La Celestina

By Fernando de Rojas, Eric Bentley

14,285 ratings - 3.42* vote

(Applause Books). "As Greek tragedy," says a Spanish writer, "was composed from the crumbs that fell from Homer's table, so the Spanish drama owed its earliest forms to La Celestina (1499)." Fernando de Rojas' tragi-comedy which has also been called "a novel in dialogue" runs to about three hundred pages in the James Mabbe translation, here adapted to the stage by Eric Ben (Applause Books). "As Greek tragedy," says a Spanish writer, "was composed from

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Book details

Kindle Edition, 112 pages

(first published 1499)

Original Title
Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea
1589770110 (ISBN13: 9781589770119)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


Two pages from an early edition.

In 1499 appeared the first 16 "acts" of the Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, now better known as La Celestina, a work that Juan Goytisolo called "Spanish literature's most audacious and subversive work" in his excellent article celebrating the 500th anniversary of the text's publication.(*)

First published anonymously, then again with the author's name in acrostics, it was eventually revealed that the author was the still quite young Fernando de Rojas (c. 1465/76 - 1541), a son of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. In 1502 appeared a version with 21 "acts" and further additions. In fact, many of the subsequent new editions during the author's lifetime had additions of some sort or other. There is no wonder, then, that as of 2002, there has been no critical edition of this text in Spanish, since it is apparently difficult to decide in all cases which additions are Rojas' and which have been added by the publishers.

I came upon this title in Steven Moore's very informative survey The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600. It appears, however, that in Spain everyone reads this along with Lazarillo de Tormes and Don Quixote. Though the text presents itself in acts and many consider it to be a (failed) play for the stage, others, including Moore, view the work as the first novel in dialogue. Goytisolo refuses to pigeonhole the text, and I'll go along with that choice. Whether or not the 5 acts added to the original in 1502 were written by Rojas or were the fabrication of another, these acts are not of the same quality and badly unbalance and de-center the text, in my opinion, though I can understand how the original might seem a bit abrupt to some.

Of the many translations into English of this work, I read the one by Lesley Byrd Simpson, which presents only the text of the original edition, without the interpolated 5 acts, the "Argumentos" and the other additions. It reads beautifully, as I shall illustrate below.

I also looked through the more recent translation by Peter Bush mentioned earlier in order to compare the translations and to read the added 5 acts to decide for myself about their quality, for Bush has incorporated most, but not all of the additions to the original text.

However, I also read the second "original" text in a heavily annotated edition apparently intended for students in Spain, in which nearly all the additions made during Rojas' lifetime are included and extensive footnotes explain background and obsolete usage and words.(**) So, three different versions of the text, quite aside from the language...

Let's turn to the common core of the texts.

The initial set up of attempted seduction of the young and lovely Melibea by the intemperate Calisto and the subsequent firm rejection provides a standard frame within which to carry out the main business of the work - the reduction of most of the ideals of aristocratic and Christian Spain to absurdity in the corrosively ironic gaze of the lower classes.(***) Moreover, most of the characters representing the lower classes are rogues of the first water: self interest, money and a smooth line of bullshit rule the day. These two elements shape the comedic side of the tragicomedy.

As entertaining as that is, it fades to shadow when the main character arrives - the aged, worldly, vain, greedy procuress and witch, consummate liar and manipulator, and former prostitute, Celestina, who undertakes to bend Melibea to Calisto's will by magical means, after a significant "gift," of course. What a character! No wonder the original title fell into desuetude and was replaced by her name. I'd be willing to conjecture that this is an early example of a character occurring to an author and then taking over completely.

As for the tragedy, is it a spoiler to reveal that all the main characters die? "Innocent" or not. Dead. I think it's likely that Rojas' bitterness was not directed merely at the oligarchy and its ideology.

I cannot close this review without praising the unique style in which Celestina is written, which gave me even more pleasure than the characters did. First, the pure dialogue (at least in the first version) is tightly woven with proverb after proverb, most taken from the treasure chest of the Spanish people, but no few are lifted from classic authors like Plutarch. Sometimes the proverbs are very apt, but many times they are non sequiturs, recalling to me the modern novels whose characters speak solely in free association clichés. Every act, whether considered or completed, is commented on at length by the characters using vast arrays of proverb. And when Rojas winds up and throws his fast ball, what arrives at the plate are the kinds of effervescent, coruscating lists to be found in some of the better modern authors' works. Some are lists for the sake of seeing rare and incongruous words side by side, such as this tiny excerpt from a two page romp:

The oils she used for the face you would hardly believe: storax, jasmine, lemon, melon seed, benjamin, pistachio, pine nut, grape seed, jubejube nut, fennel, lupine, vetch, carilla, and chickweed.

But others are lists in poetic flight, such as this excerpt from the last act of the original version:

When I was young I thought the world was ruled by order. I know better now! It is a labyrinth of errors, a frightful desert, a den of wild beasts, a game in which men run in circles, a lake of mud, a thorny thicket, a dense forest, a stony field, a meadow full of serpents, a river of tears, a sea of miseries, effort without profit, a flowering but barren orchard, a running spring of cares, a sweet poison, a vain hope, a false joy, and a true pain.

(Both in Simpson's words. I think Bush's version of this passage is relatively weak.)

I very much enjoyed this work, one which engendered a host of followers (la literatura celestinesca) and with which Cervantes was well acquainted when he wrote his masterpiece nearly a century later. In fact, Cervantes called Rojas' work "divine" in the introduction to the first part of his tale of the Knight of La Mancha. Come to think of it, Sancho Panza, a servant commenting freely on the absurdities of his employer Don Quixote, is definitely a celestinesque touch...

(*) A somewhat modified version of Goytisolo's essay serves as the Introduction to the recent Penguin edition of Peter Bush's new translation of Celestina.

(**) La Celestina, Editorial Castalia, Madrid, 2002.

(***) According to Goytisolo, Rojas' father was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, and he and the other conversos were constantly disadvantaged and persecuted by the true believers. Goytisolo sees La Celestina as an expression of Rojas' bitterness towards the oligarchy and its ideology. Quite possibly.


Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

For about a month they have been having sex clandestinely at night, inside Malibea's room, right under the noses of her unsuspecting parents. To get to her room Calisto has to climb up a steep ladder carried to the site every night by his servants. During this last night, after three exhausting but blissful encores, Calisto heard a commotion outside. Rushing to check what it was, suspecting his servants may be in trouble, he slipped off the ladder and fell to his death, his head split into three (as many as their encores that night) like a crushed watermelon. The last words he shouted, as he was about to fall, were:

"Holy Mary, I'm done for! Confession!"

The two became lovers through the help of Celestina--probably one of the vilest characters in literature. She's a sixty-year-old former prostitute, now a madam who counts among her clients several clergymen. Being a madam at that time wasn't as lucrative a profession as it is now, so to make ends meet she sidelines as a hymen-repairer, a love guru, a faith healer and an itinerant vendor of various merchandise. She also dies violently, stabbed repeatedly until she was almost like the corned beef you often have for breakfast, by Calisto's own men. Her last words echoed that of Calisto:

"Ay, he's killed me! Ay! Confession! Confession!"

This looks strange now but not at that time when the way to salvation was clear cut: you die with your sins unconfessed, you go to hell. This novel was first published in 1499--more than 500 years ago--in Christian Spain during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. This was about 100 years before Don Quixote and was said to have inspired Cervantes' inventiveness. The author, Fernando de Rojas, wrote this when he was barely out of his teens, while studying law at the University of Salamanca. His family was Jewish. They suffered a lot during the Spanish Inquisition where the "Holy Office" was relentlessly pursuing and burning "heretics" who either lose their lives, or honor, or properties, or all of these. When Fernando de Rojas was already a lawyer, he defended his father-in-law against these inquisitors after the old man, drunk, argued with a priest and declared that he does not believe there is life after death.

It was in this world made false, hypocritical, cruel, hopeless and deadly by religion that Fernando de Rojas conceived of this novel. A world where the only consolation one can find is the fleeting pleasure (especially carnal pleasure) he/she may luckily encounter between birth and death. Calisto and Malibea inside her room that last night:

Calisto: My lady and my bliss, if you want me, sing more softly still. It sounds sweeter in my presence than the delight it brings when you're wearied by my absence.

Malibea: How shall I sing, my love? What shall I sing? Of my desire for you, firing my song and tuning my melody? As soon as you showed up, my song went, and the tune with it. And you, my lord, are such a model of politeness and good manners, how is it you can bid my tongue to sing but not your hands to keep still? Why don't you give up these ways? Tell them to be quiet and stop their unseemly converse with me. You know, my angel, I love to gaze at you peacefully, but not this insistent pawing. I like your respectful play but find your hands are rude and annoying, especially when they get too rough. Let my clothes be, and if you must find out whether my over-garment is silk or cotton, why do you need to touch my shift that's undoubtedly linen? Let's play and pleasure in a thousand ways I can show you. Don't be so violent and mistreat me as you like to do. Why do you feel the need to rip my clothes?

Calisto: My love, if you want to taste the bird, first you must get rid of its feathers.

Malibea (panting, playing coy): My lord, shall I tell (my servant)Lucrecia to bring us some food?

Calisto: I only want to eat your body and hold your beauty in my arms. Money buys food and drink at any time of day and anyone can do that. What's priceless is what's in this garden that nothing on earth can equal. Do you think I'm going to give up a single moment of my pleasuring?...My lady, I hope day never dawns. My senses feel ecstasy at this exquisite contact with your delicate limbs.

Malibea (while they were going at it): My lord, I'm the one most loving this. I'm the winner thanks to the incredible gift you bring on each of your visits.

Then the distraught Malibea while Calisto's dead body was being taken away:

Malibea (to her servant): Can you hear what those boys are saying? Can you hear their sad laments? They're praying as they carry my life away with them and carry my happiness that's gone stone dead! This is no time to live. Why didn't I take more pleasure when I pleasured? Why did I value so little the bliss I gripped between these two hands? Ungrateful mortals, we only see our good fortune when it's gone!

Then the harrowing lamentation of Malibea's father (said to be the most moving part of the novel), after his only child has died, condemning the World and Love itself:

(no way. too long to type. read the book yourself!)


"You antic ass! You've made me laugh, which I did not intend to do again this year."

Celestina is every bit the great classic that its reputation among Spaniards suggests. It's bold, funny, cynical, and at the same time affecting, provoking a strange mix of derision and sympathy. Along the way it scorns most of society's values, as well as its hypocrisies, general human frailty, and most of all it cries out against the inhuman cruelty of God, Love, Fortune, the World itself, or whatever it is that condemns us poor mortals to futile, purposeless suffering. It does so as tragicomedy should, through bitter and insightful humor.


Free download in Spanish available at Project Gutenberg


and y'all say YA characters are over dramatic

read for my spanish literature course

Miquel Reina

What could I say about one of the major Spanish classics as "La Celestina"? Well, I think that this book is certainly one of these novels that a big part of Spanish people have read. In my case, I did it in school time and despite the years that have passed, I still remember the story perfectly. "La Celestina" is a novel that despite its age is still entertaining, fun and easy to read. Romances, misunderstandings and especially a funny intelligence has made it become not only one of the big classic of the Spanish literature but also a synonymous of a "person who intrudes on the lives of two people to achieve they fall in love".
I recommend to read it to all those who have not read it yet, and especially to all English-speaking community that is getting into the vast Spanish literature to put it into their "must-read" list ;)

Spanish version:
¿Qué podría decir del clásico de la lengua española, La Celestina? Éste es sin duda uno libro que muchos de los hispanohablantes han leído alguna vez, yo lo hice en la época escolar y pese a los años que han pasado, aún recuerdo perfectamente la historia. La Celestina es una novela que pese a su antigüedad sigue siendo igual de entretenida, divertida y fácil de leer. Los romances, los malentendidos y sobretodo la inteligencia que destila la obra ha hecho que se convierta no solo en uno de los referentes de la lengua española sino en un sinónimo de "persona que se entromete en la vida de dos personas para conseguir enamorarlos".
Recomiendo a todos los que no la habéis leído que lo hagáis, y animo a toda la comunidad de habla inglesa que esté adentrándose en el extenso mundo literario español que ésta novela la pongan en su lista de "must-read" ;)


One of the "must reads" of Spanish literature, this book represents both the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Spain. The character of Celestina is the basis of one of the three literary types from Spanish literature, along with Don Quijote and Don Juan. I've taught it multiple times and am always amazed by how much the issues raised in this book resonate with my students.

Silvia Cachia

Read many years ago, but planning to re-read for the Classics Club. It's come to mark a beautiful and long gone time in my life (high school years reading with the class, -a small group of students-, with an alcoholic teacher we loved and hated at the same time, a lonely woman who did love good books.