Sunday, November 22, 2015


After reading about it, I decided to read Life is a Dream.

Apparently Calderón’s play is periodically rediscovered and declared a masterpiece equal to any by Shakespeare or Sophocles. Frederic Schlegel said Calderón was even better than Shakespeare. Others have not been as enthusiastic. Sismondi called him ‘the poet of the Inquisition’. He’s not quite that, but he’s no Shakespeare. 

Life is a Dream does contain characters and situations similar to those in Hamlet and Oedipus, the two plays to which I’ve seen it most often compared; but Shakespeare and Sophocles used them more skillfully, and to tell different stories.

The plays are also said to have the same theme. 

Scholars say illusion vs reality is a universal theme found in most if not all great art. They find it in Hamlet and Oedipus; and from the title, illusion vs reality would appear to be the theme of Life is a Dream as well. But its dream is not that of Hamlet or Oedipus, nor is its reality. 

We used to consider the common sense world an illusion. Only in altered mental states, such as dreams, do we catch glimpses of the real world. Even now, when few people believe in the supernatural, they trust in the truth of dreams because they believe the unconscious mind perceives what the conscious overlooks. But Calderón distrusted dreams. He has Clotaldo, a pivotal character in the play, compare dreams to madness, and say we should stifle the passions to which both give birth. 

Before the play begins, King Basilio had Segismundo, his newborn son, imprisoned in a tower because of a prophesy that he, like Oedipus, would grow up to kill his father and bring disaster to the kingdom. Now that Segismundo is a man, Basilio has him brought to the palace to see if he is as dangerous as the prophesy foretold. 

Instead of being grateful for his release, Segismundo is enraged that he was imprisoned so long for no apparent reason.

Clotaldo, his jailer, warns Segismundo to behave properly or he may find his newfound freedom is only a dream; but Segismundo goes on a rampage. After he tries to rape Rosaura and kill Clotaldo and Astolfo, Basilio has him drugged and returned to the tower. 

When Segismundo wakes, Clotaldo tells him his visit to the palace was indeed only a dream. But even in dreams, he says, we should behave properly.

After Clotaldo leaves, Segismundo speaks the soliloquy that Calderónistas claim marks the beginning of his moral awakening. It ends with him saying that life is a dream, and even dreams are dreams. I found it banal, especially when compared with Hamlet’s soliloquies.  

Then the people storm the tower and release Segismundo, who agrees to lead them in rebellion against his father.

Finding his prisoner is free again, Clotaldo fears Segismundo will kill him, as he tried to do earlier in the palace. Instead Segismundo asks Clotaldo to join him and the rebels. Clotaldo refuses, and says he is loyal to the king. 

As the king’s men prepare to fight the rebels, Rosaura asks Clotaldo, her father, to avenge her honor by killing Astolfo, who seduced and abandoned her. When Clotaldo refuses because Astolfo is now King Basilio’s heir, Rosaura leaves the palace and joins the rebels.

The rebels, led by Segismundo and Rosaura, defeat the king’s men in battle. Now it is Basilio who faces Segismundo, expecting to be killed. But again the prince demonstrates his nobility by showing Basilio mercy, just as he did Clotaldo. Father and son are reconciled, and Basilio declares Segismundo is now his heir. 

Rosaura and Astolfo are also reconciled. He had refused to marry her because she was not of noble birth, but changes his mind when he learns she is Clotaldo’s daughter.

The play ends with Segismundo sentencing the rebel who freed him to life imprisonment in the same tower in which Segismundo’s father had imprisoned him.

Because Calderón was a Jesuit priest, scholars claim Life is a Dream is a metaphysical play dramatizing the doctrines of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. They debate the meaning of the play’s ending, and how (or if) it relates to Segismundo’s moral awakening. I think they’d find the answer if they dispensed with the idea that Life is a Dream is a metaphysical play. 

They don’t seem to understand the role of Clotaldo, who is not only Segismundo’s jailer, but his tutor. Clotaldo teaches Segismundo, Rosaura and the audience, by his example and his advice, to submit to authority, however unjust.  

Basilio, the king to whom Clotaldo remains loyal when everyone else rebels against him, admits he's not a good king. Nevertheless he is a king, god’s representative on earth; and Clotaldo knows we can no more judge a king by the same standard we do ordinary men than we can judge god himself.

Priests can and often do preach the divine right of kings; but when they do they are courtiers serving an earthly king, not a heavenly one. Clotaldo, a courtier, is a pivotal character in Life is a Dream because it’s a political play, not a metaphysical one. 

Neither does the play depict Segismundo’s moral awakening, as Calderónistas claim.

Hamlet and Oedipus, the two plays with which Life is a Dream  is most often compared, both depict a man who happens to be a prince, as he awakens to the tragic reality of what it is to be human. A hero who is only a prince, and not a man as well, can’t be tragic. It’s neither Hamlet nor Oedipus whom Segismundo resembles, but Hal.

As a prince and future king, Segismundo cannot reward rebellion; therefore he condemns to prison the man who freed him from his father’s prison. Hal similarly betrays his companions, most notably Falstaff, when he assumes his proper role as the king’s heir.  

Most of the fictions we call great depict this world as an illusion in which everyone plays a role, pretending to be what s/he is not. A man's moral awakening puts him in conflict with this world, and makes him a rebel. Life is a Dream  does the opposite. Segismundo awakens from the rebel’s dream of freedom (obviously an illusion, since the rebels can’t rebel against their king without a prince to lead them) to the real world in which everyone has learned to play his or her proper role.

Scholars also debate the meaning of Rosaura’s sublot, and its relation to the main plot of Segismundo’s moral awakening. It seems to me obvious that, just as Segismundo must give up the rebel’s dream of freedom and play his role as Basilio's heir, so too must Rosaura give up her rebellion against a woman’s role in a society ruled by men, as symbolized by her mannish clothes. 

The play holds out the hope that the injustice Segismundo suffered at his father’s hands will make him a better king than Basilio, with more compassion for his subjects; but it doesn't question a king's divine right to rule even when he's unjust.

Why am I wasting what little time I have left on this dreck? It’s worse than useless because it distracts me from things that matter. I know too much about the fictions we create to distract ourselves, and almost nothing about the real world. 

I had glimpses of it when I was young, just enough to know that knowledge without power is useless. 

Knowledge is not power. Only power is power. The goal is not to understand the world, but to change it.

It was hubris to think I could. 

This life is not a dream but a nightmare, a prison from which there is only one escape.

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