Father-Son Relationship

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The Tower explores the theme of fathers and sons in terms of Sigismund’s relationship to two central father figures: King Basilius, his biological father, and Julian, his lifelong jailer and caretaker.

The relationship of King Basilius to his only son, the Prince Sigismund, fluctuates dramatically several times throughout the play. The king is torn between his fear of being usurped by his son, as stated in a prophesy and the natural love of a father for his offspring. Throughout the play, the king alternates between these two impulses. The desire to maintain his sovereign power, however, always wins out over his paternal affections for Sigismund.

Because of a prophesy that stated that the king’s son would one day rise up against him in rebellion, King Basilius sentenced his only son, Sigismund, to be imprisoned for life in the tower. The king justified this act by accusing his son, at the age of twelve, of ‘‘high treason.’’ Julian, the governor of the tower, however, had pity on the young prince and placed him in the care of a peasant family for four years. At this point, Julian reasoned that Sigismund, now sixteen, was too vulnerable to assassination and thereafter kept him locked in a cage in the tower like an animal.

With the encouragement of the physician, Julian decides to make a plea to the king to retry Sigismund, now twenty-one, thus giving the young prince a second chance to demonstrate his innocence. In making his decision, the king seeks council with Brother Ignatius, the grand almoner of the monastery. He asks Brother Ignatius if the prophesy is in fact true, to which the grand almoner responds ambiguously. He chides the king, however, for mistreating his own son, ‘‘your child, got in holy matrimony!’’ The king nonetheless declares that, if Sigismund is found to be ‘‘a demon and a rebel,’’ then ‘‘his head shall fall and roll before your feet,’’ but if he is found to be innocent, ‘‘I shall take my child into my arms, and the crown, a triple crown wrought into one, will not be without an heir.’’ Brother Ignatius replies that, in effect, the king has already been condemned for his sins against his son, telling him that God ‘‘knows you and means to punish you.’’ Upon hearing this, the king becomes angry, and has the grand almoner carried out. The king is, in effect, pronounced guilty for mistreating his own son but refuses to accept responsibility for his guilt, justifying it by his own fear of rebellion.

Yet, while he fears his own son, whom he has imprisoned for life and has never seen, the king also expresses deep sentiments in regard to Sigismund. When he meets with Julian at the monastery, the king states that he is ‘‘moved . . . deeply,’’ by Julian’s loyalty to him as the guardian of Sigismund, sentimentally embracing him with the words, ‘‘It is your arms that shield our kin.’’

Fearing his first meeting with Sigismund, the king turns to prayer and religious council in the hopes that his son will remain loyal to him. The king consoles himself regarding his mistreatment of his child by asking his confessor if he may be absolved, should he once again condemn ‘‘my own son’’ to life imprisonment in the tower. Under this current of morbid fear of his own son, the king is deeply moved by the thought of restoring Sigismund to his rightful role as heir to the throne. The king even muses that, were he to allow Sigismund to succeed him, he might retire peacefully. He imagines that ‘‘Perhaps...

(This entire section contains 2208 words.)

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I too will retire into a monastery for the remainder of my days,’’ and that his son will regard him with ‘‘gratitude.’’ The king nonetheless asks his confessor if he may be justified in inflicting ‘‘the extremest harshness’’ upon the prince, ‘‘if he were to raise his hand against me.’’ The confessor has clearly been appointed for the purpose of justifying any action, no matter how immoral, the king undertakes and relieves the king’s every fear of being accused of wrongdoing against his son.

Before the king lays eyes upon his son for the first time, Julian attempts to impress upon Sigismund the importance of obeying his father, without questioning his ill treatment up to this point. Julian equates Sigismund’s conception of a Christian God as the Father with the figure of his biological father, the king. He tells Sigismund, ‘‘You have said to yourself that it is your father who thus governs over you. You comprehend that your father’s ways had to be inscrutable to you. . . . You would not wish to live unless someone higher were above you, that is the sense of your thinking—You do not ask: What has happened to me?’’

Upon seeing Sigismund for the first time, the king, impressed by his son’s instinctively regal manner, is so moved that he must support himself on Julian’s arm, as if he were weak in the knees with emotion. His impulse to fatherly affection toward his son is expressed when he sees in Sigismund, ‘‘The very image of my wife!’’ The king is literally moved to tears as he gazes upon his son and rightful successor. The king’s feeling for the son, whom he has feared and imprisoned for twenty-one years, is sincere and heartfelt. He tells Sigismund, ‘‘You have returned home. Our arms are open.’’ The king continues this emotional plea, ‘‘will you come to our heart, into its undivided warmth?’’

Yet, while this ‘‘warmth’’ on the part of the king for his son may be heartfelt, the king maintains a sly, manipulative, and distrustful stance toward Sigismund, whom he will tolerate only if he can maintain his position of power over his son. He tells the young prince, ‘‘I look for child-like devotion in your eyes, and I do not find it.’’ The king then tries to convince Sigismund that it was Julian who had deceived him, the king, into believing that his son was wild and harbored rebellious intentions against his father.

Despite the king’s mighty efforts, however, Sigismund does, the minute he gets the chance, rise up against his father in rebellion. The king, dropping all notions of paternal affection, immediately sentences both Sigismund and his keeper, Julian, to execution for treason. The king declares Sigismund a ‘‘parricide’’—a would-be murderer of his own father—thereby justifying his sentence of death upon his own son. The king’s fear of being usurped outweighs any natural fatherly love or affection for his offspring. The king thus proves himself to be a sinner by valuing power over love.

Julian, the governor of the tower, serves as a second father figure to Prince Sigismund. The king has entrusted Julian for almost twenty-two years with watching over Sigismund. Julian at first appears to be an ambivalent figure in Sigismund’s life, but he soon proves himself to be the young prince’s most faithful caretaker. As Sigismund’s guardian and jailer throughout the prince’s life, Julian’s relationship to him is fraught with ambiguity.

The physician, upon examining the imprisoned prince, quickly perceives the warring sympathies within Julian’s heart over the proper action to take in regards to Sigismund. The physician tells Julian, ‘‘Your lordship is created of heroic stuff,’’ but qualifies the statement by elaborating that ‘‘the source itself is troubled, the deepest root is cankered. In this your imperious countenance Good and Evil wage a fearful coiling battle like serpents.’’ In other words, Julian has the potential to do heroic deeds in regard to Sigismund, but he is ‘‘troubled’’ at heart, hesitating between taking action against Sigismund, which the physician regards as Evil, and taking action to empower Sigismund, which the physician regards as Good. The physician goes on to describe the nature of Julian’s troubles, stating that ‘‘you deny your heart—Heart and head must be one. But you have consented to the satanic split; you have suppressed the noble inner organ.’’ The physician tells Julian, ‘‘I see heroic ambition in your carriage and gait, checked in the hips by an impotent will, gigantically warring with itself.’’ The physician accurately perceives the desire within Julian to do right by Sigismund, also perceiving the extent to which his ‘‘will’’ is ‘‘warring with itself’’ over what to do. The physician concludes that Julian’s ‘‘soul’s wings’’ are ‘‘shackled in chains.’’ Thus, the physician, regarding the cause of Sigismund as a higher moral Good, sees Julian’s ‘‘soul’’ as a slave to the Evil impulse that causes him to keep Sigismund imprisoned like an animal. The physician tells Julian that his conscience in the matter is troubled: ‘‘The wrong done to this youth, the enormity of the crime, the complicity, the partial consent: all this stands written on your face.’’

Julian, however, protests that he has ‘‘saved his life, more than once,’’ and that ‘‘Without me he would have been murdered.’’ He explains that he has placed Sigismund under such base conditions, locked in the tower, to hide him from the world and protect him from assassins. But the physician’s words inspire Julian to conceive of a plan whereby the prince may be restored to the good favor of his father, King Basilius. The conviction with which Julian undertakes this effort is indicated when he tells the physician, ‘‘I am risking my head’’ to do right by Sigismund. When he pleads directly to the king to give Sigismund a retrial, an opportunity to prove his innocence, Julian offers the king his own head in execution if Sigismund proves disloyal to his father. At this point, the king acknowledges Julian’s role as Sigismund’s caretaker, telling him, ‘‘It is your arms that shield our kin.’’

At this point, however, Sigismund both fears Julian as his jailer and reveres him as the life giver and father figure who has taught him everything he knows—in particular, Julian has taught him the Christian Bible. Sigismund cowers in fear when Julian enters the room, telling him, ‘‘You have supreme power over me. I tremble before you. I know that I cannot escape you.’’ But Julian reminds him that ‘‘I was your rescuer. Secretly, I poured oil into the lamp of your life; because of me alone there is still light in you. Remember that. . . . Did I not let you sit next to me at a wooden table and open before you the great book and pointed in it figure after figure to the things of the world and called them by name for you?’’

When Sigismund does indeed rise up against his father, the king, he sentences Julian to death with the young prince. After the prince and Julian are both saved from execution by the rebellion, which deposes the king and places Sigismund on the throne, Sigismund directly acknowledges Julian’s role as his father and teacher. He addresses Julian as ‘‘my teacher,’’ and appoints him his ‘‘minister,’’ his closest confident. Julian likewise passionately declares himself to be Sigismund’s father in spirit, although the king and queen are his biological parents: ‘‘O my king! My son!—for you come from me who molded you, not from him who furnished merely the clump of earth, nor from her who gave birth to you.’’

When the rebellion, taken over by Oliver, turns against Sigismund, Julian is fatally wounded. In the moments before Julian dies, Sigismund directly acknowledges his importance as father, teacher, and caretaker. He tells Julian, ‘‘You have put the right word under my tongue, the word of comfort in the desert of this life.’’ After Julian dies, Oliver, who has entered, notices Julian’s dead body and tells Sigismund, ‘‘I know him. He was your jailer. He kept you worse than a dog.’’ But Sigismund defends Julian as the man whose actions were always in the service of Sigismund’s own good, asserting that ‘‘You are mistaken. He did not keep me as he was commanded to, but he kept me as he had planned in the fulfillment of his mind’s work.’’

Thus, the true nature of Julian’s relationship to Sigismund becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the play. Outwardly his jailer, Julian emerges as the one truly nurturing father figure in the prince’s life. By the time of Julian’s death, Sigismund has acknowledged him as a teacher, father, caretaker, and guide.

Sigismund’s two father figures throughout the play, the king and Julian, ultimately show their true moral colors in terms of their relationship to the young prince. Julian at first appears to be the prince’s oppressor and jailer, but he shows himself to be his most ardent caretaker and supporter. The king waivers between fear of the son who is destined to rise up against him and a natural fatherly love for his offspring. In the figure of the king, however, the love of his power ultimately overrides the love of his child.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Differences From the Play

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There is only a tenuous relationship between Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1925 play The Tower and its inspiration, the 1635 romantic comedy Life Is a Dream by the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca y Henao. Both plays concern a king, Basilius of Poland, who has determined that his son is destined to one day overthrow him and take his place, and who has, therefore, taken the measure of having the child raised in captivity. Both plays follow the prince, Sigismund, as he gains his freedom, misuses it, and is sent back into captivity, only to be rescued later when a political uprising unseats Basilius and requires a royal heir to take his place. Beyond these similarities in their plots, though, there is a world of difference in the way the two authors develop the basic idea. For Calderon, the true story is a metaphysical one about the nature of human knowledge, which, as he presents it, is as ‘‘real’’ for one whose life is confined to a tower as it is for a monarch who reigns supreme. Hofmannsthal’s take on the material stresses the opposite effect, presenting the king, in the end, as a convict in his own right. That the same story can bend to accommodate two such different viewpoints is a tribute to romanticism, to fatalism, and ultimately to every unified world view that helps humans interpret the world surrounding them.

In Calderon’s version of the story, life really is a dream, just as the title says: a lively jumble of coincidence, intuition, and masquerade. The basic story that both plays follow, about a prince locked up in a tower, has been handed down through the ages, like many of the most potent fairy tales. As Calderon envisions it, the king’s fear of his son began when the boy’s mother died during childbirth and then continues with his own scholarly work. King Basilius explains that, in his extensive reading, he found it fore-written ‘‘that Sigismund would be the most cruel of all princes, the most audacious of all humans, the most wicked of all monarchs;’’ that he would split up the kingdom; and that he would take physical action against his own father. The play gives a vivid, lasting image of the cruelty he anticipates from Sigismund: ‘‘I saw myself downstricken, lying on the ground before him (What deep shame this utterance gives me!) while his feet on my white hairs were imprinted as a carpet.’’ Readers can notice a similarity between the way that Calderon lets a premonition drive the plot and some of the later romantic tragicomedies of Shakespeare, particularly between this version of Basilius and Shakespeare’s Prospero, the wizard king of The Tempest. The two plays were, after all, written a mere twenty- five years apart.

After establishing that Basilius’ motivation for imprisoning the infant boy was rooted in his own predictions, Life Is a Dream goes on to raise questions about the source of that prediction. Sigismund does, in fact, proceed once he is free to strike out violently, killing a guard and threatening Basilius in a manner that seems to be a fulfillment of the prophecy. As this scene unfolds, though, questions arise about whether his long imprisonment held back his naturally violent impulses or if it might have actually caused them. Sigismund’s bitterness and horror boil over once he is told that he is actually a prince and that he was locked up by his own father before growing old enough to do anything to actually deserve it. Audiences are led to wonder whether Basilius might have created what we recognize today as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Much is made in Calderon’s version of the method of Sigismund’s temporary release from custody. Unsure of how the prisoner will react to finding out that he is actually the royal heir, Basilius arranges for him to take a sleeping potion in his cell, so that, if his introduction to his rightful place in court goes as badly as predicted, he can be put back in his cell, with the whole incident explained away as a dream. While Hofmannsthal’s version of the story does make use of the ‘‘sleeping powder’’ twist, it is not the king who devises this scheme, but rather Julian, who is sympathetic to Sigismund. Julian uses the idea of knocking Sigismund out to help him retain some innocence and vulnerability, so that he would not have to automatically be put to death if the experiment of telling the truth should fail. Sigismund in The Tower does not confuse levels of reality, the way that his counterpart from Life Is a Dream does—he does not think that dream life is real life and vice versa; he merely notes the similarity between the two.

As if this blurring of the line between life and dream did not give his play enough lighthearted fantasy, Calderon includes a romantic twist of mistaken identity that is only glancingly related to the play’s main idea. The following section is very confusing. None of the readers will be familiar with these characters, nor do they need to be. The point can be made quite well without naming them all. [Rosaura has come to Poland disguised as a man, to avenge being dishonored earlier by Astolfo; she is aided by Clotaldo, the jailer who has been sympathetic to the prince, although she does not realize that Clotaldo is really her father; and Astolfo intends to be named Basilius’ heir to the throne because his mother was Basilius’ sister and he is poised to strengthen that birthright by marrying Estrella, the daughter of Basilius’ other sister.] Little about these complications involves Sigismund finding himself a prisoner one day, a prince the next, and then a prisoner again, other than pointing out the uncertainty of the political system, a point that Hofmannsthal would later make much of. These subplots do, however, establish a lighthearted tone, where chance and fate bounce off each other in no controllable pattern. In the end of Life Is a Dream, when Sigismund is given his true place on the throne (affirming the Elizabethan faith in the natural rightness of succession), he shows royal wisdom by telling Astolfo to make good on his broken promise and marry Rosaura, and he shows compassion for Estrella, who has just lost her fiancée, by offering to marry her himself. Basilius, whose studious nature led to his reading false prophesies in the first place, is left to spend his retirement reading.

Sigismund thus ends up a hero in Calderon’s version of this story, a man who overcomes social disadvantage and a natural propensity toward resentment, showing that royal blood does (or at least can) overcome adversity. He takes to heart the lesson he learned when his first release ends in failure, always questioning whether what he believes to be real is in fact reality or a dream. Modern audiences might summarize his lesson as, ‘‘Don’t take everything so seriously.’’ This version of the story shows, in a fashion as central to romantic comedy four hundred years ago as it is today, that anger and adversity are just the unfortunate byproducts of misunderstanding. It is Basilius’ misunderstanding of the prophesy that makes him lock his child away, and it is Sigismund’s misunderstanding of power that makes him abuse it when he awakens one day to find himself a prince. Peace takes a bighearted gesture, such as Sigismund’s willingness to end the cycle of revenge by conceding that the indignities that he suffered are no more important than a dream.

Hofmannsthal does not find humor or forgiveness in this situation, but instead he uses it to illuminate an entirely different view of the human condition. In his version of the story, King Basilius is not the primary mover who takes Sigismund’s freedom, gives it back, takes it again, and eventually loses it to him. He is a loud, egotistical, obnoxious fool, whose people are tired of his unfair rules and his socially destructive proclamations. When Sigismund is brought from his jail in the tower, Basilius tries to use him as a tool to stop the popular revolution that he senses around him, but Sigismund rejects him and tries to steal the royal power for himself; when his power is restored, Basilius behaves all the worse, demanding for himself the virgin nieces of an innocent courtier and increasing taxes throughout the kingdom as a sort of victory celebration. If he understood the nature of his own power, Basilius would not be as likely to flaunt it in the faces of his subordinates, practically driving them to rebel against his rule.

The nature of political power in The Tower is such that it does not stem from the wisdom or intuition of those who have it, as it does in Life Is a Dream, but that it is a balance between opposing forces that will often settle upon one person to rule. Hofmannsthal’s Basilius is as clueless about the source of his power as Sigismund is, when he finds himself suddenly wearing the royal seal on his finger. They both fail to acknowledge the fact that their power depends on the consent of the common people. The practical reason why Sigismund is brought out of his cell to take the throne is not because he has royal blood or natural intelligence, but because the rebel forces feel that it is necessary to have some justification that could support the legitimacy of their rule. They want him to stay quiet, to be seen but not heard. In act V, Oliver, a rebel leader, explains that Sigismund is to be driven through the streets on a cart, to show that it is Basilius’s son who has overthrown him. ‘‘In this way, the ignorant, tongue-tied people will be taught by us to read emblems with their eyes, and the lords will plunge head over heels into the earth.’’ When Sigismund turns out to have ideas of his own, Oliver sends him back to prison and orders an aid to bring him another man who looks like Sigismund, who the crowds will think is him when he rides through the streets. Basilius is executed offstage, a deed mentioned in passing, and Sigismund is assassinated; neither member of the royal lineage is really necessary for running the kingdom in Hofmannsthal’s view.

While the secondary characters in Life Is a Dream serve to loosen up viewers’ expectations, the characters who surround the royal family in The Tower are there to inhibit any romantic hopes about the people who make governments run. For the most part, they are more craven, manipulative, and ruthless than is generally expected even if their goal to overthrow an unjust tyrant is noble. A notable exception is the character identified as ‘‘the Physician,’’ a name clearly intended to put him outside of the circle of political machinations that decides many people’s fates throughout the work. Because his job is to care for the flesh, the physician is outraged at the way he sees Sigismund treated, and he is willing to provide sleeping powders to control the wild Sigismund, supporting a dangerous scheme to present him before his father. Aside from the physician’s natural concern for human suffering, the key motivation for human behavior in The Tower is power. There is no draw of love, as in the subplots of the Calderon version, nor a drive to avenge the honor of a woman scorned. Hofmannsthal’s view is completely modern, a twentieth century tale of political expediency, with no need for traditional dramatic concerns to be added to fulfill a dramatic code.

Students comparing the two plays would be right to wonder what was gained over the course of the three centuries that separated them. The Calderon version seems more lighthearted, and more imaginative; by comparison, Hofmannsthal’s play is leaden, and thumps along the ground with a sense of pervading doom that seems more concerned with the harshness of political life than with shedding intellectual light on the dynamics of power. It is true that Hofmannsthal is something of a political insider, fascinated with the subtleties of politics, often at the expense of his play’s dramatic interest. He does, however, avoid the trap of presenting his string of events entirely raw, too much like life to be of interest to viewers watching them on the stage.

The most interesting thing about Hofmannsthal’s casting of these characters is the layer of symbolism that he gives to the story. While, in the Calderon version, the significance of all that happens to Sigismund has to do with how much life and the dream world sometimes seem similar—an interesting but somewhat lightweight observation— Hofmannsthal’s play is built around beliefs about sin and rebirth that are at the root of the Christian tradition. It is, without a doubt, interesting to hear about a prince who is locked away so that he cannot overthrow his father, and in the post-Freudian era, the story has taken on an even more significant air, but neither its interest value nor its psychological value is worth much after audiences leave the theater. Hofmannsthal’s approach, on the other hand, gives the story a deeper meaning. Sigismund may have thought that he was awakened, and then awakened again from that awakening, in Life Is a Dream, but in The Tower he is born anew, and he has to experience life with a new awareness of the guilt that has been hung upon him since childhood. Viewers who can forget about the scheming of Julian, Oliver, and Basilius himself, and who can put the excitement of Sigismund’s assault against Basilius into perspective can understand the prince to be a man who received a second chance, had it taken from him, and learned to live a noble life even when nobility did him no good. He could have riches and comfort, and had every reason to believe that the world owed him them, but he decided, after being mistreated, to become less, not more, cynical. That is the value of The Tower, and it is more significant than the sense of contentment that Calderon made sure to leave at his play’s end.

Neither version of the story of Prince Sigismund is better, but they both certainly reflect the literary tastes of their times. Calderon’s is a complex tale of interwoven coincidences and brushes with fate. Hofmannsthal gives his viewers a darker piece, but one focused more closely on how we understand what it is to be human and live with the guilt of those who came before. The same incident—Sigismund’s return to captivity—is seen as the driving force in a comic mix-up and a catalyst that starts an inquiry into humanity’s most pressing concerns. The differences in these two versions only serves to prove that genius will always see old stories anew.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County.


Critical Overview