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Juan Ruiz de Alarcón

Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza (1581?, Real de Taxco, now in Guerrero - August 4, 1639), one of the greatest Novohispanic dramatists of the Golden Age, was born in New Spain (modern Mexico).



The family of Juan Ruiz de Alarcón was of old Asturian nobility. The name Alarcón had been give to his ancestor Ferren Martínez de Ceballos by Alfonso VIII of Castile after he had successfully driven the Moors from the fortress of Alarcón near Cuenca in 1177. Juán Ruiz de Alarcón's maternal grandparents Hernando and María de Mendoza were among the first Spaniards to arrive in Mexico in 1535, when they established themselves in Taxco. Their daughter Leonor de Mendoza married Pedro Ruiz de Alarcón who was described as an hidalgo.

Juan Ruiz de Alarcón had four brothers: Pedro Ruiz de Alarcón, who was rector at the College of Saint John Lateran, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón who was a priest and is known for having written a treatise documenting the non-Christian religious practices of the Nahua Indians of central Mexico, Gaspar and García, about whom little is known.


Juan Ruiz de Alarcón was born about 1581 at Real de Taxco, New Spain, where his father was superintendent of mines; his mother was descended from one of Spain’s most illustrious families, the Mendozas. He was small of stature and suffered from hunchbackedness. Besides, his red haired complexion made him an occasional object of scorn, since some sectors of the conservative catholic society in which he later lived held the prejudice that Judas Iscariot was a redhead himself. Because of this, his critics often ridiculed his appearance rather than his works.

He went to Spain in 1600, where he studied law at the University of Salamanca. He continued his studies towards a Licentiate in Law—roughly equivalent to a modern Master’s degree—which he finished in 1605, without, however, taking the degree. Instead, he practiced law for a while in Seville, then in 1608 went back to Mexico, and in 1609 received the licentiate from the University of Mexico. He completed his studies for his doctorate fairly soon thereafter, but never received the degree, in all likelihood because of the rather substantial costs attached to the ceremony. He worked as a legal adviser for a while, as an advocate, and as an interim investigating judge, all the while trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to gain a teaching chair at the University.

Returning to Spain about 1611, he entered the household of the marquis de Salinas, and began a frustrating life of job-seeking at court. At the same time, purely as a way of making money apparently, he threw himself into the heady literary and theatrical life of the capital, eventually having a number of his plays performed. His first play, El semejante de sí mismo was unsuccessful, yet it attracted attention to him. By some, he was ridiculed and criticized; from others he obtained support.

For ten years, he pursued this double life, until he finally secured first an interim and then a permanent appointment to the Royal Council of the Indies (1626)—rather like an appeals court for Spanish colonies in the New World. Apparently, when political success came, he all but stopped his literary efforts—although he did have two volumes of his plays published (in 1628 and 1634), perhaps because some of them had been pirated and previously published with false attributions to his theatrical rival Félix Lope de Vega. After thirteen years of legal service to the crown, he died at Madrid in 1639.

Literary career and importance

Alarcón was the least prolific of all the great dramatists of Spain and is the only Spanish-American among the great dramatists of the Siglo de Oro. He wrote less than did others, and many of his works circulated under their names. He took pains to mull over his plays and polish both their versification and their general composition. Fitzmaurice-Kelly said of Alarcón: "There are Spanish dramatists greater than Ruiz de Alarcón: there is none whose work shows such constant perfection."

He wrote at least twenty dramas, the most famous of which is La Verdad sospechosa, (published in 1634). The first great French comedy in modern French literature, Corneille's Le menteur (The Liar), was confessedly modeled after La Verdad sospechosa. Embittered by his deformity, he was constantly engaged in personal quarrels with his rivals; but his attitude in these polemics is always dignified, and his crushing retort to Lope de Vega in Los pechos privilegiados is an unsurpassable example of cold, scornful invective.

More than any other Spanish dramatist, Alarcón was preoccupied with ethical aims, and his gift of dramatic presentation is as brilliant as his dialogue is natural and vivacious. It has been alleged that his non-Spanish origin is noticeable in his plays, and there is some foundation for the observation; but his workmanship is exceptionally conscientious, and in El Tejedor de Segovia he produced a masterpiece of national art, national sentiment and national expression.


  • Ticknor, History of Spanish Literature (Boston, sixth edition, 1888)
  • Fitzmaurice-Kelly, Littérature espagnole (Paris, 1904)
  • Fernandez-Guerra y Orbe, Don Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (Madrid, 1871)
  • Schons, Dorothy, Apuntes y documentos nuevos para la biografía de Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza (Chicago: 1929. Private edition)
  • This article incorporates text from the article "Juan Ruiz de Alarcon" in the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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