Out of the Wings

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La vida en el ataúd (?), Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla

English title: Life in the Coffin
First publication date: 1669
Keywords: morality > honour, morality > crime, morality > punishment, morality > judgement, morality > justice-revenge, morality > vice-virtue, violence > murder, violence > revenge, ideology > religion and faith, love > lust
Genre and type: comedia de santos

Two powerful women battle for the love of a man, twice over; when their first love, Arnesto, is killed by Christians, they fall again for the same man, this time a servant, Boniface. The women come together in their grief over Arnesto and begin a friendship in their mutual grief; but the love of Boniface tears that friendship apart. The martyrdom of their lover-servant, Boniface (who becomes St Boniface in the Christian tradition) provides a spectacular ending for this passionate and epic-scale drama.


A sexually charged saint’s play with plenty of directness, violence and force. Two Roman women, Milene and Aglaes, battle for the love of a man, Arnesto. Upon hearing that the Christians have killed him, they ignore the advances of potential suitors and vow revenge. Boniface, a servant in Aglaes’s house and a closet Christian, encounters the Christians on the road and offers to hide them, in the name of Christian fellowship. Meanwhile, the Child Jesus appears to Aglaes, throwing her to the ground from her horse. Boniface’s cohort, ‘Candor’, has informed on the hidden Christians, and Milene demands that he give them up so she can punish them for their God’s supposed murder of Aglaes, who is still unconscious.

Alone, Aglaes regains consciousness and stands up, and Boniface embraces her. Thinking he is her Arnesto, she returns his love, then is horrified to realise it is merely her servant, and she discharges him. Milene and her women bring news that she and Aglaes are to be married to Romans in order to prevent civil strife, and that Boniface is to be punished for protecting the Christians. Quickly, at the end of the act, Aglaes orders Boniface to return to her service, and to go directly to her rooms, as she’ll protect him (and, it is implied, begin a love affair with him).

In Act 2, Aglaes is dressing, preparing for her marriage to Dileno (unenthusiastically) when Boniface comes in with a note from Milene, asking her permission to take him with her to France. Aglaes concludes jealously that Milene must be in love with him, and lets Boniface go, but declares war once again on Milene. Onorato, Aglaes’s uncle, hears of Milene’s plan to run off with a servant, and vows to cut off Boniface’s head and put Milene in a convent. Dileno and Otuardo, the suitors of Milene and Aglaes, vow revenge when the women both refuse to marry, claiming devotion to Arnesto.

Once the men have gone, Milene and Aglaes vow to fight each other again. Meanwhile, Nasario and Orosio bear their cross, on their way to Tarsus, which they intend to take for the Christians. An Angel appears to them, saying that they are to be martyrs, and that someone named ‘Boniface’ will be the greatest Christian martyr of them all. Back at the house, Aglaes and Boniface enjoy a love scene, drinking out of the same cup and exchanging lyrical verses, playing with the metaphoric imagery of fire. Milene sends a letter inviting Boniface to come and marry her in France; but he crumples up the letter, saying he’d rather be Aglaes’s servant than Milene’s husband. Aglaes gives Candor a note; it is an invitation for a midnight soiree, which Boniface has to help Candor attend because he’s afraid of the dark. Once there, Boniface impersonates Candor in the dark, and Aglaes asks him to give Boniface a key, allowing him to visit her room at night.

In Act 3 Boniface and Aglaes are in bed together. Aglaes has a dream that Boniface is to lose his head for Christianity and that she will be saved by his death. She wakes, terrified, and screams, causing the household to burst in and see her in bed with Boniface. Her uncle Onorato vows to kill him for this dishonour. Alone, Onorato tells Boniface to draw his sword and fight, but he refuses, admitting his guilt and asking Onorato to kill him. Onorato refuses, and decides to take him to Rome instead. Milene follows them there, still in love with Boniface; she receives a letter from him promising marriage if she comes for him. On the way, in Tarsus, Boniface finds the Christians he previously set free, and they prepare to renounce their faith in order to save their lives. Boniface convinces them to accept martyrdom with him instead, and he is killed. Onorato, now a converted Christian, seeing that the Romans have cut off Boniface’s head, vows he’ll have Boniface honoured as a famous martyr.

Aglaes and Milene arrive, each claiming Boniface for herself, and they prepare to fight, when a servant says there is a boat burning on the shore which must be from the gods as it is not being consumed by the flames.  Down at the shore, Onorato honours Boniface with the fabulous burial memorial, and Boniface appears, holding his severed head in his hands. He is accompanied by the Child Jesus. The child takes Boniface’s head to adorn it with jewels, and Algaes and Milene ask for baptism and vow to spend the rest of their days in penitence.


This play is based on the story of the martyrdom of Saint Boniface (Boniface in the play). The editor MacCurdy believes the play follows most closely the account published by Padre Pedro de Ribadeneira in Flos Sanctorum, or the Libro de las vidas de los santos (Madrid, 1616). An extract of this source (from Vol. 1, folios 366-9) detailing the martyrdom is reproduced n MacCurdy’s edition, pp. xli-xlv. (González Cañal also says Rivadeneyra’s Flos Sanctorum is the source, 2003: 1173.)

  • González Cañal, Rafael. 2003. ‘Rojas Zorrilla’. In In Historia del teatro español, ed. Javier Huerta Calvo, pp. 1149-79. Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

  • Rojas Zorrilla, Francisco de. 1669. La vida en el ataúd. In Comedias nuevas, nunca impresas, escogidas de los mejores ingenios de España, Parte 32. Madrid

  • Rojas Zorrilla, Francisco de. 1976. Morir pensando matar; La vida en el ataúd, ed. Raymond R. MacCurdy , 2nd edn. Madrid, Espasa-Calpe

Useful readings and websites
  • González Cañal, Rafael. 2003. ‘Rojas Zorrilla’. In In Historia del teatro español, ed. Javier Huerta Calvo, pp. 1149-79. Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

    For La vida en el ataúd specifically, see pp. 1173-4

  • MacCurdy, Raymond R. 1958. Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla and the Tragedy. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press

  • MacCurdy, Raymond R. 1979. ‘Women and Sexual Love in the Plays of Rojas Zorrilla: Tradition and Innovation’, Hispania, 62, 255-65

  • Shergold, Norman D. and John E. Varey. 1964. ‘A Problem in the Staging of autos sacramentales in Madrid, 1647-1648’, Hispanic Review, 32, 12-35

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

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