The Destructive Power of Love

Greater is the fire that lasts for eighty years than one that passes in a day, and greater is the fire that kills a soul than one that burns a hundred thousand bodies. There’s a great difference between appearance and reality . . .

In Act I, Scene 2, Calisto returns home after seeing Melibea for the first time and falling madly in love with her. He is in a completely foul mood, despondent, and inconsolable. Calisto asks his servant Sempronio to play him the most sorrowful song he knows on the lute to reflect his mood, since he can’t play a song himself due to his spirit being so out of tune with grief. Sempronio plays a song about the burning of Rome. In this quote, Calisto responds to the tune, saying that the burning in his soul from unrequited love can’t compare to the burning of an entire city. Calisto’s exaggerated and melodramatic response is a satirical caricature used to poke fun at the concept of romantic love and the modes of courtly love presented in medieval tropes. Calisto can’t possibly be feeling this much devastation over a woman he met for a mere few minutes, and he’s still very young. He hasn’t lived long enough to recognize that what he feels is lust or infatuation, not true love. Calisto’s comment that there’s a “great difference between appearance and reality” is also ironic, since the comment could apply to himself as well. 

[E]xplain my malady to her and tell her how this fire is consuming me. … I wasn’t able to describe the third part of my trouble to her, so tortured were my tongue and senses. You can speak freely to her; you’re not sick.

This quote appears in Act II, after Calisto sends Celestina away on her errand to secure Melibea’s affection. Calisto has given Celestina an advance of 100 pieces of gold. Although Celestina has just left, Calisto is already growing impatient and wants to make sure she understands the severity of his situation but also wants to make sure he’s not being swindled. With these words, he sends Sempronio along to check on Celestina, explaining that Sempronio must be the one to talk with her since Calisto’s senses are “so tortured” from his current illness. Calisto repeatedly refers to his lovesickness as a “malady” and a “sickness” that only Melibea’s love can cure. This characterization of love is used by the other characters as well, such as Sempronio and Pármeno. Love is characterized as an ailment or disease to show how love can inflict the body with pain and derange the senses to create madness. Such a comparison reveals love’s destructive power.

Love is an enemy of all reason and gives its gifts to those who serve it least, until they too are caught in love’s mournful dance. Love is an enemy of friends and a friend of enemies, and knows no order in its rule. Love is painted blind . . . but blinder are love’s ministers who do not see how bitter will be their wages!

Here, in Act XVI, Pleberio, Melibea’s father, gives the surest voice to the novel’s theme of the destructiveness of love when he bitterly laments Melibea’s suicide at the end of the novel. Pleberio has just watched his daughter die by suicide after confessing all that has transpired to get her to this place. She chooses to fall to her death in response to her lover Calisto’s tragic fall from a ladder. Melibea’s chastity and reputation are ruined, and now her lover is gone. Understanding her society and how it treats women in her position, she feels she has no choice but to destroy herself as well and follow Calisto to the grave. Pleberio, a man who says he formerly believed there was an “order” to the world, now believes that there is none and that love is one of the main causes of such pain and chaos. Love, as he says, is an “enemy of reason” and ensnares the young and inexperienced with the wild desires it inflames them with. Rather than scorn or judge, Pleberio laments not only his daughter, Melibea, but everyone else who died along with her—Calisto, Celestina, Sempronio, and Pármeno—showing his noble nature. 

The Honor Among Thieves

[D]on’t try to be your master’s friend, for friendship is rarely possible between different ranks and fortunes.

Celestina says these words to Pármeno, Calisto’s servant, in Act I, Scene 5, after she hears him speaking cruelly of her behind her back while speaking to Calisto. Celestina tries to counsel young Pármeno on the folly of trusting one’s master too fully. She’s wise to the ways of the world, which have shown her that there is no true friendship between masters and servants and that masters will always betray their servants if a situation calls for it. This same sentiment is corroborated later when Areúsa describes how female servants are always betrayed by their mistresses when it comes time to find a husband; the mistresses spread rumors about their servants and renege on paying their dowries, denying them a chance to marry and be free, demonstrating the novel’s theme that the only true honor among the lower classes and thieves is among themselves. Celestina wants Pármeno to pledge his loyalty to her, for selfish reasons so she can get him to stop interfering between her and Calisto but also to protect his interests, as a mother would.

Celestina, your words make me tremble. I don’t know what to do. I’m puzzled. I owe you my love as a mother, but I owe Calisto my love as a master.

Pármeno utters these words to Celestina in Act I, Scene 5, after finding himself in a moral quandary over Calisto’s involvement with Celestina. On the one hand, Pármeno knows getting involved with Celestina, a known swindler, will likely lead to his master Calisto’s demise, but he is also bitter that Calisto has rebuffed his warnings and even questioned his loyalty simply because Calisto would rather have yes-men around him, like Sempronio, who encourages his relationship with Celestina. Pármeno, who quotes classical literature and philosophical texts as a man of the Renaissance, is still bound by his belief in the medieval concept of loyalty to one’s master, but as he’s human, he’s hurt that such loyalty isn’t recognized, valued, or even returned. Pármeno is a man caught between the old and new world of his time, and he feels confused as to which course of action he should choose. Ultimately, Celestina draws him to her side by playing to his lower desires and promising him sex with Areúsa, revealing how a man divided in such a way will likely fall to corruption or at least bend toward his baser needs.

Well, Sempronio, you must know that such offers and polite words carry no responsibility. All is not gold that glitters.

Here, in Act XII, Celestina speaks to Sempronio. Celestina, for all her lip service to the concept of “honor among thieves,” a major theme of the novel, does a complete reversal when she turns her back on her co-conspirators in refusing to give Sempronio and Pármeno their share of the gold chain she received from Calisto. Earlier, Sempronio doubted Celestina’s promise to share the profits she received from Calisto, profits earned by them all as they are working together to successfully join Calisto and Melibea. Noticing his doubt, Celestina pledged that “whatever is mine is yours” to quiet his fears. Now, she’s showing no indication of sharing the gold chain. She argues that it was her risk and her spell that earned Calisto’s reward, not theirs. Celestina is right in a way as she exacted the lion’s share of risk and effort. However, by taking this stance, she has undeniably betrayed Sempronio, who invited her into the scam in the first place. On the one hand, Celestina’s position as an old woman who has to rely on herself makes readers sympathize with her plight. On the other hand, her death by Sempronio’s hand satisfies a sense of justice in the novel and roundly completes her story.

Women and Deceit

Read your histories; study your philosophers; read your poets. Their books are full of stories of wicked women who destroyed men, men who like yourself held them in high esteem. Listen to Solomon where he says that women and wine make men deny God.

This quote appears in Act I, Scene 2. When Calisto returns desperate and inconsolable after Melibea rejects him, his servant Sempronio finds Calisto’s melodramatic behavior embarrassing and borderline reprehensible. He encourages Calisto to have more self-respect and to focus on conquering women rather than being conquered by them. In this quote, Sempronio tries to validate his opinion by referencing literature and history, which he says is scattered with examples of men being led astray by women’s deceit. Sempronio’s literature references may be a cynical interpretation of history’s accounts of the ill-fated relationships between men and women, but they do provide convincing support for his claim that women are innately deceitful. Furthermore, Calisto denied God earlier by denouncing him and claiming Melibea as his new religion, validating Sempronio’s point. Citation of classical literature might seem humorous in the mouth of a servant, who is likely uneducated, but it was a sign of the times in the fifteenth-century Spanish Renaissance to be able to call up these types of references to represent one’s conventional wisdom as a show of wit.

Ah, my daughter, if you only knew how sharp your cousin is and how well she has done for herself by taking my advice, and how high she has climbed in her profession! . . . She keeps one in her bed, one at the door, and a third sighing for her, all at the same time.

This quote spoken by Celestina appears in Act VII, Scene 2. Celestina is annoyed that Areúsa, one of her prostitutes, won’t sleep with Pármeno because she would rather be faithful to one of her regulars. Areúsa argues that the man who comes to her regularly keeps her well clothed and treats her like a wife and that she doesn’t want to jeopardize her situation for one night with Pármeno. Celestina needs Areúsa to sleep with Pármeno so she can secure his loyalty, but she is also genuinely irritated that Areúsa is wasting her faithfulness on a lost cause and not heeding her advice in general. Here, Celestina refers to Elicia, who keeps several men at one time and is loyal to none, as an example Areúsa should follow. Celestina’s guidance is highly practical, well-won sage advice from a lifelong prostitute and madam. She understands that women in their position need to put their own needs first, since no one else will look out for their future. In this way, women being deceitful, something which Sempronio bemoans earlier, seems necessary and a justified means to survival. 

Poor silly girl that I was! How much better it would have been to yield to Celestina yesterday, when she came to plead for that gentleman who so charmed me! . . . Oh, my faithful Lucrecia . . . How dismayed you will be at my loss of shame and modesty, which I once guarded as a sheltered maiden should!

In this quote found in Act X, Melibea reveals that she regrets turning away Celestina, who came as a go-between on Calisto’s behalf the day before. Melibea wishes she didn’t protest so much, an act meant to protect her reputation and virtue. She wishes she hadn’t missed her opportunity to tell Celestina that she was interested in Calisto after all. Melibea’s words here reveal several things. They show how Melibea is trapped inside her society’s moral chivalric codes as a daughter of a nobleman and must spurn every romantic advance in a show of modesty. Melibea is forced to be deceitful because of her society’s codes. At the same time, Melibea’s words also reveal that she may have been truly charmed by Calisto when he first approached her in the garden and that Celestina’s spell wasn’t even necessary. In this way, Celestina’s spell is made null and void, which removes some degree of malignancy from Celestina’s actions since she was just facilitating a true connection. In such a case, Celestina is simply an agent of nature rather than the devil.