Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Life Is A Dream

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  • Features 3 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Life Is A Dream Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 30-page guide for “Life Is A Dream” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 3 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Duty, Honor and Revenge and Fate versus Free Will.

Plot Summary

La vida es sueño, or, Life’s a Dream, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, is one of Spain’s most well-known plays. First published and first produced in 1636, during the heyday of Spain’s golden age of literature, Life is a Dream is a play in verse that intertwines a complex family drama with a tale of honor and vengeance.

The play begins with a dramatic moment, as Rossaura and her servant, Bugle, happen upon a roughly-built tower in the middle of the Polish wilderness. Immediately, Rossaura’s pluck is evident; she is a woman dressed as a man, and she recovers from being thrown from her horse quickly, focusing her energies on reaching the mysterious tower. Inside the tower, Rossaura and Bugle discover a prisoner, soon to be revealed as a prince and the son of King Vasily, who is also an astrologer. The stars had predicted that Prince Sigismund would eventually overthrow his father, so the king locked his son in the tower in order to prevent this from occurring. Sigismund is cruelly isolated and alone most of his days, save for the frequent visits by his tutor and prison guard, Clothold.

While Rossaura and Bugle marvel in confusion at the predicament of Sigismund, King Vasily chooses to tell his niece, Stella, and nephew, Aistulf, the truth about his son, who was declared stillborn at his birth and hidden away immediately. The king decides to put his son to an unfair test of his nobility and honor, drugging Sigismund in order to transport him secretly to the palace. When Sigismund wakes, he will be dressed in the garments of royalty, and King Vasily hopes that the prince will act according to his birthright, but designs a contingency plan: should Sigismund act badly and fail the test, he will be returned to his tower prison and told that the whole experience was a dream.

By the end of the play, Sigismund has shown himself to be a truly noble being, one who chooses to behave honorably towards his father, despite having been mistreated and neglected his entire life. He wrestles with truth and illusion admirably, finally choosing to behave morally no matter if his life exists in reality or in a dream. Rossaura as well finds fair treatment, with the help of others who support her unshakeable desire for respect and honor.

Michael Kidd, professor and chair of Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has translated Calderón’s play from its original Spanish verse into an English prose version that makes for accessible and natural reading. According to Kidd, “his prose translation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño is envisioned as both a classroom text and a script for performance” (xi). Because “authentic verse translations are impossible not only practically but also theoretically because of the vast differences in the conventions of rhyme, meter, and rhythm that exist between English and Spanish poetry” (45), Kidd chose to write his translation in prose. His choice to “abandon form altogether in a quest for as accurate and accessible a meaning as possible” (50) illustrates his confidence “that doing so will convey…

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