V. CALDERÓN: 1600–81

Others briefly challenged Lope’s supremacy. Guillén de Castro composed (1591) Las mocedades del Cid (The Youth of the Cid), which some have preferred to Corneille’s more famous imitation. Luis Vélez de Guevara absented himself from his law practice long enough to write four hundred plays, including El diablo cojuelo, source of Lesage’s Le Diable boiteux (The Lame Devil). And Tirso de Molina staged at Barcelona (1630) El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de pietra (The Mocker of Seville and the Stone Guest), which established Don Juan as a sensual blasphemer, provided the plot for Molière’s Le Festin de pierre and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and suggested Byron’s Don Juan. In these few lines are some hints of the immense influence of Spanish drama abroad. And in 1803 August Wilhelm von Schlegel startled Germany by announcing that in modern drama Pedro Calderón de la Barca was second only to Shakespeare.

Calderón, like Murillo, concluded and outlived the Golden Age. Son of a finance minister under Philip II and III, he received at Salamanca all the education that the Jesuits could give and allow; the religious emphasis in his training strongly colored his work and his life. He studied law at Salamanca, but abandoned it on discovering that he could write successfully for the stage. One piece contained too clear a reference to gongoristic verbiage in the sermons of an influential preacher; Calderón was jailed for a time, but his reputation was made. A volume of his plays, containing La vida es sueño, was published in 1636 and won him at once the leadership of the Spanish theater. Philip appointed him in that year to succeed Lope de Vega as court dramatist. In 1640 he joined a company of mounted cuirassiers and won distinction by his gallant courage at Tarragona; in Spain, as in Islam, the man of letters has often realized his secret dream of being a man of deeds. Calderón’s health failing after two years of war, he was retired on a military pension. Bereavements turned him to religion; he became a lay member of the Franciscan order, was ordained a priest (1651), and for ten years served a parish in Toledo while continuing to write occasionally for the stage. After receiving all the honors of this world, he died at the age of eighty-one, in high hopes of some reward for having composed hundreds of autos sagramentales and having had only one mistress.

His religious dramas are the finest of their kind, for there his lyric power was sustained by sincere devotion. His secular dramas had for a long time a wider international repute than Lope’s, being equally beautiful as poetry and superior in thought. He lacked some of Lope’s incredible vitality and variety; yet he too turned out “cloak-and-sword” plays (comedias de capa y espada) with verve and skill. Only one familiar with the Castilian tongue can appreciate him fully, but we note that two English poets felt his genius and struggled to evoke it from its linguistic crucible. Shelley, who agreed with Schlegel about Calderón, freely translated parts of El mágico prodigioso, and Edward Fitzgerald, in Six Dramas of Calderón (1853), tried and failed to do for the Spanish dramatist what six years later he did so well for Omar Khayyám.

The Monstrous Magician is a variant of the Faust legend. Cyprian, renowned scholar of Antioch, interrupts a duel between two of his students, who both desire Justina; he sheathes their swords by agreeing to go to her and ascertain her preference; he goes, and he falls in love with her at sight; she dismisses him scornfully, and then longs for him. The students, also rejected, console themselves with her sister Livia, but Cyprian cannot exorcise his memory of Justina’s loveliness.

    So beautiful she was—and I,

    Between my love and jealousy,

    Am so convulsed with hope and fear,

    Unworthy as it may appear—

    So bitter is the life I live,

    That—hear me, Hell!—I now would give

    To thy most detested spirit

    My soul, forever to inherit,

    To suffer punishment and pine,

    So that this woman may be mine.47

“I accept it,” says the Devil, but he finds Justina difficult. Finally he brings her to Cyprian; but as the scholar seeks to embrace her Justina’s veil opens and reveals nothing but a skull. Lucifer confesses that only the power of Christ could have played such a trick upon him. In the end, as both Cyprian and Justina are carried away to Christian martyrdom, she confesses her love.

Among the plays translated by Fitzgerald El alcalde de Zalamea (The May or of Zalamea) has won high praise for its technical excellence. But La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) has deeper undertones. It puts aside the old themes of honor and love, and boldly brings to the stage an almost Oriental problem: How permanent and real are the vicissitudes and victories of life? Or are they surface illusions, maya, part of the veil that hides the basic, lasting reality? Basileus, King of Poland, imprisons his recently born son, of whom the stars prognosticate rebellion against his father. Sigismund is brought up in chains among forest animals, and grows to manhood more savage than any unharassed beast. The King, aging, relents and invites his son to come and share the throne; but Sigismund, ill-trained for rule, lays about him with such thoughtless violence that he has to be drugged into submission. When he recovers his senses he finds himself back in his woodland den and chains. He is told that his recent royalty was but a disordered dream, and, believing it, he talks like Shakespeare’s defeated Richard II:

‘Tis plain,

    In this world’s uncertain gleam,

    That to live is but to dream:

    Man dreams what he is, and wakes

    Only when upon him breaks

    Death’s mysterious morning beam.

    The king dreams he is a king,

    And in this delusive way

    Lives and rules with sovereign sway;

    All the cheers that round him ring,

    Born of air, on air take wing.

    And in ashes (mournful fate!)

    Death dissolves his pride and state.

    Who would wish a crown to take,

    Seeing that he must awake

    In the dream beyond death’s gate? …

    And in fine, throughout the earth,

    All men dream, whate’er their birth….

    What is life? A thing that seems,

    A mirage that falsely gleams,

    Phantom joy, delusive rest,

    Since is life a dream at best,

    And even dreams themselves are dreams.48

Then, by another transformation very inadequately explained, Sigismund grows out of his savagery into reason; and when a revolution gives him the throne, he becomes a good king, humbly conscious that this exaltation is again a dream, an insubstantial bubble in the froth of life.

The speeches are painfully long, and a gongorism of fanciful phrases waters the poetic wine; but it is a powerful play nevertheless, mingling action with thought and sustaining dramatic suspense to the end. If we had been differently domiciled and indoctrinated, and could understand Castilian well, we should probably consider this one of the world’s great plays.

It is impossible for us now to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps of imagination out of the prison of our time and place, and realize how lively a role the drama played in seventeenth-century Spain, and what influence it enjoyed. In Italy it almost drove the native tragic drama from the boards. In France it provided plots for Hardy, Corneille, Molière, and a dozen others; it molded the form of French tragedy before Racine, stressing honor and spilling rhetoric. When we recall also the influence of Cervantes and other Spanish novelists upon Lesage, Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, and through them upon Dickens and Thackeray, and when we compare the art of Elizabethan England, or even that of contemporary France, with the architecture, the sculpture, and the painting of Spain in that heyday, we may begin to understand why the Spanish-speaking peoples of the world yield to none in the pride of their heritage and their blood.


I. The story of the captive in Don Quixote (Part I, Book IV, chapters 12–14) is largely autobiographical.

II. Only apparently on the same day as Shakespeare. England was still using the Julian calendar; by the Gregorian, which Spain had adopted, Shakespeare’s death fell on May 3, 1616.

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