In Review: The Force of Habit

cover image

The Force of Habit. La fuerza de la costumbre by Guillén de Castro
Translated by Kathleen Jeffs, Edited by Melissa R Machit, Liverpool University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Gregary J. Racz

Volume 7, Issue 4 (Fall 2019)

As far as this reviewer can ascertain, Kathleen Jeff’s translation of La fuerza de la costumbre (publ. 1625) is, somewhat incredibly, the first published English-language version of this play by the largely neglected Spanish Golden Age dramatist Guillén de Castro. (A recent translation by UCLA’s Working Group on the Comedia in Translation and Performance may be found online, while a second print translation of the play, by Barbara Fuchs, is scheduled to appear soon from the Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs series.) The project represents Jeffs’s ongoing engagement with this author, a version of whose best-known work, Las mocedades del Cid (usually translated as The Youthful Deeds of the Cid), exists in an unpublished script from her hand, following a scholastic bilingual edition from Robert R. La Du, Luis Soto-Ruiz, and Giles A. Daeger (1969)—the only other complete rendering of the play—and excerpts from it by J. D. M. Ford (1919), George Ticknor (1849), and Lord Holland (1806). The relative antiquity of these dates is astounding and underscores the valuable service Jeffs has rendered the world theatre community in rescuing this overlooked figure from undeserved obscurity. In this she is aided greatly by her collaborator, Melissa R. Machit, whose “Introduction,” “Critical Essay,” and notes (not to mention exhaustive “Index of Variants”) provide the volume great versatility as a script for actors, text for students, and resource for scholars, no doubt ensuring it will enjoy a long shelf life. Lovely black-and-white stills from the two university productions of the play in translation further round out this latest bilingual title from the Aris & Phillips Hispanic Classics series.

Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre is certainly a singular, if not outright challenging work for modern sensibilities, the main plot revolving around young adult siblings having their “correct” gender identities “restored” to correspond with each one’s biological sex. Don Félix de Moncada is raised in an “effeminate” manner by his mother, Doña Costanza, who feared losing him after her husband, Don Pedro, fled following the murder of a brother-in-law who opposed their marriage. Don Pedro escapes with the youth’s older sister, Doña Hipólita, while she is still an infant, subsequently disguising her as a man so that she can better make her way among the soldiers he has joined in Flanders. The action is set against the philosophical backdrop of classical and Renaissance views regarding the ways in which habit shapes behavior and, in addition to the usual Golden Age shenanigans involving mistaken identity, intrigue, deception, and the rigor of upholding strict codes of honor, brings the issue of cross-dressing to the fore. Machit does an excellent job framing the prevalent theatre debates of the period, pointing out that there were periods when women were banned from performing on both British and Spanish stages, compelling males to act in all roles. While England fretted most about female lewdness (it was thought that men’s clothes, generally more tight-fitting, proved too form-revealing on women to maintain public morality), the Inquisition’s obsession with sodomy, and Spain’s fear that a forced effeminacy on actors would only weaken the empire as a colonial power, ultimately led to a return of women to the floorboards. Machit insightfully points out that, unlike most gender-switching in contemporaneous dramas, Don Félix and Doña Hipólita’s is imposed on them by their parents. While she goes on to state that their genders in this comedy are “performative and hyperbolic, bordering on caricature,” the major shock for modern audiences will come from Doña Hipólita’s offstage rape by her suitor Don Luis, not to mention her subsequent confession to Doña Costanza: “since that moment I am a woman.” Machit grounds the event in classical precedent and, most sophisticatedly, in the medieval cantigas d’amigo, which she calls “the space of sexuality and sexual initiation in the gallego-portuguese lyric tradition.” An illuminating footnote cites examples from this poetic genre “in which daughters confess their sexual awakenings to their mothers,” although such canonical models do little to assuage the offense of sexual assault or to suggest how such action could best be staged today.

In her “Translator’s Note,” Jeffs writes: “It is my intention that this version here provides an experience of the play for readers interested in it on the page and for the stage, as it is very much a living, breathing text that has been tested in the crucible of performance.” This may be, in a nutshell, the ultimate standard for all plays in translation, though bridging the page/stage divide can prove particularly difficult with dramas from past centuries. Jeffs opts to forgo the tight meter and rhyme scheme (or assonance) of the Spanish source text, rendering La fuerza de la costumbre in essentially lineated prose, as has been the vogue with such plays for decades now. With an ear attuned to contemporary diction, she provides some fine lexical touches, translating “mi consuelo todo” as “my one consolation”; “hombres mujeres” as “girly men”; “cortésmente” as “with empty flattery”; “los contrapuestos hermanos” as “the crossed-dressed siblings”; “en el blanco da” as “[h]e’s right on target,” and “te extrañas” as “you act against your own / nature,” among other similarly impressive examples. Indeed, Jeffs appears to have intelligibility for contemporary audiences very much in mind, deftly explicitating “ temía…el sereno” (lit., he feared the dew) as “was afraid of the dark,” adding “it’s a long walk” when the servant Galván complains about not having been lent a mule, and clarifying for Anglo-American readers and/or theatregoers that “el famoso Campeador” is “the famous champion, El Cid.” When Doña Hipólita in frustration decides to rip off a cuff that forms part of the gender-specific attire to which she still has not grown accustomed, the Spanish reads: “Más de Alejandro ha tenido / el romper, que el desatar,” which Jeffs expertly untangles as “Like Alexander, / I’ll cut through this Gordian knot, / rather than wait to be untied.”

Is it this desire to modernize the language of an early seventeenth-century play that leads to some unevenness in register? Actors can certainly nuance dramatic discourse in performance, but this reviewer was struck by the appearance of such slangy terms as “keep slogging away at it,” “the hang of them,” “that’s my girl,” “[h]ave you no guts,” “wimp,” “that got to her,” and even one “Hey, gentleman!” This is hardly a critique, yet these words and phrases appear alongside what at times seem like needlessly close or “rank-bound” correlations based on awkward line-for-line correspondences as in the rendering of “Esta honrada emulación, / ¿cómo no te mueve el alma…” as “This honourable emulation, / why does it not move your soul…” or “Yo vengo, señor, / porque es más propia que ajena / la causa” as “I come, sir, / because it is more close than distant / this matter.” Perhaps, the use of such word order reflects Jeffs’s attempt to season a mostly updated language with the archaization of strained syntax. Certain lines clearly might have flowed more smoothly with a peppering of participles instead of finite verb forms. Undue repetition and a reflexive hewing to source-text punctuation also occasionally held up this reviewer who, as a reader, was left wondering whether these touches were intentional. Ditto for some strange phrasing. Caught between the depoeticized diction of current parlance and the opposite pole of heightened metrical dialogue, could some stiffness of expression be construed as a sort of linguistic compromise? What to make of “That’s a noise” or “if I can unbind myself” or “they’ve just about left me without feet” or “my soul is grinding in my teeth” or “[t]his forces doubt into my mind”? Again, this may well reflect a confidence that actors will sort out such incongruity.

Jeffs, who is associate professor of Theatre & Dance at Gonzaga University, is a skilled enough translator to put her English-language rendering of La fuerza de la costumbre to the nuanced service of the play’s themes. When, upon his return home to Zaragoza, Don Pedro sees Don Félix for the first time after a twenty-year absence, he asks why the young man is wearing a “hábito largo,” wondering whether his son is studying for the priesthood. Instead of rendering this phrase as (long) “habit” or “frock,” Jeffs writes “long dress.” A few lines on, when Don Pedro states that Don Félix “se ha de quitar el vestido,” Jeffs again chooses the gender-laden rendering “he’ll have to take off that dress” instead of the more neutral word “clothing.” Later, as Don Pedro despairs of instilling manly virtues in his son, he tells Don Félix that, if the latter’s Christian bent precludes him from upholding family honor in accordance with the hyper-masculine, potentially violent chivalric code, he should seek serenity “retirado en un convento.” A “convento” can be a place where monks reside—i.e., a “monastery”—yet, here Jeffs artfully chooses its competing signification, translating the line as “hidden away in a convent.” These are wonderful touches that go a long way toward underscoring the play’s latent dynamics.

In short, kudos to all involved in introducing English-language audiences to Guillén de Castro’s overlooked play and in salvaging it, thus, from the limbo of unmerited oblivion.


Gregary J. Racz is professor of English, Philosophy and Languages at LIU Brooklyn, review editor for Translation Review, and a past president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). His most recent theatre translations of works by Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and Sor Juana appear in The Golden Age of Spanish Drama: A Norton Critical Edition (2018).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s