Out of the Wings

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La vida es sueño (1635), Pedro Calderón de la Barca

English title: Life is a Dream
Date written: 1635
First publication date: 1636
First production date: 1636
Keywords: morality > crime, morality > honour, morality > justice-revenge, violence > revenge, identity > gender, family > marriage, power > war, family > parents and children, identity > gender cross dressing, love > desire
Genre and type: tragicomedy

The best-known play from the Spanish Golden Age, Calderón’s masterful Life is a Dream is the story of Prince Segismundo, whose father imprisons him in a tower, afraid of a prophesy which has foretold the Prince would kill him. Indeed, when the King lets Segismundo out in order to test him, Segismundo behaves shockingly; he is therefore returned to prison and told that his experience of the ‘real world’ was but a dream. Meanwhile Rosaura, a noblewoman who had been seduced by Astolfo, seeks revenge on her lover for abandoning her after promising marriage; on her journey she meets Segismundo, who falls in love with her. Their stories intertwine as the family drama unfolds and old deceptions are revealed within the backdrop of a war of succession for the Polish throne.


The first act depicts Rosaura, dressed as a man, venturing down a mountainside where she has been thrown from her horse. Having lost her way, she comes across Prince Segismundo who has been imprisoned by his father, King Basilio, in a tower. No one is supposed to see Segismundo, and so to protect the wayward Rosaura and her servant, Clarín, the jailer blindfolds them so they will not know the way back to the tower. Before they are led away, the jailer, Clotaldo, takes Rosaura’s sword, and in doing so he recognises it as the one he left with a woman with whom he had a child; Rosaura is his long-lost daughter (although ‘son’, he thinks).  Meanwhile, the nobleman Astolfo courts his cousin, the lady Estrella, with whom he is embroiled in an inheritance dispute for the King Basilio’s throne, as they both have a claim to it. Astolfo suggests they marry and put an end to the dispute through joint rule. However, Astolfo has already promised himself to the lady depicted in the portrait he wears around his neck in a locket, who is in fact Rosaura, whom he seduced and abandoned. The King reveals that he had his son imprisoned in order to avoid realising the prophesy given at the child’s birth that the Prince would kill his father; his mother had died in labour. The King decides for one day to allow Segismundo to come to court and sit on the throne, as a test; if he rules well he will be heir to the throne, and if he acts badly, he will be put back into his prison. Rosaura (still in male dress) and her servant are pardoned and freed, and she vows revenge against her seducer. Clotaldo, knowing he is her father, feels the dishonour against himself as well.

In Act 2, the jailer Clotaldo has drugged Segismundo and brought him to the palace, where he is to be treated as rightful heir to the throne. Rosaura dresses in female attire, as a lady-in-waiting to Estrella, passing as Clotaldo’s ‘niece’. Segismundo is told that he is to rule all of Poland, and his first acts as heir are to attack his jailer for mistreating him in prison, speak rudely to Astolfo and become enraptured by the beauty of Estrella, whose hand he tries to kiss. In his rage when servants try to step in to tell Segismundo not to be so rude, he throws one of the servants off the balcony into the ocean. The king is disappointed with his son’s behaviour, but it is not surprising that after a lifetime of being locked up he would be unfamiliar with how to behave in society. Segismundo encounters Rosaura and recognises her from their encounter in the tower; he tells everyone to leave so he can have her to himself, but Clotaldo risks his life to protect her. Segismundo attacks Astolfo as well, and is only calmed by the entrance of the King, who decides to return him, drugged, to the tower, and tell him the whole experience was nothing but a dream. Estrella wants the locket that hangs around Astolfo’s neck, so she can see if it is a lady, and asks Rosaura to get it for her. Knowing it is her own portrait, Rosaura does not want Estrella to see it, so she pretends that she was carrying a portrait of herself which Astolfo has picked up and refuses to give back. Estrella, seeing the portrait, finds it to be Rosaura’s, and when Astolfo refuses to relinquish the ‘other’ portrait (which never existed, of course), she calls him dishonest and says she never wants to see him again. Segismundo, back in the tower, is returned to his former squalor, dressed again in animal skins, and his father comes in disguise to see how he is faring. Talking in his sleep, Segismundo threatens Clotaldo and his father, and when he awakes, Clotaldo reaffirms that his time in the palace was all just a dream. Segismundo says that all of life is a dream, and even dreams are just dreams.

In Act 3, the war of succession for the throne heats up, as the King has decided to put Astolfo on the throne. Factions loyal to the Prince invade his tower and demand he fight for his rightful place as heir, as they do not want Astolfo’s Muscovite rule and favour the Polish-born Segismundo. Although he is convinced this too may be a dream, Segismundo takes command of the army assembled in his support and fights against his father. He nobly allows Clotaldo to return to the King, as he knows his loyalty will require Clotaldo to fight on the King’s side, and other signs of the Prince’s noble nature start to emerge. Estrella takes to battle alongside the King, while Rosaura decides to restore her honour by killing Astolfo, even though he is the King’s intended heir to the throne, and he is engaged to Estrella. Seeing she cannot be convinced not to do it, Clotaldo agrees to help Rosaura. She meets Segismundo and tells him of Astolfo’s dishonouring her, and finding her alone and vulnerable, Segismundo considers taking advantage of her, but he turns away from her and vows he will help her in the future, but he must depart from her now to save himself from being overcome by her beauty. She fights for his side. The King’s forces are defeated, but in the final shot of the battle, Rosaura’s servant Clarín is killed by a stray bullet. Knowing his forces are defeated, the King kneels before his son the Prince, who nobly turns himself over to his father’s mercy. Segismundo commands Astolfo to marry Rosaura to restore her honour, and Clotaldo admits to everyone that he is her father, securing her bloodline so that Astolfo can marry her. Segismundo marries Estrella, imprisons the soldier who led the uprising against the King (despite the fact that he had been loyal to Segismundo), and prepares to live as heir to the throne, knowing all the while that it all might be just a dream.

  • Barca, Calderón de la. 1636. La vida es sueño. In Primera parte de comedias

  • Barca, Calderón de la. 1961. La vida es sueño, ed. Albert E. Sloman. Manchester, Manchester University Press

    Introductory material in English.

  • Barca, Calderón de la. 2000. La vida es sueño, 27th edn, ed. Ciriaco Morón Arroyo. Madrid, Cátedra

  • Barca, Calderón de la. 2000. La vida es sueño, 2nd edn, ed. J. M. Ruano de la Haza. Madrid, Castalia

  • Barca, Calderón de la. 2006. La vida es sueño, 2nd edn, ed. Vincent Martin. Newark, Delaware, Cervantes & Co., European Masterpieces

    A sample of the text, with its useful introduction in English, is available here. [Accessed June 2010]

Information about the editions

From Michael Kidd’s introduction: ‘Documentation suggests that an allegorical version of Life’s a Dream was performed in the village of Fuente el Saz for the Feast of Corpus Christi’ (Kidd 2004: 22). This took place in the year 1636.

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 2004. Life’s a Dream, trans. Michael Kidd. Colorado, University of Colorado Press

Useful readings and websites
  • Abel, Lionel. 1964. ‘Metatheatre: Shakespeare and Calderón’. In Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, pp. 59-72. New York, Hill and Wang

  • Allen, John J. 1993. ‘Staging’. In The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La vida es sueño, ed. Frederick A. De Armas, pp. 27-38. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press

  • Allen, John J. 2001. ‘Staging Calderón with the TESO Data Base’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 53, 1, 15-39

  • Cascardi, Anthony J. 1984. ‘La vida es sueño: Calderón’s Idea of a Theatre’. In The Limits of Illusion: A Critical Study of Calderón’, pp. 11-23. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

  • Clifford, John. 1996. ‘Translating the Spirit of the Play’. In Stages of Translation, ed. David Johnston, pp. 263-70. Bath, Absolute Classics

  • De Armas, Frederick A., ed. 1993. The Prince in the Tower: Perceptions of La vida es sueño. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press

  • Fischer, Susan L. 2009. ‘Calderón and the “Warrant of Womanhood”: Life’s a Dream (La vida es sueño)’. In Reading Performance: Spanish Golden Age Theatre and Shakespeare on the Modern Stage, pp. 163-78. Woodbridge, Tamesis

  • García Gómez, Ángel María. 2003. ‘Contextualización de las primeras puestas en escena de La vida es sueño (1925, 1929) en Inglaterra dentro del marco de la crítica anglo-irlandesa del siglo XIX’. In Teatro calderoniano sobre el tablado: Calderón y su puesta en escena a través de los siglos, ed. Manfred Tietz, pp. 163-93. Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag (in Spanish)

  • Johnston, David. 1996. ‘Interview with Adrian Mitchell: Poetry on Stage’. In Stages of Translation, pp. 239-47. Bath, Absolute Classics

  • Lauer, A. Robert. 2006. ‘Trials: Teaching the Spanish Baroque Comedia in the Twenty-First Century’. In Approaches to Teaching Early Modern Spanish Drama, eds. Laura R. Bass and Margaret R. Greer, pp. 189-97. New York, The Modern Language Association of America

    There is an especially useful activity described on p. 193 which Lauer used to teach La vida es sueño in the university classroom. This could be adapted in a rehearsal context to open up the play.

  • McGaha, Michael D., ed. 1982. Approaches to the Theatre of Calderón. Lanham, University Press of America

  • Racz, Gregary J. 2005. ‘The Case Against Preserving Meter and Rhyme in Poetic Translation: Theory or Practice?’, The Gotham Translator, May/June, 4-6

  • Thacker, Jonathan. 2007. ‘History of Performance in English’. In The Spanish Golden Age in English: Perspectives on Performance, eds. Catherine Boyle and David Johnston with Janet Morris, pp. 15-30. London, Oberon

  • Thompson, Colin. 1994. ‘Calderón’s La vida es sueño: A More Theatrical Approach’. In The Discerning Eye: Studies Presented to Robert Pring-Mill on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Nigel Griffin et al., pp. 77-94. Llangrannog, Wales, Dolphin

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Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 31 January 2012.

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