Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

António José Da Silva:
Innovation and Classical Tradition in the Portuguese of 18th Century Theatre (1)

Maria Leonor Santa Bárbara (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) (2) [BIO]/
Maria do Rosário Laureano Santos (Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa) (3) [BIO]



When in Portugal we commemorate the 250 years after the earthquake of 1755, and the renovation of all of the city of Lisbon, this seismic phenomenon is also the departing point to think about other events, which occurred in the 18th century in Portugal. The social and mental changes were profound and significant in many ways and we must also consider the literature. The theatre, for instance, shows new aspects, that include innovations either in the text or in the representation. Therefore, we chose António José da Silva, also known as o Judeu (the Jew), and his play Encantos de Medeia (Medea’s Enchantments).

Born in Rio de Janeiro, at March 8 th, 1705, António José da Silva was the son of the lawyer João Mendes da Silva and his wife Lourença Coutinho. As they were Jews, they had to come to Lisbon, in October 1712, as prisoners, due to accusations to the Portuguese Inquisition. António José da Silva and his brothers - Baltasar and André - came with their parents and some other members of the family (five brothers of João Mendes), also detained for the same reason. One year later, the Inquisition ordered that family’s assets were taken, among other penalties. In spite of this, João Mendes da Silva remaining in Lisbon, was able to send his sons to the University, in Coimbra. In August 1726, António José da Silva’s mother was sent to jail again, as well as her sons. Released at October 23 rd, António José returned to Coimbra, finished his law studies in 1728, and after that he came back to Lisbon, where he lived and worked with his father to become a lawyer. André and Baltasar stayed in jail. About 1734-1735, he married a cousin, D. Leonor Maria de Carvalho, also pursued by the Inquisition, of whom he had a daughter, called Lourença, like her grandmother, in October 1735. This was the period (particularly in the years 1733-1738) in which his dramatic works were performed. In October 1737, he was sent to prison for the last time, and he, as well as his mother and wife, was condemned to death by fire in an Auto-da-Fé (one way in which the Inquisition put to death Jews, even those who became Christians), on October 18th, 1739, just 34 years old. Some biographers disagree with these dates, because for them only those of the Inquisitional process are relevant, and so they omit (or skip) the others. This kind of persecution by the Court of the Church to men of the humanities was not unusual. As a matter of fact, many others, as Fernão de Oliveira, Damião de Góis, Bocage, António Vieira, were also persecuted, although not in the exactly the same way, since with António José da Silva the Inquisition was much more violent.

In the 18th century Portugal, different kinds of previous dramatic influences intersected, the Spanish, Italian, but also the French and English. On the whole, they had contributed to new forms of dramatic concepts, either referring to the local and to representational forms, or referring to the growing autonomy from actors to text interpretation.

The Spanish kings that ruled Portugal from 1580 till 1640 and the cultural connectedness of the Hispanic Peninsula contributed to the knowledge of the dramatic Spanish literature in Portugal. These kinds of dramatic models were well-known, either read or acted, in the Pátio das Arcas, i.e., a place, where a movable wooden theatre was built, and where dramatic representations took place during the day. Many plays were enacted by professionals or amateur theatrical companies from Seville, Madrid, , especially in this yard, but also in others,. It was quite common for Portuguese authors to write in the language of Castile, as well as for Castilian authors to introduce in their texts Portuguese speeches, see for instance D. Francisco Manuel de Melo, Rodrigues Lobo and Lope de la Vega, Calderón, Tirso de Molino.

On the other hand, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte that since 1570 reproduced classical comedy, with emphasis in the human types, and had a relevant influence on the Spanish theatre (Lope de Vega), French theatre (Molière) and English theatre (Shakespeare), also developed new varieties: the melodrama, the pastoral and the opera, all of them accompanied by musical instruments and sung, as if in imitation of Greek theatre. This imitation put side by side the tragic mythological and pastoral atmosphere of ancient theatre, while it developed other aspects, such as singing arias and declaimed speeches. Operas were highly valued spectacles and very profitable in Italy. In Naples, by the end of the 17th century, appeared a new kind of comic opera, known as opera bouffe. These innovations were accompanied by a new theatrical architecture to include all the intervenients in the spectacle. For this reason, the space for performances became bigger. Scenography, representing different scenes, developed as well as illumination and scenic machinery. European courts were fascinated by the opera and the Portuguese court saw this kind of spectacle for the first time in 1628, when the Duke of Savoy visited Portugal bringing some singers in his train.

Operas changed the traditional Hispanic theatre, whose decadence became obvious. However, these representations were very expensive and they called for a rich, noble and elitist audience; the other public, less educated, went to the cribs or stables, where they could attend to dramatic plays, named entremezes (interludes), which could be farces, costume satires, or even refer to religious themes.

At the same time, a new kind of spectacle attracted different audiences. We are talking about representations acted by puppets, with scenes having arias with one, two or three, or even more voices. This kind spectacle is supposed to have been born in Italy, as an imitation of the opera, and it quickly became known in other European courts, like Lisbon. In this splendid town, in 1730, the palace of the Count of Soure, in the Rua da Rosa, the Bairro Alto theatre was the most well-known location, where these representations took place. Its first public was highly educated, but soon other strata of society were present. The puppets, or marionettes, were made of cork and painted and decorated, and manipulated by puppeteers with wire. Each play had sceneries, which were at the same time diversified and specific for each one, integrated in a structure that made it possible for the men to manipulate puppets on a small stage. There was also scenic machinery, which produced sound effects, for instance, the sound of Zeus’ thunder, as well as visual effects, like the vision of the sea, with the harbour where Jason’ ships arrived, or the cloud that hid and took away Medea, the grandchild of the Sun, at the end of the play, Encantos de Medeia (Medea’s Enchantments)(4).

António José da Silva left us several plays to be represented by puppets: Vida do Grande D. Quixote de La Mancha e do Gordo Sancho Pança (1733), Esopaida (1734), Encantos de Medeia, Anfitrião and Labirinto de Creta (1735), Guerras do Alecrim e Manjerona and As Variedades de Proteu (1737) and Precipício de Faetonte (1738).

All of them could be object of our study; yet, we chose Encantos de Medeia (Medea’s Enchantments) for reasons we are going to point out. It is an opera written in prose, except for the arias, and it was represented in the Bairro Alto theatre, in Lisbon, in May 1735. António Teixeira, a Portuguese composer and harpsichordist, composed the music for the arias for, at least, Encantos de Medeia, Guerras do Alecrim e Manjerona and As Variedades de Proteu. This composer was born(5) and died in Lisbon at the time of the great earthquake of 1755, when it is believed that most of his work was lost too.

António José da Silva had a great knowledge of ancient literature; therefore, in Encantos de Medeia (Medea’s Enchantments), he merged the Argonaut myth with the version used by Euripides, in the tragedy Medea, although he had adapted it in a very different way. His version of the myth presents us with Jason, with his cousin Theseus, in the ship Argos, going from Thessalia to the island of Colcos, searching for the Golden Fleece, i. e., the golden skin of a sheep shorn every year, the treasure of Colcos. Arriving at Colcos, all the men (Jason, Theseus and their soldiers) got out of the ship and went to the king’s palace. Here Jason hid the real reason of his expedition. They met Princess Medea, the king’s daughter and a sorcerer, and Creusa, her cousin. Jason fell in love with both of them, successively (first with Medea and then with Creusa). And both fell in love with him at the same time.

Medea is useful to Jason, because, as a sorcerer, she can help him to reach the Golden Fleece, guarded by a dragon. Therefore, Jason took advantage of Medea’s love and, at the same time, he seduced Creusa. Having obtained the Golden Fleece, Jason tried to go with Creusa to Thessalia. But Medea sent a storm against the ships, forcing them to come back to Colcos, where king Etas, betrayed by his daughter, married Jason to Creusa, giving them the throne. Feeling insulted, Medea left Colcos to the ether, in a cloud, because she was the granddaughter of the Sun.

In this small plot, the Jew merged two myths: first, he changes the action to Colchida, instead of keeping it in Corinth; second, for him, Creusa is not the daughter of the king of Corinth, but the niece of Etas, the king of Colcos, and cousin of Medea. Actually, our story is related to the myth of the Argonauts, and only the marriage of Jason and Creusa concerns the part that we know from Euripides’ tragedy. From the myths he knew, which related to Medea, António José da Silva, chose the one he found more convenient for his tragicomedy, which, as in the classical way, was built from tragic and comic elements. From the tragedy he took the characters of a high social level, such as king Etas, and mythological figures (Theseus, Jason, Medea, Creusa, Telamon); the grandiloquent language; and the signs, i. e., expressions or phrases indicating that something is not right, or indicating that something bad is about to happen. From the comedy (particularly the New Comedy, with Menander, in Hellenistic Greece, and Plautus in Rome) he took the servants, gracious (as António José da Silva calls them), very important characters in classical comedies, as Sacatrapo and Arpia, for instance, in charge of the most important comic scenes; also the daily language, popular expressions, Latin and Castilian expression are taken from ancient comedy.

The names Sacatrapo and Arpia are the first sign of their depiction as comic characters: Sacatrapo, Jason’s servant, indicates the instrument used to clean the weapons after the shot, being, therefore, synonym of a worthless thing. Arpia, Medeas’ servant, indicates the mythic bird of prey, like an eagle, that avenged the crimes of family blood. Here she is an old, ugly, deformed and blackened woman. Both of them are cunning, smart, ambitious, ready for anything, since they are able to obtain an advantage from every situation. Sacatrapo speaks well and is also educated, when he wants to be. These two characters, the direct descendants from the slaves of Greek and Roman comedy, represent the comic on several levels.

The first one is the comic of language, with puns, quibbles, wagers, popular expressions, and Latin or Castilian expressions(6).

The comic in situation (quid pro quo) appears in incidental remarks from the characters to the public, or, for instance, when Sacatrapo, in the second part of this play, mixes up Medea with Creusa and reveals to her Jason’s love. As a "reward" for informing her of Jason’s interest in Creusa, Medea changes him into a donkey, and then again into Sacatrapo.

There are some other situations worthy of our attention. We would like to refer to two of them, which we can also find in the second part of the text. In both of them it is clear for the spectator that these characters are cunning. In the first one, we have a discussion between Sacatrapo and Arpia. Suddenly, she slaps his face and, as if by magic, she made his head to get out of its place on the body and it whirls around in the air, till she puts it back in its place again. Then she runs away from him.

In the other situation, Arpia convinced Sacatrapo that, if he gives her his ring (and this is the second ring she gets from him), she will give him in exchange a hood that will make him invisible(7). And so, he will be able to approach the donkey, with golden excrements, without being noticed, rob him and take the donkey with him. But Sacatrapo has to fight with the ant charged to guard the donkey, and so he prepares himself bravely for it. By doing this, the ‘hero’ Sacatrapo will become as rich as his master, Jason. This one will get his richness from the Golden Fleece, while the servant will get it from the donkey. Of course, nothing of this kind happened, Arpia got the two rings and Sacatrapo was put in jail, as he had approached the stables without permission.

The confusion gets greater than before, when we add figurants or mutæ personæ , as it happens with Etas and Jason’ soldiers, who come on stage to defend, respectively, them.

Every quick character’s movements, clearly comic, turn this tragicomedy into a real comedy; the author used the resources of the ancient comedy to keep the public’s attention from the beginning till the end of the play, keeping up a constant dialog, also some incidental remarks. Yet, António José da Silva does not show any respect for the three units law, stated by Aristotle, not even of that of the unity of action. As a matter of fact, the author presents different actions taking place at the same time and with the same relevance. He attaches to the myth of Jason and Medea, the stories of Sacatrapo and Arpia. Nor can we find in this play the unity of time: the action does not take place during the period of a day, but it lasts for several days and it is really difficult for the audience (or even the reader) to realize how many days are spent in all the play(8). And we can say the same about the unity of space. In these kind of representations the sceneries were much diversified, and António José da Silva was not an exception: the action begins with the arrival at Colcos, and the public hears the sailors when arriving on land. Then it moves to the king’s palace and its surroundings. Another scene shows us Medea taking Jason in a cloud to the place where the Golden Fleece, guarded by a dragon, was. Further on, due to her magic, hills appear, just to keep Creusa away from Jason, then there is a battle-field, when Etas realizes that was the actual interest of Jason in Colcos to get the Golden Fleece.

Another relevant aspect of Encantos de Medeia (Medea’s Enchantments), which contributes to the action’s development, is the use of portents. Accompanying the action from the beginning, they lead the public (or the reader) to realize that something is about to go wrong. King Etas, Creusa and Medea are the best examples we have in this play. In the beginning of the play, we see the king worried, because of the reason Jason gave for arriving in Colcos, letting us see how suspicious he is. This indicates that not only a battle will take place, but also the way the play ends, with the punishment for Medea’s treachery.

But we also see the women worried about Jason’ feelings and the (un)steadiness of his love.

One last mark of António José da Silva’s work: as in ancient comedy, we can find some social criticisms, although not so freely, so unreservedly, as in ancient times. We cannot forget that he had been persecuted by the Inquisition, and because of this persecutions and his condition as a New Christian (as Jews recently converted to Christianity were called in Portugal), his criticisms were very light and veiled. Yet, we find that in his plays different kinds of social characters are criticized: ambitious women, professors, arrogant persons, insisting to use Latin in every sentence, and executioners, who are present in any situation.

A man of his time, erudite and knowing the ancient dramatic literature very well, António José da Silva also knew Euripides’ Medea and Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica. But he adapted the myth of Medea in quite a new way, selecting from each what seemed to him most interesting for his audience and to the kind of acting with puppets. He merged two ways and introduced new characters (Sacatrapo and Arpia) and made allusions to other ancient myths (Narcissus or the Mermaids) and new actions that embellished the story, for instance, Sacatrapo’s search, with a hood, for the donkey that would make him rich. He uses a new dramatic form - the opera acted by two groups of actors: the puppets and their manipulators, from which union and harmony results the success of the representation.

He reminds us of Hellenistic poets, as he uses the myth just to entertain his spectators and to show his erudition. This is one of the reasons why a servant like Sacatrapo uses very simple Latin phrases, so that anyone could understand them, even without much knowledges of the language.

In the same way, the use of scenic machinery, creating outside situations, like Jason’s ship, reminds us of a classical theatre resource - the deus ex machina, i. e., the vanishing of a character by the assistance of a machine. We already gave some examples, but the most important is when Medea, at the end of the play, is taken away in a cloud, reminding us of Euripides’ tragedy(9).

Clearly, the purpose of António José da Silva is to delight his public. Hence we can compare his innovative character and the way he uses classical themes with a movie, written and directed a few years ago by Woody Allen, Mighty Aphrodite. Woody Allen used several elements of Greek tragedy to make a comedy, just as António José da Silva, by uniting two versions of the myth that antiquity used in epic and tragedy, made a tragicomedy. Yesterday as today, when the Jew’s operas are represented, their success is assured. This is why this author must be considered for his contribution to the history of Portuguese theatre.

© Maria Leonor Santa Bárbara (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)
Maria do Rosário Laureano Santos (Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa)


(1) Supported by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Portugal, this paper was read by Maria do Rosário C. Laureano Santos in Vienne at IRICS - Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies, in December 10th 2005. It was written in co-authorship with Maria Leonor Santa Bárbara.

(2) Professor at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of New University of Lisbon).

(3) Assistant Professor at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of New University of Lisbon).

(4) In Lisbon, at the Museu da Marioneta (Puppet’s Museum) we can find reconstructions of these ancient puppets, used in the plays of António José da Silva. We can also find the scenic machinery for the same representations, of the same age.

(5) He was born in 1709.

(6) Sacatrapo: "Good bye, Jason, for secula, seculorum", page 32; Sacatrapo: "I incidentally asked what’s the accusative form of ego, mei, mihi? And he said: me!", page 45; Arpia: "Show me your hand; I want to say the buena-dicha", page 64.

Translated by the AA. from: António José da Silva ( O Judeu), ObrasCompletas, (vol. II, Os Encantos de Medeia; Anfitrião ou Júpiter e Alcmena - prefácio e notas de Prof. José Pereira Tavares). Lisboa, Livraria Sá da Costa, 1958.

(7) Here we have a reference of another Greek myth, the one Herodotus tells us about the ring of Giges.

(8) This is the case, when Medea complains about Jason, because some days have already passed, without seeing him, after she had given him the Golden Fleece.

(9) At the end of Medea, she escapes in Helios’ car, after killing her sons.


1. BARATA, José de Oliveira, António José da Silva. Criação e Realidade. Coimbra, Serviço de Documentação e Publicações da Universidade de Coimbra, 1985, 2 vols.

2. BRAGA, Teófilo, História do Teatro Português. - A Baixa Comédia e a Ópera. (Séc. XVIII), Porto, Imprensa Portuguesa, 1871. (Em especial: "As óperas portuguesas do Judeu", pp. 144-197.)

3. FERRAZ, Maria de Lourdes, "Ser e Parecer na obra do Judeu", Brotéria, Lisboa, vol. 102, nº 5-6 (1976), pp. 552-566.

4. FRECHES, Claude-Henri, "António José da Silva (o Judeu) et les marionnettes", Bulletin d’Histoire du Théâtre Portugais, Lisboa, t. V. nº 2 (1954), PP. 325-340.

5. FRECHES, Claude-Henri, "Introduction au théâtre du Judeu", Bulletin d’Histoire du ThéâtrePortugais, Lisboa, t. I, (1950) pp. 33-61.

6. FURTER, Pierre, "La structure de l’univers dramatique d’António José da Silva, O Judeu", Bulletin des Études Portugais, Lisboa, Instituto Francês em Portugal, 1964, tome XXV, N. S., pp. 51-75.

7. Tavares, José Pereira, António José da Silva. Obras Completas, Prefácio e notas do Prof. José Pereira Tavares, Lisboa, Sá da Costa, 1957-58, vol. I, pp. IX-XLVII.

8. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica (ed. by R. L. Hunter), Cambridge University Press, 1989.

9. Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica) (translated with introduction and notes by Richard Hunter), Oxford University Press, 1998.

10. Euripides, Medea (edited by Denis Page), Oxford University Press, 1976.

11. Euripides, Medea (edited with introduction and commentary by Denys L. Page), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988.

12. Euripides, Medea (ed. Herman van Looy), Stuttgat, Teubner, 1992.

13. Euripides, Medea (ed. by Donald J. Mastronarde), Cambridge University Press, 2002.

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

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For quotation purposes:
Maria Leonor Santa Bárbara (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) / Maria do Rosário Laureano Santos (Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas da Universidade Nova de Lisboa) António José Da Silva: Innovation and Classical Tradition in the Portuguese of 18th Century Theatre
. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_6/santos16.htm

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