Out of the Wings

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La hija del aire, parts 1 and 2 (c.1652-1653), Pedro Calderón de la Barca

English title: Daughter of the Air
Date written: from c. 1652 to c. 1653
First publication date: 1664
First production date: 13 November 1653
Keywords: family > marriage, family > duty, love > relationships, ideology > war, women
Genre and type: mythological drama

The ancient legend of Semiramis is dramatised by a master playwright in a terrifying story of a human love triangle amidst a raging battle between two goddesses, Diana and Venus. Caught in the middle is Semiramis, raised in isolation as a prisoner, who enters the world as a full-grown woman with the fire and ambition of a fearsome ruler. She is true to her vow: ‘When I am Queen, I will make the world tremble at my name’ (trans. Woods 2004).


Part I

Semiramis languishes in a remote prison, where she has been locked up since her infancy. She is guarded by Tiresias, a priest in the service of the goddess Venus. The story of Semiramis’ birth is one of violence and ill omens for the future: her mother was a nymph of Diana, who was raped by a follower of Venus, and Semiramis is the fruit of his lust. Semiramis’ mother killed the man in vengeance and then died in childbirth; Semiramis was raised as a savage to wear animal skins and stay locked away from the sight of men. Her great beauty, and also her position as a pawn in a war between the goddesses Diana and Venus, make her unsuitable for entry into the world, and so Tiresias has guarded her away in secret.  There is a prophecy that if she is ever let out, her beauty will cause the death of a king and bloody vengeance to come from the heavens. We meet the Assyrian King, Nino, who returns at the start of the first act of this play to Ninevah, triumphant after many victories in war. His sister Irene has a burgeoning love affair with Nino’s greatest general, Menon. Menon makes his way through difficult terrain, and rescues Semiramis. Tiresias commits suicide when Semiramis is freed, knowing that no good can come from her entry into human society. Menon begins to fall in love with the beautiful Semiramis, whom he has freed, and seems to forget Irene. Deciding to marry Semiramis instead, he hides her in a peasant village while he asks Nino’s permission to wed her. He praises her beauty to the King while Irene is present, and she is enraged by jealousy. The King goes out hunting and, when his horse runs away wild, Semiramis comes out of hiding to save his life by tripping the horse with a stick. She then flees.  Nino, not knowing this is the woman Menon had described, falls instantly in love with her and orders her to be found.  Menon tries to keep the King from finding her, wanting her for himself.  Arsidas, however, wants to claim the favour he knows he will find in delivering Semiramis to the King, and as he argues with Menon, the King hears them and discovers her. Menon declares his love for Semiramis and the King arranges for them to be married, but he delays the wedding so that preparations can be made. Irene takes Semiramis to Ninevah, and while Menon and Nino are alone, the King demands from Menon that he reject her, so the King can have her for himself. Once Semiramis is in Ninevah, she is hailed as an important woman of increasing social and public status. Irene forces Semiramis to renounce her love for Menon, as Irene wants him for herself. In a garden scene in which both the King and Irene are hiding and listening, Semiramis and Menon are both forced to renounce their love for each other. Nino, his desire for Semiramis increasing, strips Menon of all his titles and possessions. She is forced to choose between a penniless Menon and the powerful King, and she chooses the King. Desperate and in love, Menon comes to see her alone, but is discovered and exiled by the King, his life only spared by Semiramis’ intervention, but the King has his men put out Menon’s eyes in secret. The King tries to woo Semiramis, but she resists until he offers to marry her and make her Queen. Menon, blind, comes to Semiramis’ coronation to remind everyone of the horrible curse upon her and he foretells the death of the King.  A terrifying storm ends the play, portentous of the continuing war between Diana and Venus and full of ill omens.

Part 2

As the prophecy foretold, the King has died shortly after their marriage, and Semiramis rules alone. The character Arsidas from the first play is now revealed to have been King Lidoro of Lydia, who attacks Semiramis’ kingdom because he believes she had Nino killed and is wrongly ruling in place of her son, Ninias. Ninias has a reputation for effeminacy and weakness, and Semiramis says he is not fit to rule. A rebellion is brewing in the city as the population believes in Ninias’ right to the throne. The kingdom’s forces are divided in support of Semiramis and Ninias. Semiramis continues to imprison Lidoro, though her son unwisely tries to have him freed. An invasion threatens, led by Lidoro’s son, Irán; plans to reward loyalty and make matches among the noblemen and women are thwarted by Ninias’ ill-placed generosity and bad ideas. Semiramis and Friso abduct and imprison Ninias, and as Semiramis and her son resemble each other so closely, she is able to impersonate him. She begins to rule in his place, pretending to be her son. In his guise she rules very harshly against anyone who has gone against her; Lidoro makes the generous offer to ‘Ninias’ to stop his army advancing on the city as the tyrant Semiramis is no longer in power.  Instead of accepting his offer, which would have been better for her people, she gives orders for Lidoro to be killed for speaking against the former Queen. Yet Lidoro escapes from prison and commands his army to retreat home. His son Irán agrees to this, but Semiramis threatens to make him a prisoner again, so they return to battle against her. Semiramis (still dressed as Ninias) dies in battle against Lidoro, shot through with arrows, fallen to the base of a cliff. She is found and as they still think she is Ninias, her men go to inform Semiramis of his death. They find Ninias there instead, and work out that Semiramis has been impersonating him, even in death. Ninias is finally able to make peace with Lidoro and Irán, and he marries Astrea.


Calderón drew from several sources in writing this play, but the legend of Semiramis is as old as the fertility rights of Ishtar. She is known as Semiramis, Shemiram and Sammuramat by ancient Semitic and Assyrian cultures. In the oldest versions of the story, Semiramis is championed as a fertile goddess, famed for her beauty and intelligence, and her husband is always depicted as dying shortly after their marriage. In some versions of her story her ambition and prowess in battle outshine her earthly lusts, and in others it is her beauty and sexuality which come to the fore. The versions of her legend which served as Calderón’s direct sources appear to be those of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus; the Venetian mediaeval playwright Marcus Antonius Coccius Sabellicus; the play, La gran Semíramis, by Cristóbal de Virués which was published in 1609; and possibly a lost play by Lope de Vega which also featured the legendary queen. For more on Calderón’s use of these sources, and the development of the Semiramis legend from ancient times to early dramatic forms, see Gwynne Edwards’s introduction to his edition of the play (Calderón de la Barca 1970).

Critical response

La hija del aire has been frequently written about by scholars and critics, especially in recent years with more productions of the play. A subject of recurring scholarly debate is the authorship of Part 2, which is sometimes thought to have been written by Antonio Enríquez Gómez, who was born in the same year but died about 20 years before Calderón.

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1970. La hija del aire, ed. Gwynne Edwards. London, Tamesis

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1987. La hija del aire, ed. Francisco Ruiz Ramón. Madrid, Cátedra

Information about the editions

The first date of publication is the subject of debate among scholars, for the play appears in a corrupt edition published in Zaragosa in 1650 (the Parte cuarenta y dos de comedias de diferentes autores). We use the date of first publication as 1664 because this is the first time both parts of the play were published together in the Tercera parte de comedias de Don Pedro Calderón de la Barca. See Calderón de la Barca 1970: lxxi.

Useful readings and websites
  • Cruickshank, Don W. 2002. ‘The Significance of Fortuna in Calderón's La hija del aire’. In ‘Never-Ending Adventure’: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Spanish Literature in Honor of Peter N. Dunn, eds. Edward H. Friedman and Harlan Sturm, pp. 351-76. Newark, DE, Juan de la Cuesta

  • Cruickshank, Don. 1984. ‘The Second Part of La hija del aire’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 61, 3, 286

  • Edwards, Gwynne. 1966. ‘Calderón’s La hija del aire in the Light of his Sources’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 43, 177-96

  • Edwards, Gwynne. 1967. ‘Calderón’s La hija del aire and the Classical Type of Tragedy’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 44, 161-94

  • Fischer, Susan L. 1982. ‘The Psychological Stages of Feminine Development in La hija del aire: A Jungian Point of View’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 34, 2, 137-58

  • Fischer, Susan L. 1986. ‘Text and Context: A Twentieth-Century View of Calderon's La hija del aire’. In Studies in Honor of William C. McCrary, eds. Robert Fiore, Everett W. Hesse, John E. Keller, et al., pp. 137-149. Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska

  • Hesse, Everett W. 1992. ‘Theme and Symbol in Calderón's La hija del aire’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 44, 1, 31-43

  • McGaha, Michael. 1989. ‘The Authorship and Interpretation of the Second Part of La hija del aire’. In Texto y espectaculo: Selected Proceedings of the Symposium on Spanish Golden Age Theater, ed. Barbara Mujica, pp. 137-48. Lanham, MD, University Press of America

  • Quintero, Maria Cristina. 2001. ‘Gender, Tyranny, and the Performance of Power in La hija del aire’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 53, 1, 155-78

  • Rogers, D. 1968. ‘“¡Cielos! ¿Quién en Ninias habla?”: The Mother-Son Impersonation in La hija del aire’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 20, 1-4

  • Shergold, N. D. and Varey., J.E. 1961. ‘Some Early Calderón dates’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 38, 278-86

Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 24 February 2011.

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