Neil Heims

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he considers how Calderón uses the very uncertainty of perception that is central to the drama of Life Is a Dream as the force that enables the human exercise of free will.

When Rosaura appears during the first moments of Life Is a Dream, descending from the craggy mountains where her wild flying horse has left her, the audience is confronted by ambiguity and uncertainty. The unreliability of sense perception, one of the problems around which the entire play revolves, is presented in this scene. Rosaura appears to be a man; yet, when that man begins to talk, despite appearances, the man is a woman: "Unkindly, O Poland, do you receive a stranger; for you inscribe her arrival in your land with blood; and hardly does she arrive, but she comes to grief." As it draws the audience into the action of the drama, the opening speech of the play also burdens the audience with the same problem that the characters of the drama face. The spectators are forced to reevaluate and reconfigure their first impressions and to doubt appearances. What they saw, or rather, what they thought they saw, is not what is. Reality, as it is constructed in Life Is a Dream, is not fixed. It shifts. Things are ambiguous—and so is human possibility. The ambiguity of things that seem definite is the principal theme of Life Is a Dream, the idea that unifies its elements, and the condition that gives meaning to the play's other central concern—the conflict between free will and determinism.

Segismundo, the wild beast of a man Rosaura finds amid the mountains, imprisoned in a tower and clothed in animal skins, speaks nevertheless with the grace, facility, and learning of a Renaissance courtier and laments his condition with a poet's eloquence and passion. Wretched like her, he may also be something other than what he seems. Indeed, Basilio, the king of Poland, confirms that fact in the ensuing scene. Segismundo is a prince, his own son. Basilio imprisoned him in the tower at his birth, because in his study of the stars, it appeared to Basilio that Segismundo would grow up to be a rebellious son and a tyrannical ruler, humiliating his father and oppressing the nation. But Basilio is troubled by the sense that he may have acted tyrannically against the threat of tyranny. To make sure that his action, even if driven by his mathematical wisdom and motivated by concern for the good, was not tyranny but a justified act of preventive punishment, Basilio has decided to release Segismundo from his prison and let him rule Poland for a day. Should he prove benevolent, Basilio will yield authority to him, happy that Segismundo can exercise a freedom of will that is stronger than cosmic predestination. Should Segismundo's behavior confirm the destiny Basilio saw written in the stars, however, Basilio will know that he was justified in imprisoning his son. Segismundo will be returned to prison, and, to prevent him from falling into despair, he will be told that he was dreaming.

After Segismundo uses his power badly and is returned to prison and told that he only dreamed he was a prince, he never again is able to be sure when he is awake and when he is dreaming. He cannot tell whether he is definitely a prisoner or definitely a prince. How can he be both? Yet he perceives that he is. Thus, taught by ambiguity and uncertainty that experience is not a proof of...

(This entire section contains 2060 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

actuality, Segismundo realizes that he is neither prisoner nor prince in reality, for there may not be any reality. He is not defined by what he perceives but by himself no matter what he perceives—that is, by how he chooses to act. If everything is illusion and life is a dream, it is not important what Seigismundo perceives or thinks is real. The only thing that matters and that he can be sure of is how he behaves.

Basilio, too, is deceived in his strategy. Contrary to his belief, when Segismundo acts like a brute on his day of trial, it does not serve as a definite proof that determinism is stronger than free will, as Basilio had feared. Segismundo himself, in the last scene of the play, makes the sound argument that it was not his star-determined destiny that was the cause of his brutality but the brutal way he was raised. It is the course his father chose, not the configuration of the stars, that has made him uncivilized. Basilio's will, influenced by his understanding of the stars, is just as likely the power that determined Segismundo's nature as the stars themselves. Segismundo is just as likely to have been taught by his experience to be brutal as his brutality was formed by destiny. His impulsive inability to exercise freedom of choice may just as likely derive from a lack of education of his will as from his inherent nature. The cause is uncertain. Destiny itself is not solely determinant: it is clear that, to be fulfilled, destiny needed Basilio's intervention. The problem that Segismundo and the play itself must confront is whether either sort of determinism—the fate written in the stars or the fate imposed by the force of human actions—can be overcome by free will. The answer in the play is that it can, through the human ability to choose. That is the power, when he exercises it, which liberates Segismundo from his fate.

What makes choice necessary and possible and marks it as an expression of free will, Calderón shows, is the fact of the ambiguity of perception and Segismundo's awareness of that ambiguity. Segismundo becomes free when he chooses, and he is able to choose because there are alternatives. Only after he is confronted with uncertainty does Segismundo realize that he can choose to act tyrannically or not. In his first encounter with power, at court, his actions explode impulsively from him. He is a force of raging desire, and what he wants seems to be palpably in front of him to take, if he would. In his second encounter with power, after the mob frees him from prison and he defeats Astolfo and Basilio, his sense of his own power has been tempered by his experience of uncertainty. Consequently, each of his actions becomes a matter for deliberation. In an apparently illusory world, Segismundo has realized that the only thing that is not illusory is the way he acts in relation to what surrounds him. By his actions, he can shape illusion. In the midst of instability, he can be the stable element. The exercise of free will, Calderón establishes in Life Is a Dream, is what conquers uncertainty and ambiguity. When he frees himself from his apparent destiny, Segismundo becomes the one who shapes destiny.

Ambiguity's defining characteristic is that it is all-encompassing. It contains alternatives and takes in mutually exclusive and opposing phenomena. Ambiguity suggests that there are fixed and yet distinct categories and, simultaneously, that something may not be what it seems. For a woman to be mistaken for a man, as Rosaura is, those two categories—male and female—must exist independently of each other. For a man to be in doubt as to whether he is a prisoner or a prince, a beast or a man, those categories must exist independently of each other. Still, it must be possible for them to be confused with each other and, consequently, to be determined by behavior. Whether Segismundo is a prince or a beast may be unclear, but no matter which he is, he can choose to be either princely or beastly in either the prince or the beast role. The very ambiguity inherent in perception forces him to reject the power of perception and to rely on the authority of his own action.

In themselves, the characters in Life Is a Dream contain all possibilities, by virtue of their humanity, which is itself defined by ambiguity. Rosaura embodies the masculine in the first act, the feminine in the second, and both when she appears dressed like a woman but armed like a man in the third. Being at the center of ambiguity gives Segismundo the power to determine himself, to deliberate. This is a common Renaissance idea. It is expressed most unambiguously by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), a scholar who combined Neoplatonic Renaissance humanism and medieval Roman Catholic theology in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (ca. 1486), when he imagined God "taking man … this creature of indeterminate image," and saying to him:

We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

In Life Is a Dream, the problem is this: In a world shaped by ambiguity and instability and governed by perception, what can determine how to act, if action, rather than perception or desire, is the only possible stabilizing force? How can humankind recognize what Pico della Mirandola shows as the divine stability and, by action, achieve something enduring rather than temporary? For Segismundo, it is by an act that achieves victory over himself. He has been "a man among wild beasts, and a beast among men." He becomes a man when he recognizes the otherness and humanity in Rosaura. Her power to bestow this gift on him is inherent in her situation and in what she represents. She is the abused maiden who seeks justice. As she seeks justice, so, too, does she represent Justice. The very name she takes in her conversation with Astolfo is Astrea, the heavenly Roman goddess of Justice, and through her person she brings the awareness of justice to Segismundo.

Segismundo realizes that the nature of his relationship to Rosaura is a matter of his choice and that it is not his perception of her that matters but his behavior toward her. In his first encounter with her, he responds to some overwhelming quality in her by a kind of animal tropism. He does not know why, but the sound of her voice fascinates him. His first impulse, to kill her because she had overheard him grieving, is overtaken by the stronger and mystifying impulse of attraction. His second encounter with her at the royal court, when he is a prince, shows him as bestial and rapacious, blinded by lust. But in their third encounter, he becomes self-defining and deliberating—a man, not a beast—when he triumphs over himself and, choosing to champion her honor rather than gratify his own lust, turns his head away from her so that he cannot look at her. By this action, he shows that he will not be guided by perception but by will. Recognizing her and his obligation to her, Segismundo also recognizes the force of Justice and, in doing so, brings into an unstable and uncertain world an absolute principle that cannot be undermined by the alterations that attend being alive. It is steady in the face of them, because of the free ability people have to will the good, which is eternal, by their actions.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Life Is a Dream, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Wojciech Sadurski

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In the following essay excerpt, Sadurski considers Life Is a Dream as "a treatise on line drawing," exploring where Calderón draws lines separating life and dream, and essential human qualities and contingent ones.

Life can be seen as an enterprise of line drawing. Everything we do relies upon drawing lines between the spheres within which we act. Indeed, an action which does not rely upon separating objects and phenomena into spheres which inform the action is not conceivable. What is less obvious is that the lines, once drawn, have a tendency toward petrification. They become, in our minds, axiomatic rather than dependent upon the purposes for which they were drawn in the first place. While there can be no social (or personal) life without drawing lines, the location of particular lines is inherently controversial. All radical challenges to social order can be seen as postulates about the change of demarcation lines, even though the rhetoric employed often suggests that what is demanded is the outright abolition of the lines.

Challenging conventionally accepted lines forces us to rethink the bases of lines drawn, not merely their position. Michael Walzer has suggested that we could "think of liberalism as a certain way of drawing the map of a social and political world." We could say the same of any ideology, and also of our private beliefs. One benefit of looking at the way lines are drawn is that the inherent instability of this phenomenon (lines are drawn by reference to reasons, which themselves rely upon some other lines, etc.) makes us consider the foundations of various forms of social (and private) action.

This function of challenging lines can be illustrated by Life's a Dream (La vida es sueno), a play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca written around 1631 and first published in Madrid in 1636. The main protagonist is Segismundo, a royal heir who is kept from a very early age in a tower in the mountains because his father, Basilio, King of Poland, was foretold of a violent son who would wage a war against him. Once Segismundo is grown up, however, Basilio in a moment of doubt about the wisdom of his earlier decision asks Clotaldo, the keeper of his son, to drug Segismundo and have him wake in the palace and waited on as a prince. The strategy is to drug him again and take him back to the tower—in order to avoid risks should the astrological reading prove true—and then tell him that his palace experience was only a dream. When this plan is carried out, Basilio's worst fears are confirmed by the outrageous behavior of Segismundo during his one day in the palace. When Segismundo finds himself in prison again, he is convinced by Clotaldo that he only dreamt about being a prince.

At the same time a parallel plot develops: a young woman, Rosaura, disguised as a man and accompanied by her servant Clarion, proceeds to Poland to find Astolfo, an aristocrat who has a claim to the succession of the Polish throne, and who had abandoned Rosaura after having seduced her. Rosaura (who, it is later revealed, is Clotaldo's illegitimate daughter) meets Segismundo in his tower, and is soon recognized by Clotaldo who takes her to the court. The truth about Segismundo's identity spreads throughout the country, and a rebellion against the king breaks out: mutinous soldiers free Segismundo from his jail and ask him to lead them against the king. Rosaura offers to join Segismundo's army if he will assist her in her attempt to regain Astolfo who, along with Clotaldo, sides with the king. Segismundo defeats his father in battle but decides generously not to take vengeance. In the last scene Basilio crowns his son who in turn makes Astolfo marry Rosaura, despite his own passionate love for her.

What is Calderon's "point" in Life's a Dream? The tragedy of uncertainty, contingency and interchangeability of human existence? The continuous and yet never successful pursuit of one's own real identity, a destiny which is hidden from us? The ultimate solitude of every individual for whom other people, and the world, are as illusory as a dream? The burden and also the exhilaration of the "self" which is its own author, which writes its own story, which constructs itself through its free choice in the world in which human stories are as unpredictable as they are pre-determined? The conflict of two great moral codes, honor and commitment, in a world which makes us choose one and sacrifice the other? The absurdity of life not imbued with objective values and necessarily ending with death? The mortal risks which accompany the manipulation of destiny? Certainly, Calderon's play addresses all these themes, but my specific concern is with the work as a treatise on line drawing.

The title of the play in itself draws attention to a basic conventional distinction—that between life and dream. "What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction, and the greatest good is very little because all life is a dream and dreams are only dreams" says Segismundo. In this observation we can see the way that the life/dream distinction overlaps with the reality/illusion distinction, and the essence/appearance distinction. This latter distinction is, however, in turn undermined because the "dream" is no less real than "real life": (what we know to be) a reality intrudes upon (what we know to be) a dream. From Segismundo's perspective the whole day he spends in the Palace is as real as his life in the Tower. Yet having been persuaded by Clotaldo that the Palace episode was only a dream, he is forced to place a dream and real life on par. Indeed, his "dream" in the Palace seems to him, if anything, more "real" than his real life in the Tower; having woken up, in his jail again, he confides to Clotaldo: "If the things which I saw when I was dreaming were palpable and certain, what I see now must be uncertain."

As if this were not enough to undermine the "dream/reality" distinction, the "reality" intrudes physically into "the dream." In Act 3, in a scene crucial to the entire drama, Rosaura meets Segismundo and recalls scenes from the Palace episode which Segismundo has in the meantime confined to the "dream" realm. His response to her recollection is to ask: "If I dreamed that greatness, in which I saw myself, how is it possible that this woman can recount it all to me?" One interpretation available to Segismundo would be a reversal of the order of the "dream/reality" distinction: to validate the Palace episode as "real" (because certified as such by Rosaura) and to recognize the Tower life and current events on the battlefield as dream. This would be unintelligible, however, because the only basis for doing so is Rosaura's testimony given on the battlefield—that is, in the context that he would be relegating to a dream. If the testimony is only a dream, it cannot be relied upon as a basis for un-dreaming the Palace episode.

Calderon's own answer seems to be an agnostic one: the intrusion of "reality" (personified here by Rosaura) into "the dream" (the Palace episode) suggests that it is not in human power to draw the line between dreams and realities. "Is the copy so similar to the original that we cannot tell which is real?" asks Segismundo. The conundrum here is: if all our life is a dream, and if the line between dreams and reality cannot be drawn, then possibly the "We" is also a dream. If the dream-ness attribute applies to everything, then it must also apply to the subject who does the dreaming. Yet in whose dreams does the dreamer appear? And is the one who does the dreaming about the dreamer, also a character in someone else's dreams? Where does this regress end? One answer could be God, but Calderon's own agnosticism as to the human capacity of drawing the line between reality and dream sits uneasily with this hypothesis.

Even if Segismundo can imagine that everything he sees in the Tower, in the Palace, on the battlefield, is but a dream, he cannot think that he is but a dream. For if he were to be an object of his own dreams, he would have to exist (as the dreamer), while if he were to be the object of someone else's dreams, it would be tantamount to saying that he was deceived by that other person as to the fact of his existence (the deception stemming from the fact that he falsely thinks he exists). Yet to be deceived, he must exist in the first place. This merely paraphrases the proof given by Descartes in his Second Meditation: "Even though there may be a deceiver of some sort, very powerful and very tricky, who bends all his efforts to keep me perpetually deceived, there can be no slightest doubt that I exist, since he deceives me; and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never make me be nothing as long as I think that I am something." So that is where the regress must stop: even if we only dream, there must be the WE to do the dreaming; even if we are only dreamt about, there must be the WE for someone to dream about.

The second distinction Calderon draws is that between those attributes of human beings which are of an essential nature and those which are merely contingent. Up to a point, this is simple: there is the line which divides those properties without which we would not have existed qua ourselves and those which are fortuitous, and which do not belong to our "essence." One of Calderon's concerns seems to involve debunking the illusion that various properties of our everyday existence—power, money, personal fortunes and misfortunes—are "essential" rather than "contingent." He does this by reducing those contingencies to dreams: "The king dreams that he is king, and living under that delusion he rules, governs and disposes, and all the applause that he receives is written in the wind…. The rich man dreams of his wealth…. The poor man dreams that he suffers misery and poverty."

Yet there is an irony here: for precisely those features which are illusory or contingent are those same ones which we have the power to control. What can be more "human" (more of the essence of one's identity, which makes him or her a separate human being) than these things which we can affect through our own intentional and deliberate action? The King can modify the way he exercises his power, or even surrender it—thus showing that royal power is a thoroughly human attitude, that it belongs to those properties which make the King what he is, rather than an open and neutral repository of contingent and fortuitous features.

Calderon, however, undermines the line between the essence and contingencies of humaneness by relegating features such as power and wealth to the dream category. Or, as Mircea Eliade would say, by showing the "false identification of Reality with what each one of us appears to be or to possess." As Eliade continues, in a very Calderonian vein, "A politician thinks that the only true Reality is political power, a millionaire is convinced that wealth alone is real, a man of learning thinks the same about his studies, his books, laboratories and so forth."

By characterizing those attributes which make us distinct, separate and unique as purely fortuitous (or illusory), Calderon may well be saying that there is no objective basis for drawing a line between the fortuitous and the essential, and that while we often believe that only the essential is important, the better way is to say that something is essential because antecedently it is important. Conversely, our characterization of something as fortuitous is a consequence, not a premise, of denying any moral worth to it.

E. M. Wilson says that the soliloquy by Segismundo in which the worldly attributes of power, wealth, etc., are equated with a dream, relies upon a Stoic distinction between "the things that are in our power and those that are not." The lesson seems to be that "If we live only for the things that are not in our power we are no more free than is the dreamer in his dream who cannot exercise his powers of choice, for the outside things, things not in his power, rule him." Yet how can this assertion be reconciled with the view that the dream is at least as "real" as the reality?

In my opinion, Calderon does not assert the Stoic line between the things that are in our control and those that are not: he undermines it. And he does so in two ways: not merely by challenging our freedom to affect things in "reality" (if we are only dreaming, we are acted upon rather than acting) but also, conversely, by challenging (even if only en passant) our lack of freedom to affect things in our dreams. Annoyed by Segismundo's story about his violent behavior in the Palace episode, Clotaldo gives him this piece of advice: "Even in dreams it would be better to honor those who brought you up, Segismundo, because even in dreams good deeds are not wasted." It is only against the background of a subversion of the line between freedom and lack of freedom (consequent on the subversion of the line between the contingent and the essential) that we can view this extraordinary suggestion by Clotaldo as neither sarcastic nor cruel.

"Now Segismundo's a prince and I a lady," says Rosaura in the English "adaptation" of the play by Adrian Mitchell. This sentence does not appear in the original but it grasps well a central concern of the play: to parallel the development of Rosaura and Segismundo—the former in terms of gender, the latter in terms of social position. As the male-disguised Rosaura evolves from (apparent) manhood to womanhood, Segismundo evolves from a beast in the Tower to the prince in the Palace. And just as Rosaura's evolution by the end of Act 2 is not complete (it is not until Act 3 that she will achieve a synthesis of manhood and womanhood), neither is Segismundo's: he will find himself in the tower once again, only to reach a synthesis of "nature" and "civilization" on the battlefield in Act 3. As William Whitby has noted, Rosaura is "the key to Segismundo's conversion"; indeed, her conversions are catalysts in Segismundo's development. Their interconnected transformations inform the structure of the play because, as Frederick de Armas observes, Segismundo's final conversion in Act 3, brought about by the third appearance of Rosaura, "alters the process of destruction that had been set in motion and leads to a peaceful and harmonious denouement." These two quests for identity are parallel (with Rosaura always a step ahead of Segismundo), and it is a consideration of this parallelism—rather than an examination of either character in isolation—which may provide us with some clues as to the conundrum about the "real self" in Life's a Dream.

At first glance, the parallel journeys to identity undertaken by Rosaura and Segismundo would seem to call for an "essentialist" reading, whereby one would discern in both these characters' evolutions a move toward the discovery of their real selves. Rosaura is not truly "herself" when she appears in the beginning of the play disguised as a boy and is forced to play a male role; neither is Segismundo truly "himself " in the Tower, when as a human being he is kept as a wild beast. They will both have a tortuous journey to make. Rosaura will not simply shed her disguise and appear as her "true" self (note that her quest for identity does not end in Act 2 when she finally appears as a woman), nor will Segismundo easily convert from a creature of nature into a man of civilization. Both will attain their real selves the hard way; through a three-stage synthesis (man-woman-man/woman in the case of Rosaura; beast-prince-statesman in the case of Segismundo) rather than through a simple reversal. They have no choice but to go through this process because, as Ruth El Saffar suggests, they "struggle … for definition—to recover for themselves, out of the ever-impending threat of erasure, a solid sense of place and meaning." On the way to this ultimate self-discovery they will find out things about themselves which they had not known at the beginning of their journey, very much in the way Joseph Conrad's Marlow says of Kurtz: "[the wilderness] whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude…."

Source: Wojciech Sadurski, "Calderon's Conundrums, Or: Where Do You Draw the Line," in Mosaic, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 1995, pp. 23-42.

Edwin Honig

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In the following essay excerpt, Honig comments on the complex and changing themes in Life Is a Dream and how Calderón treats such concepts as honor, authority, and vengeance.

The appeal of Life Is a Dream can never be wholly accounted for. From one point of view it seems incomplete, even fragmentary, like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. From another, the play powerfully condenses in its enacted metaphor of living-and-dreaming an overwhelming perception about life's worth together with man's failure to make much if it. The play is many-faceted: it keeps changing as one holds it up to scrutiny so that its real theme seems impossible to pin down. It has the appeal of a mystery, but one in which the living energy that makes up the mystery is withheld, and while being withheld gets transformed into something different from the rigid terms and structure meant to contain it….

In this play honor is seen in its broadest possible sense as related to the whole of life, interwoven with the very substance and meaning of life. The title implies the question, Is life worth living? By a further implication, if honor is an illusion, so is life, and if this is true, how does one cope with such a vast and fearful discovery?

Another related and basic problem is the question of how to deal with the violent and secret crimes of the older generation. Since Rosaura as well as Segismundo have been dishonored by their fathers, how can they redress their personal grievances without rupturing the relationship of one generation with the next, the succession of life itself? The old myths stir beneath the surface: Zeus dethroned Cronus, as Calderón fully showed in another play, La estatua de Prometeo 1669 (Prometheus's Statue); Zeus raped Leda as a swan and Europa as a bull; Aeneas abandoned Dido. All the actions pertain here to the sexual crimes of worldly men as fathers and lovers. Clotaldo raped and abandoned Violante, Rosaura's mother, and the rapist duke Astolfo abandoned Rosaura. In political terms, Segismundo will swear to overcome his father and trample on his beard.

Rosaura and Segismundo both have good cause to seek vengeance. They have been brutalized. Rosaura has been raped, deprived of her sexual honor, and rejected as a woman, without explanation. And, as far as he knows, also without explanation, Segismundo has been spiritually assaulted, deprived of his liberty, his free will, his honor as a man, and left since birth in a prison tower, like his father's guilty rotting dream. Deprived of his power as a man and as a prince, Segismundo has also been left ignorant of the existence of women, of love, of social communion.

To regain her honor (since there is no one to act for her), Rosaura must pretend to be a man—dress and act like one—so that she may have the sexual and political freedom needed to force the issue. To redress his grievances, Segismundo must seek power by revolution, imitate a tyrant in order to dethrone one, so that when he triumphs he can accomplish three things: rectify the misuse of power and dispense justice; restore his own freedom and gain the power proper to him as a man and as a prince; destroy the opposing vision: his father's self-rotting dream.

No other course is possible since, as the situation of the play proposes, even if la vida es sueño, vida infame no es vida—a life disgraced is no life at all.

Segismundo must be twice awakened and have Rosaura's help before he attains to consciousness…. In the darkness of the prison tower, in the open doorway waiting to emit him, Rosaura sees the womb and tomb of life:

   The front door
stands open to … what is it,
   a mausoleum? And pitch darkness
like the night itself comes
crawling out as from a womb.

It is life, unaware of itself as yet, for it has been buried in death, a light in the darkness at first, followed by the clanking of chains as the prisoner, man himself, emerges in animal pelts. Can it be that Rosaura is privileged to witness this birth scene because she is Segismundo's "twin"—that at this moment she, too, is being born into consciousness through her recognition of his birth?…

It is not often seen that the mysterious interdependence between Rosaura and Segismundo has directly to do with the moral realism of their claims in a male-dominated, autocratic society. They need each other not only to regain their womanhood and manhood, respectively, but also because what they have to face is an extremely adverse and unpromising set of circumstances, not least because they are going against the rule of custom and law as represented by guilty, well-meaning, and unjust men: Basilio, the King; Clotaldo, his chief counsellor and Rosaura's father; and the duke, Astolfo. And so the act of restoring the human integer of magnanimity in the face of its thorough brutalization by well-intentioned, civilized men is nothing short of saintly. And this is what Segismundo proceeds to do.

If the life of consciousness is the only life worth living, then Segismundo is clearly the only character in the play who succeeds in attaining it….

The stages of his regeneration are marked off by certain of his speeches and soliloquies which other characters overhear and by actions which they then witness. But these characters, often like figures in a dream, do little or nothing to show that they have been personally affected by his behavior in the narrative sequence of the play. Through his soliloquies and what he says to others, Segismundo seems constantly to be setting up rationales for acting the way he does as he goes along. The other characters, Rosaura especially, are there to feed him with the possibilities of experience which will turn out, when he understands it, to confirm his own gradual acquisition of moral consciousness. This sort of procedure, involving both being-there and not-being-there at the same time, resembles what happens in dreams and in dream allegories. There is an unalterable line to be followed which only the consciousness of a single actor may pursue, since it is essentially from his actions leading to his awareness that the real business of the play takes its meanings.

The ambiguous creature wearing animal pelts and lying chained in the tower is the prince of mankind. This is how Segismundo begins. Thereafter we are obliged to judge the moral and psychological distance he traverses in the course of the play in order to become consciously human. He must go from the lowest form of human life, the equivalent of the cave man, to the highest—the human being who learns to be civilized by responding to everything around him while doubting it all and believing in nothing. (How could someone who has scarcely even been born believe in anything?) Others may say life is a dream; Segismundo must find out whether this is true or not by living his own life. He must fight for the power he has been denied, but once it is achieved he must also wear it lightly, pardoning his enemies and renouncing his love….

The precise virtue, then, which Segismundo will attain is magnanimity, the quality of the highest civilized behavior. Battle in a just cause, the pursuit of one's honor, the achievement of knowledge and intellectual pride, and the unswerving course of loyalty are other virtues embodied by characters in the play. But none of these saves them from suffering desperation, an unresolved moral dilemma. Only Segismundo's attainment frees the others; or—since they frequently seem to be little more than figures revolving in Segismundo's orbit—enables the lesser virtues they represent to be seen against his fundamental moral evolution.

Like honor, of which it is part, his magnanimity means nothing in itself; it must be won by experience, past which, as he himself says,

   If my valor is destined
for great victories, the greatest
must be the one I now achieve
by conquering myself.

This is no mere rephrasing of the familiar Greek adage; coming nearly at the end of the play, the sentence rings out as a momentous renunciation of power politics, the life of tooth and claw, the deceptions of intellectual and sexual pride, the blandishments of romantic appetite, and even the ambiguities of filial piety. We see that to achieve magnanimity Segismundo has had fully to recognize who and what he is, through a series of acts which includes one murder and several attempts at murder as well as threats of parricide and rape. He has had to learn to love and then to undo his love, to overcome himself, and to vanguish his father. It is not an easy formula at all. His career is a paradigm of several millennia of human history.

For magnanimity to arise it must contend with the brute in man as well as the brute in society. Half man and half beast as Segismundo recognizes himself to be at the beginning, his first understanding is that though he has an intellect which makes him superior to animals, he lacks the freedom to use it, a freedom which even the animals have.

   A brute is born, its hide all covered
in brightly painted motley,
which, thanks to nature's brush, is lovely
as the sky in star-strewn panoply,
till learning man's cruel need
to lunge and pounce on prey
when it becomes a monster
in a labyrinth. Then why should I,
with instincts higher than a brute's,
enjoy less liberty?

I dream that I am here
manacled in this cell,
and I dreamed I saw myself
before, much better off.
What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
fiction, passing shadow,
and the greatest good the merest dot,
for all of life's a dream, and dreams
themselves are only part of dreaming.

What we do, what we become through what we do, is the substance of our dream which is our life…. Having accepted the dream of life, Segismundo is ready to act; he is ready to deal as a prince with the chance and irrational events of experience. He has begun to control his impulses.

The gift of life Rosaura has stirred up in Segismundo is what Basilio has all the time been zealously withholding from him. And subsequently, when Segismundo's experience teaches him how to understand the caution that "life is a dream," the prince is ready to accede to the soldiers' invitation to rebel against his father and actively wrest the power which Basilio has been hoarding.

To do so Segismundo must first break the conspiracy which prevents him from acting, surrounded as he is, like a bull, by baiters cautioning him to accept the illusion of life as self-explanatory….

To effect these transformations Calderón employs the gracioso Clarín and the rebellious soldier in the final act…. Clarín is incapable of illusion or disillusionment; he stands outside the course of events in order to comment on them from a nonmoral point of view. But now in the third act it is just such a point of view which Calderón finds especially useful: first, to underscore the folly and taint of the power drive, and second, to provide a victim for another substitute sacrifice, one that must now be made for Segismundo's taboo crime of a son overcoming a father, and worse, overcoming him as the divinely appointed king in an act of rebellion.

So Clarín's fate—to be shot to death while hiding from the battle—accomplishes two things. It shocks King Basilio into understanding his own vainglory in opposing the designs of heaven, hence preparing him to succumb to Segismundo; it also releases Segismundo from the crime of rebellion. And when the dissident soldier is sent to the tower, we recognize that the order of constituted authority has been restored by Segismundo. Chaos and anarchy have been consigned to the house of illusion, sleep, and death. The tower itself is preserved; it is not destroyed. What Segismundo suffered in it others will continue to suffer. Segismundo himself points to this condition in the closing words of the play:

   Why are you surprised? What's there
to wonder at, if my master in this
was a dream, and I still tremble
at the thought that I may waken
and find myself again locked in a cell?
Even if this should not happen,
it would be enough to dream it,
since that's the way I've come to know
that all of human happiness
must like a dream come to an end.

… Stressing the nature of the play as a waking dream vision with the leading thematic concern it expresses for the triumph of consciousness indicates how Calderón essentializes thought and action while giving both the widest possible applicability in a strict dramatic form. Though Life Is a Dream is Calderón's best-known play, it is not, like his auto of the same title, a religious but a metaphysical drama. Yet it shares with a good many of his plays a basically antiauthoritarian bias. What is more, it is aligned with such a variety of other plays as Devotion to the Cross, The Wonder-Working Magician, The Mayor of Zalamea, and The Phantom Lady by its persistent exploration of the humane virtues of clemency, love, and magnanimity, held up against the combative principle of the strict honor code—the power drive, vengeance, absolute law. In Life Is a Dream, perhaps uniquely among Calderón's plays, a metaphysical problem is supported not by appeals to faith or insistence on ideality but from the proofs of experience itself. For the virtue of magnanimity to emerge in Segismundo it must be shown to overcome the lesser virtues breeding the brutalization of experience—false pride, rape, murder, and perverted sexuality. By implication the play is a criticism of inflexible rule, of self-deceptive authoritarianism masquerading as benevolent justice, and of all abuses to the individual arising from it.

Appropriate to such criticism are Calderón's disclosures of the life of impulse which underlies the motivations of his characters. Such disclosures often lead typically to a formula whereby compulsive action, moral desperation, and distraught behavior must issue from sidetracked and guilty consciences: the pursuit of vengeance and the expression of doubt from the fear of infidelity, perverted love, and incest. But from this and other examples of his psychological realism, we see that Calderón at his best is never merely a preacher or an upholder of an abstract morality. He essentializes in order to identify; he dramatizes in order to characterize; and he particularizes experience in order to show that relation of misguided motives to the espousing of false ideals and the necessity of earned perception for the attainment of practicable ideals. This still seems a lesson worth having.

Source: Edwin Honig, "The Magnanimous Prince and the Price of Consciousness: Life Is a Dream," in Calderon and the Seizures of Honor, Harvard University Press, 1972, pp. 158-75.


Life Is a Dream


Critical Overview