Pedro Calderón de la Barca World Literature Analysis
Calderón’s literary productions fall squarely within a period in Spain during which the arts and literature reached their greatest glory, a period often referred to as the Golden Age and associated with the reign of Philip IV (1621-1665). When Calderón began writing his plays, Lope de Vega Carpio, the great dramatist and Calderón’s predecessor at court, had already developed the prescribed form of the comedia, a three-act drama (not necessarily a comedy) written in verse. Lope de Vega’s guidelines for composing the comedia are explained in El arte neuvo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609; The New Art of Writing Plays, 1914). Because of the tremendous influence of Lope de Vega on the theater of his time, Calderón also wrote using the established rules, composing carefully written plots and polished verse.
Calderón’s style is marked by ornamentation, sometimes to the point of obscurity. A popular technique of this period, referred to as Gongorism (after a leading poet, Luis de Góngora y Argote), this style of writing was highly artificial and refined, using many figures of speech, mythological allusions, hyperbole, and archaic words, in addition to a complex syntax based on the Latin form. This style is often combined with conceptism, a cultivated play with ideas. Although this style presents difficulties for the modern audience, the seventeenth century Spanish audience expected and appreciated the skill behind such usage.
The comedia was a popular form of entertainment, involving questions of love, honor, and patriotism. In addition, the comic character provided comic relief in even serious dramas with scenes of mistaken identity or bumbling inability to understand a problem. The key, however, was action. Action was always preferred over subtle character development, and the plot itself involved major events of violence, such as murder, battles, even natural disasters. The conflict often set up a situation of good versus evil—for example, the peasant mayor defending his family’s honor against an aristocratic captain’s base actions in The Mayor of Zalamea, or the conflict between father and son in Life Is a Dream, successfully resolved when the son adopts the approved values of his father.
The plays of Calderón cover a whole range of variations. His poetic skill and religious sensitivity made him master of the auto sacramentale. In these allegorical plays, Calderón continued in the tradition of the medieval morality play, raising its artistic level. His scholastic background and dramatic skill combined to enable him to dramatize abstract theological concepts in a convincing way. A fine example of an earlier auto sacramentale is El gran teatro del mundo (wr. 1635, pr. 1649, pb. 1677; The Great Theater of the World, 1856). Throughout his life, these plays developed greater complexity, and late in his life the themes of the Fall and Redemption appear to be presented with a mature understanding and compassion toward human beings in their weakness. Some of Calderón’s plays—The Constant Prince, about the devotion of Prince Ferdinand of Portugal, or the famous El sitio de Breda (pr. 1625, pb. 1636), based on events also depicted in Diego Velásquez’s painting Las lanzas—present themes from history or a legend.
The court drama grew out of popular drama, and with the construction of the palace in the Buen Retiro, with its special theater, Calderón, too, wrote plays with spectacular staging effects and elaborate machinery and settings. Successfully developed court plays went beyond popular drama in combining drama with dance, music, and visual arts. Perhaps the best of these is La hija del aire (pr. 1653, pb. 1664; The Daughter of the Air, 1831), a two-part play of violence and passion based on the legend of a warrior queen of Babylon. Mythological themes dominate this art form, as can be seen by some of the titles, Eco y Narciso (wr. 1661, pb. 1688; Echo and Narcissus) and La estatua de Prometeo (wr. 1669, pb. 1683; the statue of Prometheus).
Calderón’s bloody tragedies of honor were very popular with seventeenth century audiences, even if audiences today find the resolution of some of the honor conflicts shocking. For example, in El médico de su honra (pb. 1637; The Surgeon of His Honor, 1853), an innocent wife is murdered by her husband on the mere suspicion of dishonoring his name. The whole issue of honor and its defense must be seen in its seventeenth century context in order to be understood, but this play was intended to shock, showing perhaps Calderón’s rejection of the rigid assumptions of the honor code, which led to such excesses.
Although Calderón was known for many types of serious plays, he was also a master of the light, amusing comedia de capa y espada (cloak-and-sword play). The name derives from the cloak and sword that were the marks of a gentleman of the time. These plays were pure entertainment—the theme was usually love along with its obstacles,...
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