Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century poet, playwright and nun. In her native Mexico today she is celebrated as an icon: her old convent is now a university bearing her name; she is the subject of a movie and many plays and novels, and she even features on the 200 peso banknote. Yet, despite her fame, her story has been distorted and the more that is written about her, the further we get from the true historical figure.
The misrepresentation of Sor Juana's life began in the 1930s but gained traction thanks largely to Octavio Paz’s 1982 biography and the 1990 movie, I the Worst of All. Her privileged life and the support of the Church and court have been ignored. Instead, the popular narrative tells us that Sor Juana was persecuted by the Inquisition for stirring up controversy. As a result, she is now known as a subversive upstart who was silenced and forced to give up her career and possessions, and her tragic death from the plague is framed as a martyr’s atonement to make up for her ‘transgressions’.
Though she is relatively unknown in the UK, a production of The Heresy of Love, which is based on Sor Juana’s life, has been thrilling crowds at London’s Globe since the end of July. This critically acclaimed play by Helen Edmundson was written in 2012 and builds upon the existing mythology, ramping it up even further. Within this new version of events, Sor Juana’s beauty and sexuality become central to her persecution: she is torn down by bitchy female rivals as well as male authority figures. Her punishment too goes to new levels as she mortifies her own flesh, even cutting her face, and the books in her library are publicly burned by order of the Inquisition.
Fuller goes on to argue that much of this interpretation of Sor Juana's life is creating a martyr-victim when there isn't one, and that anti-Catholic and anti-clerical politics played a crucial role:
This cooperation between Sor Juana and the Spanish crown and the Church does not fit the acceptable image of a Mexican heroine. It is much more appropriate to have her rebel against her ‘oppressors’ and suffer for having done so.
Indeed, in a plotline that is continued in The Heresy of Love, Sor Juana is presented as finding favour and safety only temporarily with the Viceroyals. Once their tenure is complete and they return to Spain, she is thrown to the wolves. As such, her narrative becomes a metaphor for Mexico itself: tyrannised by Spain and then left to rot.
Far from being silenced within her lifetime, this actually began in the 20th century and continues today. Her own image, largely self-made, was deemed unacceptable for a modern day Mexican national treasure and decimated. As a result she has become a victim after all.
You can imagine that part of the pleasure some members of the audience received from attending the play The Heresy of Love is that it confirmed their views of organized religion and the Catholic Church.
Note that Amy Fuller has studied the works of Sor Juana and wrote her PhD dissertation on the nun's one act plays in the Eucharist:
The seventeenth-century Mexican poet, playwright and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, is best known for her secular works, most notably her damning indictment of male double standards, Hombres necios (Stupid Men). However, her autos sacramentales (allegorical one-act plays on the Eucharist) have received little attention, and have only been discussed individually and out of sequence. By examining them as a collection, in their original order, their meaning and importance are revealed. The autos combine Christian and classical ‘pagan’ imagery from the ‘Old World’ with the conquest and conversion of the ‘New World’. As the plays progress, the mystery of Christ’s ‘greatest gi ft’ to mankind is deciphered and is mirrored in Spain’s gi ft of the True Faith to the indigenous Mexicans. Sor Juana’s own image is also situated within this baroque landscape: presented as a triumph of Spanish imperialism, an exotic muse between two worlds.
Amy Fuller gained her PhD in Spanish Studies from the University of Manchester in 2010, and is a Lecturer in History at Nottingham Trent.