Life is a Dream. La Vida es Sueño. Act I. Scenes 1 and 2.
The plot of La Vida es Sueño is complicated. Its resolution is structured around the relationship of its protagonists, Segismundo and Rosaura, set out in the first two scenes of the play. But first, let’s clarify who Segismundo and Rosaura are.
Segismundo is a prince who has been secretly imprisoned by his father, Basilio, king of Poland, because the stars predicted that Segismundo would kill his mother (Scene 6, ll. 674, 704), overthrow his father and bring chaos to the kingdom. By being imprisoned, Segismundo has been deprived of his right to inherit the kingdom. Only a faithful courtier, Clotaldo, knows of Basilio’s secret, and only he has had any contact with Segismundo since the prince’s birth.
Rosaura is a noble woman on her way to the court to avenge an affront (Vengo a Polonia a vengarme/ de un agravio. Scene 1, ll. 376-77), namely her seduction and dishonour by Duke Astolfo, Basilio’s nephew and claimant to his throne. She intends to confront Astolfo, but when she learns that Astolfo is to marry his cousin Estrella (Act II, Scene 12, ll. 1794-98), her objective becomes to prevent the marriage. [Her mother had also been seduced and abandoned, by none other than Clotaldo (see Act III, Scene 10), so that Rosario is actually Clotaldo’s daughter.]
The opening two scenes of the play are cleverly crafted by Calderón, bringing the two protagonists together and demonstrating by imagery, linguistic parallelisms, visual cues and situational similarities that both have much in common although the adversity that each suffers is different.
Act I, Scene 1.
From the stage directions, we enter a dark, forbidding world. It is nightfall when two strangers –a young woman and her servant (l. 46)— appear, lost in bleak, mountainous terrain somewhere in Poland. Complaining about their misfortunes, they catch sight of a solitary, miserable looking tower (ll. 56+), with a dark, gloomy doorway (funesta boca). Out of the darkness, they suddenly hear the sound of chains (l. 75) and the groans of a voice lamenting its captivity and hardships.
The young woman is Rosaura, but she is dressed as a man. The prisoner is Segismundo but he is clothed in animal skins. Evidently, both are dressed inappropriately for their natural identity. Something is wrong to have produced this discordant situation.
Rosaura first words confirm this discord. She appears riding a horse which she refers to as hipogrifo violento (“violent hippogriff:” a deformed creature with the body of a horse, wings and head of an eagle, and forelegs of a lion), that has plunged uncontrollably down the mountain side. She further describes the horse as “thunderbolt without lightening,” “bird without colour,” fish without scale,” “beast without instinct” (ll. 3-5), all alluding to objects missing elements essential for their identity.
Rosaura’s metaphorical descriptions of her horse etc. and the situation she finds herself in (which she describes as confuso laberinto) are in fact reflections of her own conflicted inner state. She is, as she says, a blind and desperate wretch (infelice ll. 13, 22), who has suffered hardship that has forced her to abandon not only her home but more importantly her condition as woman. Dressed as a man, she is outside her natural orbit.
Act I. Scene 2.
Rosaura and Clarín’s complaints (Clarín is Rosaura’s servant and the comic figure –gracioso—in the play) are interrupted when they hear Segismundo, whose first words echo those of Rosaura: !Ay, miserable de mi! !Ay, infelice! (“Oh, miserable me! Oh wretch!” l. 78).
Looking inside the tower, Rosaura describes what she can make out in the flickering light: “a dark prison/ which is the sepulchre of a living corpse (vivo cadaver);/ and to my greater astonishment/ dressed in animal skin there lies a man/ weighed down by chains/…” (ll. 93-97). The violent oxymoron (“living corpse”), the flickering light that actually makes Segismundo’s room appear even darker, the “animalised” human weighed down by chains … all emphasise the death-like existence of the prisoner (the verb yace l. 96 –“lie down”—appears commonly on tombstones).
Like Rosaura, Segismundo has lost (or been deprived of) his true human condition. But in his case, he has been transformed into an animal, a creature of impulses and instincts. In both cases, their clothing is the message.
There follows a lengthy, elegant and passionate soliloquy by Segismundo (Scene 2, ll. 102-72) in which he addresses the heavens and compares his captive status with the freedom enjoyed by birds, beasts, fish and streams. He has difficulty in understanding why if he has a superior soul, better instinct, greater free will and a higher form of life, he has less liberty than these. What privileges do they have that he has never enjoyed?, he asks.
The speech is important because Segimundo –although a creature of impulses— is able to organise his feeling in a logical and persuasive manner. He shows himself able to control his rage (which he describes as a “volcano, an Etna” (ll. 164) and overcome his desire to “tear out pieces of his heart from his breast” (ll. 165-66) and channel potentially violent action into words. The logic of his reasoning and control over his feelings are underlined by the parallel structure he uses in his arguments.
Following two introductory stanzas, Segismundo develops, over the next four stanzas (ll. 123-42), a parallel argument in which he outlines the freedoms enjoyed by birds, beasts, fish and streams. Each stanza –and argument– begins with Nace (Nace el ave– “the bird is born” l. 123; Nace el bruto… l. 133; Nace el pez… l. 143; Nace el arroyo… l. 153), followed by a description of the liberty each enjoys within its natural setting. Each stanza ends with an exclamation contained in a parallel couplet, the second line of which is identical: Tengo menos libertad (“I have less freedom”). These parallel couplets summarise Segismundo’s frustration but at the same time they demonstrate, through the balance produced by the parallel structure, his capacity to control that frustration.
Segismundo ends his soliloquy enumerating in reverse order the four natural objects (i. e. the birds, beasts, fish and streams) in a summation called correlation or recapitulation (Scene 2, ll. 171-72). It was a device much favoured by baroque writers and used to convey order or symmetry when the objects maintained their original sequence. On the other hand, a reversal or rupture of the sequence implied disorder. In Segismudo’s case, the reversal (now “streams, fish, beasts, birds”) successfully conveys the idea that his life has been turned upside down or back to front, but at the same time it hints by the exact order of reversal at a potential for stability.
It is at this point that Segismundo becomes aware of Rosaura, the only person he has seen other than his guardian Clotaldo. His immediate reaction is in keeping with his impulsive, brutish side: he seizes her and threatens to tear her to pieces (Scene 2, ll. 181, 185). When she speaks, however, his rage is immediately softened and his response measured. He doesn’t know why this happened, but he quickly shows a capacity for self control, using verbal parallelism. The first three lines (190-92) with their balanced, parallel structure of noun, conjugated verb, infinitive, object pronoun not only point to her calming effect on him but also confirm Segismundo’s ability to reason in a logical order: Tu voz pudo enternecerme etc. “Your voice has been able to move me,/ your presence has (been able to) astonish me,/ your respect (for me) has (been able to) disconcert me.”
Two further parallelisms (Scene 2, ll. 201-02, 220-22) help keep a lid on his emotions as he tries to understand his contradictory feelings as a result of seeing Rosaura and hearing her speak.
His confusion is well captured in two ways: 1. Three powerful oxymora by means of which he describes himself: esqueleto vivo (“living skeleton” l. 201), an animado muerto (“a dead being” l. 202) and a monstruo humano (“human monster” l. 209). 2. A significant use of wordplay centred on the paradoxes of life and death as a result of seeing Rosaura (Scene 2, ll. 225-42): miro-mirarte, ojos-ojos-muerte, beber-beben, viendo-el ver-muerte-muriendo-por ver-veate-muera-el verte-muerte-el no verte-muerte-vida-dichosa muerte.
In his own mind, Segismundo sees himself as a deformed creature with a conflicted and contradictory identity but, thanks to his capacity to reason, he shows himself to have potential to overcome his violent side.
By now the parallels between Segismundo and Rosaura have been well established. To summarise: 1. Both have described themselves as infelice (“wretched” ll. 13, 22, 78); 2. Both have been deprived of their rights as human beings; 3. Both have been abandoned; 4. The true identity and appropriate status of both are obscured by the clothes they wear; 5. Both seek justice and the recovery of their identity. It remains to be seen how both will have a role in helping each other recover what they have lost.
What Calderon does next is clarify (Scene 2, ll. 243-72) which of the two protagonists has suffered most. This is done by a simple device. Rosaura tells a tale of a wise man whose only sustenance is grass that he collects. Feeling sorry for himself, he asks rhetorically: “Can there be anyone…/ poorer or sadder than me?” (Scene 2, ll. 257-58). He receives his reply when, turning around, he sees another wise man picking up the bits of grass he has discarded. From the tale, it is clear that Rosaura recognises that her misfortune is less than that suffered by Segismundo so that the main plot will centre on Segismundo, and Rosaura’s dilemma will constitute the sub plot. However, both the main and sub plot are closely intertwined since both Segismundo and Rosaura have so much in common and will need each other to recover their full identity.
Act I. Scene 3. Just when Rosaura is about to reveal who she is she is interrupted by the arrival of Segismundo’s guardian, Clotaldo (Scene 3, l. 277) accompanied by masked soldiers. He orders Rosaura and Clarín arrested. Segismundo’s reaction –he wants to defend Rosaura and Clarín—suggests that Rosaura has had an immediate impact on him. However, he is overcome by the soldiers and returned to his cell.
Act I. Scene 4. Left with Clotaldo, Rosaura hands over her sword to him, the sight of which shocks Clotaldo. He then reveals, in an aside, that he had once had a relationship with a noble lady and left the sword with her on his departure. Now, receiving the sword from Rosaura and seeing her dressed as a man, he assumes that she is his son. This leaves him in a predicament because the king has commanded that anyone discovering the secret in the tower is to be put to death.
At this point, we leave the tower for the court (Scene 5). As the play unfolds (for a summary, see La Vida es Sueño. Summary) and Segismundo and Rosaura meet each other under different conditions (e. g. in the palace and on the battlefield), we see how Rosaura is the key to moderating Segismundo’s violent behaviour and eventually to reforming him. Without her he would have remained un compuesto de hombre y fiera (“a combination of man and beast” Act II, Scene 7, l. 1547). She is the sun (Act II, Scene 7, l. 1593) who will help him overcome the darkness of his brutish side.
But Rosaura needs Segismundo to help her prevent the marriage of Astolfo and Estrella. This he does after overthrowing his father and then confounding the stars by kneeling before him (final scene, l. 3243). Nevertheless, Basilio acknowledges that Segismundo has defeated him. Now in charge, Segismundo commands Astolfo to marry Rosaura. By doing this, Segismundo not only restores Rosaura’s honour (Act III, Scene 14, ll. 3256-57) but also sacrifices his own happiness. What about Estrella? Well, Segismundo will marry her, and so all’s well that ends well … or so it seems.
FYI Calderon throws in a wrench at the very end that has generated lots of articles: the soldier responsible for freeing Segismundo from the tower (Act III, Scene 2, ll. 2236-40), seeing everyone else being rewarded, also asks for a reward. Segismundo, however, orders him to be imprisoned in the tower for treason (i. e. for having rebelled against Basilio in order to free Segismundo)!!
Applebaum, Stanley Life is a Dream Toronto; Dover Thrift Publications 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: Applause Theatre Publications 5th Printing 1999 (original Bentley publication was 1957).
Edwards, Gwynne Three Plays including Life is a Dream London: Methuen 1991
Kidd, Michael Life’s a Dream (Prose translation) Boulder: University of Colorado Press 2004.
Racz, Gregary J Life is a Dream New York, Toronto, London: Penguin 2006