Life Is a Dream

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

King Basil of Poland, believing his astrologers’ dire predictions, has imprisoned his son Segismund in a mountain fortress, where he lies in animal skins, visited only by old Clotaldo, who reaches him the natural sciences. When Rosaura, a wronged woman traveling in disguise, approaches Segismund’s dungeon, he sees grace and nobility for the first time.

Basil orders Segismund to be drugged, dressed in sumptuous garments, and brought to the court; when he awakens, Segismund thinks he has dreamed his captivity and is in fact a prince. Untutored in the court’s ways, he throws an ambassador out the window, attacks the women, and so alarms Basil that Segismund must be drugged again. Awakening in his cell, he is told that his brief day as a prince was only a dream. When he is once again given the opportunity to rule, he does so wisely, “as though life is a dream.”

Underneath this improbable and complicated plot is the simple theme of the Spanish Golden Age: God’s grace (here in the form of Rosaura) transforms bestial men into humans. Just as Segismund’s animal skins conceal a man beneath, so his animal like behavior at court conceals a true prince, requiring only God’s grace to reveal his nobility. Calderon, writing for the courts of Spain, pleased his patrons not only in the rich poetic insertions of set pieces and clever exchanges but also in the reinforcement of the basic principles of the divine right of kings, together with the...

(The entire section is 450 words.)