Philip II in Literature

Philip II of Spain was a great scholar of the arts, encouraging painters and architects to reside at his court.[1] There were also a number of poets and playwrights who frequented the court of Philip, including Francisco Aldana and Fernando Herrera as poets, and Miguel Cervantes as a playwright. In addition, in the years after the reign of Philip, Lope de Vega wrote a great number of plays at the court of Philip II’s son, Philip III. Many of these plays, particularly Punishment Without Revenge, dealt with issues from Philip II’s life. Through this Golden Age literature, an image of the lavish court life of Philip II can be gained.

In the first lines of his Sonnet XXX, Francisco Aldana introduces the ideas that were prevalent in the court of Philip II. He writes:

All that one can see is, face to face,
Intrepid squadrons bent on making war,
bloody fluids staining the green earth,
and everyone pursuing honor’s game.[2]

In this poem, the importance of honor and fighting for that honor is clear. One of these outlets was hunting, which was incredibly popular in Philip’s court, though it was a sport only for the nobility because it could be very expensive.[3] Additionally, mock jousts and duels were popular during the period as a means of maintaining male honor. Poetry about these fights, such as this excerpt from Aldana, demonstrates how lifelike the fighting would have been; there was clearly an element of danger involved which made the fights all the more honorable.

This issue of honor in Philip’s court, as well as its contribution to the lavishness of court life can also be seen in Lope de Vega’s play Punishment Without Revenge, written in 1631. In the play, the Duke’s young wife Casandra is unfaithful to him with his own son while he is travelling and fighting in a number of Holy Wars. When he returns from these wars, he is informed of the infidelity; by his own honor code, the Duke punishes both his wife and son with death.

The situation in the play does mirror that of Philip II and his first son, Don Carlos, who was seen as quite insane. When Philip married Isabella of Valois, Don Carlos fell in love with her as well, and pursued her though she was his step-mother.[4] Philip eventually had Don Carlos imprisoned for that and other crimes, especially plotting against him to take over power in the Spanish Netherlands. In the play, the Duke says, as Federico, his son, stabs Casandra without knowing who she is:

He drives the sword right through. The man

Who by his actions stained my honor thus

Restores it.[5]

Of such strong honor related actions in literature, Barbara Mujica writes that honor heroes are created “not as role models, but as examples of socialized man’s tragic predicament. Rather than in triumph, these characters’ stories end in defeat.”[6] This is true of the characters in Vega’s play, as well as in Philip’s court. Like the Duke, after the death of Don Carlos, Philip was left without an heir, though he did eventually remarry again to Anna of Austria and have several sons.

The notion of honor in the court of Philip II was a very important one. It led to the lavish lifestyle which he and many of the nobility of the period led. Through literature, this can be seen quite clearly.

For a discussion of Philip II’s lavish court at El Escorial and his reasoning behind the construction of the palace, see this page.


[1] John Lynch, Spain 1516-1598: From Nation State to World Empire (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 257.

[2] Francisco Aldana and Alix Ingber, trans., “Soneto XXX,” Golden Age Sonnets, http://sonnets.spanish.sbc.edu/ (accessed October 8, 2010).

[3] Peter Pierson, Philip II of Spain (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), 38.

[4] Lynch, 265.

[5] Lope de Vega and Gwynne Edwards, trans., Punishment Without Revenge in Three Major Plays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 264.

[6] Barbara Mujica, “Golden Age/ Early Modern Theatre: Comedia Studies at the End of the Century,” Hispania 82, no. 3 (Sept. 1999), 398.

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