is a Dream
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article is about Pedro Calderon De La Barca’s play. For Lewis
Spratlan’s opera, see Life is a Dream
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 Segismundo, Prince of Poland, the central
argument is the conflict between free will and fate.
The play remains one of de la Barca’s best-known and most studied works.
In the play, the king of Poland has
had his son Segismundo imprisoned all of his life because it has been prophesied that the son will bring disaster to the country.
The king tells his subjects that his son died after childbirth. After his son
has grown to be a man, the king reveals to his court
that his son lives, and allows the court to vote in favor of allowing the son
to become heir. However, the son turns out to be violent,
killing a man and attempting rape. For this he is drugged and
returned to his prison, and told upon waking that the previous day’s events
were merely a dream. Still, his jailer scolds him for his un-princely behaviour, which prompts
remorse in Segismundo. Rebels who are working against the king, who have found
out about the treatment of Segismundo, break him out of prison. The rebels
defeat the king’s army; however, Segismundo doubts again if he is
in reality or a dream, finally deciding that even in a dream we have to behave
well because “God is God” and forgives the king . The play ends in a wedding.
Act 1, Day One
Rosaura, disguised as a man and
accompanied by her squire, Clarín, is heading for the royal court of Poland to
take vengeance on Astolfo, who had promised to marry her, but abandoned her.
She carries a sword that belonged to her father, whom she had never met. Upon
arriving in Poland, at nightfall, she falls from her horse, which runs away,
leaving her to trek down the mountain on foot. She glimpses a light in the
distance and follows it to a tower, where Segismundo has been imprisoned since
birth. At this point, Segismundo delivers his famous monologue, “Ay! Misero de mi, ay, infelice,”
expressing his unhappiness. He asks why he has been deprived of liberty all his
life, when birds, beasts, fish, and even streams are free.
Clotaldo, Segismundo’s jailer, discovers Rosaura and Clarín, and detains
them to bring them before the king since nobody can know about the existence of
Segismundo. Clotaldo recognizes Rosaura’s sword as his own, and struggles with
fulfilling his duty to the king and saving his son, but does not disclose his
dilemma to Rosaura.
Astolfo proposes to Estrella. He wants to marry her since they are both
children of the king’s sisters. And since the king has no children, the two of
them united would be the clear choice for the heir.
The king, Basilio, announces to his court that he does have a son who
was supposed to be a wicked ruler, so he had locked him away, but that he wants
to give him a chance to clear his conscience. He says if this does not work, he
will lock his son away again and give the throne to the children of his sisters
since they have decided to wed to unify their power.
Clotaldo brings the charges of Rosaura and Clarín before Basilio, who
pardons them since he has already decided to reveal the secret of Segismundo.
Rosaura reveals to Clotaldo that Astolfo is the one she has come to
kill. Clotaldo is torn again between helping her and his loyalty to his
Act 2, Day Two
In the second day, we know why Segismundo is imprisoned in a dungeon
since birth: an oracle predicted that he would be a cruel king, so his father,
Basilio, enclosed him. Basilio has devised a trap to discover whether Sigismund
is really cruel: he is drugged, taken into the palace, and presented with his
rightful position, reserving the possibility of making him believe that
everything is a dream lest he behave unjustly.
Rosaura is safe, and enters as an attendant of Estrella.
Segismundo acts like a tyrant prince, 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 light of his behavior, the king decides to drug him again and take
him back to the tower.
Astolfo courts Estrella, since with their union they would share the
succession to the throne instead of competing for it once Segismundo is out of
the picture. 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:
|I dream that I am here
of these imprisonments charged,
and I dreamed that in another
happier I saw myself.
What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
A shadow, a fiction,
And the greatest profit is
For all of life is a dream,
And dreams, are nothing but
|Yo sueño que estoy aquí
de estas prisiones cargado,
y soñé que en otro estado
más lisonjero me vi.
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.
Act 3, Day Three
The people of Poland, at finding out that they have a prince, organize a
revolt and liberate Segismundo from his tower (after first mistaking Clarion
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, and tells her reasons to her father
first, and then to Segismundo.
The king’s troops and the prince’s troops meet, and Segismundo wins. The
two encounter each other face to face, and the king throws himself at
Segismundo’s feet, allowing the prophecy to be fulfilled, but 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 origin, but Clotaldo then publicly reveals that she is his daughter,
so Astolfo consents. Segismundo then promises to marry Estrella himself.
 Analysis of Segismundo’s soliloquy
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 Calderon’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.
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/hippogryph to the plot of Ariosto‘s Orlando furioso where Astolpho (the name of
the character who deceives Rosaura in our play), also rides the hippogryph 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.
Analysis of the ending
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
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.
Models and Themes
The conception of life as a dream is a very ancient one, found in
Hinduism and Platonism. It is found in writers from Lope de Vega to
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 a derivation of the story of the early years of Siddharta Gautama, which serves as the basis for
the film Little Buddha
that illustrates so the Hindu-Buddhist concept of
reality as illusion.
Another religious concept is that of free will against 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.