Blog Post

Sample Project Idea - Geospatial Politics in the Spanish Golden Age

We recently had a pretty cool assignment for my graduate seminar "Reading and Writing in the Digital Age." We were to create a hypothetical research proposal in the style of Lisa Gitelman's "Paper Knowledge" or Franco Moretti's "Distant Reading." I opted for the latter, and took the opportunity to put on paper (or rather, screen) an idea I've had for a while. I'm copying below the "finished" proposal, with a thanks to my classmates who helped edit. Let me know what you think! Is it feasible? What digital tools could make it happen if I were to go forward with it? Here goes my proposal, entitled "Globalization and Geopolitics in the Early Modern Spanish Comedia Nueva."

The coalescence of a new dramatic genre in Spain, the comedia nueva, in the late sixteenth-century is often seen as one of the pillars of Spanish Golden Age culture and a unique example of a massively popular (critically and commercially) as well as self-consciously coherent genre. With its own set of rules laid out by one of the genre’s main developers in a widely-known poetic work, the comedia exhibited a remarkable formalistic uniformity for over a century, characterized by some of the following tendencies: a strict three-act structure written in mixed poetic verse of standardized length; the recycling of a familiar cast of stock character types and themes; the mixture of tragic and comedic elements; and the breaking of the classical unities of time and place (while maintaining unity of action).

The self-conscious generic consistency of the comedia allows for fruitful and non-anachronistic distant reading of distinct elements of the large corpus of extant comedias. So many comedias were written, estimated around 11,000, that even with the existence of a journal dedicated entirely to the genre (Bulletin of the Comediantes), today only a small percentage are read and discussed. Of the few thousand extant today, only a fraction of the most canonical comedias are ever considered in traditional literary studies of theme, character development, and gender and political subversion.

The possibility of a large-scale study of Early Modern Spanish literature has been partially realized by other projects, such as the unfinished Preliminares project from David Brown at Western Ontario University’s CulturePlex (available at This ambitious project has attempted to gather data on the front matter (preliminaries) of every published work in Spain, including published comedias, from 1516-1700. Spanish front matter, with its documentation of censorship and publication permission, contained myriad references to authors, nobles, and bureaucrats, and can be aggregated and analyzed for valuable insight on social networks of the age. The inception of this project as well as its unfinished nature should speak to the possibility but also the challenges in sustaining a large-scale distant reading of the comedias.

Aside from its front matter and other formal elements of early modern letters, certain aspects of the comedia, such as geography, may lend themselves well to large-scale analysis. Spain’s seventeenth-century is often regarded as a time of unprecedented worldwide transfer of people, ideas, goods, and culture from royal interests all throughout Asia, Africa, the Americas, and many parts of Habsburg Europe. This new imperial geographic awareness cannot help but express itself in the cultural production of the era, namely the comedia, with a range of geographical settings far greater than the medieval theater from which it emerged. This fact, coupled with the aforementioned freeing from the classical unity of place allows the action of the plays to take place in different locations, often moving to a new town or region between acts or scenes. Finally, the Spanish tendency to project royal criticism and imperial dissent onto foreign kings, thereby softening the blow and reducing threat of censorship, adds another globetrotting dimension to the geopolitics of the comedia.

Thus far, no attempt has been made at a large-scale study of the geography of the comedia outside of the “usual subjects” in the twentieth-century canon. Therefore, I propose to compile a master list of geographical locations mentioned in every Spanish comedia from 1580-1700. Though a full-scale TEI encoding of each comedia using <place> tags to denote geographical location would be the optimal mode of analysis, allowing for seamless and robust data visualization, the practicalities of transcribing, encoding, and tagging thousands of comedias in a variety of states of publication and conservation is too ambitious even for the seasoned academic or team of scholars. Instead, I propose that for each play, the latitude and longitude data of the approximate geographic location of each setting change will be compiled along with the number of verses transpiring in that setting. In the process, potentially useful data about number of geographical changes within a given work will also be tracked. Special attention will be paid to geographic changes in breaks between the three acts.

Once a sufficiently large list has been compiled the results can be mapped, using a robust interactive mapping platform, such as GeoJSON or a similar format, onto a period map georectified to a map produced by current satellite data. This technique will facilitate both an accurate period understanding of world geography and the ease of modern latitude and longitude coordinate system. Geographic specificity of the representation will be determined based on individual works: for example, while most works list specific cities, others simply list a country or region. In this case, a random but representative location of that region will be coded, and marked separately to denote ambiguity. As the focus of the project is broad and looking at holistic trends across large geographical areas, it is not expected that such ambiguity will affect the results of the research.

A system of colored markers and toggled layers will be used to differentiate sets of data, with the potential for color coding by act, playwright, or a number of other variables (as described below). Additionally, layers representing sets of data can be enabled or disabled for visualization, allowing fruitful comparison across sets of data. In addition to colors and layers, size of marker will give a quick reference to the number of verses transpiring at each location (for example, a large marker for 1000+ verses, medium for 500-1000, and small for 250-), thus adjusting for relative weight and enhancing the “thickness” of the map. Once compiled, the visualizations will provide a compelling picture of geographical variance useful for further analysis.

Though the project intends to rescue forgotten authors, for the purposes of practicality and generating interest, the works of the comedia’s progenitor and most prodigious playwright Lope de Vega (1562-1635) should be considered first. Called a “Monster of Nature” by Cervantes, Lope produced a copious quantity of comedias, rumored to number around 1,800, some 350 which survive today. A geographical analysis solely of the works of Lope de Vega himself would be valuable in analyzing the contours of the geopolitics as imagined by the genre’s early gatekeeper. Analysis of other well-known playwrights with similarly exceptional oeuvres should follow Lope, such as the 80 surviving plays of Tirso de Molina and the 260 of Calderón de la Barca. While a large bulk of the texts by major authors are available in academic libraries throughout the United States, for further stages of the project involving lesser-known authors, consultation with Spanish researchers or travel to appropriate bibliographic resources or archives may become necessary to complete the record.

Aside from the impactful visualization of spatial variance in the comedia, mapping the geopolitics of Early Modern Spanish drama will serve to answer at least two main sets of analytical research questions: 1) How was geopolitical space envisioned by Early Modern Spanish playwrights? What were the limitations, incongruities, and broad assumptions of their notions of how the imperial world was constructed? What differences arise from dramatic actions that transpired within the current Spanish empire versus outside it? How does geographic representation change from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century? 2) How does geographical variation manifest itself in the varying structure and character of the comedia itself as a literary genre? Special attention will be paid to (potential) difference between authors and subgenres. First, fruitful analysis may be made of differences in geographical representation between clerical and secular authors, those born in the Old World versus those born in the New World, and male versus female playwrights. Second, geographical variance will be used to test certain assumptions about various subgenres that critics have tended to assign, such as the classic distinction between the comedia de capa y espada or “cloak and dagger plays” that typically transpire in contemporary Spain and the comedia paulatina or “palatine play” that projects Spanish conflict onto a foreign nation to avoid censorship. Other fruitful distinctions may be made between court dramas versus popular theater, musical dramas versus spoken theater, and secular drama versus the auto sacramental or morality plays. Care will be taken to analyze all possible variables while making no previous assumptions about the attribution of subgenre, thus letting the geopolitics of the plays speak for themselves, as it were.

Finally, the utility of the project in pedagogical applications must never be underestimated. Given the large scope of the project, participation from a group of students in a relevant course could deepen not only their familiarity of the subject matter but also with critical tools. Relevant courses might include Introduction to Golden Age Spanish Literature, Special Topics on the Comedia, or Introduction to Digital Humanities Methods. Students might, for example, be assigned one play each week for a few weeks to “read,” either in the conventional, close sense, or in a more distant geographically-focused manner. The collective thoughts of a group at least partially dedicated to such a distant analysis would enhance not only the project, but also the students’ understanding of the material and the methodology. Additional training in GeoJSON or other mapping formats would enhance students’ knowledge of coding, providing at least a brief window into this invaluable 21st-century skill.

By undertaking a broad geographical analysis of the comedia I hope to add to existing scholarship to create a greater understanding not only of this important dramatic genre and its emblematic works but also of the geopolitical framework of imperial Spain in which the works were conceived. In taking a distant approach, I hope to increase the visibility of lesser-known comedias and their authors, reducing the tautological emphasis on canonical texts in our understanding of the genre. In this way, I hope to foster interest in the far reaches of the comedia, just as the geopolitics of the time explored the far reaches of the world.


Examples of geographic variance in comedias that may be important in analysis:

  • El vergonzoso en palacio (Tirso de Molina) takes place in Portugal and Castile.

  • La vida es sueño (Calderón) takes place on route to and in the Polish capital.

  • Fuenteovejuna (Lope de Vega) alternates between a village and the capital of Castile.

  • El burlador de Sevilla (Tirso de Molina) takes place in Naples, Valencia, and Seville.


No comments