Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

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If Lope de Vega wrote plays at an early age, Pedro Calderón de la Barca was no less precocious. When his Death, the Best Friend was published in 1657, it was announced as the work of a nine-year-old boy. In his letter of 1680 to his friend the duke of Veragua, he stated that Cart of Heaven was completed when he was thirteen. Very likely he was practicing the art of playwriting before he graduated from the University of Salamanca in 1619, certainly immediately afterward. One critic dated The Fake Astrologer before 1622 because of its mingling of Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega, and all critics put it before 1625, when Calderón went into military service. Because of the many pirated copies by publishers and actors, it quickly appeared in several authorized versions before being included, with additional scenes, in part 2 of his Collected Plays in 1637, a volume reissued posthumously in 1682 by Calderón’s friend Juan de Vera Tassis.

In The Fake Astrologer, a satire on grifters and impostors, there is no deep philosophy and little beyond a fast-moving farce. The first scene of act 2 provides a good sample of the belabored language of Gongorism as Diego pleads his love in baroque style and María replies in language no less flowery and figurative. It takes the servant to bring the speakers down to earth. There is no moral lesson, unless it is Morón’s insistence that one cannot trust a woman with a secret.

The Fake Astrologer also satirizes astrology, which had adherents even in devout Catholic Spain of the Golden Age. Calderón, like other literary greats of the time in Spain and Portugal, did not take astrology seriously but sometimes felt compelled to bludgeon it as a pseudoscience that had an unfortunate hold on gullible people. The pretensions of Don Diego to extrasensory talent were typical of the astrological plague that afflicted Europe sporadically for centuries, despite the opposition of Christianity. As a playwright steeped in Christian theology, Calderón was aware of the biblical injunction against a misuse of astrology and sought to expose the folly of this practice to Spain’s dramatic public. Consequently, he lampoons the crude machinations of Don Diego as well as the simplemindedness of anyone naïve enough to place faith in such deception. The play’s basic plot is simple, and Calderón adds various complications, especially the paralysis of action through a pretense.

The evasion of reality in The Fake Astrologer, and Calderón’s poetic handling of this flight, has a baroque quality to it. The law of contrast attains maximum effect through the contrast of Don Diego’s supposed magic prowess with the empty reality of his true incapacity. Deception governs Don Diego’s behavior as he flutters between the two lives of truly being and only potentially being. Typical also of Calderón’s dramatic craft is the largeness of Don Diego’s role as an antagonist, which symbolizes negation and evil. As protagonist, Don Juan symbolizes the positive and good. Calderón also uses continued contrast, movement, and flight to enhance the mocking of reality; the word burla (mockery) and its synonyms are used seventy times in the play.

Some critics feel that Calderón avoided a deep study of his play’s personalities because he had an instinctive, baroque aversion to empty and undecorated space and inner emptiness. The Fake Astrologer portrays external shapes through its lyric poetry and erudition, which are apparently used deliberately to expose the appearance of learnedness in such personalities as Don Diego, who hollowly crave knowledge without studying.

Even the play’s apparently brisk action is more pretense than reality, since decisive action is paralyzed by the dreamy, fictional pretenses of both Don Diego and Juan de Medrano, including the latter’s suspended-action courting of Doña María from a distance for two years. Calderón here emphasizes the clash between the world of reality and the world of fiction, and he implies—in a manner so typically Calderónian—that all in this life is truth and that all is a lie.