Critical Overview

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From its first appearance in 1635 up through the present, Life Is a Dream has enjoyed acclaim and popularity. It was first printed in Madrid in an edition edited by Calderón's brother José in 1636. Reprinted along with all of Calderón's work by his friend and biographer Juan de Vera Tassis y Villaroel in a reliable and readable edition in the years immediately following his death in 1681, it was readily available in Spain and to translators, even when Spanish drama itself was in decline.

One of the earliest translators of Calderón's work into English was the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1822 notebook shows translations from La vida es sueño as well as from other of Calderón's works. In the 1850s, the Irish poet Denis Florence MacCarthy published translations of Calderón's works, and in 1858, Edward Fitz-Gerald, best known for his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, freely translated La vida es sueño into blank verse, calling his version Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of.

During the twentieth century, the play was translated into English a number of times and was never off the stage for very long. In 2002, it was produced off Broadway and presented at Oxford. In 2005, it was produced independently at the Stage Center Theatre at Northeastern Illinois University, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 2000, Lewis Spratlan's opera of Life Is a Dream, with a libretto by James Maraniss, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 1925, the great Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote a German adaptation of it called Der Turm (The Tower) in order to reflect the chaotic pre-fascist climate in Germany.

Life Is a Dream has also been the subject of much academic criticism concerned with analyzing its structure, philosophy, and mythic quality, as Frederick A. De Armas does in The Return of Astraea: An Astral-Imperial Myth in Calderón. Examining its natural, animal, and celestial imagery, De Armas asserts that in Life Is a Dream "Calderón mirrors … eternal truth, revealing aspects of the heavenly text inscribed in stars and souls in a work that aims at transcending conflict through a vision of wonderment at the ways in which God's creation unfolds."

There is one aspect of Life Is a Dream that many critics find troublesome. "The very critics who were unanimous in placing La vida es sueño among the greatest of Spanish and world plays were equally unanimous in condemning its subplot, regarding it not merely as a useless adjunct, but as an action which seriously detracted from the play's unity," A. E. Sloman observes. In "The Structure of Calderón's La vida es sueño," he goes on to demonstrate that by representing honor and by serving as a catalyst for Segismundo's conversion, "the Rosaura episode … is clearly … no mere afterthought to fill out the required three acts" but is "linked … to the main episode and related … to the play's central theme."

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