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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2209

Article abstract: Calderón continued the Golden Age of drama after the death of Lope de Vega Carpio, bringing to Spain some of the greatest dramatic literature and autos sacramentales in the seventeenth century.

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Early Life

The bright Spanish cultural renaissance had its center in the fin de siècle spirit, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca was born into it, in 1600, in Madrid. His parents were very much part of the establishment; his father, strong-willed and demanding, was secretary to the Council of the Royal Treasury. It was his mother’s wish before her death in 1610 that Pedro enter the priesthood; his father, on his deathbed when Calderón was fifteen, turned her request into an order, a dying command that was to plague Calderón throughout his career, until he finally took holy orders at the age of fifty-one. Without his parents to guide him, Calderón was forced to examine his life alone, with the guilt of disobedience mixed with a sense of not knowing who he was. No early portrait of Calderón exists, but a graphological analysis of his handwriting done by one scholar reveals a shy, nervous, and sensitive young man, not so much challenging his faith or loyalty to the Catholic church as questioning his own place in it. This combination of an inquiring mind together with a mandate by his dead parents confused Calderón during his youth and possibly led him to explore answers to his dilemma in the dramatic mode, dramatizing over and over the conflict between predestination and free will.

Calderón’s schooling, however, was not neglected. From 1614 to 1620, his academic virtuosity reflected his internal confusion and indecision. At the Imperial Jesuit College, he received an excellent education in the classics, religion, and (later, at the University of Alcala) rhetoric and logic. In Salamanca he studied law. It was, however, a minor poetry contest in 1620, part of a celebration in honor of Saint Isadore, patron saint of Madrid, that was to turn Calderón’s life away from the traditional pursuits of priesthood or law to writing. Lope de Vega, the acknowledged master dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age, was a judge and saw fit to praise Calderón’s entry. Inspired, Calderón began to write plays at a rate that rivaled Lope de Vega Carpio’s (who is said to have written fifteen hundred plays in his lifetime). His first play (discounting youthful efforts), Amor, honor y poder (love, honor, and power), was performed in Madrid at the court of Philip IV in 1623 and was immediately followed by La selva confusa (the entangled forest) and Judas Macabeo (Judas Macabee), both in 1623. Calderón’s military service in Italy and Flanders interrupted his dramatic writing for a short time. Returning from Spain’s triumph at Breda, Calderón wrote El sitio de Breda (the siege of Breda), performed in 1625 and, judging from accurate geographical details in the play, conjectured to be based on his own experiences in battle.

The court life of the Spanish Golden Age could only emerge from more than one hundred years of relatively peaceful royal succession since Ferdinand and Isabella, who united Spain and defeated the Moors in a decisive battle at Granada in 1492. When Lope de Vega died in 1635, Calderón was his successor at the court of Philip IV, during the construction of the king’s great court theater, El Coliseo del Buen Retiro.

Life’s Work

“The sober celebration of order triumphant”—this phrase, from James E. Maraniss’ study, On Calderón (1978), summarizes Calderón’s life’s work, manifested in his dramatic approach to his secular plays (1630 to 1651) as well as his religious attitudes expressed in the auto sacramentale form he favored after 1651. Throughout his career, which lasted more than fifty years, Calderón viewed the function of the stage as the reestablishment of order in the face of the constant threat of political, moral, and spiritual rebellion. By 1635, at the beginning of Calderón’s succession as director at the court of Philip IV, he had written thirty plays, of which three— La dama duende (wr. 1629, pr. 1636; The Phantom Lady, 1664), El príncipe constante (1629; The Constant Prince, 1853), and La vida es sueño (1635; Life Is a Dream, 1830)—have joined the permanent repertory of classical world drama, performed, adapted, and modernized in many countries. The latter play, considered his masterpiece, embodies the themes and the style of virtually all the secular plays: A hero, wrongly deprived of his royal honor, examines his own consciousness to recover his station and his free will. The gongoristic style of bombast and exaggeration, together with the insertion of poetic monologues, denotes the dramatic style of the period, of which Calderón and Lope de Vega, along with Tirso de Molina, were masters.

Calderón’s appointment coincided with the construction and occupation of the royal palace, Buen Retiro, begun in 1629 and opened in 1634, featuring the Coliseo del Buen Retiro, a special theater space expressly designed for the performance of his plays. It was this permanent home and captive audience of sympathetic courtiers, together with encouragement of his early work, that allowed the prolific Calderón to continue his career as playwright well into mid-life. The theatrical companies of that day, licensed by the king, gave private performances to the royal court, usually before their public debut; consequently, Calderón’s position at court gave him easy access to the commercial theater outside the royal palace. One memorable evening performance of El mayor encanto, amor (1635; Love, the Greatest Enchantment, 1870) took place on an island in the garden lake, with the audience attending from gondolas; a sudden storm toppled several vessels and blew out the candles, causing the six-hour play to be postponed.

The many performances at court in the years between 1635 and 1650, described by one biographer as “counted among the rare blissful hours in theatrical history,” perfected Calderón’s dramaturgical skills and gave the theater world such masterpieces as El alcalde de Zalamea (1643; The Mayor of Zalamea, 1853), El mágico prodigioso (1637; The Wonder-Working Magician, 1959), El médico de su honra (1637; The Surgeon of His Honor, 1853), and A secreto agravio, secreta venganza (1637; Secret Vengeance for Secret Insult, 1961); these plays were collected from time to time during this period and published in several volumes under Calderón’s supervision.

A series of personal blows, including the death of his brothers and mistress in 1650, forced him to retreat into a monastic life. Calderón’s retreat into priesthood did not end his perpetual examination of the idea of free choice as moral basis. The autos sacramentales of his later period reflect once again the metaphysical struggle between earthly desires and the willful renunciation (a word used often by Calderón’s biographers) of those desires by the Christian soul. The autos sacramentales were allegorical pieces in which abstractions such as Everyman, Error, and the World were personified in Manichaean battles with temptations to sin and moral compromise. By far the most frequent figure was the World, whose tribulations on the stage actually continued for Calderón his never-ending struggle to reconcile his ethical standards with his own human weaknesses, as he saw them. His most popular auto sacramentale, El gran teatro del mundo (wr. 1635, pr. 1649; Great Theater of the World, 1856), was written before his investiture and contains all the elements of the genre: A Director in gaudy symbolic costume of stars and rays calls together the World, the Law of Grace, and various actors in the Play of Life to “celebrate/ My power infinitely great.” As the play-within-a-play moves to its patrological conclusion, the Poor Man retreats to a subservient position and the Rich Man justifies his place in the importance of historical events, thus reinforcing the conservative view. Despite modern reservations about the outcome, the play is studied as a model of the type.

During his most fruitful years at court, Calderón kept careful accounts of his work, publishing them in several volumes under the editorship of his brother and other friends, rejecting publicly the imitations and acknowledging the authentic works as his own. Near the end of his life, after publishing five volumes of his work, he provided an official list of his secular and religious pieces. Thus, despite the paucity of biographical documentation of Calderón’s life—caused in large part by his habit of keeping secret his social and private activities—his canon is definitive and relatively uncontested, and includes some 180 plays.

Summary

Spanish literature, with the exception of a few masterpieces, is not nearly as widely known in Western culture at large as are French and English literature. Spain, while flourishing in its own cultural climate, did not export her ideas and creative artists. Spain’s participation in the Thirty Years’ War promoted more crossbreeding of cultures, but it remained for the scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to renew the world’s interest in Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega Carpio, Tirso de Molina, and the other giants of Spanish literature.

Although his works were performed in some European countries during the eighteenth century, Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s contributions to world literature have been only lately appreciated. His defense of royalist principles, in a time when the rising middle class was questioning monarchies elsewhere, makes even more remarkable his popularity and the currency of his ideas in today’s humanistic studies. Further, the dramatization of the philosophical question of free will versus predestination had found no greater craftsman since the Greek tragedians. Finally, the autos sacramentales provide a religious continuity from the medieval pageant plays of all European countries to the modern work of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. Calderón should not be considered a minor local phenomenon isolated by the Pyrenees from the mainstream of Western ideas, but rather a gifted, prolific, and articulate spokesperson for the universal themes of the late European Renaissance: man’s relation to his God, his country, and his fellowman, and the nature of his being.

Bibliography

Aycock, Wendell M., and Sydney P. Cravens, eds. Calderón de la Barca at the Tercentenary: Comparative Views. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1982. An important collection of papers on the three-hundredth anniversary of Calderón’s death. The essayists concentrate on comparing some of Calderón’s contributions with other artistic impulses, such as German Idealist philosophy, Euripides, Mexican cleric characters, and William Shakespeare.

Cascardi, Anthony J. The Limits of Illusion: A Critical Study of Calderón. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Valuable for the breadth and variety of its inquiry. Concentrates on Calderón’s unique notion of a universal dramatic theme—illusion. Index.

Edwards, Gwynne. The Prison and the Labyrinth. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978. This imagery study of Calderón’s tragedies illuminates the texts by characterizing his moral dilemma as physical enclosures from which his true psychological and spiritual self cannot escape without free will. “Disposition and environment may incline” the will in one direction or another, says Edwards, but “they cannot force.” Contains a bibliography and an index.

Gerstinger, Heinz. Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Translated by Diana Stone Peters. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. Begins by describing Spain’s Golden Age and its theater, then proceeds through Calderón’s dramaturgy, worldview, religious attitudes, modern interpretations, and permanent legacy to dramatic literature. The second section treats nine plays individually, adding a valuable bibliography and handy index. Contains a chronology with English play titles.

Hesse, Everett W. Calderón de la Barca. Boston: Twayne, 1967. Treats the Spanish theater of the Golden Age, the political and social arena, the structure of Calderón’s work, the works in which he excelled, and Calderón’s critical reception. Particularly valuable is Hesse’s discussion of such subgenres as cloak-and-sword plays, honor tragedies, and mythological plays. Selected bibliography and index.

Honig, Edwin. Calderón and the Seizures of Honor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. These essays were generated from Honig’s translations of Calderón’s plays in 1961 and 1970 and constitute the clearest, most easily accessible glosses on the plays available to the average reader. An appendix offers passages in the Spanish original.

Maraniss, James E. On Calderón. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. Stressing Calderón’s sense of “order triumphant,” Maraniss moves through the canon examining the structural integrity of each play, the symmetry and careful alternation of the plots, and the repeatedly demonstrated dramatic restatement of acknowledged social principles.

Mujica, Barbara Louise. Calderón’s Characters: An Existential Point of View. Barcelona, Spain: Puvill, 1980. A strong essay that examines the characters of Calderón’s plays with an eye toward their existential choices and the sense of free will in the face of despair. Mujica claims that “the type of character—free and en situation—which is the hallmark of existentialist fiction is also the hallmark of seventeenth-century Spanish theater, in particular, Calderón’s.”

Wardropper, Bruce W., ed. Critical Essays on the Theatre of Calderón. New York: New York University Press, 1965. Essays on Calderón’s themes, characters, structure, political viewpoint, and theoretical perspectives. The opening article, by A. A. Parker, is a good summary of the justifications for ranking Calderón among the great writers of a great literary age.

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Critical Essays