Don Juan or Hamlet? Us or Them?

“Men learn in a negative rite to give up the best things they were born with, and forever.”
—Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night (1968)

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1599) and Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla (1612?) are the most archetypal plays by any Spanish or English playwright from the early modern period, arguably ever. Hamlet and Don Juan are beyond any shadow of a doubt the most universally recognized young male characters produced by each culture. Further, at the time they were written, Catholic Spain and Protestant England were tenuously consolidated antagonists in the last overtly religious conflagration of European history. For these reasons, the precision by which these two plays mirror each other merits our attention. They are the most salient dramas of the most militant stage of the clash between the Reformation and the Counterreformation—all while the formation of the first modern nation states was underway.

This combative historical context is in no way ephemeral. The two societies engaged in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) would remain in conflict throughout the Atlantic world for many decades to come. The deterioration of relations between the regimes of Philip II and Elizabeth I also underwrote the Gunpowder Treason Plot (1605), a second Anglo-Spanish War (1625–30), and the continuation of the Dutch Revolt until 1648, a fateful year for empires.

If we look even further afield, a kind of rolling crisis developed on both sides. Anglo blows to Spanish confidence and Habsburg domination in Europe signaled a highwater mark that entailed the declining socioeconomic statuses of Spain and Latin America in subsequent centuries. Maintaining an empire can be costly. When the Iberian Union collapsed in 1640, Cataluña was thrown into rebellion until 1659, and after a twenty-eight-year struggle, Portugal regained its independence in 1668.

The chain of political panics unleashed in the English world by the Hispanic menace is even more forceful. The costs of the Anglo-Spanish struggle precipitated the English Civil War. The first charge by parliamentarians against the Stuart Monarchy in the Grand Remonstrance of 1641 pertained to its mismanagement of the war with Spain. And reverberations of these same events can be traced to the American Revolution. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), the author of the Declaration of Independence circles the earliest manifestation of the constitutional rights of Americans in a formal agreement conceived in 1651 at a convention that colonists held before surrendering their arms to the representatives of Cromwell and Parliament. Then, while calling for a more robust national Constitution, one which might resist the whims of despots, elective or otherwise, Jefferson pointedly cites Lord Coke—chief investigator of the Gunpowder Plot—for the traditional English view that the law is always whatever the current lawgivers say it is.

Just how far we can push such historical causality would require us to debate unmeasurable and multifaceted quanta of psychosocial energy and social crisis. But over the near term, my case ought to be admitted. Shakespeare and Tirso, for instance, were contemporaries of Cervantes and Hobbes, whose major works were also profoundly influenced by the Anglo-Spanish conflict. Hobbes noted that upon the approach of the Spanish Armada (1588), his mother gave birth to twins, “myself and fear.” Cervantes, whose brother died at the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600), wrote dashing romances colored by the same conflict. La española inglesa and Historia del cautivo are good examples.

Grant me, then, that some tectonic dance insinuates itself among the contrasts between Shakespeare’s and Tirso’s masterpieces. Beyond the conscious artistry of either author, an impossibly metaphysical thing—structural, fluid, mimetic, and collective in nature—an ideological symphony, if you will, a psychosocial score, drives the opposed meanings of Hamlet and El burlador de Sevilla. We might imagine these as lingering sacred spaces as Greek tragedies of the fifth century BC, which mixed entertainment and ritual during a tumultuous time for Western Civilization. We ought to keep in mind, too, that entertainment in all cultures is intensely competitive. Playwrights seek to channel the passions and anxieties of their respective audiences. And they do so at scale, the bigger, the better—the essence of literary triumph—and whether they work for money or glory, their goal is to satisfy or disturb their public, usually both. The names of our two playwrights suggest mirrored efforts to incite entire nations to act, i.e., to “shake” their respective “spears”—Tirso derives from the Greek “thyrsus.”

Okay then. The most obvious points of contrast between Tirso and Shakespeare involve the character types we now associate with their protagonists. What Hamlet and Don Juan seek, their antithetical sexualities, and their remarkably contrastive interactions with ghostly visitors from the afterlife are obligatory points of comparison. We’re looking at mysterious and symbolic poles of gravitation and repulsion between the Anglo and Hispanic societies of the day.

Hamlet is brooding; Don Juan is flamboyant. They have opposite goals, although they’re deeply egocentric in each case. Hamlet tells Ophelia to retire to a nunnery. He wants to erase sexuality. Rather, he seeks purity and proof. Don Juan seduces a series of women between Naples and Seville. He craves fruition and verve. One man investigates the murder of his ghostly father and ends up killing everybody at the Danish court. The other murders the father of his last lover and is then dragged to hell by a paternal phantom at Spain’s gateway to Africa and America.

Both plays pull a medieval past into the present. Hamlet digs up the origins of England in the same murky realm once ruled by Beowulf, i.e., a place associated with the constitutional origins of the Anglo polity. El burlador de Sevilla shows us something hot and steamy circulating in the Western Mediterranean. It’s a carnivalesque shadow of that Catholic power that emerged from Rome and then charged Habsburg Spain with a militant response to Protestantism. Seville is the newest center of gravity for the Spanish Empire, connecting Europe to something overseas; so, Don Juan’s demise there is integral, global, and moral in a transnational sense.

The only semblance of justice in Hamlet is a mass poisoning that looks like a reluctant suicide pact among Elizabethan rebels. Hamlet drags everyone down into a lifeless social order. Justice in El burlador de Sevilla is a more targeted, vengeful reprimand of a transgressor who likewise threatens to shred the social fabric around him. It’s a less bloody affair. There’s a murder, but a king and two fathers excise Don Juan from the Hispanic world like a criminal or a tumor.

Don Juan is a libertine opposed to the austerity of Catholic monarchs; Hamlet embodies a puritanical contrast to Henry VIII’s divorce from Rome. Philip II often dressed in black, dark like Hamlet. Henry VIII was nothing if not bejeweled carnality, more obese than Don Juan, and just as flashy and lusty. He was anti-abstinence.

Against its protagonist, Shakespeare’s play asserts that we must stop bemoaning our sinful past and accept a new political order. Against its protagonist, Tirso’s play asserts that we must salvage the marriage contract as the lifeblood of civilization. Shakespeare knows his viewers want to look past Henry VIII’s transgressions, but Hamlet won’t stop complaining about the immorality of it all. Tirso knows his public wants to leverage the Council of Trent’s stand on nuptials, but Don Juan insists on indulging himself at every turn. Shakespeare essentially pleads with his protagonist, “Yes, Hamlet, the princely line has broken with Roman Catholic authority. But get over it! You’re going to get us all killed!” Tirso tires of his protagonist’s impertinent romp and lays down the law again: “No, Don Juan, we cannot let you sow sexual infidelity across the Mediterranean like some dirty Englishman.” This is to see that each drama expels and repairs what each side thinks is overwrought or broken about its rival’s religious rite.

Among the most interesting aspects of the contrast between Hamlet and Don Juan are their respective encounters with spirits. Hamlet’s father’s ghost at the outset of the play—as Stephen Greenblatt argued years ago—signals the socio-theological difficulty of Purgatory. He appears to ask for revenge not prayers. Protestantism divested itself of Purgatory. It’s only Heaven or Hell now, and where you go is between you and God. So, you can’t pray anymore on behalf of your ancestors to lift them up a level in the great hierarchy of souls doing hard labor in the middling part of the afterlife. Thus, too, Hamlet wonders if he might just be seeing things. Maybe the ghost is the aftereffect of something he ate earlier that evening? But neither can he let it go. Like a great portion of his English audience after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, Hamlet is a former Catholic who must adjust to the new religion’s revised view of the cosmos. And his love and respect for his ancestors no longer has agency in the beyond. That stings. Shakespeare stabs his finger into that sorrow.

Meanwhile, Don Juan encounters a ghost who is the opposite of a wispy enigma. His spirit takes the form of a massive statue come to life. In point of fact, the soul of Don Gonzalo is zealously real, authoritative, more Catholic than most Catholics might imagine. He even dines with his interlocutor. If Hamlet advocates for a ghost he might have belched into existence; Don Juan is in fact his ghost’s most immediate victim, and vice versa. Here is Tirso’s Purgatory—as I argued years ago—reasserted in a definitive way. Indeed, Tirso doubles down on Purgatory. The weighty visitor from the “elsewhere” of the Counterreformation is a soul who’s incensed, but he’s also sensed by us, constituted. He’s literally an animated monument to the idea of Justice. And Don Gonzalo doesn’t plead for assistance in moving up to Heaven; he takes Don Juan with him down to Hell. By implication, all sinners in the here and now risk shaming our ancestors, lowering their status, and increasing their pain in the hierarchy of postmortem souls. Tirso presses all kinds of subconscious buttons in the minds of his Catholic viewers, especially in those who might be wavering in their faith.

All of this is to say that the ultimate issue in both plays is a rupture in the social continuity of Catholic Europe. Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragón (1534) was the most overt manifestation of a broken contract that polarized the world. Accusations and feelings of guilt and mistrust proliferated. Don Juan and Hamlet are projections of this new dichotomy. For modern viewers, it’s most interesting that their respective programs support the traditional political interpretations of the economic habits of these two mindsets. Respectively, Protestants and Catholics are often affiliated with capitalism and socialism, and not without reason. These mindsets conceal similar contradictions, but they also do seem to gravitate around certain antipodal ideas. Undergirding the capitalist mentality, for example, is a hidden and convoluted acceptance of the costs of bankruptcy, that is, broken contracts or “divorces” between creditors and debtors, as well as a plethora of morally slippery concepts like caveat emptor and fractional banking. Underwriting the socialist mind is an overt emphasis on collective contracts, state-owned businesses that can never go under, and the enforcement of group virtues like social justice and the “right” to a job.

And yet, during Shakespeare and Tirso’s time, Calvinists and Jesuits were remarkably similar in their aggressively mercantilist approaches to the rest of the world. Likewise, each imposed a renewed purity on their own followers. Above all, they both signaled radical dissatisfaction with corruption at Rome. It’s just that Calvinists broke with the idea of Rome as a conduit to moral salvation, whereas Jesuits opted for reform. If there’s a favorable wrinkle to the bellicosity and separation that we see precipitating out in the plays by Tirso and Shakespeare, it’s that they urge anyone identifying with Hamlet or Don Juan to look within himself for the true sources of society’s problems. Then again, the international tragedy of this ethical wrinkle is that any psychological correction applied to Don Juan and Hamlet results in even more polarity. It does this because it urges conformity to domestic rites in opposition to the errors of foreigners. In this case, moral victory consolidates a desire for conflict, and Protestants and Catholics seem doomed to renew their faiths by tilting against each other (cf. Thuc. 1.126–128).

Personally, I think it’s time for a new rite. I’ll admit that I love both Shakespeare and Tirso. I pay to see either play performed by anyone, anywhere, anytime, and in either language. But I prefer neither Don Juan nor Hamlet as societal scapegoats leveraged against the other culture. And in political terms, I’d vote against both. Neither is a leader; they’re just scoundrels in their own ways. I also suspect that most people would agree that some hybrid of these two cultures is preferable and inevitable in today’s world. Instead of purging them, let’s blend them together and see if they can moderate each other. Maybe combining the best of each rite will result in marginal improvements. Besides, do we really have a choice?

Photo by Wikimedia Commons


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *