“Life is a Dream” by Calderón de la Barca

The Golden Age of Spanish Drama is something I’ve only heard about rather than known about, and so, to remedy that, it seemed reasonable to start at the very top, as it were – with what is possibly the most famous play of that era, Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), written in the mid-1630s by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. And reading it (in a translation into English blank verse by poet Roy Campbell), I could not help wondering to what extent I needed to be acquainted with the theatrical traditions of an era in order to appreciate its drama. I am not at all acquainted with this era, but I would guess, from reading this play, that theatre-goers of mid-17th century Spain went to the theatre with expectations considerably different than those of modern audiences.

One could, of course, forget about theatrical traditions, and read it as a closet play, but I am not sure that works either. Take for instance, a passage such as this (one of many I could easily have chosen):

        Those snowflaking haloes,
Those canopies of crystal spread on high,
Lit by the sun, cut by the circling moon,
Those diamond orbs, those globes of radiant crystal
Which the bright stars adorn, on which the signs
Parade in blazing excellence, have been
My chiefest study all through my long years.

Passages such as this belong to a dramatic tradition in which discursive, rhetorical flourishes are relished for their own sake, and take precedence over such matters as dramatic pace or momentum. This passage is part of an extremely long expository speech, the essence of which could easily have been communicated in a half dozen lines or so, but, quite clearly, the mere expository facts are of lesser concern here than relishing words for their own sake. One gets a few such passages in the earlier plays of Shakespeare also, but, very noticeably, Shakespeare soon learnt to tailor his speeches to serve his dramatic ends; but here, in what I think I am right in saying is among Calderón de la Barca’s most mature and considered works, dramatic ends are almost invariably secondary to a delight purely in language.

That is not intended as a criticism. Placing delight in language ahead of dramatic purpose is no doubt alien to our modern tastes – which may well deem passages such as the one quoted above as bombastic and otiose – but there is no reason why e should judge works from the seventeenth century by our modern criteria. But the problem comes when one is not entirely sure what the criteria actually are whereby a work such as this should be judged. To determine that, one needs ideally to immerse oneself in the literature of that period, and to read both primary and secondary texts: otherwise, one is, as I was, at a distinct disadvantage.

I took for granted that Calderon knew what he was doing, and that these long speeches, rather like the arias of a Handel opera, far from being errors of judgement, are intended primarily to be admired for their own sake, and only secondarily to advance the drama. I do not know whether or not I was right in thinking this, but there was no other way I could make sense of the work. I remembered Ana’s husband in La Regenta, reciting the great speeches from Spanish drama, and rolling his tongue round their magnificent sounds and sonorities – enjoying them, indeed, for their sounds, their imagery, their poetic resonance, rather than for what they communicate: for he felt nothing of their passion.

But while these many speeches retard any sense of forward movement, it could be argued, I suppose, that forward movement is not even something Calderón was aiming at here in the first place. This play, as the title suggests, presents life as essentially a dream, an illusion, and forward movement is as irrelevant in this play as it is in a dream. The entire action of the play seems to be taking place not so much in the real world, but in some strange hinterland of the mind – not of a mind that is awake, but of a mind asleep and dreaming. There is about this play a sense of the phantasmal, of the incorporeal, at times appearing even to foreshadow the dream plays of Strindberg. This did surprise me: I had always associated the idea of life as something essentially unreal to be a feature of Hindu philosophy, which describes the physical world as maya – illusion; but Life is a Dream was written long before awareness of Hindu philosophy had entered the western world. It is true, I suppose, that Plato had famously described the physical world as shadows cast on the walls of a cave by a greater reality of which we are but vaguely aware; St Paul, too, had spoken of those things we perceive in our lives as seen “through a glass darkly”; but both had indicated that there does exist a greater reality beyond our perception, and that what we perceive is but a shadowy, distorted glimpse of that greater reality. But, in Calderón’s play, there’s no such indication: our perceptions here are not even a glimpse of any greater reality; indeed, there isn’t even any indication that a greater reality may exist. What we see on stage is the only reality there is, and this reality is, possibly, utterly insubstantial.

The dramatic situation is as unreal as a dream.  A royal prince has spent all his life imprisoned, because his father, the king, had foreseen that this prince, should he succeed to the throne, will cause havoc. But now that this prince has grown into adulthood, the king his father, considering the possibility that his prognostication may have been wrong, has his son drugged into a sleep, and brought from the isolation of his prison-house into the royal palace. There, when the prince awakes, he runs wild – not surprisingly, perhaps, given how isolated from reality he has been for his entire life. His father’s prophecy had proved a self-fulfilling prophecy: as in Sophocles’ play, the very steps taken to avoid a prophecy ensure that the prophecy comes true. So the prince is drugged again and taken back into his prison; and when he awakes there, he is told that all he had experienced was but a dream. But then, the borders between dream and reality become further blurred: the prince is now freed by his father’s soldiers, and is declared king; and he takes this, too, as illusory, since, after all, all of life, everything, is a dream. And if a dream is all it is, one might as well live life as such. For what else is there?

Into all this is woven various subplots concerning family honour, long lost children and siblings, and the like – all that paraphernalia that modern audiences may well find a trifle dull. But we see all this, as it were, through a gauze: all this, too, we sense, is unreal. Nothing is real. All that seems real, all that seems to us tangible, is but the product of some sleeping mind, which may or may not be our own. And that calls into question even our own identity. If I exist only because I think, then the thought precedes the existence; and if that is so, how can I claim that thought to be my own? In short, how can “I think” precede “I exist”?

No doubt those well versed in ontology will point out where I have gone wrong here – for I am sure that an ignoramus such as myself is bound to go wrong when speaking of such matters. But in any case, what we are discussing here is not a philosophical treatise, but a play. And it is a play in which the very certainties of our own existence are questioned – not from the perspective of philosophy, but of the imagination. Shakespeare had questioned it too: the events in the enchanted Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be seen, as the title suggests, as a sort of communal dream; The Tempest, too, may be seen as the dreamlike unweaving of reality in some mysterious region of the mind. But before the lovers and the rude mechanicals enter the wood, the world they inhabit is a real one; and the world they return to afterwards is similarly real, albeit transformed by their dream. And similarly, once all is resolved in The Tempest, they sail away from the dreamlike island back into reality. But here, in Calderón’s play, there is no reality to go back to, just as there is no reality from which they had emerged: here, all is unreal.

I do not know whether my reading of this play is a valid reading: I will need to acquire a better knowledge and understanding of this literature before I could make any pronouncement on this matter with any confidence. But I am glad I encountered it; and, while I may draw certain parallels with Shakespeare, or even with Strindberg, this really is quite unlike anything else I think I have encountered. I only draw these parallels because, when one comes across something so entirely new, it is natural to try to relate it to things one does know, if only to get one’s bearings. And I am glad that I encountered these works in Roy Campbell’s translation, as his blank verse really is quite splendid. (I had a look as well at the translation by Edward Fitzgerald – he of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam fame – but, at first glance at any rate, it seemed to me like second rate Victorian verse. That may be unfair: I’ll look into it again.)

How a play such as this may be performed on a modern stage, I have no idea: I don’t even know whether it can hold a modern audience with modern expectations, but, no doubt, an imaginative director may find interesting ways of staging it. But the work itself, despite depicting the world and our lives within it as essentially insubstantial, has sufficient substance to merit not merely revisiting, but further study of the literary and theatrical cultures that produced it.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by A Slac on January 30, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    “We’re all bits of light, just dancing away” ……(C P Taylor). I like the idea of delight in language Himadri.


    • Yes, so do I. Some writers seem to love language for its own sake, and I suspect Calderón was amongst them. I really do think Roy Campbell’s blank verse translation is excellent – at least, it reads superbly well in English.


  2. Too bad you could not have seen this 1999 Chicago production directed by Joan Akalaitis. It was something else. The audience was held, although it is possible that they were not a modern audience with modern expectations. I assume King Basil’s long speech was cut quite a bit, but I don’t really remember.


    • They must, by definition, have been a modern audience, although, I admit, I may have been a trifle presumptuous in ascribing to them modern expectations!

      That sounds a fascinating night in the theatre. Wish I’d been there.


  3. Posted by Michael Harvey on January 31, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    I have seen two productions, both of which worked I remember. Some years ago the RSC did a season of plays from Spanish Golden Age in the Swan. Memorable..


  4. Posted by ombhurbhuva on January 31, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    The natural movement is from simile and its philosopher daddy analogy to metaphor, from ‘like a dream’ to ‘is a dream’. There is enchantment in metaphor when it becomes a symbol which drapes the present moment like a diaphane in a theatrical production. The Hindu mayavadins asked themselves – what is it that cannot be contradicted in the way that dream is cancelled by the waking state and the illusion by the veridical. Just simple, pure consciousness that always is what it is however inflected. So the father in the play became the director of a drama which the son acted out and his son became his father, a king, in his own right. This is a very esoteric, being your own psychopomp. And they can’t touch you for it.

    You have sent me to look at the poetry of Roy Campbell. Thank you. Edith Sitwell (Vol.3 on archive.org) says that he had ‘duende’. Great translations and I will be on the lookout for the play in the barrows. No you can’t send for it. No, no, duende deficient.


    • It’s an interesting question you pose: does the title present us with a metaphor, or with a statement of fact? For if it is the former, it is essentially a more forceful version of a simile, and is saying no more than “life is like a dream”. But I think what unfolds over the course of the drama goes further than that. It compels us to consider the possibility, at least, that all is illusory.

      I’ve been sent back to Roy Campbell’s poetry also. This translation is quite clearly the work of a very fine poet.


  5. Posted by jacabiya on January 31, 2017 at 2:52 pm


    Calderon de la Barca wrote the play in rhyming verses, which as seen from your excerpt are lost in the translation to the English language. It is written using several rhyming forms, including the décima poetic form, consisting of 10-liners with 8 syllables per line in the following rhyme pattern.


    Here’s the most celebrated décima of the play:

    Yo sueño que estoy aquí
    destas prisiones cargado,
    y soñé que en otro estado
    más lisonjero me vi.
    ¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
    ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
    una sombra, una ficción,
    y el mayor bien es pequeño;
    que toda la vida es sueño,
    y los sueños, sueños son.

    This might explain what translates into discursive, rhetorical flourishes and long expository speeches. There is definitely delight purely in language as you point out. But honestly, I don’t see how it is possible to fully appreciate this work in another language except Spanish, or another Romance language at least, since its form is crucial to appreciation.



    • Thank you very much for that, José, that is fascinating.

      I think any poetry in translation is unlikely to please those who know the original. I remember well my father reading translations of Bengali poetry, and shaking his head with a “This will never do” look on his face. I have, I admit, done the same. But the point of translating poetry, it seems to me, is to create poetry in the target language that will communicate at least something of what the original communicates. And, to this end, the translator must take into account the fact – for it is a fact – things that work in one language don’t necessarily work in another.

      In general, I don’t think rhymes work very well on stage in English. They usually appear precious and twee, or sound like doggerel. There are a few exceptions, of course, but blank verse seems a more natural form of dramatic expression in English. Certainly, Campbell’s translation has far greater dramatic vitality than what I found in Fitzgerald’s rhyming version – although, I suppose, I really should read that as well before presuming to judge

      No doubt you’re right – if I want to admire Calderón’s poetry rather than the translator’s, I need to learn Spanish, and learn it well. But since, to be frank, that is unlikely – at least, not till I’m retired – I am grateful for Campbell’s version.


  6. This is magical:

    This carol they began that hour,
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey hey-nonny-no,
    How that a life was but a flower
    In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
    When birds do sing, Hey ding a ding, ding.
    Sweet lovers love the spring.
    And therefore take the present time,
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey hey-nonny-no,
    For love is crownèd with the prime
    In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
    When birds do sing, Hey ding a ding, ding.
    Sweet lovers love the spring.

    This is ridiculous:

    Y dicen en esta canción,
    con el sí, con el no, con el sí fa-mi-dó,
    que nuestra vida es una flor,
    en abril, ¡ay!, el amoroso abril, ¡ay!,
    y el pájaro cantando pío-pi.
    De amor se llena abril.
    Y así el momento hay que gozar,
    con el sí, con el no, con el sí fa-mi-dó,
    que amor es miel primaveral,
    en abril, ¡ay!, el amoroso abril, ¡ay!,
    y el pájaro cantando pío-pi.
    De amor se llena abril.

    And that is the problem with translating Calderon’s rhymes: the translator has to be continuously paying close attention to Calderon’s word wizardry in order to convey his meaning.

    Look how forgettable, unperceptive and dense is Campbell’s reading of the lines quoted by Jacabiya :
    What is this life? A frenzy, an illusion,
    A shadow, a delirium, a fiction.
    The greatest good’s but little, and this life
    Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.

    Those lines are particularly memorable in the original, virtually all of my Spanish speaking friends can quote them from memory.

    With “¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí./¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión” Calderon is intentionally slowing down the flow of thought in order to accelerate it in the following lines: “una sombra, una ficción,/ y el mayor bien es pequeño;” before achieving something magical: slowness and speed at the same time and in the very same lines that give its name to the play: “que toda la vida es sueño,/y los sueños, sueños son.”


    • Hello,
      I am afraid that translation of poetry will always be different from the original, since poetry is, to such a large extent, the sounds and sonorities used, and the sounds and sonorities of one language simply have no equivalent in another. the translator has to create new poetry in the target language. I cannot. of course, compare with Calderon’s verse, not knowing any Spanish myself, but I must say that Campbell’s verse, judged purely as English verse, seems to me not without merit. A verse translation can never be an exact representation of the original, but I do believe attempts are worthwhile. I do envy you, of course, for being able to read the original: but perhaps it’s better for me to get to know Calderon, however imperfectly, through translation, than not to know about him at all.


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