Isabel de Sena

Joseph Campbell Chair in the Humanities

MA, University of California-Berkeley. PhD, University of California-Santa Barbara. Has published on late medieval and early Renaissance Peninsular literature, as well as Latin American literature (Sarmiento, Altamirano, Manuel de Jesús Galván). Among her translations are Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (into Portuguese) and Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil (Knopff, 2002). Taught at King’s College (London), Princeton, and Goucher College; directed and was the first resident director of the Sarah Lawrence in Cuba program (2001-04). Currently at work on a bilingual edition of short tales from the Spanish-speaking world. SLC, 1997–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Becoming Spain: Origins, Golden Age, the Struggle for Modernity, Contemporary Issues


The literature and arts of Spain reflect, react to, question, and complicate a long history of cultural and linguistic hybridization (as early as the so-called convivencia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle Ages) and periods of intolerance (the expulsion of Jews and then Muslims and “moriscos” in the 15th and 16th centuries. That brilliant age for literature and the arts coincided with the expansion of a new empire—the Golden Age of literature and theatre—as well as its exhaustion; the struggle for modernity in the 19th century, like much of the world, even as internal conflict and colonial wars (e.g., Spanish-American War) depleted resources; and then the upheavals of the 20th and 21st century, which include more than one Republic, a deadly Civil War followed by 36 years of dictatorship under Franco, an uneasy transition towards democracy starting in 1975, and the incorporation into “Europe” (European Union, 1986)...only to find Spain again struggling with debt (European Union), with various territorial autonomies (Basque Country, Catalonia) and their various languages and identities, and with immigration (from Africa and Latin America, in particular)...raising continuous issues about global, national, local identity, gender roles, class relations, and ethnic issues. Through literature and film, we will explore all of these issues in four basic units. Readings will include the Poem of the Cid, the Celestina, the first picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tormes, some of Cervantes’ exemplary novels, a Golden Age play, some short stories by María de Zayas, and a play by García Lorca, among other texts. Films will include those directed by Pedro Almodóvar, Victor Erice, and Icíar Bollaín, among others.

Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Literature in Translation: Don Quixote and the Early Modern World: Knight, Lover, Madman, Reader


Don Quixote is many things to many people. To his family and friends, he is a madman—his brain addled by excessive reading of chivalric tales and other nonsense. Yet almost everyone with whom he comes in contact becomes a collaborator in his madness, on occasion outdoing him. To himself, he is a knight in shining armor, whose purpose is to defend and protect the poor, the disenfranchised (and damsels in distress). To most people, he is a sorry-looking old man who, for instance, challenges (older) lions into battle. Yet he can (rarely) battle—and defeat!—men much younger than himself. A member of the lesser nobility, he is singularly obtuse about money and what it means to make it, keep it, and manage it. He is both a lover, ever pining for the ideal lady of his thoughts, and the staunch defender of a woman’s right to her choices. He never married himself, yet he may on occasion provide wise counsel to young hot heads in love. Accompanied by his faithful squire, the rotund Sancho Panza, Don Quixote weaves a unique and luminous path through the so-called Golden Age of Spanish literature, the sum total of an age that saw an empire flourish and, some say, the beginning of its decadence after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. We will read this most extravagant, extraordinary, and very funny book in the context of the early modern world, one that in less than 100 years prior to the emergence of this gentleman had enormously expanded, where “East” and “West” and “Old” and “New” worlds had been linked—not on horseback, Don Quixote’s favored mode of locomotion, but by the technological advances in the sciences and navigation. What is the intellectual context, and how can it enrich our reading? What is the relationship between this rapidly changing world and the many worlds that we find in Don Quixote? What fundamental questions did this tremendous cultural shift raise, and how does the novel textualize them? Additional readings, to be reported in class at appropriate moments, will range from true accounts such as the cross-dressing Lieutenant Nun’s adventures in the “New World” to Lazarillo de Tormes’ earthy view of the underbelly of an unprecedented empire couched in a new and very ambiguous language, Tomas More’s excerpts from the chivalric romances that inspired Don Quixote’s greatness (or his madness and downfall), Moorish tales that play against the fascinating and intricately woven relations between the Christian and Muslim world for control of the Mediterranean, as well as Golden Age theatre, art, and music or Renaissance thought on a variety of topics.

Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

First-Year Studies: Calles y Plaza Antigua: The Country and the City in Literature and Film

The city has been called voracious, boundless, the den of unbridled lust and greed (La Celestina), a heaven for opportunity, and sometimes safety from prosecution and prejudice. On it, we project our fantasies, our desires (Atlantis, Eldorado, Axtlán, the Big Apple). Feminized, it can be a citadel (traditional romances), the whore of Babylon, an entrapment. It’s a labyrinth (Borges), the urban cauldron where immigrants sink or swim (Mad Toy, Biutiful) or where human beings are dehumanized and churned out of its maws (Los olvidados). It’s the locus of lost illusions and delusions of grandeur (Abilio Estevez, Ena Lucia Portela), including postwar ones (Juan Marsé). In film and prose, it is the terrain, par excellence, of the noir genre (Nahum Montt), postmodern city (Generación X), or the tentative locus for the modernista postrevolutionary (in Maples Arce’s poetry, for instance). On the other hand, is the country a haven of time-tested virtues (Fuenteovejuna), an appropriate metaphor for the desert in desperate need of renewal (Flores de otro mundo), or the place where all dreams are deformed or come crashing down (Ana María Matute)? Are nature and the city at war with each other, and can we negotiate our own space between them (Cortázar)? We will explore these and related themes (like gender, race, class, how space defines us, how we define space) primarily in literature and film from the Spanish-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic but with frequent forays into other perspectives, other places—first and foremost among them, New York City.