Question: Discuss the interplay of sensuality and sexuality in any two works of literature studied.





In María de Zayas’ Desengaños amorosos and Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El gran teatro del mundo, the interplay between sensuality and sexuality will be examined in regard to the female characters depicted. Both terms refer to the senses. Where sensuality describes more generally a bliss of the senses– bodily pleasing and aesthetically arousing, sexuality is blatantly more specific as being a physical sensation of sexual receptivity or interest. Therefore, the degree of intimacy varies between the two terms. Sensuality refers to a more or less benign intimacy whereas sexuality is intimacy interrupted by a prohibiting response (Lichtenberg 4).  In regards to these intimate, sensual terms, there are two factors that contribute to their existence. Surroundings one is immersed in creates a platform for intimacy to occur. Shame is an inhibitor of these sensations. The women in Zayas’s Desengaños amorosos and Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El gran teatro del mundo are affected by both their environment and the emotion of shame in the name of sensuality and sexuality.

For women in both Baroque works of literature mentioned, environment plays a vital role in their receptivity and interest in sensual and sexual expression, and even the identity of the female gender in general. Space– depicted as an outside-inside duality– is a metaphor of the power relations between men and women. As seen in Classical Greek plays, the oikos-polis dichotomy is also represented here in Baroque literature. Oikos, being the household or ‘inside’, was said to be the basic social unit of the polis, or the ‘outside’ community. Men were able to move freely between both arenas, while women were confined to the house. The oikos-polis dichotomy is a common theme in Classical Greek literature, and is displayed as comedic when gender associated spaces are inverted (as famously depicted in Aristophanes’ Las eclesiazusas). Zayas continues in the Greek tradition in her ten exemplary novellas by turning the patriarchal order on its head through a female narrative. Women’s amorous experiences in a male-dominated society is primarily depicted by women in their surroundings– the home or neighborhoods. Through the female narrative and geographical immobility, sensory deception is revealed as a means toward masculine dominance through erotic behavior (O’Brien 38-40). Women during this period had two life options: marriage or entering a convent. After listening to women’s amorous experiences leading to various types of physical violence, Lisis, the main protagonist of Desengaños amorosos, decides to enter a convent out of a desire for safety and freedom (Robbins 32-33). She is only able to come to this conclusion after listening to all the other tales of machismo that occurred in the privacy of the home. The double standard of the home is soon revealed. The home was meant to keep a woman and her sexuality hidden away and safe, remaining locked up behind the home’s walls for her husband and his desires. In this patriarchal structure, the family’s main function is to control and displace women, converting the house into a public arena, all while a man’s acts remain private (Gamboa 196). The only escape for women from this oikos-polis construct is the ‘inside’ walls of a convent. The environment of the convent provides a safe-haven and a space where women could engage freely in intellectual and literary pursuits in the name of the Church. When Lisis rejects marriage in pursuit of the convent, she is opting for a more positive, sensual experience. In other words, Lisis chose sensuality masked as spirituality over sensuality disguised as abusive sexuality. However, Lisis is fortunate in her ability to chose her fate. Some women were forced to enter convents due to a man’s unwillingness or inability to provide a dowry– proving that ultimately a woman’s freedom was determined by men. Even in the freedom of a convent, male clerics had absolute authority. In Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El gran teatro del mundo, women are portrayed by La Hermosura and La Discreción. Exemplifying the line “Entre Ave Eva/ gran department’á” from a Medieval cantiga by King Alfonso X, el sabio, Calderón’s two female representations in this autosacramental play on this Christian binary opposition. The image of women varied between the extremes of contempt and idealization. Ultimately, however, women were praised and criticized for their moral qualities and admired for their physical beauty. La Discreción is represents the woman praised for her morality, Ave (the Virgin Mary), and La Hermosura is the woman admired for her physicality, Eva, the temptress. Both women use their gender to influence men; however, their motivations are opposing. La Hermosura believes her beauty is in itself an end and its evident when she asks, “¿Qué haré yo/ para lograr mi hermosura?” (Calderón 30). On the other hand, La Discreción has a morally healthy attitude toward the gifts el Mundo has given her (Fiore 47). In both instances, these women have broken through the walls of oikos, standing alongside men in the polis arena. While La Hermosura looks to manipulate men through sexuality, La Discreción intends to heal through sensuality of spirituality. Even though they both have reached the public space, both women desire to return ‘inside’. La Discreción returns to a convent and La Hermosura’s only plausible outcome is marriage. Given this clear dichotomy of good versus evil, the outcome of the afterlife suits the earthly life lived; therefore, furthering the inside/outside duality.

According to psychiatrist Jospeh Lichtenberg, shame, “the innate affect activated when an ongoing experience of pleasure in body sensations is inhibited” (8), creates a boundary for sensual and sexual experiences. During the Baroque period, shame can be seen in society’s idea of honra. As women and their sexuality were monitored behind closed doors, their bodies also served as a means of determining her purity and faithfulness. A woman’s bodily impurity only led to a family’s public dishonor. Considering sensuality and sexuality both involve bodily sensations, women, being prisoners in their own body’s, were not free to fully enjoy these sensations without society looking down on her. But because women are expected to fulfill their role as a wife and a mother, a woman’s sexuality is inseparable from her reproductive responsibility. So the honor code in regards to women is based on her sole respect of her husband’s sexual desires, downplaying her own physical desires. Evidence of promiscuity typically led to entering a convent or physical abuse, even death. This is exemplified through the amorous experiences Lisis interviews, or saraos. Between desire and prohibition (or, in this case, eros and honra), there is an experience of tension created in sexuality that does not exist in sensuality. Regarded as property of a man’s honor, women are most valued for their chastity. Because of this, men in Desengaños amorosos are presented by their carnal desires. Their deception, betrayal and overall abuse of women reveals a distrust and desengaño in the patriarchal society.  Marriage is then portrayed not as a fundamental, sturdy unit to the public community, but rather an unstable union wrapped in jealousy, a loss of desire and male cruelty. Desengaños amorosos reveals the foolishness of trusting men, the wisdom that comes with rejecting men and the tragic outcome of marriage (Clamurro 43-48). The revealed disillusionment of the honor code did not change the social laws it governed. Shame was still brought on by sexual and sensual experiences of the body due to the idea these pleasurable sensations went against your husband, your family, and above all, God. La Discreción in El gran teatro del mundo never once violated the honor code in regards to sexual desires. Her sensational experiences consisted of a spiritual relation, primarily due to the allegorical nature of the one act play. For her strong moral code, she is admitted into Heaven without hesitation. God, however, lets La Hermosura sit in Purgatory for a bit to allow for repentance before being admitted into Heaven. This proves sexual desires and earthly, physical sensations are even seen as shameful in the eyes of God. Lisis also discovers this when speaking to various women. Obeying men and their honor code will not benefit a woman as much as following God will. In both pieces of literature, convents prove to be not only an escape from men’s sexual demands, but religion proves to be a safe-haven from shame and dishonor.

Sensuality and sexuality are always affected by one’s surroundings; but during the Baroque period, the idea of honra thwarted acts of physical sensations, especially in regards to women. Though women have a public duty to reproduce, they had to separate the inseparable (sex and reproduction) in order to preserve family honor. Expressing a liking to such sensations had negative consequences at the hand of a male authority (a father, husband or male cleric). The women in Zayas’s Desengaños amorosos and Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El gran teatro del mundo show that the only way to a safe, free environment where sensuality could be experienced without damaging repercussions was in a convent. The idea of shame, however, was inescapable either it be in a marriage under the hand of your husband, or in a convent under the eyes of God.







Primary Sources:


Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. El gran teatro del mundo. BiblioBazaar, 2007.


Zayas, María de. The Disenchantments of Love: A Translation of the Desengaños amorosos by H. Patsy Boyer. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997.




Clamurro, William H. “Ideological Contradiction and Imperial Decline: Toward a Reading  of Zaya’s ‘Desengaños amorosos’.” Hispanic Review (2003): 189-203.


Fiore, Robert L. “Calderon’s ‘El gran teatro del mundo’: An Ethical Interpretation.” Hispanic Review (1972): 40-52.


Gamboa, Yolanda. “Architectural Cartography: Social and Gender Mapping in María de Zaya’s Seventeenth-Century Spain.” South Central Review (1988): 43-50.


Lichtenberg, Joseph D. Sensuality and Sexuality Across the Divide of Shame. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.


O’Brien, Eavan. Women in the Prose of María de Zayas. New York: Monografías, 2010.


Robbins, Jeremy. The Challenges of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Seventeenth- Century Spanish Literature. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 1998.


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