Public Theater and Health Care in the Early Modern Spanish World

Public Theater and Health Care in the Early Modern Spanish World

Ray Ball

In May of 1646, don Duarte Fernando Álvarez de Toledo Portugal, the Viceroy of the Kingdom of Valencia, wrote a letter to King Philip IV. The Spanish monarch, who ruled over the various territories that comprised the Crown of Castile (including overseas dominions in the Americas) and the Crown of Aragón (which included Catalonia, Valencia, and parts of southern Italy, as well as Aragón), had recently asked the Council of Castile to investigate the viability of a number of reforms, including whether or not to close all the playhouses throughout the kingdom. The Council, which was the Crown of Castile’s primary advisory body and which undertook numerous judicial and legislative functions, subsequently issued decrees banning the performance of all comedias (plays).

In his letter, don Duarte wanted to ensure that these closures pertained to kingdoms in the Crown of Aragón as well. Assuming that they did, he also noted that “here they have already begun to discuss how the hospitals might be compensated for this loss of funds.”1 The viceroy’s letter stresses the symbiotic relationship between theaters and hospitals of the Spanish empire. It also reveals that theaters concerned civil and ecclesiastical authorities in ways that included but went beyond the moral politics of the content of plays.

A white woman with long orange hair sites in a chair, attended by a serving woman.
María Calderón (Wikimedia Commons)

Don Duarte’s letter came at a moment of reform. Philip IV, a monarch who enjoyed theater, had fathered a child with the actress María Calderón. He sometimes had public performances halted in order to bring acting troupes to the royal palace to perform privately. However, in the 1640s, the king faced political crises in the form of revolts in Portugal and Catalonia as well as dynastic crises upon the death of his wife in 1644 and then his son and heir in 1646. He looked to reformers and spiritual advisers for guidance. Clearly, even monarchs who liked plays might target theater as a sinful vice, like foreign fashions and gambling, that needed to be expunged.

During periods of reform such as this one, rulers paid heed to the significant opposition in the forms of antitheatrical polemics, sermons, and treatises that theater’s popularity triggered. The Jesuit priest and writer Pedro de Guzmán compared the theater to the fabulous mythical beast Scitale, who was so dazzling she killed her prey by stunning them with her “gilded and glittery scales.”2

Across the Atlantic, in Mexico, the bishop of Puebla de los Angeles, Juan de Palafox (who was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2011) compared theater there to “a bishop’s throne of pestilence” and called upon his fellow clergy to avoid the playhouse because it was “the plague of the republic [and] the schoolroom of the most scandalous of sins.”3

Other clerics and reformers, like the jurist Alfonso Carranza, joined this chorus. Carranza’s main aim was to introduce sumptuary legislation, but he blamed actors and actresses for introducing frivolous fads in clothing.4

One reason the theater attracted so much vitriol was because its relationship to health care and good works firmly entrenched its presence in urban daily life throughout the Spanish monarchy. Many Iberian cities had permanent structures for performances by the beginning of the seventeenth century, and by mid-century, so did many Spanish American cities.

Teatro degollado, built in the mid-1800s during Mexico’s theatrical movement. (Adrián Cerón/Wikimedia Commons)

The Council of Trent (1545-1563), which issued many doctrinal reforms and reaffirmed the importance of good works in the face of Protestant challenges and attacks, revitalized Catholic clerics and laypeople. Many sought to perform good works, including caring for the ill, indigent, and orphaned. The performance of plays provided one significant avenue for this activity for the laity.

While the exact dynamics of this relationship varied according to place and time, hospitals and orphanages in many cities throughout the early modern Spanish empire came to depend on a portion of admission fees from the theater. This was true in Madrid, where there were fewer but larger hospitals, and in other cities, where numerous, smaller hospitals operated through the efforts of various groups from guilds and lay brotherhoods to royal officials and convents.

In Madrid, the early success of sixteenth-century playhouses operated by religious lay brotherhoods drew the attention of municipal and court authorities. Confraternities initially used the playhouses to fund their own charitable activities, but government authorities soon stepped in, allowing frequent performances in exchange for one quarter of the earned admission fees, which they earmarked for the General Hospital of Madrid.

Over time, they mandated price increases; the administration of the playhouses fell under the jurisdiction of the Protector of the Hospitals named by the Council of Castile and an elaborate leasing system emerged. Theaters issued licenses to sell food and drink to help make plays more profitable.

The playhouses in some cities physically developed in the spaces of hospital courtyards themselves. This was the case in the Castilian city of Guadalajara, where an inn-yard theater emerged in the Hospital de la Misericordia. It was also true of Mexico City, where the patio of the Royal Indian Hospital underwent refurbishments in order to attract audiences, including members of the city council who demanded a private box from which to watch plays. Such spaces became places where spectators could enjoy the entertainment and at the same time participate in an act of piety.

Hospital de la Misericordia (Li Taipo/Flickr)

The hospital care that theater funded could be uneven. An audit of Madrid’s hospital system in 1613 and 1614 revealed both a lack of sufficient personnel and resources, and appalling behavior among hospital staff. One nurse, María Perez, “had mistreated and whipped and lashed a poor sick woman who then died.”5 Other documents, however, reveal that hospital staff paid attention to the physical and spiritual health of patients and that there was a relatively high rate of cure in these institutions.

A report written by the hospital’s accountant in 1677 revealed that during the previous year just over 9,800 patients had received care in Madrid’s General Hospital system. Of those, 8,278 were cured, 562 were still in hospitals, and 967 had perished from their ailments or natural causes.6

Certainly these hospitals were not what we would consider ideal by twenty-first century standards, but historian Michelle Clouse, who has examined the extension of royal authority into Castilian medical practice, has noted that such comparisons fail to appreciate the rich history of early modern medicine.7 Sarah Owens’s recent post in this series about healthcare and medical practice in colonial convents examines how nuns in Arequipa, Peru provided colonial subjects with both physical and spiritual care through herbal and other remedies and the comfort of prayer.

Philip IV of Spain – Velázquez 1644 (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet another critical component of medical practice in the Spanish empire was the fact that charitable health care relied on theater.8 The physicians, surgeons, phlebotomists, cooks, servants, and priests who worked for city hospitals received salaries and used food, instruments, and curative agents that were all partially funded through the production of plays.

This is why about a year after the Viceroy of Valencia penned his missive to Philip IV, another official, Melchor de Alcazar, petitioned the king on behalf of the Royal Hospital of Seville. In his request he cited the “very great necessity and poverty” of the hospital’s patients and implored the king to allow plays to be resumed to help alleviate those needs. Alcazar, who served the city as a financial officer, claimed there were already theaters where performances could take place and that dramatic activity undertaken “to succor the poor [would be] without aggravation or harm to the persons [in the neighborhood].”9

Soon Philip IV reversed course and allowed performances to resume. Although attacks on the theater did not cease and reformers continued to rail against disorderly behavior on the stage and in the audience, poverty and disease proved to be an even greater concern for many officials.


  1. Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Secretaría de Valencia, Leg. 725, No. 38, 29 v 1646. Return to text.
  2. Pedro de Guzman, Los bienes del honesto trabajo y daños de la ociosidad en ocho discursos (Madrid: Imprenta Real 1614), 306-307. Return to text.
  3. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, Discurso en favor de cierto religioso de vida ejemplar, a quien castigó rigurosamente un prelado superior, porque subió a predicar al púlpito de cierto convento de religiosas, al tiempo y cuando se representaba en él una mal ordenado comedia, de que resultaron muchos daños, ed. Efraín Castro Morales (Puebla: Museo Mexicano, 2003), 37 and 39. Return to text.
  4. Rachael Ball, “‘Beautiful Serpents’ and ‘Cathedras of Pestilence’: Antitheatrical Traditions, Gendered Decline, and Political Crisis in Early Modern Spain and England,” Sixteenth Century Journal 43, no. 3 (Autumn 2015): 541-563, and Amanda Wunder, “Women’s Fashions and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Spain: The Rise and Fall of the Guardainfante,” Renaissance Quarterly 68, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 133-186. Return to text.
  5. Archivo Regional de Madrid, Sección Visitas, Signatura 8483, Carpeta 1, fol. 26r-27v. Return to text.
  6. Leonardo Galdiano y Croy, Breve tratado de los hospitales y casas de recogimiento de esta Corte (Madrid, 1677), 6-7. Return to text.
  7. Michelle Clouse, Medicine, Government and Public Health in Philip II’s Spain: Shared Interests, Competing Authorities (Burlington: Ashgate, 2011). Return to text.
  8. I make this argument in my book Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Return to text.
  9. Archivo General de Simancas, Casas y Sitios Reales (Legajos modernos), 270-2-134. The petition is undated but likely was written between 1646 and 1649. Return to text.

Featured image caption: The Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, commissioned by Philip II of Spain, is one of the Spanish royal sites and has functioned as a monastery, basilica, royal palace, pantheon, library, museum, university and hospital. (Courtesy Fred Romero/Flickr)

Rachael “Ray” Ball is Associate Professor of Early Modern European and World History at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her book Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World came out last year, and she is currently at work on a book about patronage and news networks in Castile and Spanish Naples as well as a chapbook of poems that explore historiographical and hagiographical themes. Ray tweets @ProfessorBall.