Critical Evaluation

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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 mistaken beliefs. Segismundo finds the light of truth in his dark tower.

The paradoxes of the imagery mirror the ambiguities of the themes of the play. A principal theme is that of the triumph of free will. Out of fear, at Segismundo’s birth King Basilio rejected the concept of free will and robbed his son of his freedom, but Segismundo finds that only by controlling his will can he achieve the freedom he seeks. Segismundo, at the end of the work, has triumphed over his baser nature, but he has had to give up the woman he loves. The denouement, although it ties up the loose ends of the plot, is far from being the happy ending of a typical romance. When Segismundo’s final action is to imprison in his tower for rebellion a soldier who helped to set him free, an ironic cycle is completed.

Much has been written of the metaphysical nature of the work. Calderón has long been considered the foremost idea-oriented dramatist of the Spanish language. Many critics label him one of the first existentialists. Life Is a Dream takes...

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place in no particular time, and therefore in every time, and Segismundo can be seen to represent every human being forced to find the right way in a shadow world, imprisoned and oppressed by forces unknowable and uncontrollable, and fettered by ignorance and base instincts. No matter how strong the philosophical underpinnings of the work, however, it should not be forgotten that Segismundo is also strong as a dramatic character. He is very much a flesh-and-blood person, and his love for Rosaura is clear. This makes his giving her up a greater sacrifice, not just the politic and dutiful gesture of some hypothetical model of the good ruler.

A sense of personal loss is evident in this play. Segismundo has lost his childhood and adolescence. He also recovers what was lost: his identity. All the other major characters’ lives are colored by the question of what might have been. Such melancholy explains their unwillingness to act in an uncertain world. This fear is given beautiful poetic expression in Segismundo’s comparison of life to a flowering almond tree whose blooms, appearing too soon, wither and die at the first slightly cold wind.

One character in the play does not fit into this mold of passivity in the face of loss: Rosaura. She has lost her lover, Astolfo, but she decides to seek, not accept, her fate and go after him. Defying convention, disguised as a man, she travels to Poland and ends up serving in Segismundo’s army. She is an elemental force whose actions turn Segismundo’s, Clotaldo’s, Astolfo’s, and Estrella’s lives upside down. Her determination and will are juxtaposed, on a higher level, to the cowardice of Basilio. Basilio has spent his whole life, and ruined his son’s, trying to flee his supposed preordained fate. He realizes his error when, on fleeing the battlefield, he stumbles across the dead body of Rosaura’s servant, who, thinking to avoid death on the battlefield, had run straight into it.

Philosophy, characterization, emotions, and action are all realized in the masterful poetic tapestry of Life Is a Dream. The Romantics considered Calderón to be the greatest of all lyrical dramatists, and the 3,315 verses of the play could be used as a textbook on how to write verse drama. The evaluation of Spanish Golden Age drama has gone through many changes over the years, depending on prevailing literary and political winds, but appreciation of Life Is a Dream has been unchanging. It is a complex, intricate work that cannot easily be slotted into any comfortable critical niche.


Life Is a Dream