Before Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño was freely adapted by Edward Fitzgerald in 1853, it had been known to most English and European readers through the medium of French translations from the original Spanish. In spite of their richness of imagination, however, Calderón’s plays are still little known outside the Spanish-speaking world. All of this playwright’s work has vigor and brilliance; in Life Is a Dream, for example, he uses his Polish setting and period as freely as William Shakespeare uses the seacoast of Bohemia or the forest of Arden. A gothic quality in the mountain scenes suggests the popular atmosphere of much eighteenth century fiction, and the play offers considerable psychological insight into character as well. This work admirably reveals the personality of its writer, who was a soldier, an ardent patriot, an artist, and a devout son of the Catholic Church.
Life Is a Dream, which has also been translated into English as Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of, is one of the masterpieces of world literature, as relevant today as when it was first performed in 1635. Its power, along with the sheer beauty of its verse, lies in the questions it asks but never answers. The play’s richness of meaning can be inferred from the various categories into which critics and scholars have placed it; it has been called Christian, romantic, philosophical, existentialist, absurdist, and tragic theater.
The drama is organized around three great soliloquies by Segismundo that not only further the action but also exemplify the dominant themes of the play. The first, spoken by Segismundo while he is still in chains, imprisoned in his tower, centers on his lack of freedom compared with other creatures of the earth; the second is the famous “life is a dream” speech, in which Segismundo can no longer distinguish between reality and dream; and the third focuses on Segismundo’s decision to act and act well, no matter whether he is awake or asleep.
The dramatic interplay of light and shadow in the play’s imagery reflects Segismundo’s confusion between reality and dream. For example, the abrupt change he experiences from the perpetual twilight of his tower to the hurtful brilliance of the court is the stuff of nightmares for Segismundo. Ironically, the bright light of the court should symbolize knowledge and wisdom, but in the play its harshness, which blinds Segismundo, represents the cruelty of a king who is blinded in turn by his own self-image and...
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