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Calisto is a young nobleman. While searching for his lost falcon, he finds himself in the garden of Melibea, a beautiful young woman from a wealthy family. Calisto falls instantly in love with her. Melibea, careful to protect her virtue, condemns him for making advances toward her and sends him away.
Calisto returns home, frantic and miserable. He blames his servant, Sempronio, for losing his falcon and verbally abuses him for it. Sempronio wonders if he should stay with Calisto for fear Calisto might take his own life, but Sempronio also worries about his own life and never seeing his lover, Elicia, again. Calisto orders him to play a sad song on the lute, so Sempronio plays a song about the burning of Rome, which Calisto says recounts a tragedy that can’t compare to his pain. Sempronio accuses him of being a heretic, to which Calisto retorts that he has a new religion, Melibea. Sempronio, convinced Calisto has gone mad, tells Calisto he’s not the only one who has forsaken God for love and criticizes Calisto for focusing all his desire on one woman. Sempronio says women are false and lead men astray, but this only makes Calisto proclaim Melibea’s virtues more. Sempronio, seeing an opportunity to take advantage of Calisto’s vulnerable state, tells him he knows a woman who can help named Celestina.
Sempronio heads to the madam Celestina’s house. Elicia, Sempronio’s lover, is there, with a client, Crito. Celestina sees Sempronio coming and orders Elicia to send Crito to the broom closet to hide. Celestina, knowing a kept woman has to appear faithful, doesn’t want Elicia to jeopardize her relationship with Sempronio. Sempronio enters and addresses Celestina as “mother,” and they warmly greet other. Elicia, however, is angry at Sempronio because he hasn’t visited her in three days and lambastes him for being a poor lover. Sempronio tries to cajole Elicia into forgiving him by telling her he felt tormented in her absence. He hears a noise upstairs and asks the women who is there. Elicia, trying to make Sempronio jealous, answers honestly and says it’s one of her lovers, but Celestina quickly covers for her saying that it’s one of her friar’s girls, which reveals that Celestina’s clients include friars and likely other clergymen. Sempronio tells Celestina that he has something important to talk with her about, and they step outside for a walk.
Sempronio tells Celestina his plan. He tries to flatter her, but they know each other too well for pretenses. Sempronio says Calisto is lovesick and they have a chance to benefit from the situation. Celestina, understanding immediately, is delighted and says she can come up with a plan. She says they should delay helping Calisto to extract more out of him.
Sempronio and Celestina wait outside Calisto’s door. Pármeno, Calisto’s other servant, recognizes Celestina and calls her an old whore from behind the door. Calisto scolds Pármeno for insulting Celestina, but Pármeno assures him that Celestina doesn’t mind. Calisto asks Pármeno how he knows her, and he says he used to be her servant. Pármeno explains that Celestina works in many trades, but they are all a front to her true profession of arranging prostitutes for men and selling them as virgins. He says Celestina knows how to “repair broken maidenheads.”
As they wait outside the door, Celestina tells Sempronio to be quiet so she can talk about how much she wants to help Calisto and he can overhear. Calisto falls for the ruse even though Pármeno warns him the comments are all staged. Calisto welcomes them in, praising Celestina for her virtue. Celestina calls Calisto an idiot to herself. While she and Calisto speak, Pármeno states how naive Calisto is for allowing Celestina to fool him. Later, Celestina takes Pármeno aside to tell him she heard what he said. She warns him that no true friendship can exist between two people of different statuses and that he’s a fool to be loyal to his master. Celestina encourages Pármeno to obey her instead. Pármeno waffles. He knows Celestina is a manipulator but also that he should believe his elders. Calisto gives Celestina a hundred pieces of gold as an advance. Celestina promises Pármeno Areúsa, Elicia’s cousin, whom he is in love with, to go along with their plan.
La Celestina opens with a typical “hunt,” a pursuit of love. Allegories of courtship like this are typical of the medieval era and have their roots in Classical mythology, which often depict gods chasing nymphs and other objects of their desire, who run away from their unwanted advances. In the medieval Christian era, these allegories morphed to depict a nobleman chasing a maiden who spurns his advances in an attempt to maintain her purity. In each case, the metaphor of the “chase” demonstrates a person’s natural impulse to act out of their more primitive, impulsive desires. This is why these scenes usually take place in natural settings like forests or gardens, where Calisto finds Melibea.
Calisto is on a hunt for his falcon when he stumbles onto Melibea’s garden. Birds typically play an important role in medieval Christian symbology, usually as a device to foreshadow or foretell important events. The falcon in Christian symbology is often a symbol of nobility, boldness, and power. In its wild state, however, the falcon can symbolize man’s unconverted soul and sinful thoughts. Falconry was also a sport typical of the noble class in medieval Europe. Wild or not, Calisto’s falcon leads him to Melibea, who awakens his carnal desires and causes him to think sinful thoughts about her. Melibea, as the pure maiden, dutifully sends him away, scolding him for insulting her honor. The falcon leads Calisto to his fate and also foretells his and Melibea’s unfortunate demise later, as in this society, following one’s unchecked natural impulses can be fatal.
When Calisto returns home, his altered, lovestruck state is described as an illness, a malady to be cured. Calisto suggests that the feelings of love that have struck him burn hotter than the fires that destroyed all of Rome and are deadlier and more destructive. Love has plagued Calisto so much he proclaims he’ll die without a cure. Sempronio plays into this metaphor of love as an illness capable of killing someone as well when he weighs whether to stay with Calisto or leave him alone. He fears that if he leaves Calisto alone, he might kill himself, but if he stays, Calisto might kill him. He recognizes that Calisto is in a deranged state of mind.
Fortunately, Sempronio figures out what is bothering Calisto. He says he knows a woman, Celestina, who can offer a cure. Sempronio, of course, is only trying to take advantage of Calisto and doesn’t care whether Calisto is helped. When he realizes Calisto’s madness is over a woman, he derides him for being so dramatic over a woman. Sempronio, a servant, is much more versed in the ways of romance and has a steady relationship with one of Celestina’s prostitutes, Elicia. Sempronio’s and Calisto’s gap in experience sets up another theme in the novel, the differences in perception between the wealthy and the poor and how it is revealed in the experiences of love. For a sheltered nobleman like Calisto, love is still an idyllic romantic notion, but for Sempronio, it’s a game that must be played wisely and strategically.
Sempronio is savvy. When he approaches Celestina with his plan to swindle Calisto, who is now an easy target because he’s desperate with love, Sempronio even tries to manipulate her. He opens by telling her that he never wanted anything for himself without wanting to share the wealth with her. But Celestina stops him right away. She tells him they know each other too well for such false flattery. Sempronio and Celestina are made of the same ilk—street-smart and opportunistic. They’re both equals in this area. Their dynamic sets up a power struggle among equals that will play out throughout the novel, as they decide whether to work together or cut each other out of their gains to get ahead.
Celestina is brought in by Sempronio as a healer of love, but in fact, she is both the agent of the “disease” of love and its healer. On the one hand, she sells love between clients when she sells women’s bodies to men and facilitates the expression of their desire. On the other hand, she “restores” the chastity of women afterward, healing them from the disease of desire inflicted by men. Her position in society and now as Calisto’s healer is paradoxical and hypocritical, but it’s only because of the social constructs that make it so. In a strictly pragmatic view, Celestina is simply a procuress who helps men have sex.