Life is a Dream
By: Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Format/Source: eBook; my copy
In the mountainous barrens of Poland, the rightful heir to the kingdom has been imprisoned since birth in an attempt by his father to thwart fate. Meanwhile, a noblewoman arrives to seek revenge against the man who deceived and forsook her love for the prospect of becoming king of Poland. Richly symbolic and metaphorical, Life Is a Dream explores the deepest mysteries of human experience.
I’ve been eyeing this book for some time now; I came across it while I was looking up some dual English-Spanish books (long story of how I’ve been meaning to slowly start teaching myself Spanish but to date haven’t gotten around to it). In the end, I really wanted to read the play so I got a copy from Gutenberg 😛
This book is part of the Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in.
Life is a Dream is a very intriguing read. On the one hand, it does feel like a slow read, with details about the back stories to some of these characters emerging slowly, and the address and speech/sentence structure being rather archaic (this play was written in the 17th century). The dialogue is rich with allegory and symbolism. But despite of this, I really enjoyed the theme of illusion and reality that predominates the story and Segismundo’s thoughts, as well as the themes of free will and fate. It was interesting to read as he struggled with these feelings, culminating in the infamous soliloquy at the end of Act 1 (it’s such a wonderful soliloquy, I just had to add the whole thing here):
We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years,
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life? a tale that is told;
What is life? a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams themselves are a dream.
Familial strife also plays a role in the story. Many analyses and notes immediately refer to the conflict between Segismundo and his father Basilio, but there’s also that conflict between Rosaura and her father, a man she never met because he left her mother long ago, and that lack of familial ties between them. There’s also some politics running through these family conflicts: Basilio being the king, Rosaura being a commoner, Astolfo and Estrella’s positions in court and in the succession line. Everything wraps up a little too neatly at the end of these storylines (though Segismundo’s was a little vague), but given the time it was written and the way stories concluded back then, it made sense.
Nonetheless I found the story more powerful from the perspective of the major themes. I thought the dialogue and monologues really shone in the segments where characters contemplated on illusion and reality, of power and free will and doing good. If you’re a fan of reading dramatic plays, classic literature, and Shakespeare’s works, I highly recommend checking out this play, it’s quite interesting 🙂