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A Mouthful of Method or Madness?

I became fascinated with the inner workings of Spain’s “mad queen” the moment I read the opening words of Ana Arzoumanian’s Juana I:

What I need is a mouth.

That single line, floating alone in a white pool of paper (or perhaps seared onto the page) took hold of me. Growing up in a Spanish household, I’d heard the legend of Juana la Loca, but while translating Ana’s epic poem, with its intimate point of view, chronological jolts, and semi-delirious narrator, I was left wondering: Was Juana really insane?

Was she the madwoman that history has made her out to be?

Five hundred years later, the jury is still out on Juana.

Her behavior could certainly be perceived as erratic. While living in Flanders, as the wife of Archduke Philip, she hacked off the hair of her husband’s mistress. She also gave birth in a toilet stall during a party because she was too jealous to stay in bed while he gallivanted about.

Once, in a fit of rage, Juana spent a night outdoors in the courtyard of her mother’s castle, nearly naked and screaming bloody hell during a freezing rainstorm. She would refuse to eat, bathe, or change her clothes. Most incriminating of all, Juana spent months marching alongside her husband’s coffin in a bizarre nighttime procession from northern Spain to Granada. Rumors flew among the cortege of nobles and clerics accompanying her; Juana, they said, would order the coffin opened in order to gaze at Philip’s corpse. Some claimed that she slept in the coffin and caressed him.

Maybe insanity ran in the family. Juana’s maternal grandmother suffered debilitating bouts of depression and hallucinations following her husband’s death. What we do know is that tales of Juana’s uncontrolled nature convinced the Castilian nobles that she was unfit to rule; she was declared mad by the Cortes and spent the final forty-seven years of her life under house arrest.

Scholars and psychologists have debated her mental state ever since.

Some suspect that she may have suffered from post-partum depression. Juana had six children, and agonized over being separated from her offspring: four of them were raised in Austria by their aunt and were nearly strangers to her (they could not even communicate with their mother in Spanish).

It has also been suggested that she experienced post-traumatic stress.

Juana undoubtedly endured hardship while at the hostile Flemish court, where she was deprived of her Spanish household and kept in penurious conditions. In addition, Philip methodically manipulated her by flaunting his affairs and withholding affection and sex, only to then bewilder Juana with unannounced visits to her bedchamber (perhaps to keep her pregnant). He may have also been physically abusive.

Juana was forcefully confined on numerous occasions: in Flanders by her husband, and in Spain by her mother, Queen Isabella. She was kept incommunicado, and her letters were intercepted and destroyed.

Still others theorize that intense grief may have brought on a sort of temporary madness. Juana certainly had cause to grieve: her brother, sister, nephew, mother, and husband died in a short span of time. To make matters worse, many suspected that Juana’s father had ordered her husband poisoned.

And yet…

The accusations of locura may have been a Machiavellian device to silence Juana and keep her from power. After all, the three male relatives who promulgated the idea that she was loca—her father, her husband, and her eldest son—each spent time ruling in Juana’s place.

It is also possible—and this is the theory that most intrigues me—that there was a method to Juana’s madness. Much as Hamlet feigned being crazed with love for Ophelia in order to further his means, Juana may have encouraged the legend that she suffered from la rage d’amours for her own purposes. In other words, acting loca may have worked in her favor.

Perhaps Juana did not wish to rule but preferred a life of seclusion and quiet. Moreover, if her principle goals were to avoid a second marriage and secure her children’s inheritance (as Bethany Aram suggests), then an insanely long and arduous funeral procession was just the thing to fend off suitors.

Juana remained a widow—and titular queen of Spain—until the end. After researching her story, I began to wonder if Juana preferred this status to remarrying another stranger, a foreign king, and being demoted to consort queen. After all, she lived to see her offspring rule the world; both her sons became emperors and her four daughters queen consorts. Juana’s madness, whether permanent, temporary, or feigned, managed to consolidate her parents’ disparate kingdoms into a united Spain, and ushered in an empire “on which the sun never sets.”

Set amid the high stakes of this charged political landscape, Ana’s poem has a cadence akin to a boat swaying on the water (el vaivén or “going and coming” in Spanish). While translating Juana I, I found myself lulled into a trance by its rhythm. I imagined this was how the early stage of madness might feel, and I worried that I would internalize Juana’s delirious mindset.

In Felipe’s bed, the palace is absent. In Felipe’s bed, where I open every door that is locked from within. In Felipe’s bed, the ocean is made from water that drips slowly, drop by drop.

Ana has described Juana I as a form of justice, not least because it gives a voice to a historical figure, a woman, who was deprived of power by the men around her. As I grew intimate with Ana’s poem, and experienced what it feels like to think like Juana, I started to believe there was a less obvious and more powerful justice at play; that of seducing the reader into experiencing the vaivén of Juana’s world.