Last reviewed: June 2018
Spanish playwright and poet.
January 17, 1600
May 25, 1681
Born in Madrid on January 17, 1600, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (full name Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Barreda González de Henao Ruiz de Blasco y Riaño), the national dramatist of Spain who was to dominate his age as thoroughly as the dramatic poet Lope de Vega (1562–1635) did his, came from a good family of the lower nobility. His father was a secretary of the treasury under two kings and could afford to give his son the best education available. Calderón entered the Royal Jesuit School of Madrid when he was nine and later continued his studies at the universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca, where he began writing and producing plays. Upon graduation he returned to Madrid, determined on a literary career, and soon gained recognition as a lyric poet. He was only twenty-three when his first play, Amor, honor y poder (Love, honor, and power), was performed, but his apprentice period was interrupted by military service in Italy, Flanders, and Catalonia. Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Calderón’s theater is often associated with the royal court, and he wrote many dramatic works to be presented in the palace of Philip IV, including the zarzuela, or comedy with music, that inaugurated the king’s Retiro Theater in 1635. In his bid for popularity, Calderón could not simply imitate Lope de Vega. He had to offer something new. At that time Spanish literature was characterized by Gongorism, a striving for the subtle, which involved strained metaphors and an uncommon vocabulary. The new dramatist seized upon this fad to attract attention, but he was too great a craftsman to forget that he had also to produce drama.
The art of the theater had improved in the course of the thirty-five years during which Lope de Vega and his contemporaries had been experimenting. To this new technique Calderón added a skill in versification and a philosophical training, so that, at his best, he reached heights beyond his predecessor’s powers. Because plagiarism was not a black and ugly word at that time, provided the new user improved upon the borrowed material, for some of his greatest plays Calderón employed some of Lope de Vega’s material and themes. Calderón’s tragedy El alcalde de Zalamea (1643; The Mayor of Zalamea, 1853), the most perfect rural drama of the golden age, is a rewriting of Lope de Vega’s dashing improvisation of the same title. Half a dozen sources gave him material for his greatest philosophical drama, La vida es sueño (1635; Life Is a Dream, 1830). There are other instances of his borrowing, but his genius lay in transmuting what he took from others.
Calderón’s Jesuit training and his offices in the Church may explain his preference for his religious plays rather than his secular output. In fact, he never even attempted to collect and publish what he had written. Only because the duke of Veragua, a descendant of Columbus, requested it ten months before the dramatist’s death did Calderón draw up a list of his secular plays. It included 111 three-act plays, aside from his sacramental dramas. Editions of many of his dramas were published during his lifetime, and after his death, Juan Vera Tassis edited the famous collections, published in nine parts (1682–91).
The auto sacramental, an allegorical rendering into concrete form of the abstract idea of the Holy Communion and performed as part of the Corpus Christi observances, was the dramatic form on which Calderón lavished his poetic ability. He wrote seventy-three of them during his lifetime. It is a pity that the vogue of these religious plays has passed and that his creations, so full of poetic wealth, have been practically forgotten. In one, El gran teatro del mundo (1649; The Great Theater of the World, 1856), God is the director, and the actors include people from many walks of life. To the Poor Man, the King, and Discretion, the director gives roles of glory. The Rich Man and Beauty are condemned. In Los encantos de la culpa (1717; The Sorceries of Sin, 1861), a masterpiece of this type of drama, Man, represented by Ulysses, sails in a ship with the Five Senses as crew. As he stops at an island, Sin the Enchantress turns the Senses into beasts. Understanding awakens Man and tells him of the fate of his guides. When he repents, Penance appears to give him flowers stained with the Blood of the Lamb.
In 1681 Calderón’s strength failed after he had completed one of two autos sacramentales intended for presentation during the Corpus Christi feast, plays similar to those he had written on the same occasion for the past thirty years. He died on May 25, 1681, leaving the second play to be finished by another author.
Religion also provided themes for Calderón’s longer plays. The Bible and an earlier play by Lope de Vega inspired Los cabellos de Absalón (1684; The Crown of Absalom, 1993). His masterpiece of this type is El mágico prodigioso (1637; The Wonder-Working Magician, 1959), a Faust-like play about a man who gives up his pagan deities in his search for God.
For a totally different type of play, dramas of jealousy, the strict Spanish honor code provided motivation. Shocking to Anglo-Saxon minds and criticized by many Spaniards, including the graciosos (practical-minded comic characters) of the plays themselves, the honor code was still carefully observed on stage. Examples are El pintor de su deshonra (1650; The Painter of His Dishonor, 1853) and El médico de su honra (1637; The Surgeon of His Honor, 1853), in which even the vague possibility of a wife’s unfaithfulness, which might stain the family honor, is enough to justify the husband in arranging for her death. Calderón was skilled also in handling the complications of the comedias de capa y espada, or cloak-and-sword plays. The presentation of local customs and the dramatist’s ability to interweave the many threads of the complicated plot are seen at their best in a comedy such as La dama duende (1636; Woman Is a Riddle, 1717).
The dramatic work of Calderón’s that caused some German critics to rank him as one of the world’s best three playwrights, the other two being Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare, is a play still much read and frequently performed even after three hundred years, Life Is a Dream. It has been translated into many foreign languages. Russia, Sweden, France, Germany, and the United States have witnessed performances, and to Spanish schoolchildren the poetic soliloquy defining life is as familiar as that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Combining the awakened-sleeper theme of the King of the Assassins, the Arabian Nights story of Abou Hassan, and the Asian legend of Barlaam and Josephat with its links to Buddha, Calderón added elements of his own to make it a symbolic drama of deep philosophy and poetic sentiment.
His scholarly training made Calderón one of the most mathe-matical, logical, and architectural of dramatists, but his imagination and poetic skill were the qualities that brought his plays to life. He is Spain’s national dramatist, perhaps the best interpreter of the Spanish spirit. He gave his audiences splendid pageantry that combines Spanish charm and the pride of a cabellero with the religious fervor of the mystics, yet he also gave his work a strong appeal to the intellect. He crystallized the Spanish thought of the seventeenth century, making it dramatic on the stage, not something to be read only in the study.