In Focus: The Dutch Humanist and the Strong Female Character

The blog series ‘In Focus‘ is conceived as a way to show the scope and diversity of the RELICS research group. Each month one of us will reflect on a current or recently finished project, and how it connects to the aims and vision of RELICS. Through this, by drawing from our own personal experience, we want to show in which ways Latin cosmopolitanism came to the fore from antiquity until modern times.

by Dinah Wouters (Huygens ING, KNAW, Amsterdam)

Theatre was one of the most beloved activities of the early modern period. Every major or minor event could occasion the staging of a play: feast days, a marriage in an important family, the end of a war, or the successful termination of a school year. This means that a lot of people were participating in plays. Schoolboys, for instance, practiced their Latin in a school play as a common feature of their education, thanks to the humanist reform of school life in the sixteenth century.

It also means that many people were writing plays. The most popular plays would be re-used and performed many times, but people also liked to write new plays for special occasions. Nowadays, we only remember a few major playwrights, such as Vondel, Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, or ‘the father of Polish literature’ Mikołaj Rej, but we tend to forget the hundreds and thousands of early modern plays that were not written by the authors that have ended up in our literary canon.

In my research project, which is part of the TransLatin project at the Huygens Institute in Amsterdam, I make a cross-section of the whole of European drama and not just the major authors. For instance, what Vondel, Lope de Vega, Calderón and Rej have in common is that they all wrote a drama on the subject of the biblical patriarch Joseph. I mention Joseph plays because they are my case study for this project. These authors were not the only ones writing Joseph plays, however. From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, more than a hundred dramas have survived to this day that dramatize the subject, and we have data and mentions of about 500 performances of Joseph plays during this period.

Impressions (blue) and performances (red) of Joseph plays in Europe through the thirteenth to seventeenth century, rendered with Nodegoat.

If you take this point of view, then instead of a few great authors or plays, you see “an immense collective work,” as one critic has termed it, “a vast tapestry that is constantly being enriched by different artisans.” Everyone who dramatizes the story of Joseph works with the same biblical story but also has in mind previous dramatizations, and every playwright adds their own scenes, changes the structure, or combines elements from previous versions.

In this collective work, drama written in Latin plays an important structural role. Almost a third of the extant Joseph plays are in Latin. Furthermore, in this corpus, Latin is the language which is most often translated and to which other languages get translated most often. The Latin in which a drama is written marks it both as local and as transregional or transnational. Local, because most of these Latin dramas are written for a performance in a particular school or city. Transregional, because schools and other institutions everywhere needed theatre texts, and the Latin in which it was written allowed a play to easily travel from place to place.

In our project, we put a spotlight on the Neo-Latin authors from the Low Countries. Many Neo-Latin dramas from the Netherlands were not only innovative but also became hugely popular and influential throughout Europe. Take, for instance, the example of the ‘Everyman’ play Hecastus, by the Utrecht rector Georgius Macropedius. Originally published in Antwerp in 1539, it was translated into German, Danish, and Swedish, performed throughout Europe, among others at the first Jesuit colleges, and adapted into other languages many times.

The case of dramas about the patriarch Joseph and his adventures in Egypt also illustrates the importance of Latin drama from the Netherlands. Joseph plays are an instance of sacred drama: plays about biblical subjects, martyrs, or saints. In the case of Joseph, all the plays go back to the Genesis narrative, chapter 37 to 50. Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob and his wife Rachel, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. After many years as a slave and as a prisoner, after being accused of rape by his mistress, a complete reversal of fortune takes place and Joseph is promoted to viceroy of Egypt. As such, he is reunited with his brothers and father. The story seems ideal for the theatre, with its ‘from rags to riches’ storyline, clear moral, passion, intrigue, and disguises. However, you do need a good dramatist to bring the long and complex story, with its many up and downs and change of scenery, to the stage in a way that is effective and satisfying. The Latin playwrights from the Netherlands were such innovators who shaped the dramatic genre, which is clear from their treatment of the Joseph story.

Take, for instance, Cornelius Crocus, whose Joseph play was first performed in Amsterdam in 1534. Crocus, although a respected humanist and theologian, was a one-hit-playwright: his Josephus is the only play he ever published, yet it became a huge success. In the first 15 years after its publication alone, it was reprinted 18 times, in cities as Antwerp, Paris, Strasbourg, Basel, and Cologne. One reason for its success is that Crocus introduced a major structural innovation: he lifted the episode with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife out of the bigger narrative and takes the time to develop the themes of passion, chastity, and the false accusation in five acts. This is more daring than you would think at first. Although Crocus’ play ends with Joseph leaving prison as a symbol of his moral victory, it begins with three scenes where Joseph does not even figure, but where the focus is on the wife of Potiphar, Sephirach, and her feelings of desire and shame. At the time, and for some time to come, it was unique that a play would give so much attention to a female character and her psychology. Even more so because the female character in question is not a virtuous and chaste woman, such as Esther or Susanna (other popular biblical stories that were often dramatized), but a woman who is driven by sinful desire and who tries to seduce a biblical hero.

Anonymous, Jozefs kuisheid door de vrouw van Potifar belaagd (Genesis 39:12) (Joseph’s chastity threatened by the wife of Potiphar), ca. 1630, Netherlands Institute for Art History

Crocus’ play became an example for future plays in this respect: attention for the psychology of Sephirah remained a feature of dramatizations of the Joseph story and was probably one of the key factors in its lasting popularity. However, although the play set an example, not only for its characterisation of Sephirah but also for its classical style and rhetorical elegance, its structural innovation proved too daring and was practically never followed. Later authors reverted to telling the story in full instead of excerpting one episode.  

Two attempts were made to reduce the character to her functional role or even to remove her altogether. The first is by a group of Lutherans connected to Wittenberg and the first generation of reformers. A streak of misogyny is not alien to their treatment of the character. The second successful attempt is by the Jesuits, who in 1599 issue a prohibition on female roles in their school theatre. After this date, the character effectively disappears from the Jesuit scene.

Despite these adversities, Crocus’ Sephirach lived on, for instance in Dutch literature. In the year 1620, the Dutch statesperson and author Jacob Cats publishes Self-Stryt (translated into English as Self-Conflict in 1680). This text compresses the tradition of Joseph plays into one long dialogue between Joseph and ‘Sephyra’, a compression that gives both characters’ allegorical proportions: their dialogue distils the story to the inner conflict between sexual desire and chastity. From the unknown author Jan Tonnis, we still have two tragicomedies about Joseph, published in Groningen in 1639. In the first of these plays, the character still carries the name ‘Syphora’, and the fourth act is devoted to exactly the portion of the story that formed the object of Crocus’ comedy.

One year after his unknown fellow playwright, the much more famous Joost van den Vondel also finishes a trilogy of Joseph plays: in thematic order, Joseph in Dothan (1640), Joseph in Egypten (1640) and Joseph in ‘t hof (1635). Joseph in Egypten is exclusively devoted to Joseph and Sephirach (whom he calls Jempsar). Vondel chooses to write a tragedy in the tradition of Euripides and Seneca, with Potiphar’s wife in the role of the mythical Phaedra. The tragic grandeur of Vondel’s Jempsar is a long way off from Crocus’ character, which rather looks to the comic courtesans of Plautus and Terence. However, it is no exaggeration to say that Vondel owes a lot to Crocus and other humanist playwrights for creating a psychologically complex female character who is neither a saint nor a martyr, and for placing her at the centre of the stage.

In sum, this cross-section of European drama shows how Latin school theatre had a European-wide and long-lasting impact beyond its local performance context. In line with the goals of RELICS, my project draws attention to the specificity of Latin drama, as school drama, between the poles of local and transnational literature, by showing how Latin drama infiltrates and interacts with European drama on a larger scale than the local didactic context.

Further reading

Joseph plays:
  • Wimmer, Ruprecht. Jesuitentheater: Didaktik und Fest: das Exemplum des ägyptischen Joseph auf den deutschen Bühnen der Gesellschaft Jesu. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1982.
  • Lebeau, Jean. Salvator mundi: l’ “exemple” de Joseph dans le théâtre allemand au XVIe siècle. Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1977.
Neo-Latin Drama:
  • Parente, James. Religious Drama and the Humanist Tradition: Christian theater in Germany and in the Netherlands, 1500-1680. Leiden: Brill, 1987.
  • Neo-Latin Drama: Forms, Functions, Receptions. Ed. Jan Bloemendal and Philip Ford. Hildesheim: Olms, 2008.
  • Neo-Latin Drama and Theatre in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Jan Bloemendal and Howard B. Norland. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
  • Le théâtre néo-latin en France au XVIe siècle. Études et anthologie. Ed. Mathieu Ferrand and Sylvie Laigneau-Fontaine. Genève: Droz, 2021.
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