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El pintor de su deshonra (c.1645), Pedro Calderón de la Barca

English title: The Painter of Dishonour
Date written: c. 1645
Keywords: morality > honour, morality > justice-revenge, ideology > honour, love > relationships, art, violence > revenge, violence > murder, love, love > desire
Genre and type: tragedy

The third of Calderón’s three wife-murder plays, in which an artist is asked to paint a portrait of a beautiful woman, only to find that she is his long-lost wife who had been kidnapped by her former lover. Thinking she has surrendered to her captor, the painter kills them both in a jealous passion, never to know that his wife had been faithful to him all along.


Don Juan Roca, a middle-aged painter/artist, has married the young and beautiful Serafina, and they are passing through the Kingdom of Naples on their way to Spain. They stay overnight with Don Luis, whose son was previously Serafina’s lover, but he has been missing for a long time, presumed drowned. Yet while Serafina and her husband are in his father’s house, the son, Alvaro, appears – alive – with his friend, the Prince Ursino. Serafina and Alvaro are devastated at meeting each other again, Alvaro because he believes Serafina has betrayed him in marrying someone else, and Serafina for presuming him dead, therefore marrying another as his widow (in her mind, although others don’t know of their love). Despite the rekindling of this old love, Serafina is faithful to Juan Roca and she sails with him to Spain, where she manages to build a life of contentment with her older husband.  But Alvaro does not forget her, and comes to Spain against his father’s wishes to find Serafina. He dances with her at a masked Carnival, revealing his intentions to whisk her away. Serafina is offended and remains loyal to Juan Roca; but when she leaves with him for dinner at their friends’ house, a fire breaks out there and Juan carries her out, leaving her in a sailor’s care while he saves the other members of his party. The sailor is Alvaro in disguise, and he takes advantage of Serafina’s unconsciousness to kidnap her. Finding her missing, Juan throws himself into the sea in despair, vowing to find her. Serafina is taken to Naples, where Alvaro keeps her locked up in his father’s hunting lodge. This location is also used by the Prince of Ursino to meet his lover, and finding Serafina there, he is so impressed by her beauty that he commissions a travelling artist to paint her portrait, but he asks the painter to make the portrait without her knowledge. The painter is Juan Roca, who is travelling in search of his lost love, and when he realises that his subject is his beloved wife, he is overcome with grief when Alvaro embraces her. Up until this point Serafina has consistently refused Alvaro’s advances, but this time she has awoken from a horrible nightmare, and she embraces him in return. Seeing his wife in the arms of another man, Juan Roca shoots them both. He is not punished because the murders clear his name and restore his honour.

Critical response

Translator David Johnston writes of this play’s ‘[p]atterns of etiquette, patterns of lies’ (1995: 8). He writes that in Calderón’s play, his purpose is ‘the indictment of a society which seeks to codify its deep humanity into unlivable ground rules, the portrayal of a nation sliding into the shadows of history and underpinning its own imminent collapse by an insistence on the rigid observance of good form, of social grace become social cement’ (1995: 8).  He continues, ‘the play is centrally concerned with the tension between the elements of artificiality and authenticity in human behaviour’ (1995: 9). Thacker has noted how painting and art, an interest of Calderón’s, is used in the play, and indeed the use of painting and visual art in the play would be crucial to any modern staging. Thacker also notes how the playwright mixes the genres of farce with tragedy: ‘For Calderón the generic admixture is not just a reflection of human life, which is neither wholly tragic nor wholly comic [...], it is an acceptance that life is unpredictable and unrepresentable, and perhaps a step towards the realization that it takes a certain kind of attitude from an individual to cope with unpredictability—a resilience, a philosophy for life which can leave that individual prepared’ (2007: 102).

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1995. The Painter of Dishonour, trans. David Johnston and Laurence Boswell. Bath, Absolute

  • Thacker, Jonathan. 2007. ‘Calderón and the Comedia’s Second Generation’. In A Companion to Golden Age Theatre, pp. 92-122. Woodbridge, Tamesis

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1969. El pintor de su deshonra, ed. Manuel Ruiz Lagos. Madrid, Alcalá

  • Paterson, A. K. G. ed. and trans. 1991. The Painter of Dishonour / El pintor de su deshonra (dual-language book in English and Spanish). Warminster, Aris & Phillips (in English)

Useful readings and websites
  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1995. The Painter of Dishonour, trans. David Johnston and Laurence Boswell. Bath, Absolute

  • Dunn, P. 1960. ‘Honour and the Christian Background in Calderón’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 37, 90-105

  • Edwards, Gwynne. 1978. The Prison and the Labyrinth: Studies in Calderonian Tragedy. Cardiff, University of Wales Press

  • Fischer, Susan L. 2000. ‘Historicizing Painter of Dishonour on the “Foreign” Stage: A Radical Interrogation of Tragedy’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 77, 1, 183-216

  • Fischer, Susan L. 2009. ‘Calderón and the Contingency of Radical Tragedy: The Painter of Dishonour (El pintor de su deshonra)’. In Reading Performance: Spanish Golden Age Theatre and Shakespeare on the Modern Stage, pp. 179-202. Woodbridge, Tamesis

  • McKendrick, Melveena. 1984. ‘Honour/Vengeance in the Spanish comedia: A Case of Mimetic Tranference?’, Modern Language Review, 79, 313-35

  • McKendrick, Melveena. 1993. ‘Calderón and the Politics of Honour’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 70, 135-46

  • Paterson, A. K. G. 1969. ‘The Comic and the Tragic Melancholy of Juan Roca: A Study of Calderón's El pintor de su deshonra’ , Forum for Modern Language Studies, 5, 244-61

  • Paterson, A. K. G. ed. and trans. 1991. Introduction to The Painter of Dishonour / El pintor de su deshonra. Warminster, Aris & Phillips

  • Thacker, Jonathan. 2007. ‘Calderón and the Comedia’s Second Generation’. In A Companion to Golden Age Theatre, pp. 92-122. Woodbridge, Tamesis

  • Watson, A. I. 1963. ‘El pintor de su deshonra and the Neo-Aristotelian Theory of Tragedy’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 40, 17-34

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Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 4 October 2010.

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