History of Literature

Pedro Calderon


Pedro Calderon de la Barca


Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Spanish author

born Jan. 17, 1600, Madrid, Spain
died May 25, 1681, Madrid

dramatist and poet who succeeded Lope de Vega as the greatest Spanish playwright of the Golden Age. Among his best-known secular dramas are El médico de su honra (1635; The Surgeon of His Honour), La vida es sueño (1635; Life Is a Dream), El alcalde de Zalamea (c. 1640; The Mayor of Zalamea), and La hija del aire (1653; “The Daughter of the Air”), sometimes considered his masterpiece. He also wrote operas and plays with religious and mythological themes.

Early life
Calderón’s father, a fairly well-to-do government official who died in 1615, was a man of harsh and dictatorial temper. Strained family relations apparently had a profound effect on the youthful Calderón, for several of his plays show a preoccupation with the psychological and moral effects of unnatural family life, presenting anarchical behaviour directly traced to the abuse of paternal authority.

Destined for the church, Calderón matriculated at the University of Alcalá in 1614 but transferred a year later to Salamanca, where he continued his studies in arts, law, and probably theology until 1619 or 1620. Abandoning an ecclesiastical career, he entered the service of the constable of Castile and in 1623 began to write plays for the court, rapidly becoming the leading member of the small group of dramatic poets whom King Philip IV gathered around him. In 1636 the king made him a Knight of the Military Order of St. James. Calderón’s popularity was not confined to the court, for these early plays were also acclaimed in the public theatres, and on the death of Lope de Vega (1635) Calderón became the master of the Spanish stage. On the outbreak of the Catalan rebellion, he enlisted in 1640 in a cavalry company of knights of the military orders and served with distinction until 1642, when he was invalided out of the army. In 1645 he entered the service of the Duke de Alba, probably as secretary. A few years later an illegitimate son was born to him; nothing is known about the mother, and the idea that sorrow at her death led him to return to his first vocation, the priesthood, is pure surmise. He was ordained in 1651 and announced that he would write no more for the stage. This intention he kept as regards the public theatres, but at the king’s command he continued to write regularly for the court theatre. He also wrote each year the two Corpus Christi plays for Madrid. Appointed a prebendary of Toledo Cathedral, he took up residence in 1653. The fine meditative religious poem Psalle et sile (“Sing Psalms and Keep Silent”) is of this period. Receiving permission to hold his prebend without residence, he returned to Madrid in 1657 and was appointed honorary chaplain to the king in 1663.

Aesthetic milieu and achievement
The court patronage that Calderón enjoyed constitutes the most important single influence in the development of his art.

The court drama grew out of the popular drama, and at first there was no distinction in themes and style between the two. The construction, however, of a special theatre in the new palace, the Buen Retiro, completed in 1633, made possible spectacular productions beyond the resources of the public stage. The court plays became a distinctive Baroque genre, combining drama with dancing, music, and the visual arts and departing from contemporary life into the world of classical mythology and ancient history. Thus Calderón, as court dramatist, became associated with the rise of opera in Spain. In 1648 he wrote El jardín de Falerina (“The Garden of Falerina”), the first of his zarzuelas, plays in two acts with alternating spoken and sung dialogue. In 1660 he wrote his first opera, the one-act La púrpura de la rosa (“The Purple of the Rose”), with all of the dialogue set to music. This was followed by Celos, aun del aire matan (1660; “Jealousy Even of the Air Can Kill”), an opera in three acts with music by Juan Hidalgo. As in the Italian tradition, the music was subordinate to the poetry, and all of Calderón’s musical plays are poetic dramas in their own right.

Calderón’s drama must be placed within the context of the court theatre, with its conscious development of an unrealistic and stylized art form. For two centuries after his death, his preeminence remained unchallenged, but the realistic canons of criticism that came to the fore toward the end of the 19th century produced a reaction in favour of the more “lifelike” drama of Lope de Vega. Calderón appeared mannered and conventional: the structure of his plots artificially contrived, his characters stiff and unconvincing, his verse often affected and rhetorical. Although he used technical devices and stylistic mannerisms that by constant repetition became conventional, Calderón remained sufficiently detached to make his characters, on occasion, poke fun at his own conventions. This detachment indicates a conception of art as a formal medium that employs its artistic devices so as to compress and abstract the externals of human life, the better to express its essentials.

In this direction Calderón developed the dramatic form and conventions established by Lope de Vega, based on primacy of action over characterization, with unity in the theme rather than in the plot. He created a tightly knit structure of his own, while leaving intact the formal framework of Lope’s drama. From the start he manifested his technical skill by utilizing the characters and incidents of his plots in the development of a dominant idea. As his art matured his plots became more complex and the action more constricted and compact. The creation of complex dramatic patterns in which the artistic effect arises from perception of the totality of the design through the inseparability of the parts is Calderón’s greatest achievement as a craftsman. El pintor de su deshonra (c. 1645; The Painter of His Own Dishonor) and La cisma de Ingalaterra (c. 1627; “The Schism of England”) are masterly examples of this technique, in which poetic imagery, characters, and action are subtly interconnected by dominant symbols that elucidate the significance of the theme. Although rhetorical devices typical of the Spanish Baroque style remained a feature of his diction, his verse developed away from excessive ornamentation toward a taut style compressed and controlled by a penetrating mind.

Secular plays
The difficulties that Calderón’s art presents to the modern reader have tended to obscure the originality of his themes. Accepting the conventions of the comedy of intrigue, a favourite form on the Spanish stage, he used them for a fundamentally serious purpose: La dama duende (1629; The Phantom Lady) is a neat and lively example. In Casa con dos puertas, mala es de guardar (1629; “A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard”), the intrigues of secret courtship and the disguises that it necessitates are so presented that the traditional seclusion of women on which these intrigues are based is shown to create social disorder by breeding enmity and endangering love and friendship. No siempre lo peor es cierto (c. 1640; “The Worst Is Not Always True”) and No hay cosa como callar (1639; “Silence Is Golden”) mark the peak of this development: although the conventions of comedy remain, the overtones are tragic. Both plays also implicitly criticize the accepted code of honour. Calderón’s rejection of the rigid assumptions of the code of honour is evident also in his tragedies. In the famous El alcalde de Zalamea, the secrecy and the vengeance demanded by the code are rejected. This play also presents a powerful contrast between the aristocracy and the people: the degeneration of the aristocratic ideal is exposed, wealth is associated with manual labour, and honour is shown to be the consequence and prerogative of moral integrity regardless of class. Yet Calderón’s humanity has been questioned in connection with El médico de su honra. The critics who allege that he approves of the murder of an innocent wife because honour demands it overlook the fact that the horror one feels at this deed is precisely what he intended.

A keynote of Calderon’s tragic view of life is his deep-seated realization that a man can be responsible through his own wrongdoing for the wrongdoing of another. This realization probably derives from Calderón’s own family experience. In La devoción de la cruz (c. 1625; Devotion to the Cross) and Las tres justicias en una (c. 1637; Three Judgments at a Blow), the heart of the tragedy lies in the fact that the greatest sinner is also the most sinned against—in that others, before he was born, had begun to dig his grave. El pintor de su deshonra is built on a similar plot.

The fully developed court plays are best represented by La hija del aire. This play in two parts dramatizes the legend of Semiramis (the warrior queen of Babylon whose greed for political power led her to conceal and impersonate her son on his accession). It is often considered Calderón’s masterpiece. Highly stylized, it conveys a strong impression of violence. It presents, with considerable complexity, the contrast between passion and reason. Passion, in its self-seeking, in its grasping for power and devouring of everything in the urge to domination, breeds disorder and leads to destruction; reason, in its sacrificing of self-interest to justice and loyalty, produces order. This basic contrast underlies the themes of Calderón’s last period, its various aspects being expanded in a number of interesting variations, many directly concerned with the positive values of civilization. Though none has the intensity of La hija del aire, most exemplify a thoughtful, dignified, and restrained art. Mythological themes predominate, with a more or less allegorical treatment, as in Eco y Narciso (1661; “Echo and Narcissus”), La estatua de Prometeo (1669; “The Statue of Prometheus”), and Fieras afemina amor (1669; “Wild Beasts Are Tamed by Love”).

Religious plays
Calderón’s vision of the human world in his secular plays is one of confusion and discord arising out of the inevitable clash of values in the natural order. His religious plays round off his view of life by confronting natural values with supernatural ones. The most characteristic of these religious plays, following the tradition established outside Spain by the Jesuit drama, are based on stories of conversion and martyrdom, usually of the saints of the early church. One of the most beautiful is El príncipe constante (1629; The Constant Prince), which dramatizes the martyrdom of Prince Ferdinand of Portugal. El mágico prodigioso (1637; The Wonder-Working Magician) is a more complex religious play; Los dos amantes del cielo (The Two Lovers of Heaven) and El Joséf de las mujeres (c. 1640; “The Joseph of Womankind”) are the most subtle and difficult. The basic human experience upon which Calderón relies for rational support of religious faith is decay and death and the consequent incapacity of the world to fulfill its promise of happiness. This promise is centred in such natural values as beauty, love, wealth, and power that, although true values if pursued with prudence, cannot satisfy the mind’s aspiration for truth or the heart’s longing for happiness. Only the apprehension of an “infinite Good” can assuage the restlessness of men.

This religious philosophy is given its most moving expression, in terms of Christian dogma, in the autos sacramentales. Seventy-six of these allegorical plays, written for open-air performance on the Feast of Corpus Christi, are extant. In them Calderón brought the tradition of the medieval morality play to a high degree of artistic perfection. The range of his scriptural, patristic, and scholastic learning, together with the assurance of his structural technique and poetic diction, enable him to endow the abstract concepts of dogmatic and moral theology with convincing dramatic life. At their weakest the autos tend to depend for their effect upon the ingenuity of their allegories, but at their best they are imbued with profound moral and spiritual insight and with a poetic feeling varying from tenderness to forcefulness. La cena de Baltasar (c. 1630; Belshazzar’s Feast) and El gran teatro del mundo (c. 1635; The Great Theatre of the World) are fine examples of the early style; the greater complexity of his middle period is represented by No hay más fortuna que Dios (c. 1652; “There Is No Fortune but God”) and Lo que va del hombre a Dios (1652–57; “The Gulf Between Man and God”). But his highest achievement in this type of drama is to be found among those autos of his old age that dramatize the dogmas of the Fall and the redemption, notably La viña del Señor (1674; “The Lord’s Vineyard”), La nave del mercader (1674; “The Merchant’s Ship”), El nuevo hospicio de pobres (1675; “The New Hospital for the Poor”), El día mayor de los días (1678; “The Greatest Day of Days”), and El pastor fido (1678; “The Faithful Shepherd”). Here is found Calderón’s most moving expression of his compassionate understanding of human waywardness.

To have found a dramatic form that conveys the doctrines of the Christian faith gives Calderón a special place in literature. But his greatness is not confined to this; the depth and consistency of his thought, his supremely intelligent craftsmanship and artistic integrity, his psychological insight, and the rationality and humanity of his moral standards make him one of the major figures of world drama.

Alexander A. Parker





Type of work: Drama
Author: Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681)
Type of plot: Romantic melodrama
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
Locale: Poland
First presented: 1635


A play filled with vigor and brilliance, Life Is a Dream uses its Polish setting as freely as Shakespeare used the seacoast of Bohemia or the forest of Arden. A gothic quality in the mountain scenes suggests the popular atmosphere of eighteenth century fiction. There is considerable psychological insight in this metaphysical melodrama.


Principal Characters

Segismundo (sa-hes-moon'do), heir to the throne of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower on the Russian frontier because horrible portents at his birth and later predictions by astrologers have convinced his father, King Basilio, that the boy will grow up into a monster who will destroy the land. Finally because the king sees his land split over the matter of succession, Segismundo is drugged and transported from his prison to the Court of Warsaw. There, uncouth and inexperienced, he behaves boorishly. He accuses the court of wronging him and scorns his father's explanations thus: "What man is so foolish as to lay on the disinterested stars the responsibility for his own actions?" Impossible as a king, he is again drugged and returned to his tower, where he is told it was all a dream. Later liberated by an army recruited by Rosaura, in revenge on the ambitious Astolfo, he thinks he is still dreaming. So why should he strive in a dream for something that disappears upon awakening? On that account he will not accept the throne when his followers overthrow King Basilio. He treats everybody kindly and generously, marries Estrella, and forces Astolfo to keep his promise and marry Rosaura.
Rosaura (rro-sa'oo-ra), a Russian woman traveling with her servant Fife to the Court of Warsaw to seek the Pole who had promised to marry her. Crossing the Russian-Polish boundary, disguised as a man for protection against bandits, she loses her horse and her way. She finds and sympathizes with a young man, chained to the doorway of a tower and bemoaning his fate. He warns her to flee, which she does, after giving him the sword she has been carrying.
Clotaldo (klo-tal'do), a Polish general and guardian of the imprisoned Segismundo. He captures Rosaura and Fife but sends them on their way. He recognizes the sword as one he had left in Russia with a noblewoman with whom he had been in love, and he supposes the disguised Rosaura is his own son. However, duty to his king seals his lips. When Segismundo returns to his tower prison from his unfortunate experiences in Warsaw, Clotaldo assures the Prince that life is a dream and that in dreams men's evil thoughts and ambitions are unchecked. Awake, one can control his passions and behave like a sane individual. Later, when Segismundo gets a second chance, Clotaldo is unharmed because of his earlier advice.
King Basilio (ba-se-lyo), the father of Segismundo, faced by the problem of succession to the Polish throne. Claimants are Astolfo, his nephew, and Estrella, his niece; their rival supporters form political factions that will disrupt the country in civil war. Calling an assembly, King Basilio announces that his son, who supposedly died with his mother, is really alive. With the consent of the claimants, he will send for the prince and see what sort of king he might make.
Astolfo (as-toTfo), one claimant for the Polish throne. While in Russia, he had contracted matrimony with Rosaura, but now he wants to marry Estrella so that he can be sure of becoming king of Poland. When Segismundo awakes from his drugged sleep, he manhandles Astolfo for daring to touch the attractive Estrella.
Estrella (es-tra'lya), a princess whom Segismundo embraces, to the consternation of the courtiers. Eventually, after his second visit to the court, where he acts with proper dignity because of his conviction that life is a dream, Estrella becomes his queen.
Fife(fe'fa), the "gracioso," or comic servant of Rosaura, who adds humor and philosophy to the comedy.


The Story

One night, in the wild, mountainous country between Poland and Russia, a Russian noblewoman, Rosaura, and her servant, Fife, found themselves in distress. Their horses had bolted, and they feared that they would have to make on foot the remainder of their journey to the
royal court of Poland. Rosaura, for protection through that barbarous frontier country, was disguised as a man.
Their weary way brought them at last to a forbidding fortress. There they overheard a young man, chained to the doorway of the castle, deliver a heart-rending soliloquy in which he lamented the harshness of his life. Rosaura approached the youth, who greeted her eagerly, with the excitement of one who had known little of sympathy or kindness during his brief span of years. At the same time he warned her to beware of violence. No sooner had he spoken these words than a shrill trumpet blast filled the night. Rosaura tossed her sword to the captive before she and Fife hid themselves among the rocks.
Clotaldo, a Polish general and the keeper of the youth, galloped up to the young man. Seeing the sword in his prisoner's hand, he ordered his men to seek the stranger who must be lurking nearby. Apprehended, Rosaura explained that she and Fife were Russian travelers on their way to the Polish court and that they were in distress because of the loss of their horses. Fife inadvertently hinted that Rosaura was really a woman. But the sword interested Clotaldo most of all, for he recognized the weapon as one which he had owned years before and which he had left in the keeping of a young noblewoman with whom he had been deeply in love. He decided that Rosaura must be his own son, but torn between his sworn duty to his king and his paternal obligation toward his supposed son, he decided at last to say nothing for the time being. The fact that Rosaura possessed the sword obligated him to protect the travelers and to escort them safely through the mountains.
Meanwhile, in King Basilio's royal castle, the problem of succession to the Polish throne was to be decided. To this purpose, the king welcomed his nephew Astolfo and his niece Estrella, cousins. The problem of the succession existed because it was generally believed that the true heir, King Basilio's son, had died with his mother in childbirth many years before. The need for a decision was pressing; both Astolfo and Estrella were supported by strong rival factions which in their impatience were threatening the peace of the realm.
King Basilio greeted his niece and nephew with regal ceremony and then startled them with the news that his son Segismundo was not really dead. The readings of learned astrologers and horrible portents which had accompanied Segismundo's birth had led the superstitious king to imprison the child in a mountain fortress for fear that otherwise the boy might grow up to be a monster who would destroy Poland. Now, years later, King Basilio was not sure that he had done right. He proposed that Segismundo be brought to the court in a drug-induced sleep, awakened after being dressed in attire befitting a prince, and observed carefully for evidence of his worthiness to wear his father's crown. Astolfo and Estrella agreed to that proposal.
In accordance with the plan, Segismundo, who dressed in rough wolfskins in his captivity, was drugged, taken to the royal castle, and dressed in rich attire. Awaking, he was disturbed to find himself suddenly the center of attention among obsequious strangers. Force of habit caused him to recall sentimentally his chains, the wild mountains, and his former isolation. Convinced that he was dreaming, he sat on the throne while his father's officers and the noble courtiers treated him with the respect due his rank. When they told him that he was the heir to the throne, he was mystified and somewhat apprehensive, but before long he began to enjoy his new feeling of power.
Clotaldo, his former guard and tutor, appeared to confirm the fact that Segismundo was really the prince. The young man then demanded an explanation of his lifelong imprisonment. Clotaldo patiently explained King Basilio's actions in terms that Segismundo might understand, but the youth, blinded by the sudden change in his fortunes, could see only that he had been grievously mistreated by his father. Declaring that he would have revenge for his unwarranted imprisonment, he seized Clotaldo's sword, but before he could strike the old general, Rosaura appeared out of the crowd, took the weapon from him, and reproved him for his rashness.
Segismundo, in a calmer mood, was introduced to Astolfo, whose courtly bearing and formal speech the prince could not bear. Sick of the whole aspect of the court, he ordered the guards to clear the audience hall. But again he was mollified, this time by the appearance of Estrella and her ladies in waiting. Unaccustomed to feminine society, he behaved in a boorish manner, even attempting to embrace Estrella. The courtiers advised him to behave in a manner befitting a prince, and Astolfo, who hoped to marry his beautiful cousin, cautioned Segismundo about his behavior toward the princess. Unfamiliar with the formalities of court life, Segismundo lost all patience. Holding all present responsible for his long exile, he reminded them of his exalted position and defied anyone to touch Estrella. When Astolfo did not hesitate to take her by the hand, Segismundo seized Astolfo by the throat.
At this crucial moment in Segismundo's test, King Basilio entered the throne room and saw his son behaving like a wild beast. Crushed, he feared that the forecast had been true after all. Segismundo faced his father with shocking disrespect. Pressed for an explanation of his son's imprisonment, the king tried to prove that it had been written in the stars. Segismundo scoffed at the folly of man in putting responsibility for his actions on the disinterested heavens. Then he cursed his father and called the guards to seize the king and Clotaldo. But at a trumpet blast the soldiers quickly surrounded Segismundo himself and took him prisoner.
Having failed the test of princehood, Segismundo was drugged and returned in chains to the mountain fortress. In his familiar surroundings once more, he had full opportunity to reflect on his late experiences. When he spoke to Clotaldo about them, the old general assured him that all had been a dream. Since the prince had been drugged before he left the fortress and before he returned, he was quite convinced that he had suffered an unpleasant dream. Clotaldo assured him that dreams reveal the true character of the dreamer. Because Segismundo had conducted himself with violence in his dream, there was great need for the young man to bridle his fierce passions. Meanwhile Rosaura, aware of Segismundo's plight and anxious to thwart the ambitions of Astolfo, who had once promised to marry her, stirred up a faction to demand the prince's release. The rebels invaded the mountains and seized the fortress they failed, however, to seize Clotaldo, who had already returned to the royal castle to report to King Basilio. When the rebel army carried the sleeping Segismundo out of the fortress and awakened him with trumpet blasts, the unhappy prince would not be persuaded that his new experience was real, and he doubted the assurance that he had been rescued from his imprisonment. The rebel leader finally convinced him that it would be well for him to join the dream soldiers and fight with them against King Basilio's very real army, which was approaching.
Clotaldo was taken prisoner by Segismundo's forces, but the young prince, remembering the advice to curb his passions, ordered the old general's release. A great battle then took place, in which Segismundo proved his princely valor and chivalric bearing. King Basilio, defeated but refusing Clotaldo's and Astolfo's pleas to flee to safety, in admiration surrendered his crown to his son.
King of Poland in his own right, Segismundo ordered the marriage of Astolfo to Rosaura, who had, in the meantime, been revealed as Clotaldo's daughter. Estrella became Segismundo's queen. The young king made Clotaldo his trusted adviser.


Critical Evaluation

A dramatic genius and eminent mind of Spain's "Golden Century," Calderon resembled the gaunt, ascetic figures of El Greco's canvases. He was calm, withdrawn, reserved and courtly, and, as time went on, ever more religious and theological. Calderonian theater mirrored Christian principles but was best known for its "Cape and Sword" dramas featuring the delicate Spanish "point of honor." At one time, Calderon rivaled Shakespeare in European esteem.
Orphaned as an adolescent, Calderon wrote his first book while still a lad. He was sixteen years old when Cervantes and Shakespeare died. Between 1615 and 1619 he attended the famous Golden Century universities of Alcala de Henares and Salamanca "the Golden." Even though declining at this time, Spain was still great, its red and gold flag floating over an immense world empire and its citizens excelling in many aspects of human activity. During his first literary phase following graduation, Calderon wrote poetry and one-act, sacred allegorical plays called autos sacramentales. He wrote his first major play in 1623, entitling it Love, Honor, and Power. As Calderon's star truly began to rise in drama—at which Spaniards were then considered Europe's masters—the "giants" of the Spanish Golden Age drama, such as Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Alarcon were closing their careers. El Greco had died in 1614, but Spain's most famous painting masters, including Ribera, Zurbaran, and Velasquez, produced some of their richest canvases during Calderon's ascendancy.
Calderon became a skilled swordsman, soldier, playwright, courtier, and eventually priest and theologian. He produced his masterpiece, Life Is a Dream, when he was thirty-five years old, whereas Shakespeare's Hamlet and Goethe's Faust were products of their respective author's ripest maturity. Life Is a Dream premiered at the Royal Court of Spain, and in the same year of 1635 Calderon was appointed Court dramatist upon the death of Lope de Vega. He was made a Knight of Santiago in 1637 (Spain had three great exclusive military-monastic orders dating from its earliest, medieval crusades against the Moors: Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcantara) and spent much of his life at the Royal Court, where intrigues and points of honor were rife. He eventually became the last giant literary figure of the vanishing Golden Age, far outliving all other greats. Information on the last three decades of his life is scant, but he is known to have lived calmly and in almost mystic seclusion.
Life Is a Dream has mysterious appeal, a will-o'-the-wisp lure. It is a metaphysical drama difficult to interpret, but moves its audiences deeply. It merits its fame as one of Spain's greatest plays, but puzzles commentators who strain to summarize it or probe its mysteries. Its verses are lyrical and beautiful, and it is prismatic, since new meanings can be derived from each rereading. Its basic theme is that life is a dream, filled with chaos, beauty, and torment. Thus it is partially based on the awakened sleeper theme (which Calderon did not originate; it dates from antiquity). Segismundo, Prince of Poland, represents man, but the play also stresses the evanescent nature of human life and the vanity of human affairs. It also emphasizes that salvation can be gained through good works and that, despite a strain of divine predestination, free will defeats astrological fatalism. Human bestiality is conquered by reason, while threads of freedom, grace, sin, and unreality are also a part of the play. The dramatic scenes in the tower and palace have often been praised. Life Is a Dream has basked in international fame for more than three centuries and still rates as one of Spain's most representative plays.
Oddly, few critics have detected that Calderon seems to have set his masterpiece in Poland because the latter nation was akin to Spain in its devout Catholicism, rich seventeenth century culture, and, above all, its heroic historic role as a defender of Christendom's "marches" against nonbelievers (in Poland's case against pagan invaders from the endless East; in Spain's against Moors, Turks, and all anti-Catholics). George Tyler Northrup was evidently the first scholar to notice that Calderon borrowed much for Life Is a Dream from Yerros de la Naturaleza у Acierto de la Fortuna, a work that he and Antonio Coello wrote in 1634, also set in Poland. Most of the characters in Life Is a Dream, excepting Astolfo and Estrella, had their prototypes in Yerros de la Naturaleza у Aciertos de la Fortuna.
Calderon was Spain's most poetic dramatist. He was thus influenced by the stylistic obscurities of the Cor-doban bard, Gongora, "the Prince of Darkness." "Gon-gorism" was richly obscure and featured classical-mythological references, metaphors, contrived words, strained comparisons, and the flaunting of erudition. Other features of the Spanish Golden Century have to be studied to understand Calderon. To appreciate his "Cape and Sword" theater, for example, the modern reader must comprehend the "point of honor" with which Spain was obsessed. A Spaniard's honor was a cherished possession while personal dignity and family honor were also sacred. Men were expected to be vehement defenders of their families, and Spanish husbands were obsessed with wifely fidelity; indeed, they were prone to avenge even supposed breaches of it by dispatching their spouses.
The erudite Menendez у Pelayo labeled Calderon a less spontaneous dramatist than Lope de Vega. He also felt that Calderon was Tirso de Molina's inferior in characterization, but Menendez у Pelayo also rated Calderon above everyone in conceptual grandeur, poetry, symbolism, and Christian depth. In short, alleged Menendez, Calderon was history's greatest playwright after Sophocles and Shakespeare.
Calderon died on Pentecost Sunday in 1681, while writing an auto. He had ordered that his coffin be left ajar so as to stress the corruptible nature of the human body. His death left a void in Spanish literature, which declined into a long sterility; Calderon's theater, however, especially Life Is a Dream, has remained popular with Spanish and foreign audiences.



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