s Men’s playwrights on this occasion thought it prudent to conform to them.

By the 1620s and particularly in the plays of Middleton, as Ania Loomba demonstrates, women characters in tragedies were allowed to usurp some actions usually taken by men, such as the instigation of murder. Those who do so, however, end by "becoming their own enemies".11 The results are fatal to themselves and other women: thus, Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling encompasses the death of Diaphanta in bringing about her own downfall by commissioning De Flores to murder. What is more, women as killers are usually incompetent. This can be illustrated from the sub-plot of William Rowley’s first ‘Spanish’ play, All’s Lost by Lust (1619). A girl from a poor family has been wooed and married by a courtier, who immediately afterwards is called to the wars, regrets his marriage and marries, bigamously, a more suitable match. When his first wife finds out she sets a trap with the intention of strangling him; however, she and her maid throttle the wrong man. The husband is fatally wounded on the battlefield, to die in the arms of both wives, who then take their own lives. It is important that the second wife is a female warrior; the play implicitly punishes both women, to whom it is otherwise sympathetic: the first for seeking revenge and the second for taking a place on a male field of action.

One female character in the Jacobean drama is allowed a masculine role: Moll Frith, heroine of Middleton and Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl and a portrait of the real-life Moll Cutpurse. Moll, however, is a figure outside of the social order. A breeches-wearing 12, tobacco-smoking outlaw, she has been the benevolent spirit watching over a pair of lovers thwarted by paternal opposition, and has offered to marry the young man so that his chosen bride will seem a blessed relief to his father in comparison. For Moll to change her role and settle down as a respectable married woman would be more subversive and dangerous than for her to retain her male status, for at least while she does so she demonstrates that the woman who acts like a man is ultimately spurned and incapable of assimilation. It is in the light of this fear of women who step out of the female role that we should see the changes Fletcher and Massinger make to Cervantes’s heroine; she is emasculated because only in this way can she be given room on the Jacobean stage.

Top of page

layout text
1. layout text The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern History, (1619) Book I, chapter XII (E5v). Quotations are from this anonymous English translation.
2. layout text Cyrus Hoy attributes the writing of the main plot (Arnoldo and Zenocia) to Fletcher and the sub-plot (Rutilio) to Massinger. Fletcher may have read Spanish; see P.E. Russell, ....................................... The play’s dialogue is on occasion almost word for word that of the English translation, which is undoubtedly its source; cf esp. Custom 2.4 and Persiles III.VI (R7v).
3. layout text The phrase is Alban K. Forcione’s: Cervantes’ Christian Romance: a study of Persiles y Sigismunda (Princeton Univeristy Press, 1972).
4. layout text Martin Wiggins, Journeymen in Murder: The Assassin in English Renaissance Drama (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. ?
5. layout text Op. cit., pp. 31-32.
6. layout text Anne Barton, The Names of Comedy (Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 3-15.
7. layout text Ibid, p. 73.
8. layout text [REFERENCE]
9. layout text See Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman, [REFERENCE] for a summary of the controversy; also Akiko Kusunoki, ‘A Study of The Devil’s Law-Case: with Special Reference to the Controversy over Women’, Shakespeare Studies XXI (1985), esp. pp. 8-9, 28-30.
10. layout text Hic Mulier: or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Times, 1619, A3.
11. layout text Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester University Press, 1989), p. 99.
12. layout text The issue of the sexuality and eroticism of girls pretending to be boys in Jacobean drama lies outside the scope of this argument; see, e.g., Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Harvester Press, 1983), chapter 1; Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (Routledge, 1992), chapter 5.
layout text layout text
layout text
layout text layout text