chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

What makes Don Juan so intriguing?

Posted by Jason on November 11, 2008

Ever since the early 17th century, this womanizer has captivated our hearts, our hatred, and our sympathies. The earliest iteration was most likely a combination of two folk myths, one about a tireless and shameless seducer, and another about dinner with a stone likeness who pulls the young sinner into hell. Tirso de Molina first combined these in a 1630’s drama and the basic story is as follows:

Don Juan is an impudent scoundrel who takes pride his ability to seduce any woman he wants, without repercussion and without penitence. Then he mocks the statue of his latest victim’s dead father and the father’s ghost invites Don Juan to dinner. With pomp and puffed out chest, Don Juan goes to dinner with the statue/ghost and the ghost asks for a handshake, naturally…When Don Juan goes to shake, the ghost drags the libertine down into hell without even the courtesy of killing him or allowing him last rites.

So this quirky little drama is what has captured the imagination of the western world for nearly 400 years? Apparently so: according to the Don Juan wiki page (the most reliable source EVER!) there have been over 85 works of prose, theatre, and music written about Don Juan since Tirso first penned the original drama. 

In some works, Don Juan is condemned to hell with no redemption, following the original story. Others show Don Juan’s conversion to good by a pure-hearted female who risks her salvation to save her true love. The 20th century brought a more experimental attitude toward the world’s most famous player. Don Juan has been impotent yet immortal, or even the helpless victim caught in the middle of two women warring for his affection.

These stories of the fearless, immoral seducer have something for everyone. We men wish we had even half the game of this guy. Our wives and girlfriends, too, wish that we men had any game. Other ladies wish they could be swept off their feet like Don Juan’s victims. Yet others would love to save a poor, lost man’s soul-if you prefer the more Romantic/optimistic story of Zorrilla. If you like the more fundamentalist approach of Tirso and Mozart (really da Ponte: Mozart just wrote the music for Don Giovanni), then the hard-nosed damnation of Don Juan gives all of us justification that all the bad guys really DO get what they deserve in the end.

The complexity of the overall myth, due to the sheer number of different versions, makes it difficult to pin down what exactly the allure of Don Juan is. Through all the works I’ve read, which is by no means an exhaustive list, there is a common thread that unites them: Don Juan has some power over the female psyche/heart/sensuality. Some works, especially the twentieth century ones, forego the statue and the hellish handshake, but they retain our hero’s power over the fairer sex. Is Don Juan then, some sort of post-Renaissance super anti-hero with unexplainable mental/sensual powers? How does Don Juan do what he does, and why is he the standard by which all who come after are measured?

I’ve been interested in the Don Juan myth/archetype for some time, and actually started some research into this and read several Spanish works from varyious time periods. I thought this would be my senior year honors project, to come up with some idea about the myth. It turns out all I accomplished was a nice Spanish literature review with no interesting ideas. Now, I’ve finally come to a realization that may or may not hold water, but it is an idea.

Who is the only notable womanizer/seducer before Don Juan? To find the answer, we must look back to the dawn of time, according to the Greeks anyway. Everybody smooth operator since the 1630’s has been compared to Don Juan, but there was only one we know of that came before: Zeus. Mythology pegs the god as the great seducer, having countless consorts with both mortals and deities. Being the king of the pantheon, Zeus rarely suffered any consequences for his actions and those were minor at worst. The arrogance, the carefree attitude, and the relentless thirst for females that make up Zeus’ reputation all are apparent in the Don Juan of Tirso de Molina. The only difference is that the playboy smashes headlong into the freshly post-Dantean Catholicism of Golden Age Spain. He is not Zeus, and cannot save himself from the hands of an angry God.

What is the line of succession from the Mount Olympus to the decadence of Habsburg Spain in the 17th century? Well, it’s not quite clear and I haven’t fleshed it out or really researched it sufficiently yet, but I see a strong connection between the scholarly Arab and Jewish influences on Spain until the end of the 15th century, and the Renaissance obsession with Greco-Roman themes. One must not forget that the only true European center of learning throughout the Middle Ages was Cordoba, and all of the middle-eastern scholarship -once it was finally rediscovered- was funneled into Europe through Spain. Now does it seem so far of a stretch that stories of Zeus and his exploits would eventually seep into the Spanish consciousness through which the “folk” myth of Don Juan came together with the Stone Guest under Tirso’s pen? I think not.

So my grand idea is that Don Juan is somehow the result of the Spanish popular incorporation of Zeus stories that had been permeating the Iberian Peninsula via Jewish and Muslim scholarship throughout the Middle Ages. Maybe if I ever further my academic studies in Spanish, I’ll actually get off my mental butt and research some support for this hypothesis.

Any thoughts?

**Addendum: see my follow up post here: 



3 Responses to “What makes Don Juan so intriguing?”

  1. well.. it’s like I knew!

  2. MercuryButterflies said

    Zeus was to blunt to be a Don Juan. It represents the Gemini archetype. Androgynous, thus new his way through the female psyche.

  3. Jason said

    I know it’s quite a long time after Mercury’s comment, but I think our idea of Don Juan being silky smooth and super charming has come from several iterations after the original. In Tirso’s drama, Don Juan is pretty much a scoundrel and quite blunt about his intentions. Sure, he does result to some trickery now and then but his game is generally straight ahead conquest… I do find your idea of the Gemini/androgynous archetype intriguing. Again, coming from Classical myth.

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