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Edward Fitzgerald, best-known for his version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, began his career as a translator with Spanish Golden Age drama. In 1853 he published Six Dramas of Calderón, including the four-act version of Life Is a Dream. The play had already been translated into English several times, most recently by the Irish poet Denis Florence MacCarthy, whose attention had been drawn to Calderón by references to his plays in the writings of Shelley. However, MacCarthy’s version is very different from Fitzgerald’s, partly because he attempts to reproduce the complex rhyme and meter of the original, and partly because the two are based on different texts.

The two major versions of Life Is a Dream were both published in 1636, and it is not clear which of them was written first. One may have been composed as early as 1629. Although one version of the play has three acts and the other has four, it is the former, translated by MacCarthy, which is more complex and diffuse. Ironically, given that MacCarthy was inspired by Shelley’s writings on Calderón, it is Fitzgerald’s translation of the four-act version that immediately calls to mind Shelley’s verse dramas, such as The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound. Like these works, Fitzgerald says that his version of Life Is a Dream “is not for acting.” It is a philosophical poem, or even a religious one.

The four-act version of Life is a Dream is pared down to focus on the central question. It is less dramatic and sensational, more reflective and questioning, than the three-act play. The focus is more completely on Segismund, the existential hero, and Segismund is a more introspective and less violent character. Although his long monologues are not technically soliloquies, being delivered in the presence of other characters who are listening, Segismund often appears to be talking to himself as he grapples with the nature of reality. The play is sometimes called “the Spanish Hamlet,” and it is true that no one in Golden Age Drama so closely resembles Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark as Calderón’s prince of Poland.

The subplot involving Rosaura, Clotaldo, and Astolfo is altered in various ways. In the three-act version, Clotaldo discovers that he is Rosaura’s father, whereas in the four-act play, he is merely a friend of her father and beneficiary of his kindness. Astolfo appears in the three-act version as a cynical seducer, whereas in this one his relationship with Rosaura is mentioned so briefly that his motives are difficult to ascertain. When he first appears in the three-act play, he is courting Estrella and professing his love for her, a sharp contrast to the carefully calculated political alliance he enters into in the four-act play. In any case, the effect of the difference is evident: the drama of the wronged woman has a prominence in the three-act play which it lacks in the four-act one.

It is not clear which of these versions Calderón wrote first in the seven-year period between 1629 and 1636 in which both were composed. Perhaps he wrote a relatively conventional and sensational Golden Age drama, then felt that the philosophical questions it raised deserved deeper consideration. However, it is equally possible that he composed what is essentially a poem about the nature of reality and then turned it into a play that could be staged. Any dogmatic insistence on the precedence of one version over the other probably tells the reader more about the personal prejudices of the critic than anything else.

One important similarity between the two versions is the way in which...

(This entire section contains 827 words.)

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the moral focus shifts during the course of the play, as more and more doubt is shed on the wisdom and humanity of Basilio’s actions. Basilio himself is no longer certain that he did the right thing in imprisoning his son on the basis of an astrological prediction, and Segismund forcefully makes the point that he has created the very conditions he sought to avoid by treating his son in such a savage way.

It is not entirely clear how Segismund’s faction arises so quickly among the army and the people. According to the captain in act 3, they have suddenly become aware of Segismund’s existence and are inclined to revolt at the idea of Astolfo becoming their next king. What is clear, however, is that the military situation follows the moral direction of the drama. As Basilio comes to seem harsh and irrational in his treatment of his son (a perspective he eventually accepts), control of the state slips away from him. At the beginning of the play, Poland has an astrologer-king, basing his actions on what he claims to see in the stars. By the end, the ruler is a philosopher who bases his decisions not on dreams, which can be deceptive, but on rational analysis, which is true whether he happens to be asleep or awake.

Literary Style

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Life Is a Dream is a comedia, a form of Spanish drama perfected at the beginning of the seventeenth century by the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega and codified in his 1609 treatise El arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este sieglo (The New Art of Playwriting in This Century). Comedia is verse drama in three acts. In the first act, the issues are introduced. In the second, they are developed. In the third, they are resolved. Comedia mixes comic and serious elements and features intrigue, disguise, swordplay, and battles.

Conflict between Characters and Ideas

There are two sorts of conflicts that shape the plot of Life Is a Dream. There are conflicts between characters, such as the conflict between Basilio and Segismundo or Astolfo and Rosaura or Astolfo and Estrella. There are also clashes of ideas, like that between free will and determinism or between self-interest and forgiveness or between illusion and reality. These tensions, more than those between characters, determine the course of action in the play and are at the heart of the conflicts between the characters. The conflict binding Astolfo and Rosaura, for example, is one between honor and selfishness or justice and greed. The father/son conflict joining Basilio and Segismundo also serves as the vehicle that permits conflicts between free will and determinism and between illusion and reality to be represented.


Gongorism is the name given to the ornate style of verse in which Calderón wrote. It is named for the poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561–1627). This style is characterized by references to mythology, stylistic excesses, and complexity of language and thought. Readers of an English translation will not be able to experience it fully but may get a lingering sense of it in such passages as this at the opening of the play: "Wild hippogriff, running swift as the wind, flash without flame, bird without color, fish without scales, unnatural beast, where are you wildly rushing in the intricate labyrinth of these bare rocks?" Another example is in Segismundo's first speech in the play's first scene: "The bird is born, with the gaudy plumage that gives it unrivalled beauty; and scarcely is it formed, like a flower of feathers or a winged branch, when it swiftly cuts the vaulted air, refusing the calm shelter of its nest."

Historical Context

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The Golden Age in Spain

The period between 1580 and 1680 is called the Golden Age in Spain, when art and literature flourished. The first part of Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), was published in 1605. In this novel, Cervantes plays with the shifting boundaries between reality and perception and introduces, in the figure of Don Quixote, a character who shows the influence of literature on consciousness. Lope de Vega's Fuente ovejuna, or The Sheep Well (performed in 1614), dramatizes a village rebellion against an authoritarian governor, in which the characters realize both a group identity and individual identities. In 1630, Tirso de Molina (ca. 1580–1648) first introduced the character of Don Juan in his play El burlador de Sevilla, or The Love Rogue. The Don is a figure who embodies the Renaissance passions, defining himself by his appetite and by his defiance of convention. During the period between 1597 and 1614, the year of his death, the artist El Greco (1541–1614) produced more than a dozen paintings that have come to be regarded as masterpieces, including the Laocoon and the View of Toledo. And between 1620 and 1660, Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) produced work of such brilliance that he is considered to be Spain's greatest painter. The paintings of El Greco and Velázquez embody the terror of being human, the struggle to be human, and the breadth of vision and depth of character humanity can achieve.


The hundred years between 1550 and 1650 were marked by power conflicts that combined political and religious issues and took place within and between nations. In Spain, the power of the Roman Catholic Church was enforced by the courts of the Inquisition, which could punish deviations from accepted doctrine, and by the Index, a list of books that were banned by the Catholic Church because they threatened accepted religious truth. While these measures strengthened the power of religion, they also nurtured underground Protestant and humanist opposition.

Protestant leaders like Martin Luther (1483–1546) attacked the power of the pope and the Church's practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were supposed to lessen the time the purchaser of the indulgence would spend in purgatory after death. Protestant reformers like Luther also believed that the Bible ought to be available to each Christian, in the vernacular languages rather than only Church Latin or the original Greek. They believed that the Bible, not the Church fathers, ought to be the ultimate religious authority.

Protestant reformers were often originally closely allied with humanists. Humanists were scholars like the Dutch-born Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536). Their philosophy grew out of the study of the Greek and Latin classics and an appreciation of their literary qualities, their grace, and their structure. Humanists sought excellence in humankind itself and focused on the study of humankind and nature rather than on the nature of God and divine phenomena, which was called Scholasticism.

Spanish influence also extended to England when, in 1553, Queen Mary I, attempting to return England to Catholicism after Henry VIII's break with Rome in 1534, married Spain's king, Philip II. She died four years later and was succeeded by her Protestant sister, who became Queen Elizabeth I and whose navy defeated the Spanish armada in 1588. Spain also at this time was defending other territories it held in Europe, including parts of Italy and the Netherlands, and it was establishing itself as a major colonial power in the New World and struggling with the Turkish Ottoman Empire for the northern coast of Africa.

Cultural Changes

The period in which Calderón lived was particularly vital because of the encounter and contention of two ways of understanding the world. The medieval organization of society and thought essentially was formed by an adherence to doctrines of well-defined religious and secular order. The Renaissance, with the resurgence of classical learning, global exploration, individualism, and challenges to one dogmatically established religion, destabilized and threatened medieval values and truths. "Man," who lived in the Middle Ages under the yoke of authority, in the Renaissance, had become the measure of all things.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Calderón de la Barca, Pedro, Life Is a Dream, translated by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman, in The Golden Age, selected and introduced by Norris Houghton, Dell, 1963, pp. 86-89.

De Armas, Frederick A., The Return of Astraea: An Astral-Imperial Myth in Calderón, University Press of Kentucky, 1986, p. 122.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni, Oration on the Dignity of Man, available online at∼crshalizi Mirandola (August 31, 2005).

Sloman, A. E., "The Structure of Calderón's La vida es sueño," in Critical Essays on the Theatre of Calderón, edited by Bruce W. Wardropper, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 90-91.

Further Reading

Cascardi, Anthony J., The Limits of Illusion: A Critical Study of Calderón, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Cascardi studies Calderón's work with regard to the literary and philosophical currents of his time and probes his treatment of illusion and skepticism in all his plays.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, edited and translated by James Strachey, Avon Books, 1980.

Freud's dream book, first published in 1900, is one of the most important and influential books of the twentieth century. In it, Freud advances the theory that dreams are essentially wishes that are represented in a mystifying manner in order to evade the censorship of internalized social constraints.

Fulton, J. Michael, "In Defense of Clotaldo: Reconsidering the Secondary Plot in Calderón's La vida es sueño," in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 56, No. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 11-23.

Citing the body of criticism that brands Rosaura's father as cowardly, deceptive, and self-serving, Fulton argues that, by contrast with Basilio, Segismundo's father, Clotaldo represents the type of an honorable and loyal father.

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von, Der Turm, translated by Michael Hamburger, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Poems and Verse Plays, Bollingen Foundation, 1961.

The Tower is a German adaptation of La vida es sueño. Published in 1925 and first performed in 1927, it reflects the chaotic situation of Germany at the time of its composition. Sigismund is freed from his tower prison at the age of twenty-one, defeated in his rebellion against his father, and sentenced to death. On the day of his execution, however, the nobility overthrows Basilius and makes Sigismund king, but he is assassinated during a peasant uprising.

Honig, Edward, "The Magnanimous Prince and the Price of Consciousness: Life Is a Dream," in Calderón and the Seizure of Honor, Harvard University Press, 1972.

Honig studies the nature of the relationship between Segismundo and Rosaura in Life Is a Dream, not only discussing their common concerns with seeking vengeance and gaining honor but also regarding precursor figures in some of Calderón's earlier plays.

Parker, Alexander A., The Mind and Art of Calderón: Essays on the Comedias, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Parker's volume is a survey and a study of Calderón's secular dramas, concentrating on how social and political life as well as myths are reflected in those works. In his discussion of Life Is a Dream, Parker considers the father-son conflict, the meaning of the tower, the power of horoscopes, and the conflict between fate and responsibility.

Strother, Darci L., Family Matters: A Study of On- and Off-Stage Marriage and Family Relationism in Seventeenth-Century Spain, Peter Lang Publishing, 1999.

In the context of works by Calderón and other seventeenth-century Spanish playwrights, Strother studies family relations in seventeenth-century Spain and the way the family was presented on the stage. Strother focuses on consensual and arranged marriages, women's roles, child rearing, and alternatives to marriage.


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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.




Critical Essays