Born on November 12, 1651, (though there is some dispute about the year) in San Miguel Neplantla, Mexico, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish father and Creole mother. Her maternal grandfather owned property in Amecameca and Juana spent her early years living with her mother on his estate, Panoaya.
Juana was a voracious reader in her early childhood, hiding in the hacienda chapel to read her grandfather's books from the adjoining library. She composed her first poem when she was eight years old. By adolescence, she had comprehensively studied Greek logic, and was teaching Latin to young children at age 13. She also learned Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in Central Mexico, and wrote some short poems in that language.
At age eight, after her grandfather's death, she was sent to live in Mexico City with her maternal aunt. She longed to disguise herself as a male so that she could go to University but was not given permission by her family to do so. She continued to study privately, and, at 16, was presented to the court of the Viceroy Marquis de Mancera, where she was admitted to the service of the Viceroy's wife. When she was 17, the Viceroy assembled a panel of scholars to test her intelligence. The vast array of skills and knowledge she demonstrated before the panel became publicly known throughout Mexico.
Her reputation and her apparent beauty attracted a great deal of attention. Interested not in marriage but in the furthering of her studies, Juana entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph, where she remained for a few months. In 1669, at age 21, she entered Convent of the Order of St. Jérôme, where she would remain until her death.
In the Convent, Sor Juana had her own study and library and was able to talk often with scholars from the Court and the University. Besides the writing of poems and plays, her studies included music, philosophy and natural science. Her small room was filled with books, scientific instruments and maps. Though accomplished, Sor Juana was the subject of criticism by her political and religious superiors. When her friends, the Viceroy Marqués de la Laguna and his wife María Luisa, Condesa de Paredes (the subject of a series of Sor Juana's love poems), left Mexico in 1688, Sor Juana lost much of the protection to which she had been accustomed.
In 1690, a letter of hers which criticized a well-known Jesuit sermon was published without her permission by a person using the pseudonym "Sor Filotea de la Cruz." Included with her letter was a letter from "Sor Filotea" (actually the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz) criticizing Juana for her comments and for the lack of serious religious content in her poems. Sor Juana's reply, the now famous Respuesta a Sor Filotea has been hailed as the first feminist manifesto, defending, among other things, a woman's right to education. Her fervent reply was the subject of further criticism, and the Archbishop and others demanded that she give up any non-religious books or studies. She continued to publish non-religious works, among them several villancicos (a poetic form typically sung as a religious devotional for feasts of the Catholic calendar) about St. Catharine of Alexandria, written in a more feminist than religious tone.
Controversy surrounding Sor Juana's writing and pressure from those around her, including her confessor Núñez de Miranda, resulted in Sor Juana's forced abjuration. During this time, Sor Juana was required to sell her books as well as all musical and scientific instruments. Sor Juana responded by devoting herself to a rigorous penance, giving up all studies and writing.
In 1695, a plague hit the convent. On April 17, after tending to her fellow sisters, Juana died from the disease around the age of forty-four.
A Selected Bibliography
Neptuno alegórico (1680)
Autodefensa espiritual (Carta de Monterrey), (~1681)
Los empeños de una casa (The Trials of a Noble House) (1683)
Carta atenagórica (The Athenagoric Letter) (1690)
Segundo Volumen (Volume II of her works) which includes: El sueño, El cetro de José, El mártir del Sacramento, San Hermenegildo, and El Divino Narciso (The Divine Narcissus); Los empeños de una casa and Amor es más laberinto; Crisis sobre un sermón (Carta atenagórica) (1692)
La protesta que rubrica con su sangre (Profession of the Faith Signed with her Own Blood), (1694)
Fama y obras póstumas (Volume III of her works) which includes Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sor Filotea) (1700)
In the exaltation of reason, clarity, and decorum that dominated the eighteenth century, there was a strong reaction against the Baroque, and indeed Baroque literature fell into virtual oblivion. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, interest in the Baroque began to stir, and it is thus that not only the literature of the Baroque Spanish masters but also Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s contribution to the field have again been brought to light and appreciated.
All of Sor Juana’s drama is written in verse. She used a multiplicity of verse forms, exploiting them in order to set an effective tone for a particular character or scene. Relative to content, it is important to note that at the end of the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church and Sor Juana, especially through her theater, tried to make the dogma of the Eucharist dynamic. Sor Juana sought to unveil the Mysteries of Christ; obviously the most difficult part was how to make the invisible visible. She attempted to achieve this through allegory, myth, and metaphor; her intent was didacticism through entertainment, and even her secular plays reveal the influence of religious drama. Like Calderón, she used carts to represent different scenes, and her dramas include music and singing, as well as one or more choruses—which, as in Greek literature, serve to emphasize ideas presented through the plays.
Sor Juana used the dramatic props of her time for her writings. For the reader who can enter imaginatively into that distant period, her plays will come alive. Further, her variation in verse form not only displays her skill in handling many types but also provides interest and dispels monotony. Finally, one must marvel at her knowledge of both biblical and historical events as she weaves these into her plots. The combination of history, mythology, and religion must have produced a wonderfully exhilarating effect on audiences in her day, and it is still capable of engaging readers centuries later.
The collected dramatic output of Sor Juana consists of two comedies of intrigue, A Household Plagued by Love and Amor es más laberinto (love is a greater labyrinth); three autos sacramentales, The Divine Narcissus, El mártir del Sacramento, San Hermenegildo (the martyr of the Sacrament, Saint Hermenegildo), and El cetro de José (Joseph’s scepter); two sainetes; and eighteen loas.
An auto sacramental is a one-act play concerning the Sacrament; a loa is a one-act play, usually quite short, which is generally allegorical and supports the Eucharist. A loa preceded each of Sor Juana’s autos. Her sacramental plays and comedias are similar in form and style to those of the Calderón school. In fact, one of Calderón’s plays is entitled “Los empeños de un acaso” (wr. 1639), and a few lines are identical to those that Sor Juana penned in her A Household Plagued by Love. This does not mean that Sor Juana was a plagiarist. Her independent attitude and thirst for knowledge caused her to read voraciously, and she synthesized what she learned into her own expression. Religion was the basis for what she wrote; her prime topics throughout her works were love and the Eucharist.
A Household Plagued by Love and Amor es más laberinto
The } longer plays of Sor Juana can be divided into two types: the secular and religious. Her two secular plays, A Household Plagued by Love and Amor es más laberinto, are probably the most appealing to present-day audiences. Each of these three-act plays formed the greater part of a festejo, an evening of entertainment. A festejo usually honored one or more noted individuals.
The festejo of A Household Plagued by Love consisted of the three-act play, preceded by a loa. Intercalated between the acts were two sainetes and three songs praising the honored guests. The play concluded with a sarao, a brief play praising the viceroy and his family in music and dancing. The sainetes, or farces in this festejo, end in song, or song and hisses. The first of these poked fun at women; the second made jest of the play being staged. The entire festejo of A Household Plagued by Love required more than two hours to be performed.
Amor es más laberinto was also a three-act play; act 2, however, was written by Juan de Guevara, a well-known figure who had come from the Royal Court of Madrid to Mexico City and may have been Sor Juana’s cousin. This play is also preceded by a loa.
These two plays have similar themes: noble people in love, disguised characters who appear or hide in inhospitable surroundings, mistaken identity, and...
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