Life Is a Dream

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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 lesson of Christian grace superseding pagan superstition, notably stargazing.


Honig, Edwin. Calderón and the Seizures of Honor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. A good discussion of one of the dominant issues of Calderónian theater. Compares the treatment of the concept of honor in The Mayor of Zalamea (1643) with that of other plays in which the protagonist is an aristocrat.

Maraniss, James. On Calderón. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. One of the starting points in the discussion of the new interpretations of Calderónian drama.

Parker, A. A. The Mind and Art of Calderón: Essays on the Comedia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A discussion of Calderónian theater from one of the critics responsible for renewed interest in and new interpretations of Golden Age theater.

Sloman, Albert. The Dramatic Craftsmanship of Calderón. Oxford, England: Dolfin Book Company, 1958. A good analysis of structure and dramatic technique; insists on close reading of text.

Wilson, Margaret. Spanish Drama of the Golden Age. Elmsford, N.Y.: Pergammon Press, 1967. A basic introduction to Spanish Golden Age drama. Calderón’s plays are compared to those of his contemporaries. Wilson comes to different conclusions than those of many critics.

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Critical Evaluation