Unquestionably the most important playwright of the Spanish Golden Age (roughly 1500–1700), he studied at the Colegio Imperial of the Jesuits before subsequently registering at the University of Alcalá in 1614. He studied canon law in Salamanca until 1620, but then abandoned the ecclesiastical calling and returned to Madrid. The next year, he and his brother were implicated in a homicide. Despite brushes with the law and the church, Calderón enjoyed the king's favor, and was knighted by him in the Order of Santiago in 1637. After a few years, he abandoned the military and began service to the Duke of Alba. In 1651, he was ordained a priest and appointed chaplain of Toledo Cathedral's Capilla de los Reyes Nuevos. After that, Calderón kept closer to the court than to the popular atmosphere.
In comparison to Lope de Vega's dramatic art, Calderón typically structures the plot with more coherence and a greater abundance of characters with diverse, complex natures, in careful accord with philosophical terms and axioms of his day. Learned expressions and an extensive use of conceits are intertwined in his baroque language.
Four numbered Partes (collections of his plays) were published during Calderón's life, each supervised by a trusted friend or relative, but he rejected authorship of some plays in the final collection. In 1677, 12 autos sacramentales, or allegorical religious plays, were published in a Primera parte. In this entry, dates given for individual plays generally refer to composition or performance years.
Before Calderón was 30, he already had written two important comedies: La dama duende (1629; The Phantom Lady, 1975) and Casa con dos puertas, mala es de guardar (1629?; A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard, 1963), where the use of deceptive appearances is prominent. Almost simultaneously, he opened several other major plays, including El príncipe constante (1629; The Constant Prince), La devoción de la Cruz (1623–1633; Devotion to the Cross, 1996), and the complex drama La cisma de Inglaterra (1627?; The Schism in England, 1990). Several of these plays share marked resemblances, particularly in the treatment of love intrigues, as in A secreto agravio, secreta venganza (1635; Secret Vengeance for Secret Insult, 1996) and El pintor de su deshonra (1640–1644; The Painter of His Dishonour, 2000).
Two modalities dominate in Calderón's use of language: some dramas tend to highlight human cruelties (c. 1628; Luis Pérez el Gallego [L. P. the Galician], La devoción de la Cruz; Las tres justicias en una [1636–1637; Three Justices in One]). Others feature characters that join a system of power: antithetical structures represent the polarization of the individuals who enact them (c. 1642; El alcalde de Zalamea [The Mayor of Zalamea, 1990], El gran teatro del mundo [1635; The Great Theater of the World, 1990]).
Calderón's work exhibits great variety, including cloak-and-dagger comedies (1633; La dama duende, 1635; Mañanas de abril y mayo [Mornings of April and May]); dramas based on jealousy (El médico de su honra [1635; The Physician of His Honour, 1982]), philosophical plays (La vida es sueño [1635; Life Is a Dream,1970 ]); musicals (1658; El laurel de Apolo [1658; The Laurel of Apollo]); and operas (La púrpura de la rosa [1660; The Blush of the Rose], La estatua de Prometeo [1673?; Prometheus's Statue]).
El príncipe constante presents an interesting case of Christian tragedy: the protagonist is a member of the upper nobility, surrounded by suffering and disaster, who wills his own sacrifice. This piece represents the sacrifice of a martyr while offering insight into the potential of a humankind that has fallen into acquisitive materialism.
Considered a masterpiece for its beautiful verse, double plot strands, and profound messages, La vida es sueño includes love stories, religious and sociological commentary, and piercing psychological observations. Rosaura, accompanied by the gracioso (comic servant) Clarín, returns to her homeland, Poland, dressed as a man and with a sword from her father, whom she does not know. They meet a character covered with fur, Segismundo, who, unknowingly, is heir to the throne. He has been subjected to this condition by his father, the king Basilio. During the play the unruly, violent Segismundo is transformed into a respectful, civilized human being who uses reason to prevail over instinct.
Some of Calderón's plays are traditional comedies, such as La dama duende, Guárdate del agua mansa (Beware of Still Waters, 1984), or Casa con dos puertas, mala es de guardar. Others, even though they contain comic scenes and characters, like La vida es sueño or El mágico prodigioso (1637; The Prodigious Magician, 1982), have been classified as tragedies, because a play's genre is determined by its structure, not by its resources of humor (identity confusions, ridiculous figures, and so on). The characteristic elements of comedies include self-consciousness, play as a constitutive element, and commentaries on the action by the gracioso. The Calderonian classical ideal consists of a search for unity, sporadic use of secondary plots, strong dramatic economy, unity of scenic effects, and coherence in imagery and dramatic development.
In Hispanic theater, Calderón's expressive richness and variety of themes make him comparable to Shakespeare. Many editions of his complete works exist, including the facsimile edition published by D. W. Cruickshank y J. E. Varey; the ongoing project of Kurt and Roswitha Reichenberger to edit the comedias and the autos sacramentales deserves special consideration.
See also Theater in Spain: Beginnings to 1700.
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