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La Celestina in its cultural and historical context

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  1. Introduction
  2. La Celestina
  3. Fernando de Rojas
  4. Classics of Spanish literature
  5. The humanists
  6. Conclusion

La Celestina, written by Fernando de Rojas in 1499, is often considered one of the greatest works of Spanish literature, and with good reason. It set a precedent for future writings, both in Spain and abroad--even inspiring Shakespeare's masterpiece Romeo and Juliet. The play came on the heels of a ground-breaking Spanish grammar guide by Antonio of Nebrija which established for the first time a standard for the language. And it stands, despite the rigours of the Spanish Inquisition, as a representation of its unique time.

The context into which La Celestina was born was the brink between two worlds, two times. This was the last gasp of the Middle Ages. The traditions of feudalism and courtly love still held sway, but not for long. Spain as an entity was only in its conception, forged together out of the medieval kingdoms of Aragon and Castile by the marriage of their scions, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Catholic Monarchs, as they were known, consolidated their rule with a decisive victory over Granada, the last stronghold of the once-mighty Muslim empire of Al-Andalus in the Iberian peninsula. But territory was not the only factor in their conquest. First the Jews were required to convert to Christianity or face exile with the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, and the Muslims soon followed, despite promises to the contrary, in 1502 (Kamen 22). The infamous Spanish Inquisition was legitimized by papal bull in 1478 to make certain that converts to Christianity were sincere (Murphy 69).

[...] Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Print. Roth, Cecil. The Spanish Inquisition. New York: W. W. Norton Print. [...]

[...] Whenever a major culture shift occurs in human history, human ethics scramble to catch up. This was no different in the context of 1499 Spain, nor in the example of La Celestina. On the one hand, those like Melibea struggle to hold on to an outmoded system--one that makes less and less sense in a changing world. On the other, people like Celestina and Sempronio throw away the old ways with both hands, preferring to seize as much of life as possible at the expense of prudence. [...]

[...] Melibea's value system is as confused as the historical context. She clings tightly to the repressed morality of her Medieval parents, while she is drawn inwardly to the freedom of the Renaissance, and like many stifled children, ultimately rebels with devastating consequences. Because her ethics are external and not internalized, she has no moral framework with which to navigate the dangerous new waters Celestina has opened to her. As Celestina correctly guesses, Melibea's haughty objections to Calisto are merely a front. [...]

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