Life Is a Dream

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Life Is a Dream



La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream), probably first performed in 1635 and published in 1636 in Madrid, is the best-known work in a large body of secular and religious plays by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, one of Spain's greatest dramatists, and, after Lope de Vega (1562–1635), the foremost playwright of Spain's Golden Age, a period between 1580 and 1680 when Spanish literature and painting reached their zenith. As the title suggests, in Life Is a Dream, Calderón plays with the problem of distinguishing between illusion and reality. Set in a mythical version of the kingdom of Poland, Life Is a Dream tells the story of King Basilio, who imprisons his son, Segismundo, at birth, because his astrological studies have given him reason to fear that the boy will grow up to be a tyrant and a rebel against his authority. Inside this fable, Calderón considers the power of the contrasting forces of free will and determinism to shape human character and destiny. In the subplot, in which Rosaura seeks to find Astolfo, who has dishonored her, Calderón examines the problems of honor and vengeance.

Life Is a Dream shows the influence of Lope de Vega, representing a form he perfected, the comedia, a three-act play written in verse, which mixes comic and serious elements in a complex plot full of mystery and derring-do. Its cast of characters was also well established—the old man, the young man, the young lady, the maid, and the clown. Rather than exerting influence on future drama, Life Is a Dream embodies the culmination of a tradition. Spanish drama itself shows a serious decline after the end of the seventeenth century.

In the original Spanish, Life Is a Dream is a verse play. In translations attempting to be true to the original verse form, the qualities that add to the play's appeal—its lyricism, poetic invention, and linguistic beauty—can make the play seem stilted and more difficult and less engaging than it is. Edward and Elizabeth Huberman, in 1963, fashioned a prose translation of La vida es sueño that, while it does not sacrifice the beauty, wit, drama, imagery, or philosophical playfulness of the original, flows with ease and is natural and engaging. It is available in Spanish Drama, edited by Angel Flores and published by Bantam Books.


Pedro Calderón de la Barca was born in Madrid on January 17, 1600. His mother died when he was ten. His father, secretary of the king's treasury, died five years later. Calderón was educated at the Jesuit College in Madrid, where he prepared to take holy orders. But before his studies were completed, he enrolled in the university at Salamanca to study law. He neglected his law studies there, however, and wrote poetry instead. Between 1620 and 1622, in Madrid, Calderón participated in a literary festival held to celebrate the beatification and canonization of Saint Isidore, Madrid's patron saint, and was honored in the literary competitions that were a part of the celebration. In 1622, he became Spain's court poet.

There are conflicting accounts of how Calderón spent his next years. According to Juan de Vera Tassis y Villaroel, Calderón's contemporary, editor, literary executor, and biographer, Calderón served in Italy and Flanders in the Spanish army between 1625 and 1635. There are many extant legal documents, however, that suggest that Calderón was living in Madrid during these years. One document indicates that, in 1629, Calderón and a group of his friends broke into the convent of the Trinitarian nuns to seize an actor who had stabbed Calderón's brother Diego and had fled there for sanctuary. In a sermon preached before Philip IV, Hortensio Felix Paravincio denounced Calderón for this act. Calderón reciprocated by mocking the priest's linguistic pomposity and bombast in his play El principe constatae (The Constant Prince) and was jailed for a short time.

His imprisonment did not harm his reputation. In 1635, after the death of the great Spanish playwright and man of letters Lope de Vega, Calderón became known as Spain's greatest living playwright. In 1636, a volume of Calderón's plays, edited by another of his brothers, José, was published. La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) appeared in that collection. That same year (1636), Philip IV commissioned a series of plays by Calderón to be performed at the royal theater located inside the Buen Retiro, which was Philip's private park. In 1637, Philip made Calderón a knight of the Order of Santiago.

In 1640, despite recognition and popularity as a playwright, Calderón interrupted his career and became a horseman in an army raised by Philip's prime minister, Gaspar de Guzmán Olivares, to quell a secessionist rebellion in Catalonia. Because of ill health, he retired from the army at the end of 1642. In 1645, he was awarded a military pension in recognition of his valor in battle.

Calderón did not marry, but he had a mistress, with whom he had a son, Pedro José. The death of his mistress around 1648 or 1649 left him distraught, and he sought consolation in renewed religious devotion. In 1650, he became a tertiary of the Order of Saint Francis and was ordained a priest in 1651. At the time, he renounced writing for the theater.

Although Calderón continued in the priesthood until the end of his life, he began again to write plays after 1653. Most of them are autos sacramentales, religious allegories performed on and in celebration of Christian holy days. Some of these plays offended the Inquisition—the judicial branch of the Roman Catholic Church concerned with protecting the approved understanding of Catholic Church doctrine—and were condemned and the manuscripts confiscated. Nevertheless, Calderón was appointed honorary chaplain to Philip IV in 1663, and the condemnation of the plays was lifted in 1671. Calderón wrote his last secular play at the age of eighty-one, in honor of Charles II's marriage to Marie-Louise de Bourbon.

Calderón died on May 25, 1681, in Madrid. His executor, Vera Tassis, published an edition of his complete works between 1682 and 1691, ensuring Calderón's place in Spanish literature.


Act 1, Scene 1

A figure dressed as a man enters. When the man speaks, the audience realizes that it is a woman. Transported from her home in Muscovy by a flying horse, Rosaura has been set down in the mountains of Poland, accompanied by the talkative Clarin. Without naming the cause of her grief, Rosaura complains of her unhappiness. She and Clarin stumble upon a tower and hear within the rattle of chains and then a human voice. It is Segismundo, clothed in animal skins, lamenting his wretched state.

Enraged that he has been overheard in his moment of weakness, Segismundo threatens to kill Rosaura and Clarin. Rosaura begs him for mercy. Her voice enchants him; he cannot take his eyes off her. Not knowing that she is a woman, he is, nevertheless, fascinated by her. Wretched as she thought she was, seeing Segismundo makes Rosaura realize how much worse it is for him. She asks if there is anything she can do to help him, but the jailer Clotaldo and the guards rush in and seize her and Clarin.

Segismundo struggles vainly to free himself from his chains in order to save them from the death that is the punishment for anyone who sees him. Rosaura and Clarin are blindfolded and their weapons confiscated. Rosaura tells Clotaldo to guard her sword, since it is a key to great mysteries, though she does not know what they are. She was given the sword by a woman and instructed to go to Poland to revenge an injury done to her (Rosaura). An unidentified person in Poland, she was told, would recognize the sword and protect her. Clotaldo recognizes the sword. He had given it to Violante, Rosaura's mother, whom he had seduced but not married. Violante gave the sword to Rosaura, and it signifies to Clotaldo that Rosaura is his child—his son, he thinks.

Resolving the conflict between love for his "son" and duty to his king, Clotaldo decides to take his prisoners to the king and perhaps win pardon for his "son"; if the pardon is granted, Clotaldo might then be able to help his "son" avenge the wrong done him. But Clotaldo does not reveal himself to Rosaura. Should his effort fail, his "son" will die—not knowing that it will be through the agency of his own father.

Act 1, Scene 2

Cousins contending for the throne of Poland, Astolfo, with his soldiers, and Estrella, with her ladies, confront each other. Rather than battle, Astolfo proposes that they join together in love and jointly rule Poland. Estrella is wary of his declaration of love, because he wears the portrait of another woman on a chain around his neck. Their exchange is cut short by the entrance of Basilio, king of Poland, and his entourage.

Addressing the court, Basilio explains his plan for the succession, revealing a history that had been unknown to the court and which solves some of the mysteries of the first scene. Learned in mathematics, Basilio cast the horoscope of his son, Segismundo, while the child was still in his mother's womb. In it, Basilio saw that Segismundo would overthrow him and become a tyrannical ruler. To defeat destiny, Basilio declared that Segismundo died at birth, along with his mother, and then secretly locked the infant in a tower. He made Clotaldo his tutor and jailer and decreed death to anyone who entered the tower and discovered the secret.

Before he surrenders his crown to Astolfo and Estrella, however, Basilio informs the court that he has planned an experiment to see whether Segismundo can overcome his destiny. Segismundo will be drugged, brought from prison to the court, attired and treated like a prince, and told his true history and the reason for his imprisonment. Basilio hopes that armed with this warning, Segismundo will become a good ruler. If he shows himself to be virtuous, he will be made king. Astolfo and Estrella agree to renounce their claims in that case. Should Segismundo show himself to be cruel and tyrannical, however, he will be drugged again, returned to the tower prison, and told that his experience at the court was merely a dream. Astolfo and Estrella will rule Poland.

After the court withdraws and Basilio is left alone, Clotaldo enters with Rosaura and Clarin. Because Basilio has revealed the story of Segismundo, Rosaura will not be punished for having seen him. There is still, however, her dishonor to avenge. Clotaldo returns her sword, and she tells him that Astolfo is the enemy she seeks. Clotaldo again is burdened by divided loyalties. Astolfo is his lord. He tells Rosaura that since Astolfo is the duke of Muscovy and Rosaura is his subject, Astolfo cannot have dishonored "him" (Rosaura) no matter what he did. Rosaura is then compelled to reveal that she is a woman and that the dishonor was rape.

Act 2, Scene 1

Astonished by his transformation, Segismundo appears at court, dressed like a prince. Clotaldo tells him who he is and of the dire prophecy about him, hoping that the warning will correct him. Segismundo, however, responds in rage, threatening to kill Clotaldo. Clotaldo exits; Astolfo enters and salutes Segismundo, who returns his greeting with insults. Estrella enters. Segismundo is captivated by her beauty and is rudely forward with her. When a servant points out the faults in his behavior, Segismundo grabs the man and throws him off a balcony. When Basilio learns that Segismundo has acted according to his unhappy expectations, despite warning, he is grieved. Segismundo responds to his reprimands with contempt, and Basilio leaves him angrily, advising him that although he appears to be enjoying a position of power, he ought to take heed—he may only be dreaming.

Segismundo does not heed him, however. When Rosaura, now dressed as a woman and following in Estrella's train, encounters him again, he demands she surrender to him. She tries to leave; he orders the doors shut. As Segismundo is about to force Rosaura to yield to him, Clotaldo attempts to save her. Segismundo draws his dagger, and Clotaldo seizes it. They struggle. Rosaura exits, crying for help; Astolfo runs in and comes between Segismundo and Clotaldo. Astolfo demands that Segismundo return his dagger to its sheath, but Segismundo refuses. Astolfo draws his sword, and the two duel. Basilio enters, and, following the code of chivalry, they both sheath their swords in front of the king. Basilio demands an explanation. Segismundo boasts that he has tried to kill Clotaldo and that he may be moved to kill Basilio himself in revenge for having been imprisoned. So saying, he leaves the stage. The king orders that Segismundo be returned to his prison and made to believe that all that has occurred was only a dream.

Alone with Estrella, Astolfo declares his love, but she scoffs at him and demands that he speak of love not to her but to the woman whose portrait he has been wearing. He promises to replace that portrait with Estrella's and goes to bring her Rosaura's portrait. Estrella then catches sight of Rosaura, who has entered during their conversation. Unaware that Astolfo's portrait is of Rosaura, she asks Rosaura to take it from Astolfo when he returns, because it would embarrass Estrella to do so herself.

When Astolfo returns with the portrait, expecting to find Estrella, he is shocked to find Rosaura instead. She says that she is not Rosaura but Astrea, Estrella's serving woman. He insists that she is Rosaura; denying it again, she explains that Estrella has asked her to take the portrait from him. He refuses to give it to her; she attempts to seize it, and they struggle. Estrella enters, astonished at the sight of them. Rosaura explains that as she waited for Astolfo, she remembered that she had a picture of herself and took it out to look at. Astolfo, upon seeing her, took the picture from her. Estrella sees the picture of Rosaura and gives it to her, believing the story that it is hers. Rosaura leaves, and Estrella demands the "other" portrait from Astolfo. There being no other portrait, he has none to give and cannot admit that the portrait of Rosaura was the one in his possession, for that would be admitting that he had dishonored her. Disgusted by him, Estrella says that she wants neither the portrait nor ever to see him again. She leaves, and he trails after, begging her to let him explain.

Act 2, Scene 2

Drugged, Segismundo is returned to his prison, accompanied by Clotaldo, his tutor/jailer, and by Clarin, who is imprisoned because he talks too much. Segismundo wakes, as astonished to be back in prison as he was to be a prince. Clotaldo explains he has been dreaming, but Segismundo has trouble believing it. Since his experience at court seemed so real, perhaps he might have been awake then and be dreaming now, he thinks. When Clotaldo questions him about his life at court, Segismundo recalls its glories and his own violent behavior, including his attempts to kill Clotaldo. Clotaldo reminds Segismundo that he has cared for him as his tutor and advises him that even in dreams one ought to do good. Left alone, Segismundo realizes that what Clotaldo has said is true and promises himself to restrain his fierceness and fury because—since he can never be sure when he is dreaming and when he is not—perhaps everything is a dream and life is an illusion in which we are not what we are but only what we dream we are.

Act 3, Scene 1

Clarin's reverie about what life is like in prison is interrupted by a mob, shouting that they have come to free Segismundo. They do not want to be ruled by Astolfo, a foreigner. They mistake Clarin for Segismundo, however. Segismundo enters, declares himself, and finds that he is at the head of a force that will fight to make him king. He is reluctant to believe that what is happening is real, remembering that the last time he was endowed with kingship, it was a dream. He maintains that the people freeing him are only shadows. The mob persists. A soldier argues that dreams are omens and that Segismundo's earlier dream was an omen of the reality that now appears to him. Segismundo accepts the role they impose on him, even if it is illusory; he is prepared to be disillusioned.

That Segismundo's realization that everything is illusory has tempered his spirit is clear when Clotaldo enters. He expects to be murdered and throws himself at Segismundo's feet, ready to die. Segismundo tells him to rise. He acknowledges that Clotaldo has been his teacher; that he needs Clotaldo's guidance; and that even if he is dreaming, he wishes to do good deeds. Clotaldo explains that he cannot side with him against Basilio. Segismundo flies into a momentary rage but catches himself, particularly because he is not even sure he is awake. He praises Clotaldo's courage and allows him to go to the king. Whether he is awake or asleep, Segismundo says, does not matter. All that matters is to act well and do good deeds.

Act 3, Scene 2

There is tumult and bloodshed as the people battle, some supporting Segismundo and others Astolfo. Basilio himself rides into battle to defend his crown against Segismundo. Rosaura complains to Clotaldo that although Astolfo has seen her, he still woos Estrella. She wants Clotaldo to kill Astolfo. Clotaldo explains that because Astolfo saved his life when Segismundo tried to kill him, he is in Astolfo's debt; to kill him would show an unbecoming lack of gratitude. He says that, instead, he will give Rosaura his fortune but that she must enter a convent. Rosaura refuses and declares that she will kill Astolfo herself to avenge her honor. At that point, Clotaldo agrees to help her.

Act 3, Scene 3

Leading his troops, Segismundo declares that the less he cares for victory, the less it will grieve him when he wakes to find his triumph has been only in a dream. Armed, Rosaura implores his assistance in her cause against Astolfo, recounting the story of her mother's seduction and betrayal by a man whose identity she does not know (but whom the audience knows is Clotaldo) and of her own similar seduction and betrayal by Astolfo. She speaks of the other times that she and Segismundo have seen each other—in the tower, where he was imprisoned, and at court, where he had princely power. That she has known him in both these states adds to his confusion about which was a dream and which a waking state, or if both are the same.

Whether waking or dreaming, Segismundo understands that Rosaura is in his power and that he may satisfy his lust. This momentary urge is overcome by his reflection that if he is dreaming, abandoning the way of goodness will gain him little lasting pleasure. If he is not dreaming and really awake, the case is similar, for life is like a dream from which one wakes in death, and there is little satisfaction gained from an evil action, which is as short-lived as an action in a dream and will have eternal consequences. Segismundo therefore steels himself against his lust for Rosaura and proceeds to do battle against Astolfo.

Clarin, though he is hiding, is killed in the crossfire of battle. Segismundo's forces are victorious. Basilio, urged to flee by Astolfo and Clotaldo, does not. He is resigned to the death he expects at the hands of Segismundo. But Segismundo lets his father live, renounces his own passion for Rosaura, and gives her to Astolfo to marry, thereby restoring her honor. He takes Estrella as his wife and becomes the king, virtuous and merciful, because he is aware that life is a dream and dreams are illusions that end.



Astolfo, the duke of Muscovy, is Basilio's nephew. Basilio has summoned him to Poland to become king if Segismundo proves unworthy. As his name suggests, there is something wolfish about him. He has seduced and abandoned Rosaura. He is presented, however, as a ludicrous, rather than villainous, figure when Estrella rejects him. There are also streaks of decency and honor in him, which become evident, for example, when he protects Clotaldo from Segismundo.


Basilio is the king of Poland, a mathematician, and a scholar. Fearing, because of a horoscope reading, that Segismundo will grow up to overthrow him and become a tyrannical ruler, Basilio has kept Segismundo locked up in a tower since birth. Basilio's position as a ruler and a seeker of wisdom is reinforced by the celestial imagery surrounding him.


Clarin is a chatterbox. His name suggests a clarion, or high-pitched trumpet. He accompanies Rosaura to Poland and offers witty, cynical, and philosophical comments about the action of the play. For a brief moment, a mob mistakes him for Segismundo and almost makes him king. He is killed during a battle, though he is in hiding and not fighting. He represents the impossibility of staying aloof from the action of life, as he attempts to, even if life is illusory.


Clotaldo is an old man in Basilio's court who serves as a jailer and tutor to Segismundo in his tower. He is portrayed as constantly torn by divided loyalty. Still, he always acts honorably, though in his past he has been dishonorable, having seduced but not married Violante, who gave birth to his daughter, Rosaura.


Estrella is Basilio's niece. He expects that she will marry Astolfo and rule over Poland with him if Segismundo proves unworthy to be king. Her name means star; when Segismundo marries her at the end of the play, after he has triumphed over the brutal aspects of himself, it signifies his reconciliation with the stars, for it was in the stars (his horoscope) that Basilio had seen Segismundo's evil destiny recorded.


Although she does not know it, Rosaura is the illegitimate daughter of Clotaldo. Disguised as a man and accompanied by Clarin, she has followed Astolfo to Poland to force him to marry her and restore her honor, which he had taken from her when he seduced and then left her. Her name means rosy dawn, and, as her name suggests, she awakens new perception in Segismundo, when, through her, he achieves enlightenment about the meaning of honor.


Segismundo is Basilio's son. He has lived his life unaware of his identity, imprisoned by his father because Basilio feared—after charting Segismundo's horoscope—that he would grow into a treacherous son and savage ruler. When Basilio devises a ruse to free him from his prison for a day and give him the power of a king, Segismundo's brutal behavior confirms his father's fear, and he is returned to prison. After he is liberated from the tower a second time, he overcomes his brutality and his predestined identity. Segismundo is often described by himself or by others as a beast or a force of nature. He is clothed in animal skins, and he contrasts himself with fish, snakes, streams, and volcanoes. Before Segismundo is taken to the court, Clotaldo fills his mind with the image of himself as an eagle. The meaning of his name, however, stands in contrast to the predatory imagery surrounding him and indicates his triumph over an unchangeable fate written in the stars. Segismundo is derived from the German words sige, meaning "victory," and mund, meaning "protector."



The impossibility of certainty dominates the action of Life Is a Dream, presenting two fundamental problems: 1) How can one be sure of anything? and 2) What are the consequences of uncertainty? Before Basilio tests Segismundo, the problem of uncertainty is introduced in the figure of Rosaura at the beginning of the play, and the audience is implicated in the problem as much as the characters of the play are. The audience cannot be certain what it is seeing or what is happening. Perception is deception. In Rosaura, spectators behold a man who soon reveals that he is a woman. The identity of Segismundo and the reason for his confinement are also mysteries, as are the nature and cause of Rosaura's confessed dishonor. She does not know who will recognize the sword she bears and protect her. Clotaldo, in turn, is tormented by uncertainty that continues throughout the play. Where ought his loyalty lie? In the first instance, should it be with his child or with his king? Later, should it be with Rosaura or with Astolfo, the man who dishonored her?

Even as the audience learns the answers to the mysteries of scene 1, the theme of uncertainty is only strengthened as the play proceeds. The strategy Basilio employs to determine whether the destiny written in the stars is fixed and certain or can be influenced—making Segismundo believe that he has been dreaming events that have actually occurred—results in making Segismundo always uncertain as to whether he is asleep or awake. By extension, the problem the play presents regards the certainty of all experience. Is life real, or is it a dream? The resolution of the problem is achieved by the unification of the opposites. Reality, being a matter of perception, itself is a dream. Because human happiness comes to an end, experience must not be overvalued and clung to. In the play, generosity and magnanimity follow from that awareness.


  • Although dreams are generally thought not to be real in themselves, they have often had the power to transform reality. Choose two works from the following list and write an essay discussing the way in which dreams recounted in those works transform the course of reality when they are heeded or fail to do so when they are unheeded: the Joseph story in the book of Genesis, Chaucer's poem The Book of the Duchess, Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol, or the original 1962 version of the film The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer.
  • The poet William Wordsworth wrote that "the Child is father of the Man." Compose a dialogue between King Basilio and his son, Segismundo, in which they argue about the truth of Wordsworth's observation.
  • Read Lope de Vega's play Fuente ovejuna (The Sheep Well) and write an essay comparing and contrasting it with Life Is a Dream.
  • Write a short story in which a dream plays a significant role in determining the attitude of at least one of the characters in the story.
  • Keep a bedside journal in which you record all your dreams every day for a week. At the end of the week, write an analysis of your dreams, describing the themes, imagery, characters, settings, plots, sensations, and anything else you think is noteworthy about your dreams.
  • Research the way plays were staged in Spain and in England in the late 1500s and early 1600s and write an essay in which you show the similarities and differences.

Free Will and Determinism

At the heart of Life Is a Dream is the problem of whether destiny is fixed or if people can affect and even alter what appears to be their destiny. When Basilio studies the stars before Segismundo's birth, he learns that they show that the child will grow up to be a brutal and tyrannical prince who will dishonor his father. In an attempt to control fate, Basilio has Segismundo imprisoned. In an attempt to test the strength of individual will in the face of destiny, Basilio arranges for Segismundo's release. When Segismundo behaves as his horoscope predicted, it seems that determinism has triumphed. But in the last act, Segismundo himself, addressing the court, questions the power of determinism by noting that even if he had been a mild-mannered person, the brutal way his father had him raised would have transformed him into a beast. It was not just the stars that determined his nature but also his father's intervention. Segismundo conquers his destiny by overcoming the rage and lust within himself when he realizes that life is an illusion that will end but that actions that are just will endure.

Honor and Duty

The theme of honor, presented in Rosaura's quest to find Astolfo, determines the subplot of Life Is a Dream. According to the play, honor means living according to one's duty, and duty means recognizing the integrity and humanity of others and not violating them. Rosaura, in pursuit of her own honor, is the instrument that moves Segismundo to act honorably. By overcoming his self-centered desire, his lust to possess Rosaura, and by helping her to redeem her honor through ensuring that Astolfo marry her, Segismundo redeems himself and defines himself as a man, not as a beast. He is able, consequently, to forgive Basilio and spare his life.



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."


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.


  • 1600s: People often consult the stars to help them decide how to act and to see into the future.

    Today: Many people still consult professional astrologers or look up their horoscopes in the newspaper to find out about their love lives or to determine favorable times to travel or make business deals.
  • 1600s: Scientific discoveries and geographical exploration challenge accepted beliefs about religion, nature, the cosmos, and reality.

    Today: Technological advances in computing, virtual reality, and genetic engineering are challenging traditional values and ideas.
  • 1600s: Gender identity is clearly signified by the clothing that members of each sex wear.

    Today: Male and female fashions often overlap, although women are far more likely than men to wear attire traditionally identified with the opposite gender.
  • 1600s: In Spain, the books people read and the plays they see must be approved by ecclesiastical authorities. Failure to comply with the dictates of the Church is punished by the Inquisition, the judicial body the Catholic Church has established in Spain to enforce its doctrines.

    Today: After years of political tyranny and censorship under the government of General Francisco Franco (1892–1975), Spain is a democratic country, where freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and the unfettered right to publish and read are respected.

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.


From its first appearance in 1635 up through the present, Life Is a Dream has enjoyed acclaim and popularity. It was first printed in Madrid in an edition edited by Calderón's brother José in 1636. Reprinted along with all of Calderón's work by his friend and biographer Juan de Vera Tassis y Villaroel in a reliable and readable edition in the years immediately following his death in 1681, it was readily available in Spain and to translators, even when Spanish drama itself was in decline.

One of the earliest translators of Calderón's work into English was the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1822 notebook shows translations from La vida es sueño as well as from other of Calderón's works. In the 1850s, the Irish poet Denis Florence MacCarthy published translations of Calderón's works, and in 1858, Edward Fitz-Gerald, best known for his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, freely translated La vida es sueño into blank verse, calling his version Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of.

During the twentieth century, the play was translated into English a number of times and was never off the stage for very long. In 2002, it was produced off Broadway and presented at Oxford. In 2005, it was produced independently at the Stage Center Theatre at Northeastern Illinois University, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 2000, Lewis Spratlan's opera of Life Is a Dream, with a libretto by James Maraniss, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 1925, the great Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote a German adaptation of it called Der Turm (The Tower) in order to reflect the chaotic pre-fascist climate in Germany.

Life Is a Dream has also been the subject of much academic criticism concerned with analyzing its structure, philosophy, and mythic quality, as Frederick A. De Armas does in The Return of Astraea: An Astral-Imperial Myth in Calderón. Examining its natural, animal, and celestial imagery, De Armas asserts that in Life Is a Dream "Calderón mirrors … eternal truth, revealing aspects of the heavenly text inscribed in stars and souls in a work that aims at transcending conflict through a vision of wonderment at the ways in which God's creation unfolds."

There is one aspect of Life Is a Dream that many critics find troublesome. "The very critics who were unanimous in placing La vida es sueño among the greatest of Spanish and world plays were equally unanimous in condemning its subplot, regarding it not merely as a useless adjunct, but as an action which seriously detracted from the play's unity," A. E. Sloman observes. In "The Structure of Calderón's La vida es sueño," he goes on to demonstrate that by representing honor and by serving as a catalyst for Segismundo's conversion, "the Rosaura episode … is clearly … no mere afterthought to fill out the required three acts" but is "linked … to the main episode and related … to the play's central theme."


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he considers how Calderón uses the very uncertainty of perception that is central to the drama of Life Is a Dream as the force that enables the human exercise of free will.

When Rosaura appears during the first moments of Life Is a Dream, descending from the craggy mountains where her wild flying horse has left her, the audience is confronted by ambiguity and uncertainty. The unreliability of sense perception, one of the problems around which the entire play revolves, is presented in this scene. Rosaura appears to be a man; yet, when that man begins to talk, despite appearances, the man is a woman: "Unkindly, O Poland, do you receive a stranger; for you inscribe her arrival in your land with blood; and hardly does she arrive, but she comes to grief." As it draws the audience into the action of the drama, the opening speech of the play also burdens the audience with the same problem that the characters of the drama face. The spectators are forced to reevaluate and reconfigure their first impressions and to doubt appearances. What they saw, or rather, what they thought they saw, is not what is. Reality, as it is constructed in Life Is a Dream, is not fixed. It shifts. Things are ambiguous—and so is human possibility. The ambiguity of things that seem definite is the principal theme of Life Is a Dream, the idea that unifies its elements, and the condition that gives meaning to the play's other central concern—the conflict between free will and determinism.

Segismundo, the wild beast of a man Rosaura finds amid the mountains, imprisoned in a tower and clothed in animal skins, speaks nevertheless with the grace, facility, and learning of a Renaissance courtier and laments his condition with a poet's eloquence and passion. Wretched like her, he may also be something other than what he seems. Indeed, Basilio, the king of Poland, confirms that fact in the ensuing scene. Segismundo is a prince, his own son. Basilio imprisoned him in the tower at his birth, because in his study of the stars, it appeared to Basilio that Segismundo would grow up to be a rebellious son and a tyrannical ruler, humiliating his father and oppressing the nation. But Basilio is troubled by the sense that he may have acted tyrannically against the threat of tyranny. To make sure that his action, even if driven by his mathematical wisdom and motivated by concern for the good, was not tyranny but a justified act of preventive punishment, Basilio has decided to release Segismundo from his prison and let him rule Poland for a day. Should he prove benevolent, Basilio will yield authority to him, happy that Segismundo can exercise a freedom of will that is stronger than cosmic predestination. Should Segismundo's behavior confirm the destiny Basilio saw written in the stars, however, Basilio will know that he was justified in imprisoning his son. Segismundo will be returned to prison, and, to prevent him from falling into despair, he will be told that he was dreaming.

After Segismundo uses his power badly and is returned to prison and told that he only dreamed he was a prince, he never again is able to be sure when he is awake and when he is dreaming. He cannot tell whether he is definitely a prisoner or definitely a prince. How can he be both? Yet he perceives that he is. Thus, taught by ambiguity and uncertainty that experience is not a proof of actuality, Segismundo realizes that he is neither prisoner nor prince in reality, for there may not be any reality. He is not defined by what he perceives but by himself no matter what he perceives—that is, by how he chooses to act. If everything is illusion and life is a dream, it is not important what Seigismundo perceives or thinks is real. The only thing that matters and that he can be sure of is how he behaves.

Basilio, too, is deceived in his strategy. Contrary to his belief, when Segismundo acts like a brute on his day of trial, it does not serve as a definite proof that determinism is stronger than free will, as Basilio had feared. Segismundo himself, in the last scene of the play, makes the sound argument that it was not his star-determined destiny that was the cause of his brutality but the brutal way he was raised. It is the course his father chose, not the configuration of the stars, that has made him uncivilized. Basilio's will, influenced by his understanding of the stars, is just as likely the power that determined Segismundo's nature as the stars themselves. Segismundo is just as likely to have been taught by his experience to be brutal as his brutality was formed by destiny. His impulsive inability to exercise freedom of choice may just as likely derive from a lack of education of his will as from his inherent nature. The cause is uncertain. Destiny itself is not solely determinant: it is clear that, to be fulfilled, destiny needed Basilio's intervention. The problem that Segismundo and the play itself must confront is whether either sort of determinism—the fate written in the stars or the fate imposed by the force of human actions—can be overcome by free will. The answer in the play is that it can, through the human ability to choose. That is the power, when he exercises it, which liberates Segismundo from his fate.


  • "Abu Hassan; or, The Sleeper Awakened," in The Arabian Nights (ca. 1000 c.e.), is the tale of a wise young man who exhausts half his inheritance on ungrateful friends and then befriends the caliph Haroon al Rashid, who is disguised as a merchant. The caliph drugs Abu Hassan and has him conveyed to the palace and made to believe that he is the caliph. When he is returned to his own home, Abu Hassan's friends think that he has become a madman, and he becomes entirely confused about what is real and what is not. The story is an obvious precursor to Life Is a Dream.
  • Oedipus Rex (ca. 425 b.c.e.), the first play in Sophocles' Theban trilogy—Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—tells the story of a man who, as an infant, survives exposure on a mountainside. His parents place him there after hearing a prophecy that when he grows up, he will kill his father and wed his mother.
  • In Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) defines the human being as a creature able to ascend to the heights of heaven in nobility of character or descend to the baseness of beasts in behavior.
  • Mark Twain's novel The Prince and the Pauper (1881) tells the story of two boys in England, one the Prince of Wales and the other a slum child, who exchange identities.
  • "Rapunzel," one of the folktales collected by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm between 1812 and 1815, tells the story of a girl kept imprisoned in a tower from birth who discovers her true identity and marries her true love only after overcoming a series of dangers.
  • Shakespeare's early comedy The Taming of the Shrew (ca. 1593) begins with a scene in which an impoverished drunkard, Christopher Sly, is taken by a nobleman to his house while he is in a stupor, treated like a lord, and told he has suffered from an illness that has made him believe that he was a poor drunkard. The main action of the play is concerned with the difficulty sometimes involved in separating what is real from pretense and with the power of supposing.
  • Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy recounts the story of a young man brought up in oppressive conditions and longing for escape from such a life. He reacts violently when his dreamlike illusions and the real world conflict.

What makes choice necessary and possible and marks it as an expression of free will, Calderón shows, is the fact of the ambiguity of perception and Segismundo's awareness of that ambiguity. Segismundo becomes free when he chooses, and he is able to choose because there are alternatives. Only after he is confronted with uncertainty does Segismundo realize that he can choose to act tyrannically or not. In his first encounter with power, at court, his actions explode impulsively from him. He is a force of raging desire, and what he wants seems to be palpably in front of him to take, if he would. In his second encounter with power, after the mob frees him from prison and he defeats Astolfo and Basilio, his sense of his own power has been tempered by his experience of uncertainty. Consequently, each of his actions becomes a matter for deliberation. In an apparently illusory world, Segismundo has realized that the only thing that is not illusory is the way he acts in relation to what surrounds him. By his actions, he can shape illusion. In the midst of instability, he can be the stable element. The exercise of free will, Calderón establishes in Life Is a Dream, is what conquers uncertainty and ambiguity. When he frees himself from his apparent destiny, Segismundo becomes the one who shapes destiny.

Ambiguity's defining characteristic is that it is all-encompassing. It contains alternatives and takes in mutually exclusive and opposing phenomena. Ambiguity suggests that there are fixed and yet distinct categories and, simultaneously, that something may not be what it seems. For a woman to be mistaken for a man, as Rosaura is, those two categories—male and female—must exist independently of each other. For a man to be in doubt as to whether he is a prisoner or a prince, a beast or a man, those categories must exist independently of each other. Still, it must be possible for them to be confused with each other and, consequently, to be determined by behavior. Whether Segismundo is a prince or a beast may be unclear, but no matter which he is, he can choose to be either princely or beastly in either the prince or the beast role. The very ambiguity inherent in perception forces him to reject the power of perception and to rely on the authority of his own action.

In themselves, the characters in Life Is a Dream contain all possibilities, by virtue of their humanity, which is itself defined by ambiguity. Rosaura embodies the masculine in the first act, the feminine in the second, and both when she appears dressed like a woman but armed like a man in the third. Being at the center of ambiguity gives Segismundo the power to determine himself, to deliberate. This is a common Renaissance idea. It is expressed most unambiguously by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), a scholar who combined Neoplatonic Renaissance humanism and medieval Roman Catholic theology in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (ca. 1486), when he imagined God "taking man … this creature of indeterminate image," and saying to him:

We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

In Life Is a Dream, the problem is this: In a world shaped by ambiguity and instability and governed by perception, what can determine how to act, if action, rather than perception or desire, is the only possible stabilizing force? How can humankind recognize what Pico della Mirandola shows as the divine stability and, by action, achieve something enduring rather than temporary? For Segismundo, it is by an act that achieves victory over himself. He has been "a man among wild beasts, and a beast among men." He becomes a man when he recognizes the otherness and humanity in Rosaura. Her power to bestow this gift on him is inherent in her situation and in what she represents. She is the abused maiden who seeks justice. As she seeks justice, so, too, does she represent Justice. The very name she takes in her conversation with Astolfo is Astrea, the heavenly Roman goddess of Justice, and through her person she brings the awareness of justice to Segismundo.

Segismundo realizes that the nature of his relationship to Rosaura is a matter of his choice and that it is not his perception of her that matters but his behavior toward her. In his first encounter with her, he responds to some overwhelming quality in her by a kind of animal tropism. He does not know why, but the sound of her voice fascinates him. His first impulse, to kill her because she had overheard him grieving, is overtaken by the stronger and mystifying impulse of attraction. His second encounter with her at the royal court, when he is a prince, shows him as bestial and rapacious, blinded by lust. But in their third encounter, he becomes self-defining and deliberating—a man, not a beast—when he triumphs over himself and, choosing to champion her honor rather than gratify his own lust, turns his head away from her so that he cannot look at her. By this action, he shows that he will not be guided by perception but by will. Recognizing her and his obligation to her, Segismundo also recognizes the force of Justice and, in doing so, brings into an unstable and uncertain world an absolute principle that cannot be undermined by the alterations that attend being alive. It is steady in the face of them, because of the free ability people have to will the good, which is eternal, by their actions.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Life Is a Dream, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Wojciech Sadurski

In the following essay excerpt, Sadurski considers Life Is a Dream as "a treatise on line drawing," exploring where Calderón draws lines separating life and dream, and essential human qualities and contingent ones.

Life can be seen as an enterprise of line drawing. Everything we do relies upon drawing lines between the spheres within which we act. Indeed, an action which does not rely upon separating objects and phenomena into spheres which inform the action is not conceivable. What is less obvious is that the lines, once drawn, have a tendency toward petrification. They become, in our minds, axiomatic rather than dependent upon the purposes for which they were drawn in the first place. While there can be no social (or personal) life without drawing lines, the location of particular lines is inherently controversial. All radical challenges to social order can be seen as postulates about the change of demarcation lines, even though the rhetoric employed often suggests that what is demanded is the outright abolition of the lines.

Challenging conventionally accepted lines forces us to rethink the bases of lines drawn, not merely their position. Michael Walzer has suggested that we could "think of liberalism as a certain way of drawing the map of a social and political world." We could say the same of any ideology, and also of our private beliefs. One benefit of looking at the way lines are drawn is that the inherent instability of this phenomenon (lines are drawn by reference to reasons, which themselves rely upon some other lines, etc.) makes us consider the foundations of various forms of social (and private) action.

This function of challenging lines can be illustrated by Life's a Dream (La vida es sueno), a play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca written around 1631 and first published in Madrid in 1636. The main protagonist is Segismundo, a royal heir who is kept from a very early age in a tower in the mountains because his father, Basilio, King of Poland, was foretold of a violent son who would wage a war against him. Once Segismundo is grown up, however, Basilio in a moment of doubt about the wisdom of his earlier decision asks Clotaldo, the keeper of his son, to drug Segismundo and have him wake in the palace and waited on as a prince. The strategy is to drug him again and take him back to the tower—in order to avoid risks should the astrological reading prove true—and then tell him that his palace experience was only a dream. When this plan is carried out, Basilio's worst fears are confirmed by the outrageous behavior of Segismundo during his one day in the palace. When Segismundo finds himself in prison again, he is convinced by Clotaldo that he only dreamt about being a prince.

At the same time a parallel plot develops: a young woman, Rosaura, disguised as a man and accompanied by her servant Clarion, proceeds to Poland to find Astolfo, an aristocrat who has a claim to the succession of the Polish throne, and who had abandoned Rosaura after having seduced her. Rosaura (who, it is later revealed, is Clotaldo's illegitimate daughter) meets Segismundo in his tower, and is soon recognized by Clotaldo who takes her to the court. The truth about Segismundo's identity spreads throughout the country, and a rebellion against the king breaks out: mutinous soldiers free Segismundo from his jail and ask him to lead them against the king. Rosaura offers to join Segismundo's army if he will assist her in her attempt to regain Astolfo who, along with Clotaldo, sides with the king. Segismundo defeats his father in battle but decides generously not to take vengeance. In the last scene Basilio crowns his son who in turn makes Astolfo marry Rosaura, despite his own passionate love for her.

What is Calderon's "point" in Life's a Dream? The tragedy of uncertainty, contingency and interchangeability of human existence? The continuous and yet never successful pursuit of one's own real identity, a destiny which is hidden from us? The ultimate solitude of every individual for whom other people, and the world, are as illusory as a dream? The burden and also the exhilaration of the "self" which is its own author, which writes its own story, which constructs itself through its free choice in the world in which human stories are as unpredictable as they are pre-determined? The conflict of two great moral codes, honor and commitment, in a world which makes us choose one and sacrifice the other? The absurdity of life not imbued with objective values and necessarily ending with death? The mortal risks which accompany the manipulation of destiny? Certainly, Calderon's play addresses all these themes, but my specific concern is with the work as a treatise on line drawing.

The title of the play in itself draws attention to a basic conventional distinction—that between life and dream. "What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction, and the greatest good is very little because all life is a dream and dreams are only dreams" says Segismundo. In this observation we can see the way that the life/dream distinction overlaps with the reality/illusion distinction, and the essence/appearance distinction. This latter distinction is, however, in turn undermined because the "dream" is no less real than "real life": (what we know to be) a reality intrudes upon (what we know to be) a dream. From Segismundo's perspective the whole day he spends in the Palace is as real as his life in the Tower. Yet having been persuaded by Clotaldo that the Palace episode was only a dream, he is forced to place a dream and real life on par. Indeed, his "dream" in the Palace seems to him, if anything, more "real" than his real life in the Tower; having woken up, in his jail again, he confides to Clotaldo: "If the things which I saw when I was dreaming were palpable and certain, what I see now must be uncertain."

As if this were not enough to undermine the "dream/reality" distinction, the "reality" intrudes physically into "the dream." In Act 3, in a scene crucial to the entire drama, Rosaura meets Segismundo and recalls scenes from the Palace episode which Segismundo has in the meantime confined to the "dream" realm. His response to her recollection is to ask: "If I dreamed that greatness, in which I saw myself, how is it possible that this woman can recount it all to me?" One interpretation available to Segismundo would be a reversal of the order of the "dream/reality" distinction: to validate the Palace episode as "real" (because certified as such by Rosaura) and to recognize the Tower life and current events on the battlefield as dream. This would be unintelligible, however, because the only basis for doing so is Rosaura's testimony given on the battlefield—that is, in the context that he would be relegating to a dream. If the testimony is only a dream, it cannot be relied upon as a basis for un-dreaming the Palace episode.

Calderon's own answer seems to be an agnostic one: the intrusion of "reality" (personified here by Rosaura) into "the dream" (the Palace episode) suggests that it is not in human power to draw the line between dreams and realities. "Is the copy so similar to the original that we cannot tell which is real?" asks Segismundo. The conundrum here is: if all our life is a dream, and if the line between dreams and reality cannot be drawn, then possibly the "We" is also a dream. If the dream-ness attribute applies to everything, then it must also apply to the subject who does the dreaming. Yet in whose dreams does the dreamer appear? And is the one who does the dreaming about the dreamer, also a character in someone else's dreams? Where does this regress end? One answer could be God, but Calderon's own agnosticism as to the human capacity of drawing the line between reality and dream sits uneasily with this hypothesis.

Even if Segismundo can imagine that everything he sees in the Tower, in the Palace, on the battlefield, is but a dream, he cannot think that he is but a dream. For if he were to be an object of his own dreams, he would have to exist (as the dreamer), while if he were to be the object of someone else's dreams, it would be tantamount to saying that he was deceived by that other person as to the fact of his existence (the deception stemming from the fact that he falsely thinks he exists). Yet to be deceived, he must exist in the first place. This merely paraphrases the proof given by Descartes in his Second Meditation: "Even though there may be a deceiver of some sort, very powerful and very tricky, who bends all his efforts to keep me perpetually deceived, there can be no slightest doubt that I exist, since he deceives me; and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never make me be nothing as long as I think that I am something." So that is where the regress must stop: even if we only dream, there must be the WE to do the dreaming; even if we are only dreamt about, there must be the WE for someone to dream about.

The second distinction Calderon draws is that between those attributes of human beings which are of an essential nature and those which are merely contingent. Up to a point, this is simple: there is the line which divides those properties without which we would not have existed qua ourselves and those which are fortuitous, and which do not belong to our "essence." One of Calderon's concerns seems to involve debunking the illusion that various properties of our everyday existence—power, money, personal fortunes and misfortunes—are "essential" rather than "contingent." He does this by reducing those contingencies to dreams: "The king dreams that he is king, and living under that delusion he rules, governs and disposes, and all the applause that he receives is written in the wind…. The rich man dreams of his wealth…. The poor man dreams that he suffers misery and poverty."

Yet there is an irony here: for precisely those features which are illusory or contingent are those same ones which we have the power to control. What can be more "human" (more of the essence of one's identity, which makes him or her a separate human being) than these things which we can affect through our own intentional and deliberate action? The King can modify the way he exercises his power, or even surrender it—thus showing that royal power is a thoroughly human attitude, that it belongs to those properties which make the King what he is, rather than an open and neutral repository of contingent and fortuitous features.

Calderon, however, undermines the line between the essence and contingencies of humaneness by relegating features such as power and wealth to the dream category. Or, as Mircea Eliade would say, by showing the "false identification of Reality with what each one of us appears to be or to possess." As Eliade continues, in a very Calderonian vein, "A politician thinks that the only true Reality is political power, a millionaire is convinced that wealth alone is real, a man of learning thinks the same about his studies, his books, laboratories and so forth."

By characterizing those attributes which make us distinct, separate and unique as purely fortuitous (or illusory), Calderon may well be saying that there is no objective basis for drawing a line between the fortuitous and the essential, and that while we often believe that only the essential is important, the better way is to say that something is essential because antecedently it is important. Conversely, our characterization of something as fortuitous is a consequence, not a premise, of denying any moral worth to it.

E. M. Wilson says that the soliloquy by Segismundo in which the worldly attributes of power, wealth, etc., are equated with a dream, relies upon a Stoic distinction between "the things that are in our power and those that are not." The lesson seems to be that "If we live only for the things that are not in our power we are no more free than is the dreamer in his dream who cannot exercise his powers of choice, for the outside things, things not in his power, rule him." Yet how can this assertion be reconciled with the view that the dream is at least as "real" as the reality?

In my opinion, Calderon does not assert the Stoic line between the things that are in our control and those that are not: he undermines it. And he does so in two ways: not merely by challenging our freedom to affect things in "reality" (if we are only dreaming, we are acted upon rather than acting) but also, conversely, by challenging (even if only en passant) our lack of freedom to affect things in our dreams. Annoyed by Segismundo's story about his violent behavior in the Palace episode, Clotaldo gives him this piece of advice: "Even in dreams it would be better to honor those who brought you up, Segismundo, because even in dreams good deeds are not wasted." It is only against the background of a subversion of the line between freedom and lack of freedom (consequent on the subversion of the line between the contingent and the essential) that we can view this extraordinary suggestion by Clotaldo as neither sarcastic nor cruel.

"Now Segismundo's a prince and I a lady," says Rosaura in the English "adaptation" of the play by Adrian Mitchell. This sentence does not appear in the original but it grasps well a central concern of the play: to parallel the development of Rosaura and Segismundo—the former in terms of gender, the latter in terms of social position. As the male-disguised Rosaura evolves from (apparent) manhood to womanhood, Segismundo evolves from a beast in the Tower to the prince in the Palace. And just as Rosaura's evolution by the end of Act 2 is not complete (it is not until Act 3 that she will achieve a synthesis of manhood and womanhood), neither is Segismundo's: he will find himself in the tower once again, only to reach a synthesis of "nature" and "civilization" on the battlefield in Act 3. As William Whitby has noted, Rosaura is "the key to Segismundo's conversion"; indeed, her conversions are catalysts in Segismundo's development. Their interconnected transformations inform the structure of the play because, as Frederick de Armas observes, Segismundo's final conversion in Act 3, brought about by the third appearance of Rosaura, "alters the process of destruction that had been set in motion and leads to a peaceful and harmonious denouement." These two quests for identity are parallel (with Rosaura always a step ahead of Segismundo), and it is a consideration of this parallelism—rather than an examination of either character in isolation—which may provide us with some clues as to the conundrum about the "real self" in Life's a Dream.

At first glance, the parallel journeys to identity undertaken by Rosaura and Segismundo would seem to call for an "essentialist" reading, whereby one would discern in both these characters' evolutions a move toward the discovery of their real selves. Rosaura is not truly "herself" when she appears in the beginning of the play disguised as a boy and is forced to play a male role; neither is Segismundo truly "himself " in the Tower, when as a human being he is kept as a wild beast. They will both have a tortuous journey to make. Rosaura will not simply shed her disguise and appear as her "true" self (note that her quest for identity does not end in Act 2 when she finally appears as a woman), nor will Segismundo easily convert from a creature of nature into a man of civilization. Both will attain their real selves the hard way; through a three-stage synthesis (man-woman-man/woman in the case of Rosaura; beast-prince-statesman in the case of Segismundo) rather than through a simple reversal. They have no choice but to go through this process because, as Ruth El Saffar suggests, they "struggle … for definition—to recover for themselves, out of the ever-impending threat of erasure, a solid sense of place and meaning." On the way to this ultimate self-discovery they will find out things about themselves which they had not known at the beginning of their journey, very much in the way Joseph Conrad's Marlow says of Kurtz: "[the wilderness] whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude…."

Source: Wojciech Sadurski, "Calderon's Conundrums, Or: Where Do You Draw the Line," in Mosaic, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 1995, pp. 23-42.

Edwin Honig

In the following essay excerpt, Honig comments on the complex and changing themes in Life Is a Dream and how Calderón treats such concepts as honor, authority, and vengeance.

The appeal of Life Is a Dream can never be wholly accounted for. From one point of view it seems incomplete, even fragmentary, like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. From another, the play powerfully condenses in its enacted metaphor of living-and-dreaming an overwhelming perception about life's worth together with man's failure to make much if it. The play is many-faceted: it keeps changing as one holds it up to scrutiny so that its real theme seems impossible to pin down. It has the appeal of a mystery, but one in which the living energy that makes up the mystery is withheld, and while being withheld gets transformed into something different from the rigid terms and structure meant to contain it….

In this play honor is seen in its broadest possible sense as related to the whole of life, interwoven with the very substance and meaning of life. The title implies the question, Is life worth living? By a further implication, if honor is an illusion, so is life, and if this is true, how does one cope with such a vast and fearful discovery?

Another related and basic problem is the question of how to deal with the violent and secret crimes of the older generation. Since Rosaura as well as Segismundo have been dishonored by their fathers, how can they redress their personal grievances without rupturing the relationship of one generation with the next, the succession of life itself? The old myths stir beneath the surface: Zeus dethroned Cronus, as Calderón fully showed in another play, La estatua de Prometeo 1669 (Prometheus's Statue); Zeus raped Leda as a swan and Europa as a bull; Aeneas abandoned Dido. All the actions pertain here to the sexual crimes of worldly men as fathers and lovers. Clotaldo raped and abandoned Violante, Rosaura's mother, and the rapist duke Astolfo abandoned Rosaura. In political terms, Segismundo will swear to overcome his father and trample on his beard.

Rosaura and Segismundo both have good cause to seek vengeance. They have been brutalized. Rosaura has been raped, deprived of her sexual honor, and rejected as a woman, without explanation. And, as far as he knows, also without explanation, Segismundo has been spiritually assaulted, deprived of his liberty, his free will, his honor as a man, and left since birth in a prison tower, like his father's guilty rotting dream. Deprived of his power as a man and as a prince, Segismundo has also been left ignorant of the existence of women, of love, of social communion.

To regain her honor (since there is no one to act for her), Rosaura must pretend to be a man—dress and act like one—so that she may have the sexual and political freedom needed to force the issue. To redress his grievances, Segismundo must seek power by revolution, imitate a tyrant in order to dethrone one, so that when he triumphs he can accomplish three things: rectify the misuse of power and dispense justice; restore his own freedom and gain the power proper to him as a man and as a prince; destroy the opposing vision: his father's self-rotting dream.

No other course is possible since, as the situation of the play proposes, even if la vida es sueño, vida infame no es vida—a life disgraced is no life at all.

Segismundo must be twice awakened and have Rosaura's help before he attains to consciousness…. In the darkness of the prison tower, in the open doorway waiting to emit him, Rosaura sees the womb and tomb of life:

   The front door
   stands open to … what is it,
   a mausoleum? And pitch darkness
   like the night itself comes
   crawling out as from a womb.

It is life, unaware of itself as yet, for it has been buried in death, a light in the darkness at first, followed by the clanking of chains as the prisoner, man himself, emerges in animal pelts. Can it be that Rosaura is privileged to witness this birth scene because she is Segismundo's "twin"—that at this moment she, too, is being born into consciousness through her recognition of his birth?…

It is not often seen that the mysterious interdependence between Rosaura and Segismundo has directly to do with the moral realism of their claims in a male-dominated, autocratic society. They need each other not only to regain their womanhood and manhood, respectively, but also because what they have to face is an extremely adverse and unpromising set of circumstances, not least because they are going against the rule of custom and law as represented by guilty, well-meaning, and unjust men: Basilio, the King; Clotaldo, his chief counsellor and Rosaura's father; and the duke, Astolfo. And so the act of restoring the human integer of magnanimity in the face of its thorough brutalization by well-intentioned, civilized men is nothing short of saintly. And this is what Segismundo proceeds to do.

If the life of consciousness is the only life worth living, then Segismundo is clearly the only character in the play who succeeds in attaining it….

The stages of his regeneration are marked off by certain of his speeches and soliloquies which other characters overhear and by actions which they then witness. But these characters, often like figures in a dream, do little or nothing to show that they have been personally affected by his behavior in the narrative sequence of the play. Through his soliloquies and what he says to others, Segismundo seems constantly to be setting up rationales for acting the way he does as he goes along. The other characters, Rosaura especially, are there to feed him with the possibilities of experience which will turn out, when he understands it, to confirm his own gradual acquisition of moral consciousness. This sort of procedure, involving both being-there and not-being-there at the same time, resembles what happens in dreams and in dream allegories. There is an unalterable line to be followed which only the consciousness of a single actor may pursue, since it is essentially from his actions leading to his awareness that the real business of the play takes its meanings.

The ambiguous creature wearing animal pelts and lying chained in the tower is the prince of mankind. This is how Segismundo begins. Thereafter we are obliged to judge the moral and psychological distance he traverses in the course of the play in order to become consciously human. He must go from the lowest form of human life, the equivalent of the cave man, to the highest—the human being who learns to be civilized by responding to everything around him while doubting it all and believing in nothing. (How could someone who has scarcely even been born believe in anything?) Others may say life is a dream; Segismundo must find out whether this is true or not by living his own life. He must fight for the power he has been denied, but once it is achieved he must also wear it lightly, pardoning his enemies and renouncing his love….

The precise virtue, then, which Segismundo will attain is magnanimity, the quality of the highest civilized behavior. Battle in a just cause, the pursuit of one's honor, the achievement of knowledge and intellectual pride, and the unswerving course of loyalty are other virtues embodied by characters in the play. But none of these saves them from suffering desperation, an unresolved moral dilemma. Only Segismundo's attainment frees the others; or—since they frequently seem to be little more than figures revolving in Segismundo's orbit—enables the lesser virtues they represent to be seen against his fundamental moral evolution.

Like honor, of which it is part, his magnanimity means nothing in itself; it must be won by experience, past which, as he himself says,

   If my valor is destined
   for great victories, the greatest
   must be the one I now achieve
   by conquering myself.

This is no mere rephrasing of the familiar Greek adage; coming nearly at the end of the play, the sentence rings out as a momentous renunciation of power politics, the life of tooth and claw, the deceptions of intellectual and sexual pride, the blandishments of romantic appetite, and even the ambiguities of filial piety. We see that to achieve magnanimity Segismundo has had fully to recognize who and what he is, through a series of acts which includes one murder and several attempts at murder as well as threats of parricide and rape. He has had to learn to love and then to undo his love, to overcome himself, and to vanguish his father. It is not an easy formula at all. His career is a paradigm of several millennia of human history.

For magnanimity to arise it must contend with the brute in man as well as the brute in society. Half man and half beast as Segismundo recognizes himself to be at the beginning, his first understanding is that though he has an intellect which makes him superior to animals, he lacks the freedom to use it, a freedom which even the animals have.

   A brute is born, its hide all covered
   in brightly painted motley,
   which, thanks to nature's brush, is lovely
   as the sky in star-strewn panoply,
   till learning man's cruel need
   to lunge and pounce on prey
   when it becomes a monster
   in a labyrinth. Then why should I,
   with instincts higher than a brute's,
   enjoy less liberty?
   I dream that I am here
   manacled in this cell,
   and I dreamed I saw myself
   before, much better off.
   What is life? A frenzy.
   What is life? An illusion,
   fiction, passing shadow,
   and the greatest good the merest dot,
   for all of life's a dream, and dreams
   themselves are only part of dreaming.

What we do, what we become through what we do, is the substance of our dream which is our life…. Having accepted the dream of life, Segismundo is ready to act; he is ready to deal as a prince with the chance and irrational events of experience. He has begun to control his impulses.

The gift of life Rosaura has stirred up in Segismundo is what Basilio has all the time been zealously withholding from him. And subsequently, when Segismundo's experience teaches him how to understand the caution that "life is a dream," the prince is ready to accede to the soldiers' invitation to rebel against his father and actively wrest the power which Basilio has been hoarding.

To do so Segismundo must first break the conspiracy which prevents him from acting, surrounded as he is, like a bull, by baiters cautioning him to accept the illusion of life as self-explanatory….

To effect these transformations Calderón employs the gracioso Clarín and the rebellious soldier in the final act…. Clarín is incapable of illusion or disillusionment; he stands outside the course of events in order to comment on them from a nonmoral point of view. But now in the third act it is just such a point of view which Calderón finds especially useful: first, to underscore the folly and taint of the power drive, and second, to provide a victim for another substitute sacrifice, one that must now be made for Segismundo's taboo crime of a son overcoming a father, and worse, overcoming him as the divinely appointed king in an act of rebellion.

So Clarín's fate—to be shot to death while hiding from the battle—accomplishes two things. It shocks King Basilio into understanding his own vainglory in opposing the designs of heaven, hence preparing him to succumb to Segismundo; it also releases Segismundo from the crime of rebellion. And when the dissident soldier is sent to the tower, we recognize that the order of constituted authority has been restored by Segismundo. Chaos and anarchy have been consigned to the house of illusion, sleep, and death. The tower itself is preserved; it is not destroyed. What Segismundo suffered in it others will continue to suffer. Segismundo himself points to this condition in the closing words of the play:

   Why are you surprised? What's there
   to wonder at, if my master in this
   was a dream, and I still tremble
   at the thought that I may waken
   and find myself again locked in a cell?
   Even if this should not happen,
   it would be enough to dream it,
   since that's the way I've come to know
   that all of human happiness
   must like a dream come to an end.

… Stressing the nature of the play as a waking dream vision with the leading thematic concern it expresses for the triumph of consciousness indicates how Calderón essentializes thought and action while giving both the widest possible applicability in a strict dramatic form. Though Life Is a Dream is Calderón's best-known play, it is not, like his auto of the same title, a religious but a metaphysical drama. Yet it shares with a good many of his plays a basically antiauthoritarian bias. What is more, it is aligned with such a variety of other plays as Devotion to the Cross, The Wonder-Working Magician, The Mayor of Zalamea, and The Phantom Lady by its persistent exploration of the humane virtues of clemency, love, and magnanimity, held up against the combative principle of the strict honor code—the power drive, vengeance, absolute law. In Life Is a Dream, perhaps uniquely among Calderón's plays, a metaphysical problem is supported not by appeals to faith or insistence on ideality but from the proofs of experience itself. For the virtue of magnanimity to emerge in Segismundo it must be shown to overcome the lesser virtues breeding the brutalization of experience—false pride, rape, murder, and perverted sexuality. By implication the play is a criticism of inflexible rule, of self-deceptive authoritarianism masquerading as benevolent justice, and of all abuses to the individual arising from it.

Appropriate to such criticism are Calderón's disclosures of the life of impulse which underlies the motivations of his characters. Such disclosures often lead typically to a formula whereby compulsive action, moral desperation, and distraught behavior must issue from sidetracked and guilty consciences: the pursuit of vengeance and the expression of doubt from the fear of infidelity, perverted love, and incest. But from this and other examples of his psychological realism, we see that Calderón at his best is never merely a preacher or an upholder of an abstract morality. He essentializes in order to identify; he dramatizes in order to characterize; and he particularizes experience in order to show that relation of misguided motives to the espousing of false ideals and the necessity of earned perception for the attainment of practicable ideals. This still seems a lesson worth having.

Source: Edwin Honig, "The Magnanimous Prince and the Price of Consciousness: Life Is a Dream," in Calderon and the Seizures of Honor, Harvard University Press, 1972, pp. 158-75.


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.


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.