Usually recognized as Calderón’s finest drama, Life Is a Dream premiered at the Royal Court of Spain. Its theme, revealed in the title, focuses on the instability of life and the illusory nature of the world. The story opens one night in the countryside between Poland and Russia, where Rosaura, a noblewoman disguised as a man, and her servant are journeying on foot after the loss of their horses. The opening lines give an example of Calderón’s imagery and language:
Are you the fabulous hippogriff running in harness with the wind?Flameless thunderbolt, featherless bird, fish without scales,Monster of the four elements without instinct to check your headlong flight?
Rosaura’s questions include mythological references and images of nature described out of character. The landscape itself reflects Rosaura’s emotional upheaval. Amid the turbulence, she finds Segismundo’s prison cave and hears his soliloquy of distress at the loss of his freedom. His guardian, Clotaldo, shown throughout the drama to be a man of integrity, sends the visitors away, but not before recognizing Rosaura as his daughter by the sword that she carries (which acts as a symbol of her family honor).
From the beginning, the first of several themes grouped together in this complex philosophical drama are introduced. Segismundo had...
One night, in the wild, mountainous country between Poland and Russia, a Russian noblewoman, Rosaura, and her servant, Fife, find themselves in distress. Their horses have bolted, and they fear that they will have to complete the remainder of their journey on foot. They are traveling to the royal court of Poland, and Rosaura is disguised as a man for protection as they make their way through the barbarous frontier country. Their weary way brings them at last to a forbidding fortress. There they overhear a young man, chained to the doorway of the castle, deliver a heart-rending soliloquy in which he laments the harshness of his life. Rosaura approaches the youth, who greets her eagerly, with the excitement of one who has known little of sympathy or kindness during his brief span of years. At the same time, he warns her to beware of violence. No sooner has he spoken these words than a shrill trumpet blast fills the night. Rosaura tosses her sword to the captive before she and Fife hide themselves among the rocks.
Clotaldo, a Polish general and the keeper of the youth, gallops up to the young man. Seeing the sword in his prisoner’s hand, he orders his men to seek the stranger who must be lurking nearby. Apprehended, Rosaura explains that she and Fife are Russian travelers on their way to the Polish court and that they are in distress because of the loss of their horses. Fife inadvertently hints that Rosaura is really a woman. Clotaldo, however, is most interested in the sword, for he recognizes the weapon as one he had owned years before and that he left in the keeping of a young noblewoman with whom he had been deeply in love. He comes to the conclusion that Rosaura must be his own son, but, torn between his sworn duty to his king and his paternal obligation toward his supposed son, he decides at last to say nothing for the time being. The fact that Rosaura possesses the sword obligates him to protect the travelers and to escort them safely through the mountains.
Meanwhile, in King Basilio’s royal castle, the problem of succession to the Polish throne is to be decided. To this purpose, the king welcomes his nephew Astolfo and his niece Estrella. The problem of the succession exists because it is generally believed that the true heir, King Basilio’s son, died with his mother in childbirth many years before. The need for a decision is pressing; both Astolfo and Estrella are supported by strong rival factions that, in their impatience, are threatening the peace of the realm.
King Basilio greets his niece and nephew with regal ceremony and then startles them with the news that his son, Segismundo, is not really dead. The readings of learned astrologers and horrible portents that had accompanied Segismundo’s birth had led the superstitious king to imprison the child in a mountain fortress for fear that otherwise the boy might grow up to be a monster who would destroy Poland. Now, years later, King Basilio is not sure that he did the right thing. He proposes that Segismundo be brought to the court in a drug-induced sleep, awakened after being dressed in attire befitting a prince, and observed carefully for evidence of his worthiness to wear his father’s crown. Astolfo and Estrella agree to the proposal.
In accordance with the plan, Segismundo, who dresses in rough wolf skins in his captivity, is drugged, carried to the royal castle, and dressed in rich attire. When he awakes, he is...