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Their Nations Were At War, But England Loved These Spanish Tales

By BETH HARPAZ

A new book explains why English readers loved Spanish romance stories in an era when their countries were at war.

Spanish Romance in the Battle for Global Supremacy, by Professor Victoria M. Muñoz (Hostos Community College), analyzes this curious cultural trend against the backdrop of history.

Spain and England were at war from 1585 to 1604, and the failed attempt by Spain to invade England by sea–the famed Spanish Armada–took place in 1588. At the same time, Spain and other European powers were colonizing the New World, and England was itching to join them. Despite this rivalry and conflict, English readers in the 16th century were “obsessed” with Spanish romance stories. But why?

Muñoz says the genre flaunted the “cultural imperialism” of the conquistadors who overran, enslaved, and vanquished Indigenous people in the Americas. This fed England’s perception of Spanish cruelty, while “reflecting a larger anxiety about Spain’s growing cultural influence.” And despite England’s professed revulsion over Spain’s all-too-real abuses, the English themselves were “eager to copy Iberia’s voracious conquerors.” They converted Spanish stories “into books of the brave English,” then used them to justify their own “aspirational imperialism,” casting England as a civilized “savior” rescuing the world from Spanish tyranny. (Ironically, England’s colonial empire later amassed its own record of genocide and slave-trading.) 

Typically, these books featured a “struggle” between “eros and adventure.” They drew on classical myths and epics that “idealize the wandering hero,” while incorporating “old world concepts” like courtly love, honor, chivalry, and crusades to reinforce “imperial power structures.” They also eroticized the “pleasure and terror of encounter with pagan otherworlds,” while “legitimizing conquest and conversion as integral to the hero’s divine quest” and “obscuring the deadening brutalism of conquest.” 

One of Muñoz’s most interesting contentions is that the Spanish genre inspired some of England’s greatest literary works. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Muñoz sees Stefano and Trinculo representing the “greedy Spanish,” Caliban as the deposed Aztec ruler Moctezuma, and “the righteous and mild-mannered Prospero” as England’s King James I. The play, Muñoz says, is a call for “English intervention” to avert Spanish cruelty. She also makes the case that Prospero’s famous “Our revels are now ended” soliloquy describes the Aztec civilization that Spain destroyed: 

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.

Similarly, Muñoz views Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene as a “parable for England’s destiny in the New World: casting out the cruel Iberians and bringing about the New Jerusalem in America.” In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she saysthe “race for global supremacy is allegorized by the competition between Titania and Oberon” for “possession of an Indian boy.”

The publication of Don Quixote in 1605 “condemned” Spanish romance stories “to the flames.” But until then, the genre had “a rich literary tradition and English cult following,” reflecting the era’s complex “political and cultural anxieties.”​