Study Guide Excerpt: Don Juan Tenorio, a play by José Zorrilla y Moral


Part One

Part One of Don Juan Tenorio consists of Acts I-IV. In this section of the play, the plot centers on the bet between Don Juan and Don Luis. Both men are profligate womanizers and excel in the craft of dueling. However, Don Juan's new bet highlights how honor is perceived and defined in a patriarchal system. Our protagonist crows that he can bed both an engaged woman and a novitiate. In a patriarchal system, the honor of a family greatly rests on the purity of its women. As such, Dona Ines exemplifies the epitome of feminine perfection: she is an obedient daughter, and when her father consigns her to a convent, she makes no objections. Her sexual (and therefore, secular) desires are subsumed under the auspices of patriarchal honor.

In the play, female purity not only bequeaths honor to a family but it also crowns a woman's reputation. Thus, any hint of deviancy or indiscretion renders her unsuitable for marriage. However, female desire is approached in very simplistic terms in the play. In Act III, the abbess tells Dona Ines that the latter has retained her innocence because she knows nothing of the world. Additionally, having known nothing of the world, Dona Ines also cannot long for the pleasures of the world.

The abbess chooses to ignore the reality of inherent feminine sexuality. So, she does not comprehend Dona Ines' frustration. As for Dona Ines, she is herself ignorant of the source of her ennui. She thinks that her grief is mainly due to the knowledge that she must renounce all familial ties after taking her religious vows. For the remainder of her interaction with Brigida in Act III, she voices her fear of her deep yearnings. They frighten her, only because they are so foreign from everything she has ever experienced.

In Act IV, however, Dona Ines begins to recognize what those yearnings contribute in her journey to full womanhood. Don Juan's caressing words awaken her to the reality of her innate sexuality. As for Don Juan, he courts Dona Ines with all the pomp and elegance of a courtly love. His profuse expressions of overpowering passion make Dona Ines fall under his spell. Here, in the tradition of courtly love, Dona Ines' moral purity cleanses the old sinner of his waywardness.

Yet, in Act IV, we see Don Juan remonstrating with Don Gonzalo, who refuses to bless the union between his daughter and the supposedly reformed rake. For his part, Don Juan accuses the older man of not caring about his salvation. Don Gonzalo's reply is ominous: "And what have I to do, Don Juan, with your salvation?" (79) Don Gonzalo will not "save" Don Juan; he cannot, according to the dictates of convention. It is Dona Ines who must bequeath Don Juan his salvation.

However, Dona Ines cannot perform this duty at this point in the play. Her moral virtue has been subsumed by her father's convictions. In Don Gonzalo's mind, Don Juan has dishonored his daughter by his actions and so, cannot be allowed to marry her. Angered by Don Gonzalo's stance, Don Juan reverts to his innate self. He shoots Don Gonzalo and stabs Don Luis; both men die. This tragic scene demonstrates that honor in a patriarchal society is strictly defined. Any aberrations from respected convention result in censure and marginalization. Don Juan cannot redefine honor in such a society, even if his convictions are sincere.

Part Two

In Part Two, we again meet with the discrepancy between how female purity is defined in terms of the patriarchy and the philosophy of courtly love. Although both perspectives approach female purity as a worthy asset, the latter hails such purity as ennobling and redemptive in nature. In a patriarchal society, female purity is viewed as an asset in that it substantiates the masculine reputation. Position in the social hierarchy is thus defined by honor. A bride's virginal status brings honor to her family and to her groom. To be cuckolded, therefore, is deeply wounding to the masculine soul and socially humiliating. The patriarchal imperative seeks to dominate because of its inherent nature. Therefore, a daughter's purity holds great implications for a man's position in society. Both the groom and the father of the bride are highly invested in it. There is a paradox at play, of course.

While men like Don Juan and Don Luis seek to best each other in sexual conquests, both seek (above all else) sexual purity in a wife. The competitive nature is present even after marriage. The chastity of a wife ensures the impeccability of a man's lineage; by extension, a cuckolded husband must always wonder about his children's paternal heritage. He is thus seen as less of a man in other men's eyes.

Meanwhile, courtly love (derived from the system of chivalry) regards feminine purity as ennobling in nature. From such a perspective, women are not fallen creatures; instead, they are entities of virtue. Even in death, Dona Ines retains her purity, like the "fresh tint of the rose" (89) Indeed, Don Juan sees her as "one of the guardian angels" (91).

In Part Two of the play, Don Juan returns, only to see three massive statues of his victims erected on what should have been the grounds of his inherited home. He curses the hour when "heaven treated him so fiercely" (88), even after he spoke with the "voice of a penitent" (88). Don Juan laments his rejection by the patriarchal system, which once welcomed him as one of its own. Here, Zorrilla suggests that God has also rejected Don Juan. The masculine soul seeks salvation, but it proves elusive to him. However, Dona Ines (in her transcended self) answers. She represents the Madonna who answers when God is silent.

While living, Dona Ines exemplified all the feminine virtues men worshiped. Yet, she also displayed elements of the feminine imperative: the inherent desire to mate with the strongest, most dominant male. And Don Juan answered everything that Dona Ines desired in a man. He could best any competitor in a duel, and other men feared his "satanic" predilections to violence. There was only one problem, however: Don Juan failed to fulfill all of the expectations of a fond father.

In Part Two, Don Juan recognizes his flaws. He approaches the statue of Dona Ines as he does a shrine, seeking absolution for his sins. In his mind, Dona Ines is the angel of his salvation. Yet, despite his yearnings, he is incredulous when Dona Ines' spirit appears before him. For her part, Dona Ines assures him that she has interceded for him before God and that her fate is now tied to his. So, for a short time, Don Juan is given the opportunity to repent and to redeem himself.

For his part, Don Juan believes that he has been hallucinating. He imagines that the frightful apparitions he sees are figments of his imagination. He even invites the statue of Don Gonzalo to dinner in order to convince himself that he has been dreaming. After all, Don Juan has always valued courage above all else, and he is not going to be humbled by some spirits of the night.

The last scenes of magical realism in Part Two, Act III, however, tell a different story. Here, Don Juan's past actions condemn him, and Hell calls out for his soul. He must account for the deaths he has caused. However, with Dona Ines awaiting, the blustering Don Juan eventually admits his deep need. The concept of salvation is subverted here: instead of being saved by a Christ figure, Don Juan enters heaven upon the ministrations of a Madonna. Zorrilla reinforces this point through his extensive use of magical realism.