Article abstract: Calderón continued the Golden Age of drama after the death of Lope de Vega Carpio, bringing to Spain some of the greatest dramatic literature and autos sacramentales in the seventeenth century.
The bright Spanish cultural renaissance had its center in the fin de siècle spirit, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca was born into it, in 1600, in Madrid. His parents were very much part of the establishment; his father, strong-willed and demanding, was secretary to the Council of the Royal Treasury. It was his mother’s wish before her death in 1610 that Pedro enter the priesthood; his father, on his deathbed when Calderón was fifteen, turned her request into an order, a dying command that was to plague Calderón throughout his career, until he finally took holy orders at the age of fifty-one. Without his parents to guide him, Calderón was forced to examine his life alone, with the guilt of disobedience mixed with a sense of not knowing who he was. No early portrait of Calderón exists, but a graphological analysis of his handwriting done by one scholar reveals a shy, nervous, and sensitive young man, not so much challenging his faith or loyalty to the Catholic church as questioning his own place in it. This combination of an inquiring mind together with a mandate by his dead parents confused Calderón during his youth and possibly led him to explore answers to his dilemma in the dramatic mode, dramatizing over and over the conflict between predestination and free will.
Calderón’s schooling, however, was not neglected. From 1614 to 1620, his academic virtuosity reflected his internal confusion and indecision. At the Imperial Jesuit College, he received an excellent education in the classics, religion, and (later, at the University of Alcala) rhetoric and logic. In Salamanca he studied law. It was, however, a minor poetry contest in 1620, part of a celebration in honor of Saint Isadore, patron saint of Madrid, that was to turn Calderón’s life away from the traditional pursuits of priesthood or law to writing. Lope de Vega, the acknowledged master dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age, was a judge and saw fit to praise Calderón’s entry. Inspired, Calderón began to write plays at a rate that rivaled Lope de Vega Carpio’s (who is said to have written fifteen hundred plays in his lifetime). His first play (discounting youthful efforts), Amor, honor y poder (love, honor, and power), was performed in Madrid at the court of Philip IV in 1623 and was immediately followed by La selva confusa (the entangled forest) and Judas Macabeo (Judas Macabee), both in 1623. Calderón’s military service in Italy and Flanders interrupted his dramatic writing for a short time. Returning from Spain’s triumph at Breda, Calderón wrote El sitio de Breda (the siege of Breda), performed in 1625 and, judging from accurate geographical details in the play, conjectured to be based on his own experiences in battle.
The court life of the Spanish Golden Age could only emerge from more than one hundred years of relatively peaceful royal succession since Ferdinand and Isabella, who united Spain and defeated the Moors in a decisive battle at Granada in 1492. When Lope de Vega died in 1635, Calderón was his successor at the court of Philip IV, during the construction of the king’s great court theater, El Coliseo del Buen Retiro.
“The sober celebration of order triumphant”—this phrase, from James E. Maraniss’ study, On Calderón (1978), summarizes Calderón’s life’s work, manifested in his dramatic approach to his secular plays (1630 to 1651) as well as his religious attitudes expressed in the auto sacramentale form he favored after 1651. Throughout his career, which lasted more than fifty years, Calderón viewed the function of the stage as the reestablishment of order in the face of the constant threat of political, moral, and spiritual rebellion. By 1635, at the beginning of Calderón’s succession as director at the court of Philip IV, he had written thirty plays, of which three— La dama duende (wr. 1629, pr. 1636; The Phantom Lady, 1664), El príncipe constante (1629; The Constant Prince, 1853), and La vida es sueño (1635; Life Is a Dream, 1830)—have joined the permanent repertory of classical world drama, performed, adapted, and modernized in many countries. The latter play, considered his masterpiece, embodies the themes and the style of virtually all the secular plays: A hero, wrongly deprived of his royal honor, examines his own consciousness to recover his station and his free will. The gongoristic style of bombast and exaggeration, together with the insertion of poetic monologues, denotes the dramatic style of the period, of which Calderón and Lope de Vega, along with Tirso de Molina, were masters.
Calderón’s appointment coincided with the construction and occupation of the royal palace, Buen Retiro, begun in 1629 and opened in 1634, featuring the Coliseo del Buen Retiro, a special theater space expressly designed for the performance of his plays. It was this permanent home and captive audience of sympathetic courtiers, together with encouragement of his early work, that allowed the prolific Calderón to continue his career as playwright...
(The entire section is 2209 words.)