La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream), probably first performed in 1635 and published in 1636 in Madrid, is the best-known work in a large body of secular and religious plays by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, one of Spain's greatest dramatists, and, after Lope de Vega (1562–1635), the foremost playwright of Spain's Golden Age, a period between 1580 and 1680 when Spanish literature and painting reached their zenith. As the title suggests, in Life Is a Dream, Calderón plays with the problem of distinguishing between illusion and reality. Set in a mythical version of the kingdom of Poland, Life Is a Dream tells the story of King Basilio, who imprisons his son, Segismundo, at birth, because his astrological studies have given him reason to fear that the boy will grow up to be a tyrant and a rebel against his authority. Inside this fable, Calderón considers the power of the contrasting forces of free will and determinism to shape human character and destiny. In the subplot, in which Rosaura seeks to find Astolfo, who has dishonored her, Calderón examines the problems of honor and vengeance.
Life Is a Dream shows the influence of Lope de Vega, representing a form he perfected, the comedia, a three-act play written in verse, which mixes comic and serious elements in a complex plot full of mystery and derring-do. Its cast of characters was also well established—the old man, the young man, the young lady, the maid, and the clown. Rather than exerting influence on future drama, Life Is a Dream embodies the culmination of a tradition. Spanish drama itself shows a serious decline after the end of the seventeenth century.
In the original Spanish, Life Is a Dream is a verse play. In translations attempting to be true to the original verse form, the qualities that add to the play's appeal—its lyricism, poetic invention, and linguistic beauty—can make the play seem stilted and more difficult and less engaging than it is. Edward and Elizabeth Huberman, in 1963, fashioned a prose translation of La vida es sueño that, while it does not sacrifice the beauty, wit, drama, imagery, or philosophical playfulness of the original, flows with ease and is natural and engaging. It is available in Spanish Drama, edited by Angel Flores and published by Bantam Books.