Pedro Calderón de la Barca was born on 17 Jan 1600. He came from a family higher-up in the noble classes than that of Lope de Vega, as Pedro’s father was a scribe and was in the monarch’s service, in a fairly but not extremely well-regarded secretarial position. He studied with the Jesuits at the Colegio Imperial from the age of eight until he was thirteen. He thus received a Jesuit education, as did most successful dramatists of his time, which is notable because the Jesuits used drama as part of their teaching method. He then read logic and rhetoric in Alcalá de Henares from 1614, and studied in Salamanca from 1617, graduating in 1619 with a degree in canon law. Pedro lost his mother when he was ten, and his father died in 1615. Perhaps this explains why his early life was full of duelling and adventure, while in his later life he settled into courtly and priestly service. After graduation he took a job in the Madrid court as a squire for the Constable of Castile. In 1620 he took part in the beatification celebrations in honour of Saint Isidore, and his poetry there was praised by one of the festival’s judges, Lope de Vega. He won first and second prize in the competition for Saint Isidro’s canonisation in 1622. The first documented production of his plays was the Royal Palace performance of Amor, honor y poder on 29 June 1623. Calderón was connected with the Palace and the King’s favourite, the Count-Duke of Olivares, until Olivares’ fall from favour in 1643. Calderón’s ostensible conformity and position as an ‘establishment’ writer did not preclude some mischief-making early in his career. In 1629, in the same year Calderón wrote La dama duende, the actor Pedro de Villegas got into a scrap with the playwright’s brother, and in pursuit of revenge the Calderón brothers entered a convent by force and upset the nuns, one of whom was Lope de Vega’s daughter. This turbulent period marked the start of the height of his playwriting career, which would span the 1630s with his popular plays written for mass consumption in the corrales, the public theatre spaces of Madrid. In 1634 King Philip IV celebrated the opening of his new Buen Retiro palace with one of Calderón’s plays. He served in the important role of director of the Court’s theatrical productions. Calderón joined the Order of Santiago in 1636, the same year he published the first collection, the Primera parte,of his plays. In 1640 he joined the army to settle a rebellion in Catalonia, and after this experience he withdrew and joined the household of the Duke of Alba from 1646 to 1650. Calderón kept a mistress who died during that time, leaving him with a son. The closure of the theatres in mourning, at first for the death of Queen Isabel and then for the heir to the throne, Baltasar Carlos, meant little theatrical activity took place between 1644 and 1649. Just after the theatres reopened, in 1651 Calderón took holy orders and moved away from writing plays for the popular stage, turning his attention to write mostly mythological plays and religious autos. He was appointed a chaplain in Toledo in 1653, and was brought back to Madrid in 1663 to take up the honour of serving as a chaplain at Court. He was given exclusive rights to writing Madrid’s two annual Corpus Christi religious plays, and he died in May of 1681 writing the second auto for those celebrations to be held that June.
Calderón is the Golden Age dramatist who has been taken most seriously within and outside of Spain. Because many of his plays deal with spiritual or more overtly philosophical issues than those of Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina, he has sometimes been put on a par with Shakespeare as a great universal dramatist. This assessment begins especially with the German Romantics and continues with Shelley who learned Spanish in order to read Calderón and then, awestruck, translated parts of some of his plays. Calderón was the sole writer of Corpus Christi autos sacramentales for Madrid from 1651 until his death and his facility for producing religious drama has further shifted critical attention away from his other works. In more recent years his cloak and sword comedies, his mythological palace plays and even his burlesque drama have been reassessed to provide a less monolithic view of the dramatist.
The themes of Calderón’s plays are similar to those of the school of Lope de Vega, but as he came a generation after Lope, the evolution of the genre meant development for the plays’ thematic scope as well. He is perhaps best known for his treatment of the ‘honour code’, in plays such as El médico de su honra (The Surgeon of His Honour) and El pintor de su deshonra (The Painter of [His] Dishonour). Calderón often questioned the morality of city life and the honour code (especially women’s position as holders of their husbands’ and families’ reputation and social standing, such as in his wife-murder dramas). He is also famous for philosophical works such as La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), a play which investigates notions of free will, destiny, the effects of imprisonment, and what makes a man human, separate from beasts. In his comedies, themes of love, both human and divine, still reign supreme, and these are contextualised in semi-realistic situations such as contemporary Madrid society. Within plays set in the court, he used historical settings to support and satirise kingship and government. In his religious plays (auto sacramentales), he personified ideas, vices and virtues, and the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) to make moral and socially-relevant works of religious entertainment. He often used the lives of the saints or Biblical figures as inspiration for storylines, as well as drawing from national legends and myths.
Although Calderón was a priest and in many senses a ‘national’ playwright, some critics would argue that the questions asked by his plays are not always as clear or orthodox as they at first appear (see Thacker 2007: 116). His plays reveal his great love of order and parallelism, yet unanswered questions and unresolved problems bubble under the surface. Examples of this include the Machiavellianism of Segismundo in La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), the problematic role of the poor man and the King in El gran teatro del mundo (The Great Theatre of the World), and in El médico de su honra (The Doctor of His Honour) the twisted sense of justice in operation within the aristocratic value system.
Calderón’s general style follows that of Lope de Vega and his imitators, but a few crucial differences mark this second-generation of writers of the comedia nueva. His relatively high social status and classical education, mixed with the influence of Góngora’s poetry which lent the writing of Calderón’s time a higher tenor of poetic language, led to a generally more complex style of verse and rhetoric peppered with references and arguments designed to stimulate an educated audience’s ear. He frequently rewrote plays by earlier authors, ‘improving’ them with a greater sense of unity and tighter dramatic structure, as was the trend for playwriting in his day (as opposed to that of Lope de Vega, for whom a looser unity of action and more side-plots were acceptable). As an early writer for the popular corrales, Calderón entertained audiences with plays in a ‘realistic’ style featuring the lives of the lesser nobility, but his plays became increasingly stylised, introspective and critical of his society and government from about 1638. He mastered the art of wife-murder plays and those featuring potentially unfaithful wives and vengeful husbands (El médico de su honra, El pintor de su deshonra). From the time he took holy orders in 1651 his drama became predominantly mythological and religious, moving from the style of the rough-and-ready corrales to that of the Coliseo, the Royal Palace theatre auditorium with its courtly tastes and clientele. Increasingly as his life goes on, Calderón’s plays require a greater visual style in making reference to the impressive sets and special effects in vogue in the later seventeenth century, though throughout his career he always gave more stage directions and descriptions of the mise en scene than did the school of Lope de Vega. Calderón’s drama is often metatheatrical, with increasing self-reference and self-parody as the genre begins to deteriorate at the end of the century.
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Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 16 May 2012.