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El retablo de las maravillas (1610-1615), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

English title: The Marvellous Puppet Show
Date written: sometime between 1610 and 1615
First publication date: 1615
Keywords: identity > class/social standing, identity > race, identity > hierarchy, family > genealogy, ideology > honour, ideology > religion and faith
Genre and type: entremés

In this one-act play reminiscent of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’,  two swindlers trick the townspeople into saying they see an imaginary puppet show in order to prove their purity of blood. Things become violent at the end when a newcomer tells the truth: that there is nothing to see.


This play exposes the nature of the racial and ethnic prejudice in Cervantes’ society, based on the social codes of the purity of blood or limpieza de sangre. The Mayor and the Governor, the ignorant, rustic and backward town leaders, are taken in by a pair of charlatans who trick them into claiming to see an imaginary puppet show which is in fact non-existent (along the lines of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’). The magic nature of the show is that it cannot be seen either by people born illegitimately or those whose ancestors were not Christians. The Governor and his aldermen want to be seen as good cristianos viejos, Old Christians of pure blood, untainted by any Jewish or Muslim origin. The villagers pretend to see the marvellous mice, lions, biblical figures and other invisible ‘puppets’ invoked by the tricksters, in order to protect their reputations and so that no one will think they are illegitimate or a New Christian. The play ends with the arrival of a billeting officer who, like the Child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, admits that he sees nothing, and the townspeople jump on him and claim he must be a Jew. The play ends in a big fight, with the tricksters congratulating themselves on a successful swindle.


For the origin of the fable which is similar to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ in Spain, and which is the dominant theme in this play, see Molho, 1976. It also appeared in a fourteenth-century Spanish novel, El conde Lucanor by the prince Don Juan Manuel (Smith 1996: 95).

  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 1996. Eight Interludes, trans. and ed. Dawn L. Smith. London, Everyman

  • Molho, Maurice. 1976.  Cervantes: raíces folklóricos. Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

Critical response

Although not performed in his lifetime, the eight entremeses (one-act plays) Cervantes published have received plenty of critical attention in the 20th century. El retablo de las maravillas is probably the entremés of his most often staged, followed in popularity by La cueva de Salamanca. Most critics see Cervantes’s dramatic work as an overt attack on Lope’s popular formula, as Cervantes’s plays do not conform to the ‘norms’ of Lope’s Arte nuevo. However some critics disparage the plays, seeing their uniqueness as Cervantes’s lack of talent for writing marketable drama. Cervantes is generally thought to have been a better novelist and short story writer than playwright, although there are many critics who write favourably of his innovative dramatic craft. Cervantes is principally known as the writer of Don Quixote, a work of comedy but also of philosophy and ‘high moral purpose’, which accounts for the neglect of his comic theatre (Smith 1996: 169). Yet 20th century critics have reclaimed Cervantes’s ingenuity, especially Casalduero (1966) and Asensio (1965 and 1971). Cervantes’s plays are increasingly appreciated and have been recently staged by both the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico in Madrid, and in English translation by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Pedro, the Great Pretender in 2004-05). For an overview of Cervantes’ critics from 1749 on, see Smith, 1996.

  • Asensio, Eugenio. 1971. Itinerario del entremés desde Lope de Rueda a Quiñones de Benavente, 2nd edn Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

  • Casalduero, Joaquín. 1966. Sentido y forma del teatro de Cervantes. Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 1996. Eight Interludes, trans. and ed. Dawn L. Smith. London, Everyman

  • Smith, Dawn. 1996. ‘Cervantes and His Critics’. In Eight Interludes, trans. and ed. Dawn L. Smith, pp. 166-76. London, Everyman

  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 1987. Entremeses, ed. Nicholas Spadaccini. Madrid, Cátedra

  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 1998. Entremeses, ed. Florencio Sevilla Arroyo and Anonio Rey Hazas. Cervantes completo 17. Madrid, Alianza

Useful readings and websites
  • Gerli, E. Michael. 1989. ‘El retablo de las maravillas: Cervantes’s “Arte nuevo de deshacer comedias”’. Hispanic Review, 57, 477-92

  • Larson, Catherine. 1996. ‘The Visible and the Hidden: Speech Act Theory and Cervantes’s El retablo de las maravillas’. In El arte nuevo de estudiar comedias: Literary Theory and Spanish Golden Age Drama, ed. Barbara Simerka. Cranbury, NJ, Bucknell University Press, Associated University Press, 52-65

  • Molho, Maurice. 1976.  Cervantes: raíces folklóricos. Madrid, Gredos (in Spanish)

  • Reed, Cory A. 1992. ‘Dirty Dancing: Salome, Herodias and El retablo de las maravillas.’ Bulletin of the Comediantes, 44, 7-20

  • Wardropper, Bruce W. 1984. ‘The Butt of the Satire in El retablo de las maravillas.’ Cervantes, 4, 1, 25-33 [http://www.h-net.org/~cervantes/csa/artics84/wardropp.htm]

Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 4 October 2010.

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