La vida es sueño: Summary
La vida es sueno/ Life is a Dream is Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s most famous play and in the opinion of many the finest in the Spanish language. It is brilliantly constructed with several themes intertwined: Illusion (dreams)/reality, free will/predestination, the responsibility of monarchs/the art of governing, knowledge or experience/superstition, love/vengeance, honour/dishonour, loyalty/rebellion, justice/vengeance, prudence/ instinct, father/son conflict (with its Oedipus overtones), order/disorder (for other examples of this, see Fuenteovejuna and El burlador de Sevilla).
The play is set in Poland. It opens with a description of a craggy, inhospitable mountain side close to which can be seen a tower where Segismundo is imprisoned. Night is falling. Rosaura is the first to appear, accompanied by her servant, the gracioso (comical character), Clarín. Dressed as a man, Rosaura bewails her fate and reproaches her ungovernable horse for having carried her headlong "to the confusing labyrinth of these bare cliffs." From the tower she hears the groans of Segismundo, whose fate is even worse than hers. Scene 2: Dressed in animal skins, Segismundo is chained and imprisoned and has had no contact with any human being except one man, Clotaldo. Lamenting the loss of his freedom, Segismundo questions why the birds, animals and fish enjoy liberty while he suffers confinement. When he first sees Rosaura his immediate impulse is to kill her (line 181), but something about her voice stops him. Just when Rosaura is about to tell Segismundo who she is, voices are heard and Clotaldo arrives accompanied by soldiers; all are masked. Scenes 3-4: Clotaldo has Rosaura arrested for discovering the secret of the tower, but when he takes her sword he is shocked to recognise it as one he once possessed. She tells him that she has come to Poland to avenge an affront. Then, in an aside we learn that Clotaldo had previously had a relationship with a woman but then abandoned her. The sword suggests to him that Rosaura is his son. This places Clotaldo in a quandary because the king of Poland, Basilio, has ordered the death of anyone who found out about Segismundo. Clotaldo finally decides to let Basilio know about Rosaura and leave her fate in the king’s hands.
Scene 5: Set in the court of Basilio. Astolfo and Estrella, rivals to inherit the throne of Poland, arrive to solve the inheritance problem. Astolfo suggests that they get married. Estrella, however, hesitates because she knows that Astolfo carries the picture of another woman in a medallion around his neck (we learn later that it is Rosaura’s portrait). Scene 6: Basilio appears with important announcement. In a long speech he explains that he has a son, Segismundo, but that before he was born the stars had warned him that Segismundo would bring chaos to the kingdom and would overthrow his father. In order to prevent this, Basilio had Segismundo locked up in a tower at birth. Now, thinking that he might have been hasty in his astrological reading, he has decided to bring Segismundo to the court to test him. If Segismundo behaves well he will become king; if he does not he will be drugged and returned to the cave and told that his experience in the court was a dream. This announcement releases Clotaldo from his dilemma over Rosaura, but only briefly. Scenes 7-8: In a conversation between Clotaldo and Rosaura, she reveals that her dishonour was brought about by Astolfo. Clotaldo is puzzled but suddenly understands what she means: she is not --as he had thought-- his son, but his daughter. “What a confusing labyrinth this is” (lines 975-6), he concludes.
Scenes 1-2: Clotaldo explains to Basilio how Segismundo was drugged and brought to the palace. This is followed by a conversation between Clotaldo and Clarín in which we learn that he (Clotaldo) has introduced Rosaura to the court as his niece.
Scenes 3-5: Segismundo is finally brought to the court, where he behaves abysmally. He insults everyone, including his father, Astolfo and Estrella, and tries to kill Clotaldo. He does manage to kill a servant who angers him by interfering (lines 1430, 1441-42). Scene 6: Segismundo accuses Basilio of tyranny and threatens to exact revenge for his loss of liberty and honour (lines 1514-16). Scenes 7-8: In the court Segismundo also notices Rosaura, now dressed as a woman named Astrea and serving as lady-in-waiting to Estrella. He feels he has seen her before (lines 1580-81) but isn’t sure. When she tries to leave he stops her, and when she begs him to let her go he threatens to dishonour her. Her cries bring Clotaldo whose death at the hands of Segismundo is prevented only by the arrival of Astolfo. Scenes 9-10: Astolfo and Segismundo draw swords, but the fight is interrupted by Basilio. In the presence of the king, no one has the authority to fight. Segismundo is overcome, drugged and returned to the tower.
Scenes 11- 13: Estrella rebuffs Astolfo’s advances, reminding him that he wore the portrait of another lady (i.e. Rosaura) around his neck when he came to court. Scene12: Astolfo leaves to get the portrait for Estrella as proof that it no longer means anything to him. Alone with Rosaura, Estrella asks her to ask Astolfo to hand the portrait over to her (Rosaura) when he returns, because she (Estrella) is too upset to receive it directly from him. She leaves Rosaura alone to accept the portrait from Astolfo. Scene 13: Rosaura is in a quandary. She doesn’t want Estrella to know that it is her portrait that Astolfo was wearing. She also wants to avoid Astolfo because Clotaldo has told her that he will see that her honour is restored (lines 1860-61). Scene 14: Astolfo, who doesn’t know that Rosaura has come to the palace, returns with the portrait. He recognizes Rosaura despite her insistence that she is Astrea, Estrella’s maid. Rosaura tries to grab the portrait from Astolfo and she and Astolfo are struggling for it when Estrella arrives. Scene 15: Quickly Rosaura concocts a story that she was looking at a portrait of herself that she carried in her bag and had inadvertently dropped it. Astolfo had then picked it up and refused to give it back to her. Estrella insists that Astolfo give Rosaura the portrait, leaving Astolfo with no portrait to give to her. Scene 16: Alone with Estrella, Astolfo stammers that he can’t give her the portrait, upon which Estrella storms out saying that she doesn’t want it now!
Scenes 17-18: Segismundo is returned to the cave. When he wakes up chained and dressed in skins again, Clotaldo tells him that everything that happened in the palace was a dream. Segismundo accepts Clotaldo’s explanation, although the one thing that does not seem to have been a dream is falling in love with a woman, i.e. Rosaura. Scene 19: Famous soliloquy by Segismundo responding to Clotaldo’s advice on the importance of doing good works, even in dreams.
Act III opens with Clarín, Rosaura’s servant, complaining about being locked up in the tower with Segismundo. Scenes 2-3: Soldiers arrive who, having heard that they have a prince who has been imprisoned, have rebelled. They do not want a foreign prince and object to the tyrannical conduct of Basilio. They free Segismundo from the tower. Scene 4: The first person Segismundo meets is Clotaldo whom he is about to kill but is prevented from doing so by the memory of the so-called dream. He fears suddenly waking up again in the tower. Preferring to “do good,” he allows Clotaldo to join Basilio, but the rebellion still goes on. Scenes 5-7: Basilio, Astolfo, Estrella and Clotaldo reflect on the discord created by the rebellion, and Basilio recognises that he was responsible: “I myself have destroyed my land” (line 2459).
Scene 8: Rosaura reminds Clotaldo that he said he would restore her honour. Clotaldo replies that he would have done so but since Astolfo saved him from Segismundo (Act II, scene 8) he cannot now kill Astolfo. His solution is that she retire to a convent! She retorts that since he isn’t her father, he can’t tell her what to do (she still doesn’t know she is his daughter). She now plans to kill Astolfo herself (line 2632). The scene concludes with an angry exchange between Clotaldo and Rosaura over her intention to kill Astolfo.
Scenes 9-10: Segismundo prepares for battle when Rosaura again appears before him, still dressed as a woman but now carrying a sword and dagger. For the first time she explains to Segismundo who she is and why she is seeking his help: Astolfo cannot be allowed to marry Estrella. This is a critical moment for Segismundo. He loves and desires Rosaura, and now has the opportunity to satisfy those desires. But by now he has learnt the importance of good works, and his victory over his baser instincts at this moment marks his transition from the violent person he was to a prince with responsibilities. This conquest over his baser instincts prepares us for his meeting with his father. Scenes 11-14: As the stars predicted, he does indeed overthrow his father, but the stars did not foretell that he would pardon his father, raise him up and himself kneel before Basilio (line 3243).
Applebaum, Stanley Life is a Dream Toronto 2002 (Applebaum also published a dual language edition Life is a dream/ La vida es sueño in the same year)
Bentley, Eric Life is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics Wisconsin, Milwaukee 5th Printing 1999 (original Bentley publication was 1957)
Edwards, Gwynne Three Plays including Life is a Dream London 1991
Kidd, Michael Life’s a Dream (Prose translation) Boulder 2004
Racz, Gregary J Life is a Dream New York, Toronto, London 2006
Image of Basilio kneeling before Segismundo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_is_a_Dream
Spanish Text used.
Martel, Alpern, Mades Diez comedias del Siglo de Oro 2nd. ed. New York, London 1968. Translations into English are mine.