Calderon: Life is a Dream

January 16, 2023

Life is a Dream
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Gregary Racz
(Penguin Classics, 2006) [c.1630]
xxvi + 123 p.

Pedro Calderón, who, it so happened, was born on a boat (hence, ‘de la Barca’), was a Spanish playwright of the generation after Lope de Vega. Unlike de Vega, who tossed off plays like Denny’s tosses off hotcakes, Calderón was known for his careful polishing, revisiting and revising his plays in order to invest them with beauty and philosophical depth. He had an interesting life. He was already writing for the stage in his twenties, and achieved renown in his thirties. When he was fifty years old, however, he (mostly) gave up writing plays and became a priest, devoting his talents thereafter to the composition of autos sacramentales, one-act allegorical dramas traditionally performed in Spain during the Feast of Corpus Christi. Perhaps we’ll read one of those at a later date, if we can find one.

Life is a Dream is apparently generally considered to be one of his greatest achievements. It takes place in Poland, and is involved with a succession problem in the Polish court. The king is elderly, and, though he has a son, Segismund, his son has, since birth, been imprisoned in a tower because it was foretold, by various omens, that the king’s son would be a ruthless tyrant who would destroy the realm. The king ordered him confined for the good of the kingdom.

But the king is a Christian, and is unsure whether he ought rightly to trust the omens and astrologers who claim that the prince’s fate is fixed:

The direst fate, we know for fact,
Much like the rashest temperament
Or strongest planetary pull,
May boast some influence on free will
But cannot make man bad or good.
(I, vi)

He therefore decides on a clever stratagem: drugging his son with a strong sedative, he removes him from the tower and brings him to court, setting him up amid all the trappings of royalty. The idea is to see if he behaves justly or tyrannically. If the former, he can become heir; if the latter, he will be sedated again, returned to the tower, and told that the experiment was just a dream.

The prince, it turns out, behaves very badly indeed. Nearly his first act as “king” is to defenestrate a servant, and he is bent on worse. Back to the tower he goes, where, awaking, he speaks to his tutor with amazement about his “dream”:

My heart made bold with power and vice…
I’d thought to rule with tyranny
And match the evil I’d been done.
(II, xviii)

But sleeping princes, unlike sleeping dogs, cannot be allowed to lie. The people now know that their prince lives, and they raid the tower to liberate him. A civil war ensues, son against father, for the throne.

The play seems destined for a familiar tragic ending, bodies littering the stage. But — at the risk of spoiling a 400-year-old story — a funny thing happens, and it ends in joy instead, marriages all around. Just how this reversal comes about is presumably an ingredient in the play’s good reputation, although I myself feel that I’d like to see it staged before deciding whether it manages the tricky maneuver successfully.


There is much rumination in the play about the difference between dreams and reality, between sleeping and waking. How do I know that I am awake and not dreaming? Am I the same person when I dream? Do my actions in a dream reveal, or even shape, my character?  The structure of the story allows these kinds of questions to arise in an intriguing way.

Years ago I took an interest in the phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’, in which one becomes aware, in a dream, that one is in fact dreaming, and then consciously uses the greater freedom of dreams to have experiences, like flight, which are otherwise impossible. I never made it far enough into this practice to discover if it is a real thing or not, and for years now dreams of any kind have been rare, but the play reminded me of the strangeness of dreams, that shadow world in which we, at least sometimes, are awake even while we sleep. “I sleep,” said the singer of songs, “but my heart is awake.”

I was also reminded of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, which is similarly all about the interplay between dreaming and waking. Those familiar with the film might have been dismayed, as I was, by the prevalence of those faults that beset so many science fiction films: arbitrary rules, non sequiturs, and irrational choices. Why is the implanting of a thought — “inception” — thought to be difficult to achieve? Doesn’t it happen every day, all the time? How exactly does the token help distinguish the dream world from the real? Why must they not “die” in the dream? The entire film is sustained by a tissue of these logical lacunae. But the difficulties vanish if we suppose that the film’s “reality” is actually a dream, for dreams are full of these kinds of non sequiturs. The whole “reality” of the film is, on this reading, happening in the mind of the main character while he dreams, and in fact the film contains quite a number of hints that this is indeed the case. The main difference with Calderón’s play is that in the film a dream state is mistaken for reality, whereas in the play it is the other way around.

Nor should we forget that a film, like a play, is a sort of dream for us: an alternate reality that we inhabit for a time. While we watch it we are “asleep”; when it ends we “awake”.


There are a number of interesting ideas at work in the play, therefore, and I enjoyed reading it. One feature of the play that I appreciated was that Calderón gave his characters several long speeches; this is something that we find in Shakespeare, but which I really have not found in the other English playwrights from the time. These long speeches allow us a sustained window into the thoughts of the characters, which I found enriched the play considerably.

As to its literary merits, it’s hard to judge in translation. Calderón wrote in verse, and in this Penguin edition Gregary Racz does his best to mimic the verse forms in English, complete with rhyming, where appropriate. It was pleasant to read, but it’s not really possible to say more.

There are a few more plays by Calderón that interest me, so I believe I’ll be returning to him again over the next few months.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: