The Spanish poet and playwright Pedro Calderón dela Barca y Henao (1600-1681) is second only to Lope de Vega in Spain's Golden Age, 1580-1680. He used the stage to interpret and champion Catholicism, to battle the Reformation, and to exalt the monarchy.
Born in Madrid on Jan. 17, 1600, Pedro Calderón was orphaned by the age of 15. He studied first with Jesuits, then at the universities of Alcalá and Salamanca; his studies included rhetoric, logic, theology, the Bible, law, philosophy, grammar, the classics, and history. He obtained his degree in canon law from the University of Salamanca in 1619.
From 1638 until 1642 Calderón and his brother José were in the King's service, assigned to help quell an insurrection in Catalonia. Afterward, Pedro returned to Madrid, where sometime during the 1640s his inamorata bore him a son. She died during this decade, as did two of his brothers. Saddened and sobered, Calderón in 1651 took orders for the priesthood. He behaved decorously the remainder of his life and died in Madrid on May 25, 1681.
Calderón began his writing career in Madrid in 1622 by participating in a poetry competition sponsored by that city to celebrate the canonization of its patron saint, St. Isidro. About the same time, he produced his first play, Love, Honor and Power (Amor, honor y poder). In Madrid, then a great world capital, the theater district and King Philip IV's palace theater needed a constant supply of plays on varied subjects. To satisfy the demand for variety, Calderón searched through time, history, literature, and fantasy. At his death he left a considerable number and variety of plays— 120 comedias, 80 sacramental plays (autos sacramentales), and several short pieces, including vaudeville skits with music (zarzuelas), and even comic curtain raisers of a mere few minutes' duration. A general classification, with accompanying exemplary titles, would be Spanish history and legend: The Mayor of Zalamea (El alcalde de Zalamea); honor plays: The Physician of His Own Honor (El médico de su honra); cape-and-sword plays: The Phantom Lady (La dama duende); philosophical plays: Life Is a Dream (La vida es sueño); religious plays: Devotion to the Cross (La devoción de la Cruz); hagiographic plays: The Constant Prince (El príncipe constante); sacramental plays: Belshazzar's Feast (La cena del Rey Baltasar); fantastic and mythological plays: The Daughter of the Air (La hija del aire).
Calderón's most celebrated play is Life Is a Dream (1635), with a central theme of free will versus predestination, a burning issue of the day. The protagonist, Prince Segismundo of Poland, is born under the dismal astrological prediction that he will become a tyrant on reaching the throne. His father, King Basilio, a practicing astrologer, has him placed in chains in a remote prison. When Segismundo reaches his majority, his father relents and has his son drugged and brought to the palace, where he awakens to find himself on the throne. Segismundo in several violent actions shows himself cruel and vindictive as the stars had predicted, so his father has him returned to prison. Plunged back into this harsh environment after having tasted power and luxury, a bewildered Segismundo can no longer distinguish between the dreamworld and reality. The people of the kingdom, learning for the first time of the existence of their prince, overthrow King Basilio. Segismundo, once again enthroned, chastised by experience, proves triumphant over his darker and hateful self. Life Is a Dream ends optimistically—Segismundo, though inclined by the stars to tyranny, through his own free will overcomes evil. The play contains Calderón's most impassioned poetry.
Calderón's best play based on Spanish history and legend is The Mayor of Zalamea (1644?), in which he proves through convincing flesh-and-blood characters that common people may have both honor and pride and insinuates that, when circumstances justify, civil authority should overrule military authority.
Calderón's Prodigious Magician (El mágico prodigioso, 1637) relates the story of Cipriano, a student who mortgages his soul to the devil for the possession of the girl Justina. As he embraces a conjured-up pseudo-Justina, she turns into a skeleton; the deception brings about his conversion, and both he and Justina become martyrs. Devotion to the Cross (1633) portrays the career of a youthful gangster who is ultimately saved from hell through his devotion to the Cross, the symbol of divine grace. Albert Camus, who considered Calderón "the greatest dramatic genius Spain ever produced," was so drawn to the play and its message of "the grace which transfigures the worst of criminals" that he translated it into French.
No cape-and-sword plays surpassed Calderón's. He wrote them purely for entertainment, as the titles reveal: The Phantom Lady, Everybody's Secret (El secreto a voces), April and May Mornings (Mañanas de abril y mayo).
Calderón gave to the Spanish language the phrase "honor calderoniano" (Calderonian honor), meaning a sense of honor which forces a husband to take the life of a wife maligned by scandalmongers, even when he knows her to be innocent. "El honor con sangre, señor, se lava" ("A stain on one's honor, sir, is washed in blood") is the rigid creed of Don Gutierre in The Physician of His Own Honor (1635), who orders his suspected wife bled to death by a surgeon. Other plays depicting this same sort of bloodletting are Secret Vengeance for Secret Offense (A secreto agravio, secreta venganza) and The Portrayer of His Own Dishonor (El pintor de su deshonra). For many years Calderón had been censured for writing these plays because they seemed to condone undue violence committed by husbands on wives; only in recent times have critics begun to suspect that his honor plays are a condemnation of the seemingly mindless honor code.
Calderón's sacramental plays (autos sacramentales) were lyrically written poetic dramas of one act performed on carros (movable platforms) in open squares in honor of the Eucharist. Everyone, from the most arrogant aristocrat to the humblest beggar, shared the feeling of awe produced by these allegorical representations of the mystery of transubstantiation, and the populace saw Holy Writ become flesh and blood. Calderón produced over 70 autos, and perhaps the finest was The Great Stage, the World (El gran teatro del mundo, 1633), a vastly high-reaching, Scripture-girded interpretation of the origin and end of man.
Calderón was the last famous dramatist of Spain's Golden Age of literature and art, and after his death Spanish drama languished for a century.
Further Reading on Pedro Calderón
In English the indispensable book on Calderón is Everett W. Hesse, Calderón de la Barca (1967). See also Salvador de Madariaga, Shelley and Calderón (1920); A.A. Parker, The Allegorical Drama of Calderón (1943); and A.E. Sloman, The Dramatic Craftsmanship of Calderón: His Use of Earlier Plays (1958).
Additional Biography Sources
Gerstinger, Heinz, Pedro Calderón de la Barc, New York, Ungar 1973.
Comedias: a facsimile edition: with textual and critical studies, Farnborough, Eng.: Gregg International, 1973.