David Pasto,
Professor, Oklahoma City U


Transending Gender Roles in Angela de Azevedo's Presumed Dead

Angela de Azevedo's play, Presumed Dead, is the only play I know in which there is cross-dressing in both directions. Lisarda disguises herself as a man to avenge the murder of her brother, and her brother (who is not dead) disguises himself as an old woman to keep an eye on her. Lisarda even wins a sword fight while dressed as a man. My presentation will discuss how the play follows and transgresses traditional gender roles

Transgressing Gender Roles in
Presumed Dead
by David Pasto

The Spanish Golden Age play, El muerto disimulado by Angela de Azevedo, was recently translated by Catherine Larson under the title Presumed Dead. The original Spanish text was published with two other plays by Azevedo, who was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain in the seventeenth century, but there are no records of any performances of the play before the twenty-first century. Like other Spanish Golden Age plays by female playwrights, Presumed Dead questions traditional gender roles. In fact, characters in all four plots of the play transgress the traditional roles for men as well as women.
Seventeenth-century Spain was definitely a patriarchy. Fathers ruled the daughters, and sons ruled over sisters if the father had died. After marriage, husbands should rule over wives. Men were expected to be brave, daring, and skillful at swordplay. Women were expected to be obedient, passive, and content to stay at home. While a woman could be dishonored for being alone with a man, it was her nearest male kin (father or brother) who had to challenge the man who had dishonored her. A duel with swords was required to restore the family’s honor, and it was the man’s place to avenge death and restore honor.
In Presumed Dead, Azevedo reverses many of the gender roles. Daughters disobey fathers and brothers, a woman wins a sword fight, and a woman attempts to avenge the death of her brother. All of these actions are contrary to the gender roles of the Spanish Golden Age. In addition, a woman disguises herself as a man, and a man disguises himself as a woman, so the play transgresses many of the traditional gender stereotypes.

The play opens with a Rodrigo threatening to kill his daughter, Jacinta. She loves Clarindo, but he is presumed dead after a duel. Rodrigo wants his daughter to find another man, but Jacinta refuses. If she can’t marry Clarindo, she wants to become a nun and give up all men. This angers her father who thinks he is being kind by letting her choose another man for herself. He threatens to kill her with his dagger and tells her to “remember that fathers are the image of God,” and that she disobeys God by disobeying him. Thus, he articulates the traditional gender roles for a father and daughter. At the end of the play, Azevedo will reward Jacinta for disobeying her father and transgressing the gender role of the obedient daughter.

In the next scene, Lisarda enters dressed as a man. She is Clarindo’s sister and disguises herself as a man to find and kill the man who killed her brother. While it is common for women in Spanish Golden Age plays to disguise themselves as men, they often do so to pursue a lover in plays written by men. Lisarda, however, takes on the male role in the honor code by vowing to avenge her brother’s death. When her servant argues that she should follow the traditional role of attracting men, Lisarda responds: “Don’t speak to me in terms of beauty; instead use words like sparks, lightning, fierceness, bitterness, passions, choler, grief, wrath, fury, rage, and ruin, for the anger in my breast created a huge conflagration in which I’m burning.” (9) Transgressing the gender stereotype, she emphasizes her male qualities of fierceness and power.

Disguised as Lisardo, she comes across two men fighting a duel with swords, Don Alvaro and Alberto. She draws her sword and runs between the dueling men to stop the fight. This reveals her great courage, another traditionally masculine trait. Her interference allows Alberto to escape. Don Alvaro attacks Lisardo, but she disarms him, further transgressing gender roles by defeating a man in a swordfight. Don Alvaro is so impressed with Lisardo’s fighting prowess that he invites Lisardo to stay in his house rather than the tavern. He does so not realizing Lisardo is actually a woman in disguise.
Lisarda, disguised as Lisardo, learns that Don Alvaro was in love with Jacinta, so he attempted to kill Clarindo in a duel. Lisarda is torn because she intended to avenge her brother’s death, but has fallen in love with his killer. This internal conflict causes her to delay killing Don Alvaro.

Fortunately for Lisarda, her brother did not die after being wounded in the duel with Don Alvaro. When Clarindo overhears that Lisarda has disguised herself as a man, he disguises himself as a woman to keep an eye on her. He chooses to wear the clothes of an old woman and claims to be Clara, a woman who sells ribbons and other trinkets to women. As Clara, he is more concerned with jewelry and fans than with honor, but when he speaks as Clarindo, he focuses on honor and revenge. Presumed Dead is the only Spanish Golden Age play I know which has both a woman disguised as a man and a man disguised as a woman. Until the twentieth century, I believe no other play has cross-dressing in opposite directions to emphasize “the fluidity of sexual/political identity” (Soufas, 113). So the plot itself transgresses traditional dramatic plots.

One final plot involves the reason for the duel between Don Alvaro and Alberto. Alberto is in love with Don Alvaro’s sister, Beatriz. Don Alvaro does not think Alberto’s rank is high enough to make him a suitable husband for his sister. Beatriz, refusing to play the role of the subservient sister, sneaks out of her brother’s house and goes to live with Rodrigo and Jacinta. At their house, she hopes she can meet with Alberto. Again, a female character defies her traditional gender role by disobeying her brother who, conforming to stereotypical gender roles, acts the father’s part (since their father is dead).

Presumed Dead has four major plots, and every plot has a character transgressing traditional gender roles. Most Spanish Golden Age dramas which have a transgressive plot balance that with a plot or two where the men and women follow more traditional gender roles. This play is unique in pervasive transgressions.

Another unique aspect of Presumed Dead is how the characters react to seeing characters they know in disguise. Typically, when a character is wearing a disguise, the other characters do not recognize them at all. However, in Presumed Dead several characters comment on how much Clara looks as Clarindo. Since they believe Clarindo to be dead, it doesn’t occur to them that it could be him in disguise. Even his sister, Lisarda, notices that Clara looks like Clarindo, but she assumes her obsession with avenging her brother’s death causes her to see his likeness in unlikely places. This is another way in which Presumed Dead transgresses traditional plot construction in Spanish Golden Age drama.

Like many Spanish Golden Age plays, Presumed Dead also transgresses the “fourth wall” and comments on itself as a play. At the end of the first scene, the maid remarks, “I’ll bet that in an hour and a half no one will be able to figure out what direction this play is headed.” After that “hour and a half,” the playwright chooses to reward the characters that transgress their gender roles. Jacinta, Lisarda, Beatriz, and Clarindo all win the hand of the one they love. Lisarda and Clarindo give up their disguises to gain their marriage partners, so all the characters are dressed as their own gender at the end.
The characters who transgress against the gender roles all achieve happiness in the end. They are rewarded not only by marrying the person they love, but that person also knows how they transgressed gender roles and admires them for it. Don Alvaro, for example, loves Lisarda because of her sword play and courage. In this way, Azevedo undermines the Spanish Golden Age gender roles and celebrates the transgressions.

Works Consulted

Azevedo, Ângela de. Presumed Dead. Trans. Catherine Larson.
El muerto disimulado / Presumed Dead. Ed. Valerie Hegstrom.
Introduction and Notes by Valerie Hegstrom and Catherine Larson. 2016. MS.

Camino, Mercedes Maroto. “Tranvestism, Translation and Transgression: Angela de Azevedo’s
El muerto disimulado.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 37.3 (2001) 314-325.

Soufas, Teresa Scott. Dramas of Distinction: A Study of Plays by Golden Age Women.
Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 1996.

Vollendorf, Lisa. The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitional Spain. Nashville:
Vanderbilt University Press, 2005.

Wade, Jonathan, editor. El muerto dismulado. Department of Spanish and Portuguese,
Brigham Young University. 2004.