Life is a Dream
|Life Is a Dream|
Detail from bronze relief on a monument to Calderón in Madrid, J. Figueras, 1878.
|Written by||Pedro Calderón de la Barca|
Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy
|Subject||Free will, Fate|
|Genre||Spanish Golden Age Drama|
Life Is a Dream (Spanish: La vida es sueño) is a Spanish language play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. First published in 1635 (or possibly early in 1636), it is a philosophical allegory regarding the human situation and the mystery of life. Focusing on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, the play has as its central theme the conflict between free will and fate. The play remains one of Calderón's best-known and most studied works.
The King of Poland has kept his son Segismundo secretly imprisoned since birth because an oracle prophesied that the prince would bring disaster to the country. Telling his subjects that the boy died soon after birth, the King manages to keep him hidden until he has grown to be a man. When Segismundo reaches maturity, the King wishes to reveal him as rightful heir to the throne. The King brings the Prince to court and tells him about his royal heritage. This discovery makes him violent, however, and he rages, killing a servant, attempting to rape a woman, and injuring the King's advisor.
Horrified and certain of the truthfulness of the dire prophecy, the King has Segismundo drugged and returned to his tower prison. Upon waking he mourns, believing the previous day's events had been nothing more than a dream.
Though he remains oblivious in his cell, the people have discovered Segismundo's plight and break him out of prison. Though he rejoices, he cannot be sure whether this new development is, in fact, reality or still just a dream.
The rebels persist, though, and the King raises an army of the people. The rebels defeat the king, but Segismundo cannot take his father's life. Moved at this gesture, the King proclaims Segismundo heir to his throne after all. As ruler, he resolves to live by the motto that "God is God," acknowledging that, whether asleep or awake, one must strive for goodness.
Act 2, Day Two
On the second day, we find out why Segismundo has been imprisoned since birth: an oracle predicted that he would be a cruel king, so his father, Basilio, took precautions. Basilio has devised a trap to discover whether Segismundo is really cruel: the Prince is drugged, taken into the palace, and presented with royal power—his father stipulating that, if he behaves badly, he will be made to think it’s all been a dream. Rosaura is safe, and enters as an attendant of Estrella. Segismundo does act like a tyrant, throwing a servant from the window shortly after waking up, attempting to rape Rosaura, hurting Clotaldo when he comes to help his daughter, and involving himself in a sword fight with Astolfo. In view of which, the King decides to drug him once more and return him to the tower. With Segismundo out of the picture, Astolfo courts Estrella, since with their union they would share the succession to the throne instead of competing for it. Astolfo recognizes Rosaura (who is going by the name Astrea), and they break off for good. The day finishes with Segismundo, once again in the tower, asking himself if it could all have been a dream, and closes with the famous verses that give name to the play:
Act 3, Day Three
The people of Poland, at finding out that they do have a prince, organize a revolt and liberate Segismundo from his tower—though not without first mistaking Clarín for the Prince. Segismundo frees Clotaldo, allowing him to go with the King, and displaying that he has returned to his senses. Rosaura wants to kill Astolfo, telling her reasons first to her father and then to Segismundo. The King's troops clash with the Prince's troops, and the latter win. When the two encounter each other face to face, the King throws himself at his son’s feet, expecting the parricidal prophecy to be fulfilled. Instead of killing him, Segismundo forgives him. In light of the generous attitude of the Prince, the King grants him the throne. As King, Segismundo decides that Astolfo must keep his promise to marry Rosaura to preserve her honor. At first Astolfo is hesitant because she is not of noble birth, but when Clotaldo publicly reveals that she is his daughter, Astolfo consents. Segismundo then promises to marry Estrella himself.
The Rosaura Subplot
The Rosaura subplot has been subjected to much criticism in the past as not belonging to the work. Menéndez y Pelayo saw it as a strange and exotic plot, like a parasitical vine. Rosaura has also been dismissed as the simple stock character of the jilted woman. With the British School of Calderonistas, this attitude changed. A. E. Sloman explained how the main and secondary actions are linked. Others like E. M. Wilson and William M. Whitby consider Rosaura to be central to the work since she parallels Segismundo's actions and also serves as Segismundo's guide, leading him to a final conversion. For some Rosaura must be studied as part of a Platonic ascent on the part of the Prince. Others compare her first appearance, falling from a horse/hippogriff to the plot of Ariosto's Orlando furioso where Astolfo (the name of the character who deceives Rosaura in our play), also rides the hippogriff and witnesses a prophecy of the return of the mythical Golden Age. For Frederick de Armas, Rosaura hides a mythological mystery already utilized by Ariosto. When she goes to Court, she takes on the name of Astraea, the goddess of chastity and justice. Astraea was the last of the immortals to leave earth with the decline of the ages. Her return signals the return of a Golden Age. Many writers of the Renaissance and early modern periods used the figure of Astraea to praise the rulers of their times. It is possible that Rosaura (an anagram for "Dawns") could represent the return of a Golden Age during the reign of Segismundo, a figure that represents King Philip IV of Spain.
Life Is a Dream is one of Calderón's most well-known and well-studied works. This interest not only hails from the play's complex philosophy, but also from its notable dramatic structure. However, ever since Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo's 1910 classification of Life Is a Dream as a philosophical drama, criticism has largely dwelled on the existential issues of the work, often at the cost of paying specific attention to its formal dramatic characteristics.
A few central ideas constitute the major philosophical themes of the play: the opposition between destiny and liberty, the topic of life as a dream, and the theme of free will. These central themes overshadow other themes present, like the education of princes, the model ruler, power, and justice.
Focusing on Segismundo's line, "Y los sueños, sueños son", a more accurate English translation, better representing Calderón's poetic and philosophical intent, may be given as: "And dreams themselves are merely the dreams of dreams", implying and underscoring the ephemeral nature of human life and physical existence.
There have been many different interpretations of the play’s ending, where Segismundo condemns the rebel soldier who freed him to life imprisonment in the tower. Some have suggested that this scene is ironic – that it raises questions about whether Segismundo will in fact be a just king. Others have pointed out that Calderón, who lived under the Spanish monarchy, could not have left the rebel soldier unpunished, because this would be an affront to royal authority.
It is worth considering that Segismundo’s transformation in the course of the play is not simply a moral awakening, but a realization of his social role as the heir to the throne, and this role requires him to act as kings act. For some, the act of punishing the rebel soldier makes him a Machiavellian prince. Others argue that, while this action may seem unjust, it is in keeping with his new social status as the king. Daniel L. Heiple traces a long tradition of works where treason seems to be rewarded, but the traitor or rebel is subsequently punished.
It may well be that, rather than intending his audience to see this action as purely right or wrong, Calderón purposefully made it ambiguous, creating an interesting tension in the play that adds to its depth.
Themes and Motifs
The concept of life as a dream is a very ancient one found in Hinduism and Platonism. It is seen in writers from Lope de Vega to Shakespeare.
The early part – i.e. a Prince who is prophesied at birth to be doomed to cause a disaster and his father the King attempting to avert that disaster – is a theme known akin (possibly deliberate) to Oedipus killing his own father. Calderón, like other educated Europeans of his time, is likely to have been familiar with major themes of Greek mythology.
Key elements from the play may be derived from the Christian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, which Lope de Vega had brought to the stage. This legend itself is a derivation of the story of the early years of Siddharta Gautama, which serves as the basis for the film Little Buddha that illustrates the Hindu-Buddhist concept of reality as illusion.
Another religious concept is that of free will versus predestination. Catholic Spain favored the Counter-reformation that defined the human will as able to choose the good (in cooperation with God's grace), against the Calvinist conception of the total depravity of the human will unless it is predestined by God to be renewed by grace. Segismundo chooses pardon against the oracle.
Catholicism is melded with "pagan" astrology in this play, as Segismundo's horoscope, as interpreted by Basilio, becomes the cause of his incarceration. Calderón would have known of the malefic qualities of Saturn, here associated with Basilio. He would have also known Lope de Vega's Lo que ha de ser (1624), a play that also includes the incarceration of a child and the importance of astrology.
One of the major conflicts of the play is the opposition between father and son, which may have biographical elements. This conflict is also modeled on classical mythology. It parallels the struggle of Uranus vs. Saturn or Saturn vs. Jupiter.
Many other motifs and themes derived from a number of traditions can be found in this rich and complex drama: the labyrinth, the monster, the four elements, notions of freedom vs. predestination, original sin, pride, disillusionment, the Oedipus myth, etc.
- Opera: "Life Is a Dream by Jonathan Dove (Composer) and Alasdair Middleton (libretist); Directed by Graham Vick. World Premiere by Birmingham Opera Company, Argyle Works, Birmingham on 21 March 2012. www.birminghamopera.org.uk
- Opera: Life Is a Dream by Lewis Spratlan (composer) and James Maraniss (librettist), given its world premiere by the Santa Fe Opera on 24 July 2010.
- Theater: Fever/Dream, a 2009 play by Sheila Callaghan
- Some of the latter lines from Act 2 are sampled in the Jumpstyle song "Que es la Vida" by Martillo Vago.
- Dramatic Novel: "United States of Banana" by Giannina Braschi is based on "Life Is a Dream" from which it takes its hero Segismundo, a Puerto Rico prisoner whose father, the King of the United States of Banana, has imprisoned him in the dungeon of the Statue of Liberty for the crime of having been born; Segismundo's mother died in childbirth (AmazonCrossing, 2011).
- Raúl Ruiz's 1987 film Mémoire des apparences is a partial adaptation of Life Is a Dream (and was distributed under this title in its English-language subtitled version).
- Introduction to Pedro Calderon De La Barca's, "The Wonder-Working Magician" on barca.classicauthors.net Retrieved 23 July 2010
- Brockett & Hildy, p.145
- Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Calderón y su teatro. Madrid: A. Perez Dubrull, 1881.
- A. E. Sloman, "The Structure of Calderón's La vida es sueño," in Critical Essays on the Theater of Calderón," ed. Bruce W. Wardropper, 90–100. New York: New York University Press, 1965"
- E. M. Wilson, "On La vida es sueño," in Critical Essays on the Theater of Calderón, 63–89
- William Whitby "Rosarura's Role in the Structure of La vida es sueño," in Critical Essays on the Theater of Calderón, 101-13
- Frederick A. de Armas, The Return of Astraea: An Astral-Imperial Myth in Calderón. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.
- H. B. Hall, "Segismundo and the Rebel Soldier," Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 45 (1968): 189–200.
- Daniel L. Heiple, "The Tradition Behind the Punishment of the Rebel Soldier in La vida es sueño," Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 50 (1973): 1–17.
- Alexander A. Parker, "The Father-Son Conflict in the Drama of Calderón," Forum for Modern language Studies 2 (1966): 99–113.
- Frederick A. de Armas, "The Critical Tower," in The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La vida es sueño. 3–14. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1993.
- Timothy Ambrose, "Calderón and Borges: Discovering Infinity in the Labyrinth of Reason" in A Star-Crossed Golden Age: Myth and the Spanish Comedia, edited by Frederick A. de Armas 197–218. Lewisburg: Bucknell University press, 1998
- "Margaret S. Maurin, "The Monster, the Sepulchre and the Dark: Related Patterns of Imagery in La vida es sueño," Hispanic Review 35 (1967): 161–78
- Henry W. Sullivan, "The Oedipus Myth: Lacan and Dream Interpretation" in The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La vida es sueño"111-17
- Daniel L. Heiple, "Life as Dream and the Philosophy of Disillusionment;" in The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La vida es sueño," 118–131.
- World-premiere production of three-act "Life Is a Dream" from the Santa Fe Opera's website
- David Belcher, "What Dreams May Come", Opera News, July 2010, Vol. 75, No. 1
- Que es la Vida – Martillo Vago, Youtube
- – Life Is a Dream IMDB
- New production of "La vida es sueño" in Spanish at Repertorio Español in New York City. November 2008. www.repertorio.org
- Full text at Project Gutenberg in an English translation (Denis Florence MacCarthy, 1873)
- www.lavidaessueno.com Theater project produced by Puy Navarro in collaboration with Amnesty International. Francisco Reyes, Associate Producer. March 2007 at The Culture Project, NYC
|Spanish Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Odeon Theatre ,Bucharest ,Romania. Life is Dream.2011.