Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
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...
(The entire section is 2218 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Pedro Calderón de la Barca was born in Madrid on January 17, 1600, to an aristocratic family. Little is known about his childhood. His mother died when Calderón was ten, and his father died five years later. Calderón was educated in the Jesuit Colegio Imperial in Madrid and later in the University of Alcalá de Henares and the University of Salamanca, where he prepared himself for the priesthood. He did not, however, embark immediately on an ecclesiastical career, but preferred instead to dedicate himself to literary pursuits, participating in various poetry contests in which he won some recognition—including praise on two occasions from Lope de Vega, who at the time was Spain’s leading dramatist.
In 1623, Calderón’s first datable play, Amor, honor y poder (love, honor, and power) was performed in Madrid. At approximately the same time, the poet embarked on a military career and may have participated in the surrender of Breda, which he dramatized in his play El sitio de Breda (the siege of Breda). For a time, he continued to involve himself with both the theater and the military. Following the death of Lope de Vega in 1635, Philip IV appointed Calderón court dramatist and director of the newly constructed and lavish court theater at Buen Retiro. In 1637, the king named him a knight in the Order of Santiago. In 1638, he fought against the French in the Battle of Fuenterrabía, and in 1640, he helped suppress a rebellion in Catalonia (northeastern Spain). Finally, in 1642, ill health—perhaps resulting from a wound received in...
(The entire section is 641 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Other Literary Forms
Pedro Calderón de la Barca is known primarily as a verse dramatist, an occupation to which he was dedicated during his entire life. He wrote more than one hundred plays, most of which were published during his life or soon after his death. Some of the better known include Amor, honor, y poder (1623; love, honor, and power); El sitio de Breda (pr. 1625; the siege of Breda); El príncipe constante (wr. 1629; The Constant Prince, 1853); La dama duende (wr. 1629, pr., pb. 1936; The Phantom Lady, 1664); Casa con dos puertas, mala es de guardar (wr. 1629, pr., pb. 1936; A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard, 1737); La devoción de la cruz (1634; Devotion to the Cross, 1832); Los cabellos de Absalón (wr. c. 1634, pb. 1684; the hair of Absalom); La vida es sueño (pr. 1635; Life Is a Dream, 1830); El mayor encanto, amor (pr. 1635; Love, the Greatest Enchantment, 1870); A secreto agravio, secreta venganza (pb. 1637; Secret Vengeance for Secret Insult, 1961); El mágico prodigioso (pr. 1637; The Wonder-Working Magician, 1959); El alcalde de Zalamea (pr. 1643; The Mayor of Zalamea, 1885); El médico de su honra (pb. 1637; The Surgeon of His Honor, 1853); El pintor de su deshonra (wr. 1640-1642. pb. 1650; The Painter of His Dishonor, 1853); La hija del aire, Parte I (pr. 1653; The Daughter of the Air, Part I 1831); and La hija del aire, Parte II, pr. 1653 (The Daughter of the Air, Part II, 1831).
Pedro Calderón de la Barca lived during Spain’s Golden Age, his death marking the end of that most productive period of Spanish letters. He was known as a poet and dramatist in his teens, and in his early twenties he took several poems to the poetic jousts held in 1620 and 1622 to commemorate the beatification and canonization of Saint Isidro. He was awarded a prize in the second contest, and Lope de Vega Carpio, who was the organizer of the two events, praised the young poet highly on both occasions. Indeed, throughout his life, Calderón continued to write lyric poetry, the great bulk of which, however, is incorporated into his plays. His first dated play, Amor, honor, y poder is from 1623, and subsequently he established himself so well in the theatrical scene that, when Lope de Vega died in 1635, Calderón became the official court dramatist, a position he held until his death. Calderón proved a worthy successor of Lope de Vega, for he wrote more than two hundred dramatic pieces, a total second only to that of Lope de Vega. Calderón produced several masterpieces, including Life Is a Dream, one of the great works of Spain’s Golden Age. In addition, he was the supreme master of the auto, or Eucharist play, a dramatic form which he refined and improved progressively and to which he was dedicated almost exclusively during the last years of his life.
Pedro Calderón de la Barca was born in Madrid into a family of some nobility. His father, Diego Calderón de la Barca, came from the valley of Carriedo, in the mountains of Santander, and was a secretary to the treasury board under Philip II and Philip III. Calderón’s mother, Ana María de Henao, was from a noble family of the Low Countries that had moved to Spain long before. Calderón was their third child.
Soon after Calderón was born, his family moved to Valladolid, following the transfer of the court, and there the boy learned his first letters. When the court returned permanently to Madrid, and with it his family, Calderón, then nine years old, was placed in the Colegio Imperial of the Jesuits, where he studied Latin and the humanities for five years.
Calderón’s mother died in 1610, and his father married Juana Freyre four years later, only to die himself the following year. His death was followed by a bitter and costly lawsuit between Juana and the Calderón children, ending favorably for Juana. Calderón had entered the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1614, but, after his father’s death, he transferred to the University of Salamanca to be under the supervision of his uncle. In Salamanca, he studied canon law and theology, planning to become a priest and take charge of a chaplaincy endowed by his maternal grandfather. Calderón abandoned his studies in 1620, however, and returned to Madrid, where for some time he led a turbulent life. He and his brothers, Diego and José, were engaged in a fight which resulted in the murder of Diego de Velasco. The father of Velasco demanded retribution, and the Calderón brothers settled the case by paying six hundred ducats (a substantial sum in those days).
While in Salamanca, Calderón had started writing poetry and drama; in Madrid, he entered the poetic competitions of 1620 and 1622, organized to celebrate the beatification and canonization of Saint Isidro. Calderón’s entries won the praise of Lope de Vega, judge of the contests and editor of its proceedings. The works that Calderón presented to these jousts are of interest not only because they are his earliest extant poems but also because they are among his few surviving nondramatic poems.
The next few years took Calderón away from Spain. He enlisted in the Spanish army and went to Northern Italy and to Flanders, where he probably witnessed the defeat that the Spaniards inflicted on the Flemish, an event that he dramatized so well in El sitio de Breda. The poet returned to Madrid around 1625, and soon afterward he entered the service of Duke Frías. From that time on, Calderón fully committed himself to the theater, constantly writing new plays and staging them with all the available machinery and scenery. According to Pérez de Montalbán, Calderón had written many dramas by 1632—all of which had been performed successfully—as well as a substantial body of lyric verse. Consequently, he was enjoying an enviable reputation as a poet.
About that time, the dramatist was involved in another unhappy event. Pedro de Villegas wounded one of Calderón’s brothers very seriously, and in pursuit of Villegas, Calderón, accompanied by some police officers, violated the sanctity of the Trinitarians’ convent. The entire court reacted negatively to this event, including Lope de Vega, who protested violently because his daughter Marcela was in the convent. Calderón was reprimanded for his actions, but nothing more, and he even made fun of the affair in The Constant Prince. His popularity was already larger than the gravity of his actions, and, therefore, he came out of it unscathed.
In 1635, the Retiro Gardens and Palaces were opened with great festivities, and Calderón’s play, El mayor encanto, amor, was staged for the occasion. Lope de Vega died that same year, and Calderón became officially attached to the court, furnishing dramas for the exclusive entertainment of the Royal Palace. In recognition of his services, King Philip IV made Calderón a knight of the Order of Santiago in 1637. As such, he participated in the liberation of Fuenterrabía that same year, and with the army of Count Duke Olivares, he took part in the pacification of Catalonia, serving loyally and courageously until 1642, in recognition of which he was awarded a monthly pension of thirty gold crowns.
The war of Catalonia made an impact on Calderón, aggravated by the fact that his brother José lost his life in the conflict. Nevertheless, he went back to Madrid and continued his occupation as court dramatist, increasingly enjoying the favor of the king, who put in his hands the arrangement of the festivities for the arrival of the new Queen, Mariana de Austria, in 1649.
During these years, Calderón, about whose intimate life little is known, fathered a son out of wedlock. This son, born around 1647, died before reaching adulthood, while his mother died soon after his birth. Calderón, who had been contemplating the idea for some time, determined to become a priest. He was ordained in 1651, and two years later Philip IV appointed him to the chaplaincy of the New Kings in the Cathedral of Toledo. Calderón moved to that city, but he kept in contact with Madrid, supplying the court with new plays and autos on a regular basis. While in Toledo, and inspired by the inscription of the cathedral’s choir, he wrote the poem Psalle et sile (sing and be silent), an unusually self-revealing work.
Calderón returned to Madrid in 1663 as the chaplain of honor to Philip IV, who had created that position to ensure Calderón’s presence in the court. Later that year, Calderón joined the Natural Priests of Madrid, and he became head of the congregation afterward, remaining in that position until his death. He led a quiet life during that...
(The entire section is 3742 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (kahl-day-ROHN day lah BAHR-kah) was born in Madrid, Spain, on January 17, 1600, into a well-established Castilian family of the lesser nobility. He was the third child of Ana María de Henao and Diego Calderón de la Barca, who held a post at the Spanish court. The family therefore followed the king to Valladolid and then back to Madrid, where Calderón attended the Colegio Imperial, a Jesuit school, from 1608 to 1613. In 1610, his mother died suddenly, and his father died in 1615. His mother had wanted her son to become a priest, and his father encouraged him strongly to complete his studies. In 1614, Calderón had enrolled at the University of Alcalá de Henares. Then, in the years 1616 to 1620, he...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Pedro Calderón de la Barca proved himself a master of the many variations of dramatic art of his time. His style can be ornate, with imagery and mythological references, or simple and more direct, to reflect characters of society’s lower classes. His varied verse forms are suited to their use within the dialogue, and his plots are carefully constructed for dramatic effect.
Calderón’s themes range from the religious and theological in his autos sacramentales to the witty and fast-moving stories of love and misadventure in his comedias de capa y espada. In his serious dramas, he focuses on larger issues, such as the problem of honor, dream and reality, deception and truth, freedom and...
(The entire section is 153 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Born in Madrid on January 17, 1600, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (kahl-day-ROHN day lah BAHR-kah), the national dramatist of Spain who was to dominate his age as thoroughly as the dramatic poet Lope de Vega (1562-1635) did his, came from a good family of the lower nobility. His father was a secretary of the treasury under two kings and could afford to give his son the best education available. Calderón entered the Royal Jesuit School of Madrid when he was nine and later continued his studies at the universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca, where he began writing and producing plays. Upon graduation he returned to Madrid, determined on a literary career, and soon gained recognition as a lyric poet. He was only twenty-three...
(The entire section is 1206 words.)