Pedro Calderón de la Barca Essay - Critical Essays

Pedro Calderón de la Barca Drama Analysis

Initially, Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s theater seems most defined by its varied nature. The topics of his dramas are diverse, ranging from religious faith and revenge to mythological fantasy and marital fidelity. The tone of his works likewise varies from frivolity to gravity. In many respects, Calderón’s theater continues to conform to the norms established by his predecessor Lope de Vega. Like Lope de Vega, he violates the classical sense of decorum by mixing humorous and tragic elements in the same play and by including in highly serious works a stock character known as the gracioso (funny one), usually a servant, whose lack of dignity provides occasion for laughter. Calderón also follows Lope de Vega’s practice of disregarding the classical unities of time and place, which sought to limit a play’s setting to a single place and decreed that its action should occur in a single day. Also, like Lope de Vega’s, his plays are written in polymetric verse.

Calderón’s cultured, baroque language, however, gives his plays a noticeably different tone from those of his predecessor. Because most of his plays were written for the court, he adopted a style designed to appeal to his educated audience. Thus, his characters often speak a highly complex language, rich in poetic conceits, parallelism, and classical allusions, which is intentionally artificial.

A recurrent theme in Calderón’s plays is the confusion between reality and appearances. The theme is, like his style, characteristic of the baroque, and it had already been treated in various other literary works of the period, including Miguel de Cervantes’s famous novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha,1605, 1615). With Calderón, however, this theme is so consistently present that it could be considered a constant that gives unity to his diverse corpus.

Another characteristic of Calderonian drama is the author’s insistence—rare in Spanish Golden Age theater—on carefully “finished” pieces. Often the originality of Calderón’s plays lies in the polished form in which they are presented rather than in the material treated. More than any other Golden Age dramatist, he reworked material that had already been used, and he often succeeded in transforming a mediocre work into a quite memorable one.

The Constant Prince

One of Calderón’s early plays, The Constant Prince, is already illustrative of much that is characteristic of his later work. The Constant Prince is a reworking of an earlier play attributed to Lope de Vega, La fortuna adversa del Infante Don Fernando de Portugal (n.d.; the adverse fortune of Prince Fernando of Portugal). Both plays dramatize the legendary faith of a historic Portuguese prince who, when captured by the Arabs, allegedly chose to die as a martyr rather than order the surrender of the Portuguese-held city of Ceuta in order to gain his freedom. The changes that Calderón made in Lope de Vega’s treatment of this story—the reduction of the cast of characters from thirty-six to fourteen and the transformation of Prince Fernando from a pious weakling to a dynamic and determined fighter, for example—illustrate the author’s concern to present the material in the most effective manner.

Calderón’s most significant modification of the original play, however, is his introduction of the Moorish princess Fénix (Phoenix), the daughter of Fernando’s captor, the King of Fez. By incorporating into the play a subplot dealing with Fénix’s persistent love for the Arab general Muley in spite of her father’s wish that she marry Tarudante, the King of Morocco, Calderón establishes a parallel between Fernando and her. Like him, she is constant—in her love for Muley. Moreover, the competition between Muley and Tarudante for the beautiful Fénix mirrors the competition between Fernando and the King of Fez for the city of Ceuta (whose name corresponds to the Hebrew word for “beauty”). These parallels allow Calderón to evoke poetically the question of the true nature of beauty. When, at the end of the play, Fénix is captured by the Portuguese and returned to her people (with the stipulation that she is to marry Muley) in exchange for Fernando’s dead body, it is evident that Calderón, establishing a baroque contrast between appearance and reality, wishes to communicate that the beauty of Fernando’s faith is more real than Fénix’s physical beauty.

Nowhere is the contrast between Fernando and Fénix more evident than in a much-discussed scene toward the end of the second act in which the two of them recite to each other sonnets on the impermanence of flowers and of stars. Fénix, who had ordered Fernando to bring her a bouquet of flowers, is horrified by the thought that their beauty is only transitory. Fernando, on the other hand, can face even the knowledge that the stars (which at the time the play was written were believed to influence human destiny) are not permanent. Unlike Fénix, he has learned to penetrate beyond appearances. Thus, he is neither captivated nor disturbed by temporary things; he recognizes that both physical beauty and misfortune will become lost in eternity, which he believes to be ordered according to a divine plan. Thus, Calderón has used Fernando’s constancy in order to teach a moral lesson concerning the Christian virtue of fortitude.

Cloak-and-Sword Plays

The theme of appearance versus reality, which is handled seriously in The Constant Prince, is also present in The Phantom Lady and A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard, two Calderonian plays typical of a genre referred to as comedias de capa y espada, or cloak-and-sword plays. The name for this genre, which was seventeenth century Spain’s equivalent of a situation comedy, derives from the costume worn by the actors playing the leading male roles. Cloak-and-sword plays have complicated plots revolving around the courtship of one or more sets of middle-class youths who devise ingenious measures to overcome the obstacles to their love. The obstacles are usually presented by a domineering father or brother, anxious to protect the honor or reputation of a daughter or sister, and the young people frequently resort to disguises and other forms of deception, which often backfire with comic results. Duels are a frequent ingredient of these plays, but they never have grave consequences; cloak-and-sword plays invariably have happy endings involving at least one wedding.

The Phantom Lady

The Phantom Lady dramatizes the ingenuity of Angela, a bright and attractive young widow, whose brothers Don Juan and Don Luis, in a desire to protect her reputation, have confined her first to their home and then—during the visit of Don Juan’s friend Don Manuel—to her room. Because the room Don Manuel is occupying is next to her own, Angela makes use of a secret door (concealed by a glass cabinet) joining the two rooms to enter their guest’s quarters and play pranks on him and frighten his servant, who believes she is a ghost. As he is unaware of her existence, Don Manuel is also puzzled by Angela, but he refuses to believe that she is a phantom and eventually follows her into her room, where the two of them are discovered by Don Luis. Following a duel, which Don Manuel wins (sparing Luis’s life), everyone receives an explanation of what has been happening, and Don Manuel and Angela agree to be married.

The use of illusion in the play is obvious. As a result of deceits, disguises, false entrances, and so on, all the play’s male characters remain utterly confused until the final scene. As is typical of many cloak-and-sword plays, only the female characters—Angela and her cousin Beatriz—realize what is really happening. Also typical is that the would-be deceivers (the two brothers who conceal Angela’s presence from their guest) are themselves the most deceived. This is especially true of Don Luis, who, on an occasion when Angela has left the house in disguise, follows her and endeavors to seduce her, believing that she is another woman.

A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard

The stereotyped plots and characters of all cloak-and-sword plays bear a certain resemblance to one another—though Calderón somehow manages to endow most of his with a fresh quality which makes them appealing even three hundred years after his death. Thus, many of the elements of The Phantom Lady—the unknown entrance, disguises, a tyrannical brother, a mysterious and beautiful lady who appears and disappears—are also present in A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard. In this play, the appearance-versus-reality theme is even more noticeable, as when Fénix, describing (in typically baroque language) to his friend Lisardo his first encounter with the beautiful Marcela in the gardens of Aranjuez, remarks on the difficulty of distinguishing her from the carved statutes of nymphs in the garden’s fountains.

The Surgeon of His Honor

Appearances produce tragic consequences in The Surgeon of His Honor, a play that dramatizes Don Gutierre Alfonso’s murder of his wife, Mencía, because of his belief that she has been unfaithful. In the eyes of a modern audience, at least, Mencía seems to be an innocent victim of misfortune. At the beginning of the play, she is a happily married woman whose happiness is seriously threatened when a former suitor, Prince Enrique, is thrown from his horse (a typical occurrence in Golden Age drama with men who are unable to control their passions) and is brought to her house to recover. When he awakens and discovers his former fiancée, Mencía, Enrique—even after learning that she is now married—persists in efforts to resume his former relationship with her. That night, when her husband is absent, he bribes a servant to gain entry to her house. Though she rejects all Enrique’s advances, Mencía does commit various indiscretions. When her husband returns unexpectedly, for example, she conceals Enrique in her room and later arranges a diversion so that he may leave. In his hasty departure, however, Enrique leaves behind a dagger, which Gutierre discovers and which causes him to suspect his wife of infidelity. After gathering additional misleading evidence that convinces him of his wife’s guilt, Gutierre arranges a bloody and startling denouement that is typical of the Senecan tragic style then popular in Spain: He engages a bloodletter, brings him to the house blindfolded, and orders him to bleed his wife to death.

The Surgeon of His Honor is thus typical of a peculiarly Spanish genre that is referred to informally as the wife-murder play. These plays have plots based on Spain’s old and infamous honor code, which gave a husband (or father or brother) the legal and moral right to kill a wife (or daughter or sister) whose sexual misconduct had threatened the family’s reputation. Although the plots of these plays resemble that of William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604), there are notable differences. In The Surgeon of His Honor, Gutierre—unlike Othello, who becomes aware of Desdemona’s innocence and of his own blindness—remains convinced that what he did (though lamentable) was right, and the play concludes with the announcement of Gutierre’s engagement to a former fiancée, an engagement arranged by King Pedro (Enrique’s brother). Because the king has been informed by the bloodletter (who surreptitiously left a bloody handprint by the door of Gutierre’s house so that it could be identified) of all that has happened, the king’s arrangement of a new marriage for Gutierre seems puzzling. Basing their interpretation of the play on this ending, critics assumed for many years that Calderón—and other Spanish authors of similar plays—actually approved of the bloody honor code that was the basis of their dramas.

More recently, however, Calderón scholars have become convinced that this is not the case. Various elements of the...

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