Usually recognized as Calderón’s finest drama, Life Is a Dream premiered at the Royal Court of Spain. Its theme, revealed in the title, focuses on the instability of life and the illusory nature of the world. The story opens one night in the countryside between Poland and Russia, where Rosaura, a noblewoman disguised as a man, and her servant are journeying on foot after the loss of their horses. The opening lines give an example of Calderón’s imagery and language:
Are you the fabulous hippogriff running in harness with the wind?Flameless thunderbolt, featherless bird, fish without scales,Monster of the four elements without instinct to check your headlong flight?
Rosaura’s questions include mythological references and images of nature described out of character. The landscape itself reflects Rosaura’s emotional upheaval. Amid the turbulence, she finds Segismundo’s prison cave and hears his soliloquy of distress at the loss of his freedom. His guardian, Clotaldo, shown throughout the drama to be a man of integrity, sends the visitors away, but not before recognizing Rosaura as his daughter by the sword that she carries (which acts as a symbol of her family honor).
From the beginning, the first of several themes grouped together in this complex philosophical drama are introduced. Segismundo had been imprisoned by his father, King Basilio, who feared the predictions of the stars that his son would humiliate him and rule as a tyrant. Now, years later, he wonders if he has done right and decides to test the young man by drugging him and bringing him to the palace. In these luxurious surroundings, the inexperienced Segismundo shows his base nature by following his own pleasure and acting in a violent and insulting manner. When returned to his prison, he is told by Clotaldo that it was all a dream—a development that sets up a second theme complex in which dream and reality are confused, and in which deception and truth are indistinguishable to the protagonist. As Segismundo says in his famous lines:
What is life? a delirium!What is life? illusion,A shadow, a fictionWhose greatest good is nothing,Because life is a dream!Even dreams are only dreams.
When freed by soldiers later, Segismundo proves that he has learned from his experience to control his passions and to do good, as Clotaldo has counseled, even in his dreams. At the end of the play, the prophecy has been fulfilled, as his father kneels at his son’s feet—showing the strength of predestination. Yet a moment later, Segismundo wins his father’s forgiveness and demonstrates forbearance and prudence in his final actions—showing his ability to use his freedom and free will wisely to counterbalance the pull of his destiny.
A second theme throughout the play, introduced in the first act, is the question of honor. Rosaura has been deceived and abandoned by Astolfo, nephew of the king. The two main characters meet in their hour of need and help each other: Rosaura inspires love in Segismundo and shows him the way to appropriate princely conduct, while he, in turn, restores her honor by marrying her to Astolfo, thus sacrificing his own wishes to the demands of society by restoring each person to his or her rightful place.
One night, in the wild, mountainous country between Poland and Russia, a Russian noblewoman, Rosaura, and her servant, Fife, find themselves in distress. Their horses have bolted, and they fear that they will have to complete the remainder of their journey on foot. They are traveling to the royal court of Poland, and Rosaura is disguised as a man for protection as they make their way through the barbarous frontier country. Their weary way brings them at last to a forbidding fortress. There they overhear a young man, chained to the doorway of the castle, deliver a heart-rending soliloquy in which he laments the harshness of his life. Rosaura approaches the youth, who greets her eagerly, with the excitement of one who has known little of sympathy or kindness...
(The entire section is 4,260 words.)