Printer Friendly

Hamartia in Cervantes' La Numancia.

DURING the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, sieges were endemic to the chaotic socio-political and religious upheavals taking place in Western and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the physical reality of the siege, coupled with its topos in classical and medieval works, served to stimulate a substantial and diverse body of literature on the subject. Furthermore, while the siege underscored individual methods of appropriating prior literary models, it also reflected a contemporary consciousness preoccupied with civic or national trials. In France, Montaigne devoted several of his earlier essays to the ethics and tactics involved in siege warfare. And in Spain, the nation that all too frequently took on the role of Imperial besieger, victorious sieges were reworked for the stage. Among these may be found Lope de Vega's El asalto de Mastrique and Calderon de la Barca's El sitio de Breda. Yet of all the siege plays produced in the Golden Age, the one which records a Spanish defeat is most well-known. The reference is, of course, to Cervantes' tragic drama, La Numancia. Based on the collective suicide of the Celtiberian city while under siege by the Romans in 133 B.C., the event is historically remote. As such it could support a philosophical freedom that otherwise may not have been allowed in a play based wholly on current events. As scholars have demonstrated, La Numancia may be read either as a paean to Spain's imperial policy or as an implicit critique of it (Johnson 75-90; King 200-221).

In my analysis, I intend to examine how the drama is further complicated by Cervantes' treatment of hamartia (i.e. error of judgment). Following the dialogical nature of the political critique mentioned above, I will further argue that Cervantes suggests a double hamartia, committed by both Scipio, the antagonist, and the Numantine governing body. But it may be difficult to show that Numancia suffers a fall through some hamartia, if one prefers to sustain a strongly implied moral reading of the play in which Numancia's impeccability or their right to wage a just war would be at stake. Instead, I will rely on the Aristotelian sense of the term that, according to John Jones, must "exclude any strong implication of moral fault or shortcoming" (15). Hence, it can be posited that the double hamartia evidenced in La Numancia adds tension to the play, in that the errors emphasize, not a moral side effect, but rather the complicity of practical lived experience and the mutability of the human situation. For despite the Golden Age theoretical treatises that translated hamartia as pecado in the moral sense, Cervantes, like many other Spanish playwrights, did not necessarily limit his creativity or his philosophy to those literary prescriptions he might have come across.

In the sixteenth year of the siege of Numancia, a watershed is reached from which a decisive drama unfolds. Amidst the death and decadence of the Roman side, a great leader appears--Scipio Africanus, whose epithet was acquired at the expense of Carthage. Scipio has been ordered to contain and re-subjugate a rebellious populace. From the Roman camp arise exhortations to virtue, discipline and fortitude, while within the city walls of Numancia an inarticulate fear is nascent, suppressed by only the dire need of hope in such a time. The impending catastrophe recalls a crisis already experienced. An economic yoke, expressed metaphorically by a Numantine ambassador, constituted the city's first crisis. In a parley with Scipio he explains: "Pusieron tan gran yugo a nuestros cuellos,/que forzados salimos del." (v. 247-248). Yet Numancia's escape from one kind of yoke has resulted in only another--their city under military siege.

Until Scipio's appearance, Numancia had been able to stave off repeated attacks. But the tide has changed with his arrival. Although Numancia's rhetoric indicates that they are in as strong position as Rome at this point, a critique of their rhetoric would suggest otherwise. The military reputation of Scipio has reached Numancia. It is also easy to conjecture that sixteen years of warfare has naturally weakened the city's resilience. Moreover, other Celtiberians have not allied themselves with the city. The Numantine representative Teogenes confirms their collaboration with the Roman enemy:
 No solo a vencernos se despiertan
 los que habemos vencido veces tantas;
 que tambien espanoles se conciertan
 con ellos a segar nuestras gargantas.
 (v. 545-548)

Thus, while Numancia's ambassadors declare that they seek negotiation with Scipio because only he is honorable, "tu virtud y valor es quien nos ceba," their previous remarks attesting to Scipio's military successes are revealing. As one of the delegation states:
 Numancia, de quien yo soy ciudadano
 inclito general, a ti me envia,
 como al mas fuerte capitan romano
 que ha cubierto la noche y visto el dia.
 (v. 233-236)

The city could not have been heartened to hear of Scipio's military successes. The fact that they are only too cognizant of them is underscored in the speech by addressing Scipio with a superlative as "el mas fuerte capitan romano." The ambassadors also refer poetically to his "journey through the night," a dark and perilous battlefield through which he has emerged to victory many times. Still, the Numantine pride is inflexible. The Numantines consent to be a "vassal" of Scipio only if they are afforded a certain degree of autonomy implicit in their repeated references to friendship. Their conception of an equality of sorts is also evidenced in their addressing him in the second person singular.

But an offer of friendship is not conducive to Rome's imperial policy, which is at this time based on an ever-increasing economic and territorial expansion, an end for which Scipio has subjugated himself. It is important to recognize that Scipio is not receptive to the Numantines' overtures of friendship; indeed, he makes no reference to them in the meeting. As he states:
 ... si en mi favor quiere mostrarse
 el Cielo, quedara sujeta Espana
 al Senado romano ...
 (v. 349-351)

Thus, when the Numantines press for negotiations, they are met with Scipio's absolute rejection of the idea:
 [??]Tarde de arrepentidos dais la muestra! ...
 A desverguenza de tan largos anos,
 es poca recompensa pedir paces.
 (v. 267-274)

Scipio points out that, in essence, Numancia has waited too long to negotiate and that such a delay has proved to be a great mistake. This then, has been their hamartia. Moreover, the Numantines are directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Roman soldiers that, in turn, have inspired in Rome more a desire for vengeance than any possible reconciliation.

Reading the play in this manner supports an error committed by the Numantine governing body, a consideration that has been neglected in previous discussions of the play. For example, Paul Lewis-Smith has contested an earlier claim by Frederick de Armas; namely, that Scipio is the protagonist of the drama. Lewis-Smith correctly, I am convinced, supports Numancia instead as the collective protagonist. Yet he finds the only error committed by Scipio, the antagonist, in "his unshakable assumption that the city will surrender if starved to the point of death" (17). Although Lewis-Smith and De Armas disagree on the protagonist, they do concur on the notion that Scipio commits an error. What is of interest, however, is that neither critic locates the same error. For De Armas, Scipio's hamartia is circumstantial, based on an inadequate reading of the "Other." But Lewis-Smith tables hamartia's potentially rich contribution to the drama in favor of moral criticism. As he asserts: [Scipio's fall] "is thoroughly just and attributable at the end of the day not to his error but rather to its providential revelation to the world, this being equivalent to a revelation concerning the relative moral stature of the Romans and the Numantines" (16). Nevertheless, in Aristotelian terms, hamartia does not indicate an error but judgment hinging upon morality or an innate wickedness of character; rather, its cause lies in a misunderstanding of circumstance or facts surrounding the circumstance (Poetics 1453a). Hamartia's function then, is not so much to deliver moral revelations, but rather to underscore those contingent factors or constraints that will undoubtedly shape or impinge upon a character's action. Hamartia, therefore, remains of paramount importance for these very reasons.

La Numancia, the play, is consistent with just such a conception of hamartia, in that moral burden is placed on either of the two agents, Numancia or Rome. The emphasis on the practical, favoring an Aristotelian hamartia, is confirmed by the testimony of the dead boy (el muerto) who, once resuscitated, prophesies:
 No llevaran Romanos la vitoria
 de la fuerte Numancia, ni ella menos
 tendra del enemigo triunfo o gloria,
 amigos y enemigos siendo Buenos.
 (v. 1073-1076)

The cadaver's prophecy is significant since it can only be taken as omniscient. The statement therefore undermines those who would argue that Cervantes wants to establish an inherent moral opposition between the two forces. Rather, the prophecy entails the contrary, i.e., that any future triumph is contingent upon each side's conduct in the practical realm.

Scipio's strategies have ended with a renewal of the siege and the construction of a moat around the city. Conversely, Numancia has been forced into further action. Numancia undertakes a second embassy to Scipio, this time proposing a chivalric man-to-man combat between the best fighters of the respective sides. Scipio, however, views the proposal as ludicrous. Comparing the Numantines to a ferocious beast (indicative of his culture's view of the "Other"), he declares:
 La fiera que en la jaula esta encerrada
 por su selvatiquez y fuerza dura
 si puede alli con mano ser domada,
 y con el tiempo y medios de cordura,
 quien la dejase libre y desatada
 daria grandes muestras de locura.
 (v. 1185-1190)

The comparison, reminiscent of the Quijote episode of the lion (although Scipio's lines are certainly not comic), is revealing. The Numantines, like don Quijote, uphold a code of honor that is alien to those around them. Neither the Romans nor the Numantines' fellow Celtiberians act upon the same values. It is in this sense that Numancia's proposals are in vain.

Denied again, Numancia's men propose a night sally to die honorably in battle. When the women intervene, rejecting the option, a final plan is conceived. In a Senecan climax, the majority of the population commits suicide (while the minority is struck down by Numantine soldiers). The sole exception to the communal bloodshed is the boy, Bariato, who escapes to a tower. When Scipio offers Bariato great wealth in order to secure a triumph in Rome, the boy resorts to suicide as well. Ironically, in his reply, Bariato reiterates the general's initial condemnation of Numancia. Scipio, it seems, has also waited too long to act. To quote Bariato:
 [??]Tarde, cruel, ofreces tu clemencia,
 pues no hay con quien usarla: que yo quiero
 pasar por el rigor de la sentencia
 que con suceso amargo y lastimero
 de mis padres y patria tan querida
 causo el ultimo fin terrible y fiero!
 (v. 2342-2347)

Scipio has lost his triumph. And thus, compatible with the cadaver's declaration, neither side has scored a clear-cut victory. The siege, a stalemate in itself, has ended in another kind of stalemate. Only when Numancia is avenged by the sixteenth-century Spanish crown, will it obtain the victory it desired but was denied in its time.

It is my contention that the double hamartia occurring in La Numancia is both a sign of the play's dramatic complexity and an articulation of conflicts instantiated, not only in the Numantine siege, but also in the age of Cervantes. In addition, the double hamartia bestows a kind of equality on the agents, one not necessarily undermined by the glorification of the collective tragic hero at the play's denouement.



Cervantes, Miguel de. Numancia. Ed. Robert Marrast. Madrid: Catedra, 1984.

De Armas, Frederick. "Classical Tragedy and Cervantes' La Numancia." Neophilologus 58 (1974): 34-40.

Johnson, Carroll. "The Structure of Cervantine Ambiguity." Ideologies and Literature 3 (1980): 75-94.

Jones, John. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1962.

King, Willard. "Cervantes' Numancia and Imperial Spain." MLN 94 (1979): 200-221.

Lewis-Smith, Paul. "Cervantes' Numancia as Tragedy and Tragicomedy." Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 64 (1987): 15-26.
COPYRIGHT 2004 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Romance Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Tar, Jane
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Previous Article:Ascension sociale et Providence dans Le Page disgracie de Tristan L'Hermite.
Next Article:Voltaire, Ovid, and La Pucelle D'Orleans.

Related Articles
Cervantes, Raphael and the Classics. (Reviews).
Super Sevilla to maul minnows.
Football: Zaragoza to fire on road.
European Football: Numancia look model wager to beat Bilbao.
Football: Becks is back in the goals; Numancia 1 Real Madrid 2.
Don Quixote pangrams.
Football: SPAIN.
Quixotic Frescoes: Cervantes and Italian Renaissance Art.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters