This drama is set in the ancient Roman Empire. Our Lord Jesus Christ has suffered, died, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Many people have become Christians, but they are still suffering persecution for their faith. Decius, a fierce enemy of Christianity, is currently the emperor.
Since I do not have access to the original Spanish of The Wonder-Working Magician, the following summary is based on an English version presented online by Classical Authors. All quotations have been taken from this source.
In the city of Antioch, a new temple had been built in honor of the god Jupiter, so the people were celebrating. To Cyprian, such celebrations were a waste of time. With the help of two indigent scholars named Moscon and Clarin, he brought his books to a solitary spot in the countryside. The two servants then returned to Antioch to enjoy the celebration, while their master devoted himself to study.
A passage in Pliny puzzled Cyprian. It read: “God is one supremest good, one pure essence, one existence, self-contained, all sight, all hands.” This description did not apply to any of the gods with which Cyprian was acquainted, not even Jupiter.
A demon approached. He was uneasy about the direction that Cyprian’s studies were taking. He wanted to lead the scholar astray.
In a clever way, he induced Cyprian to debate the Pliny passage with him. Cyprian argued that Pliny’s description did not apply to Jupiter, who committed immoral acts unworthy of a deity. Nor did it apply to the Graeco-Roman pantheon as a whole, since its members often contradicted one another. In response, the demon used sophistry in an attempt to overcome Cyprian’s objections.
To the demon’s dismay, Cyprian resisted the demon’s efforts to apply Pliny’s description to the gods with which he was acquainted. Cyprian was too good a scholar.
The demon was afraid that Cyprian would sooner or later discover the true God. Therefore, he decided to divert him from his studies. He decided to use the beauty of Justina to distract him. At the same time, he wanted to enmesh Justina in his snares.
Before returning to Antioch, Cyprian saw Lelius and Florus fighting a duel. They both wanted to marry Justina. Cyprian persuaded them to stop fighting. Instead of fighting, they agreed to approach Justina’s father and ask for her hand in marriage. Cyprian offered to go to Justina and inform her of their intentions, so that she would have some time to think the matter over.
As Cyprian was approaching the house of Justina, she and Lysander were engaging in an important conversation. Lysander confessed to Justina that he was not her biological father. Lysander explained that he had been born in Rome. His parents were Christians, so he was instructed in the Christian faith from early youth. He received Holy Orders and was sent to Antioch to preach the gospel.
As he approached the city, the sun went down, and he got lost. He heard voices and realized that a man was about to kill a woman. He tried to save her, but he was too late. As she lay dying, she asked Lysander to help her hapless child.
At this point, Lysander had to terminate the conversation. Livia, their servant, informed them that a creditor was coming with a magistrate, so he left immediately.
Soon thereafter, Cyprian arrived, accompanied by Moscon and Clarin. When Cyprian saw Justina, her beauty overwhelmed him, and he addressed her in a very clumsy fashion. He dutifully tried to explain the wishes of Lelius and Florus, but his heart prompted him to confess his own love.
Justina told Cyprian that she was not interested in Lelius or Florus. Concerning Cyprian’s suit, she told him that his love was too bold. She and Cyprian left the stage in opposite directions.
Late that night, the demon played a mean trick on all concerned. Lelius and Florus were watching the house of Justina. Each was in a different place and was not aware of the presence of his rival. The demon briefly appeared on Justina’s balcony, so that Lelius and Florus would think that Justina was entertaining a lover. When the demon went outside, Lelius and Florus approached to learn who it was. As the two converged, the demon disappeared, so that each suitor thought that his rival had been entertained by Justina. In this way, the demon brought unjust opprobrium on Justina and encouraged strife.
Lelius and Florus were drew their swords and began to fight. Cyprian arrived before any harm was done. Florus accused Lelius of dishonoring Justina, and Lelius leveled the same accusation at Florus. They both told Cyprian that they were no longer interested in Justina.
Cyprian figured that both of them must be suffering from some delusion. He decided to take advantage of it and press his own suit.
The next day, while Cyprian plans to approach Justina’s father, he happens to encounter Justina herself. This time he courts her in a suave manner. In reply, Justina tells him that fate forbids her to love him, except in death.
Later, Cyprian broods in a lonely spot far from the city. In a soliloquy, he says that he is so anxious to possess Justina that he would offer his soul if some devilish power from hell would assist him.
The demon eagerly accepts his offer, but he uses trickery to confirm the treaty. He pretends to be a mighty magician who has suffered shipwreck. He is dripping wet as he comes. He asks Cyprian to help him and hints that he will fulfill the desires of his heart in return. So Cyprian invites the supposed magician into his home.
At the house of Lysander, confusion begins to reign. Lelius barges into Justina’s house and hurls accusations at her. To enhance the scandal, the demon appears briefly to Lelius at the door of the inner apartment and then retreats. Lelius follows him to discover his identity. While Lelius is still inside, Lysander comes and begins to tell her about a fateful decree issued by the Emperor Decius. Justina realizes that the decree is undoubtedly directed against Christians. Since Lelius, the governor’s son, is listening, she tries to dissuade Lysander from speaking further about the matter.
Then Florus barges into Lysander’s house. He wants to scold Justina. Since Lysander is with her, he hesitates.
Livia announces that the governor wants to speak with Lysander. When he leaves, Florus rails against Justina and speaks unkind words about Lelius.
Lelius becomes angry and comes out of the inner apartment. They begin to fight, and they are still fighting when the governor and Lysander enter the scene. The governor orders the arrest of the two disorderly men, even though one of them is his son. The governor and Lysander draw unjust conclusions about Justina’s role in the affair.
Meanwhile, the demon has persuaded Cyprian to write and sign a document surrendering his soul to him. Cyprian uses his blood as ink. In return, the demon agrees to teach him magic arts. The instruction will take place in a buried cavern. After a year of instruction has elapsed, the demon promises that Justina will be his.
The year of instruction has elapsed. The demon now tries to tempt Justina with thoughts of love. He employs the zephyrs, flowers, birds, and trees to entice her with amorous thoughts. She thinks of Cyprian, whom she has not seen for a year. She feels that she would go to him if she knew where to look.
The demon appears and offers to lead her to Cyprian. Justina refuses.
The demon points out that she has already sinned by desiring him in her thoughts. He says that the deed is half done. He urges her to complete what she has already begun.
Justina still refuses. She points out that although she cannot control her thoughts, she can control her actions.
The demon thinks that nothing can defend her if she is coerced by his power. She replies that God is her defense.
The demon has to admit defeat. However, though he cannot have Justina, a spirit will counterfeit her form, and the spirit’s activity will ruin her good name.
When the demon disappears, Justina calls Lysander and Livia and asks them if they have seen the man who has barged into the house. Lysander thinks she is imagining things, since the house is securely locked. She then goes to church to pray. Lysander accompanies her.
Cyprian tries to summon Justina by magic. A counterfeit figure resembling Justina appears. Cyprian is oppressed by feelings of horror. The figure leaves, and Cyprian pursues her into the forest. He overtakes her and unveils her. It is a skeleton that says: “Such are all the glories of the world that you so covet.”
Cyprian complains to the demon and declares that their agreement is null and void. Moreover, he uses his magic power to force the demon to tell the truth. In the ensuing conversation Cyprian learns that the true God is the God whom the Christians are worshiping and that God is protecting Justina because of her Christian faith.
Cyprian wants to retrieve the document that he has signed. He draws his sword, but strikes empty air. Cyprian learns that his master is not a man, but the devil.
Cyprian realizes that the Christian God has the attributes described by Pliny. He expresses the hope that God will find some way to wrest the fatal document from his master. The demon replies: “Ere that comes I’ll see thee dead.” The demon tries to kill Cyprian. As they wrestle, Cyprian escapes death by appealing to the God of the Christians.
In the meantime, Lysander and Justina have been arrested. The governor is going to execute them because they are Christians.
The governor now releases Florus and his son Lelius. He has kept them in prison for a year so that they would not be able to fight one another. Since Justina is about to die, he feels that it is safe to release them.
At this point, Cyprian comes to Antioch. In the presence of the governor, he confesses that he is a Christian. He faints in the middle of his speech.
The governor leaves Cyprian and Justina alone. He figures that they might decide to worship the pagan gods if they have time to think the matter over.
Justina uses the opportunity to assure Cyprian that God will pardon him. As they are about to be executed, Justina reminds Cyprian that she once told him that she could love him only in death. She says: “What I promised I present thee.”
Though God allows Justina and Cyprian to suffer a martyr’s death, He defends her good name. After the execution, God compels the demon to how he tricked people into drawing false conclusions about Justina’s character. The demon also acknowledges that the two martyrs have ascended to the sacred throne of God. The demon then sinks into the earth.
In the foregoing summary, I did not treat the subplot. Moscon and Clarin both loved Livia. Instead of fighting, Moscon, Clarin, and Livia made a comical agreement, which you may read for yourselves.