[Posters for contemporary stagings of the play in Mexico]
What are the ethics involved in killing an oppressive leader? This is a particularly pressing issue in the Arab world today, but philosophers and writers have struggled with the question for centuries. Lope de Vega’s 1619 play Fuenteovejuna is a classic of Spanish Golden Age theatre devoted to this problem, chronicling a violent populist uprising against a brutal tyrant.
Based on a real historical episode, the play centers on the fate of corrupt Commander Guzman of the crusading Order of Calatrava, who in 1476 is waging a war of succession against Spain’s “Catholic Monarchs,” Fernando and Isabel of Castile and Aragon. As the play begins, the Commander is planning the conquest of Ciudad Real, along Castile’s southern border near the Order’s headquarters. While preparing the attack, he stops in the mountain town of Fuenteovejuna. While there, the Commander and his men take a liking to several local women, rape one of them and attempt to take another, who makes it back to town badly beaten.
In retaliation, a group of the townsmen find and kill the Commander. After his death, Fernando and Isabel send a magistrate to the town to determine who is responsible. In the most memorable exchange of the play, the villagers meet his questions with a unified response:
“Who killed the Commander? Fuenteovejuna, Señor. Who is Fuenteovejuna? The whole town, Señor.” 
Even after the magistrate tortures men, women, and children, their answer remains the same. “Fuenteovejuna did it” is their refrain to the magistrate, and no single guilty party is ever found. This simple response is one of the most quoted in Spanish literature.
The play remains popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, and its strong theme of standing up to injustice lends itself to constant reinterpretation. Over the years the play has been viewed “as a fervent cry for monarchy, for democracy, for socialism, even for communism.”  Contemporary Mexican stagings of Fuenteovejuna (see posters above) have drawn parallels between the arbitrary violence shown by the Commander and the mounting death tallies of the war between Mexican drug cartels. A 2010 New York University production, put on in collaboration with a Chilean acting school, called the play’s message “a clarion call for revolution against human rights abuse in many parts of the world.” 
But by glorifying the villagers for their courage against tyranny, the subtleties of the original can be obscured. Frustrating easy political interpretations, the play ends with Fernando and Isabel pardoning the villagers for their actions, on their way to the conquest of Granada from the Moors and sponsorship of Columbus’ voyage to the New World (all in 1492). This “reyes ex machina” conclusion may be a letdown to modern readers, but there is no real indication that the villagers saw themselves as participating in a radical political experiment. They just wanted a brutal local dictator replaced by benevolent monarchs, and they achieved their goals through brute force and deception.
Time will tell if the movements of the Arab Spring fall into a similar pattern of reprisal and conformity. Reading Fuenteovejuna today, it’s hard not to think of Muammar Gaddhafi’s bloodied and mutilated body, the anonymous mob of his assassins, and the motives which drove them to take their revenge on him. The comparison is not lost on the Spanish; one newspaper titled a recent story about Gaddhafi’s death: “¿Quién mató al Comendador?” 
 In Spanish: “¿Quién mató al Comendador? Fuenteovejuna, Señor. ¿Quién es Fuenteovejuna? Todo el pueblo, Señor.” Full Spanish text available here: http://mgarci.aas.duke.edu/cibertextos/VEGA-LD/FUENTEOVEJUNA/
 “The Politics of Lope’s Fuenteovejuna,” William R. Blue, Hispanic Review, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Summer, 1991)
Image credits: http://sanginescultura.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/festival-teatro-aureo-en-guanajuato/ and http://www.enkidumagazine.com/art/2011/010611/a_0106_008_fuenteovejuna_juliana_faesler_rescate_de_la_conciencia.htm