Calderón De La Barca, Pedro

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CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA, PEDRO (16001681), Spanish dramatist. Pedro Calderón de la Barca was one of the greatest dramatists of Spain's literary Golden Age. Born into a well-established Castilian family with ties to the court, Calderón received his early education at the Jesuit Imperial College of Madrid and went on to study logic, rhetoric, and mathematics at the University of Alcalá de Henares and canon law at the University of Salamanca. As a young man he lived an adventurous life in Madrid and gained the favor of King Philip IV (ruled 16211665), who rewarded him with knighthood in the Order of Santiago in 1636. Calderón also spent time in the military and earned a reputation for gallant service during the Revolt of Catalonia (16401652). Shortly thereafter he traded his weapons for a priest's vestments, taking clerical orders in 1651 and eventually serving as chaplain to Philip IV.

Despite this rich and varied career, Calderón is best remembered as a dramatist. He began to write plays at an early age and continued to produce dramatic works of high quality until his death in 1681. As Lope de Vega (15621635) receives credit for developing early popular theater in Spain, so Calderón is recognized for bringing it to its artistic height. Whereas Lope's drama was lively and spontaneous, focusing on dynamic action, Calderón's was carefully crafted and intellectual, built on subtle constructions of symbolism and metaphor. During the 1630s and 1640s Calderón's writing consisted principally of comedias, secular three-act plays that drew on a wide variety of subject matter, both comic and tragic. Among these, the tragedies frequently dealt with themes such as the tension between free will and fate, the conflicts inspired by the obligations of honor, and the role of the individual in a web of social and political ties. His comedies, nearly always placed in contemporary Spanish settings, were known as cape-and-sword plays for plots that centered on nobles caught up in love, jealousy, intrigue, mistaken identities, and the ensuing complications thereof. Whether light or serious, Calderón's works for the public theater always engaged the salient religious, moral, and philosophical issues of his day.

Calderón's best-known works from this period include La vida es sueño (1635; Life is a dream) and El médico de su honra (1635; The physician of his honor). La vida es sueño deals with a young prince, isolated in a tower, whose father tests his abilities by giving him the chance to rule for a day. Failing the test, the prince is told that the entire experience was a dream. When a rebellion gives him the chance to rule again, he has learned to control himself regardless of the circumstances and demonstrates that he is a worthy successor to the crown. El médico de su honra features a husband who suspects his wife of betrayal; though the audience knows she is innocent, he ultimately has her murdered, with the approval of the king. In the first case, Calderón explores questions of illusions and reality, freedom and destiny, and the proper qualities and responsibilities of a ruler. In the second, he pursues the internal logic of honor to its most heartless extremes. Although Calderón had a predilection for challenging themes and contemporary issues, scholars frequently disagree on whether he intended to defend or to criticize the existing social and political order.

After being ordained to the priesthood in 1651, Calderón was appointed official dramatist of the Spanish court. Whereas his earlier work was written for the wide audience of the public theaters, his later plays were often commissioned to celebrate birthdays and other festive occasions for a more limited audience in the royal theaters. Calderón's court drama dealt predominantly with allegorical themes from Greek mythology, such as the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Venus and Adonis, and Andromeda and Perseus. These plays were also more visually striking, taking advantage of the greater resources of court stages and scenery to produce elaborate effects and fantastical illusions. During this second stage in his career, Calderón also wrote autos sacramentales, short religious plays that were performed yearly for Madrid's Corpus Christi celebrations.

By the end of his life Calderón had produced over one hundred comedias, eighty autos, and twenty minor theatrical pieces (including the musical zarzuelas ). These were performed, published, and translated throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. Calderón was the last great writer of the seventeenth century in Spain, and his death in 1681 drew to a close the Golden Age of literature.

See also Drama: Spanish and Portuguese .


Primary Sources

Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. Eight dramas of Calderón. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. Urbana, Ill., 2000.

. Obras completas. 3 vols. Edited by A. Valbuena Briones. Madrid, 196067.

Secondary Sources

Hesse, Everett W. Calderón de la Barca. New York, 1967.

McGaha, Michael D., ed. Approaches to the Theater of Calderón. Washington, D.C., 1982.

Parker, Alexander A. The Mind and Art of Calderón: Essays on the Comedias. Edited by Deborah Kong. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Jodi Campbell

Calderón de la Barca, Pedro

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Pedro CalderÓn de la Barca



Destined for the Church.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca grew up in a strict household, an experience that left its mark on his later plays, many of which treat characters who disobey their dictatorial fathers. He was trained to take up a life in the church, but by his early twenties he was writing dramas for the court and serving in a noble household. Soon he became part of the small inner circle of confidantes to King Philip IV (r. 1621–1665), and he was eventually to be knighted in 1636. In these years his plays were performed, not only at court, but in the public theaters that were then popular in Madrid, Spain's capital. With the death of Felix Lope de Vega in 1635, Calderón came to be recognized as the greatest living Spanish dramatist. In 1640, he took up a military career when rebellion broke out among King Philip's Catalanese subjects, but when he was injured in the conflict, he retired from military service. In the years that followed he sired an illegitimate child, but a few years later decided to enter the priesthood. In 1651, he announced that he would write no longer for the stage. Although he largely held to this vow, refusing to write for the public theaters in Madrid, he did author plays for private performance in Spain's royal court. For the remaining thirty years of his life he also authored each year autos sacramentales, or religious plays, for Madrid's celebrations of the Feast of Corpus Christi. In these years he also served as the priest to the king.

Character of His Works.

Calderón's career coincided with massive changes in Spain's political and cultural life. At the time of his birth Spain had recently suffered setbacks as a result of its conflicts with England and its prolonged involvements in the Dutch revolts. At the same time, the country possessed strong reserves of wealth and of intellectual life that continued to make it one of the most cultivated centers of learning in Europe. The Spanish public theater, which had begun to grow in Madrid and other cities throughout Iberia, had developed the form of the comedia in the first three decades of the seventeenth century into a high art form. At first, there was little difference between the dramas that were performed in the many corrales in towns like Madrid or Seville and those that entertained Spain's cultivated aristocrats, and the troupes that had performed in these theaters had often staged their productions before the king and court. The source of Spain's political and economic weaknesses were becoming increasingly evident in these years, however, as the monarchy failed to hold on to Holland and the other northern Dutch provinces and as it faced increasing resistance in Iberia itself. In 1640, Spain's theaters were closed when revolts in Catalonia and Portugal threatened public order. Even as Spain's domestic life grew more disordered and its economy more sluggish, Philip IV and his successors sponsored the development of an elite courtly theater for their own amusement. The corrales that had flourished in Madrid and other centers had been little more than ad hoc affairs remodeled out of existing courtyards that surrounded Spain's major monasteries. The country's religious confraternities had used public theaters as fund-raising opportunities to support their charitable endeavors. In 1533, though, Philip IV's new Madrid palace, the Buen Retiro, was completed, and among the new amenities it featured was a theater that made use of recent Italian innovations. The Buen Retiro provided for changes in scenery and other staging elements that raised the quality of court productions to the level of Baroque art. Calderón's decision to pursue a religious career, and his refusal to write for the public stage, then, must be evaluated against his subsequent activities at court. For in the years that followed his taking of priestly vows, the dramatist continued to write dramatic works for the court, and to contribute to the experimentation that was occurring at the Buen Retiro in the development of a Spanish form of opera. In 1648, he wrote the first of his zarzuelas, a native Spanish art form that mixed spoken dialogue with songs in a two-act format. He followed up these experiments with the zarzuela format with other experimental works, and a few years later collaborated in the staging of the first Spanish opera. Like the drama that was being written at roughly the same time by Corneille and Racine in the French court, the works that Calderón prepared for the court were not realistic, but highly artificial. His dramatic productions, for instance, were not intended to be a naturalistic mirror of the world, but presented a highly formalized artistic vision of reality that might cause audiences to pause and ponder their underlying meanings.

Dramatic Impact.

Much of the theater of seventeenth-century Spain had revolved around the question of honor, and in inane and silly comedies playwrights had often developed a formula in which the Spanish honor code was questioned, but yet emerged triumphant. In contrast to this trend, Calderón's art was subtler, and his reputation even at the time was considerably greater than the many craftsman-like dramatists that Spain produced. His most important works rise to the level of high art. In plays like Life is a Dream, Calderón explored perennial questions about the nature of free will and predestination, and he made major statements—as profound as those of William Shakespeare—about the nature of reality and the human psyche. In other works, like The Painter of His Own Dishonor and The Surgeon of His Honor, he relied on traditional formats like the comedy of intrigues, a venerable format in which various plots and subplots are hatched leading to a final climactic sequence of humorous events. At the same time he deployed the genre to reveal the inanity of certain Spanish customs, including practices like the isolation of young women. At other times, Calderón laid bare some of the underlying problems with the country's rigid code of honor. In sum, his works present testimony to an incredibly fertile mind that was fueled by a profound understanding of human capabilities and shortcomings.


Alexander Parker, The Mind and Art of Calderón (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

A. E. Sloman, The Dramatic Craftsmanship of Calderón (Oxford: Dolphin Books, 1958).

B. W. Wardropper, Critical Essays on the Theatre of Calderón (New York: New York University Press, 1965).