Rosaura and her servant, Clarín, are flying high over an unknown mountain range on a hippogriff when the beast unexpectedly lands. Rosaura has no idea where they are, and she can’t understand why they are landing. She climbs off the beast, dressed in men’s clothing, and walks up the path ahead. Her journey is not clear, for she is “blinded by despair” and moves only according to “the laws of destiny.”
Calderón repeatedly blurs the line between dreams and reality, which begins immediately with Rosaura’s hippogriff. The mythical creature—which is half horse, half bird—makes the play seem dreamlike and unrealistic, and it is impossible to ascertain if Rosaura’s experience constitutes reality or a dream. It is unclear where Rosaura comes from or where she is headed, and the reasons for her journey are not initially known, which adds to the play’s dreamlike quality as well. Rosaura is “blinded by despair” because Astolfo has stolen her honor and virtue and left her, although she doesn’t reveal this until much later. As Rosaura’s mother was also abandoned after her own honor was stolen, Rosaura believes it is her “destiny” to have the same misfortune befall her, regardless of her own actions or free will.
Rosaura complains that Poland has not been kind to her, although she understands that it is her fate to be unhappy. Clarín interrupts. He reminds her that there are two of them, and he is certainly unhappy, too. They have both wandered away from their homeland, and they have both been dropped high on an unknown mountain. Clarín asks Rosaura what they should do, alone and abandoned on a mountain so near the end of day, when Rosaura suddenly notices a building in the distance. Clarín sees it, too—a “rustic palace” rising above the tree line—and he suggests they move closer. Soft light pours from the open door of the building, and they can hear the sounds of crying and rattling chains.
Again, Rosaura seems to believe that she has no control over her life and happiness. For Rosaura, her life is predestined to be one way or another and is not the result of her own actions and choices. Clarín offers comic relief throughout the play and is often the voice of reason, and here he reminds Rosaura that she is not the only one who suffers unhappiness. The description of the building as a “rustic palace” hints at the prison’s royal inmate, as the building has been constructed specifically to hold Segismundo, a prince.
As Rosaura and Clarín move closer to the building, they hear a man, Segismundo, crying inside. “Ah, woe is me!” Segismundo cries. Rosaura immediately feels sympathy for the stranger, even though she does not know who he is or why he is crying. Inside the dimly lit building, a man sits in iron shackles, dressed in animal skins “like a wild beast.” Rosaura suggests they stand in the shadows and listen to the man’s lamentations. Perhaps they will learn who he is and what he is doing there, she says.
A prophecy has claimed that Segismundo is destined to be a violent and tyrannical man, and he is often depicted in the play as a monster or some sort of wild animal, and his clothing made of animal skins reflects this. When Segismundo is later brought to the palace to see if he can resist his evil nature, he is given traditional clothing; but when he is sent back to prison after behaving violently, he is again wearing animal skins. Segismundo later claims that he behaves like a violent animal not because it is his destiny, but because he is treated like an animal, and his clothing is proof of this.
Segismundo says his only crime is having been born. He laments his imprisonment, questioning what law or man has the right to deny another man the same basic right God has given to the birds, beasts, and fish. Rosaura whispers to Clarín, and Segismundo, overhearing their chatter, demands to know who is there. They step forward, and Rosaura claims to be only a “sad man” passing through. Segismundo grabs Rosaura and immediately threatens to kill her, as Clarín, claiming to be deaf, says he hasn’t heard a thing. Rosaura begs Segismundo to have mercy on them. Segismundo was “born human,” Rosaura says, and that should be enough for him to set them free.
Rosaura’s disguise as a “sad mad” again points to the conflict between reality and illusion. Calderón ultimately argues that all of life is an illusion, which is certainly the case here. Rosaura’s masculine identity is a disguise (she later claims that her fate demanded she dress as a man, presumably because Clotaldo, her father, believed he had a son rather than a daughter) but as far as Segismundo can tell, she really is a man. Rosaura implies here that human beings have a sort of innate decency that makes them merciful, but Segismundo’s prophecy says he was born a monster, not a human.
Segismundo is softened by Rosaura’s pleas and lets her go. He tells her that he has been held in the same prison cell since he was born and has only had contact with his jailer, Clotaldo. “I am a man among beasts,” Segismuno says, “and a beast among men.” Rosaura claims she has been guided to this wilderness prison by heaven, so that she may find consolation in meeting a man who is even more unfortunate than she is. Suddenly, Clotaldo can be heard from inside the prison, making his way to Segismundo’s cell with a group of tower guards. Clotaldo is yelling at the guards and cursing them for allowing two strangers to enter the prison.
Again, Segismundo is likened to an animal when he claims he is “a man among beasts and a beast among men.” Alone in the wilderness, Segismundo is the only man among the animals; but out of prison, left to his own devices, he is a “beast,” or an animal, in society. Segismundo’s kneejerk reaction to grab Rosaura and threaten to kill her before asking her story suggests that perhaps Segismundo is an animal as the prophecy claims.
As Clotaldo moves closer, he orders the guards to kill the intruders at once. Clotaldo informs Rosaura and Clarín that they have violated a royal decree by entering the prison. He demands their weapons and orders them to surrender. Segismundo begs Clotaldo not to kill them, threatening to tear himself apart with his bare hands if any harm comes to them. Clotaldo ignores Segismundo and brushes him off. Segismundo has been imprisoned by “heavenly law,” Clotaldo says. His shackles are a “bridle to [his] arrogant / fury to keep it in check,” and Clotaldo won’t listen to that fury now.
The “heavenly law” Cotaldo speaks of is a reference to the prophecy, which claims Segismundo is destined to be a tyrannical king. King Basilio is keeping Segismundo hidden from the entire kingdom, and only Clotaldo knows who he really is. In sparing the people of Poland from a tyrant, Basilio is also depriving them of their prince, and his secret is closely kept. Thus, the prison is a secret, and anyone who enters is killed.
The guards close and lock the door to Segismundo’s cell, and he continues to cry from the other side, lamenting his imprisonment and lack of freedom. Rosaura and Clarín beg for their lives, but Clotaldo can’t be swayed. He again orders the guards to disarm the strangers and blindfold them. Rosaura unsheathes her sword and hands it to Clotaldo. She tells Clotaldo that if she is to die, her sword must be kept safe, as it “encloses great mysteries.” She doesn’t know what mysteries the sword holds, but she is “relying on it” to avenge her honor against “an affront.”
Rosaura’s story comes out in bits and pieces. Here, she admits that she is going to Poland to seek revenge for “an affront,” but she doesn’t say for what or against whom. The sword, too, is mysterious, and even Rosaura doesn’t know why. This again adds to the dreamlike quality of the play, as the audience can never be exactly sure what is happening.
As Clotaldo takes Rosaura’s sword, he is visibly affected. He asks Rosaura where the sword came from, and she says that it was given to her by a woman, whose name she will not reveal. The woman told Rosaura to take the sword to Poland and be seen with it by “nobility and eminent men.” One of those men, the woman had said, would become Rosaura’s “patron and protector.” Clotaldo is shocked and wonders if he is dreaming. He left the very same sword with Violante years before, so that his unborn son might use it to find his father.
The woman Rosaura does not want to name is her mother, Violante. The sword means that Clotaldo is Rosaura’s father, although Rosaura doesn’t know this yet. Violante hopes that if Rosaura is seen with the sword by noblemen, Clotaldo will eventually find her and avenge her honor. Clotaldo, however, thinks he has a son, which is why Violante told Rosaura that her fate “decreed” she dress like a man.
“What a sad fate!” Clotaldo thinks to himself, holding the sword in his hand. He suspects that Rosaura (who Clotaldo is convinced is really a man) is his son, yet Clotaldo is expected to kill the stranger for unlawfully entering the secret prison. If Clotaldo takes the two strangers to King Basilio, they will surely be killed, but to hide them from the king and disobey orders is unthinkable. Clotaldo is torn between his loyalty to his son and his loyalty to the king. Honor, Clotaldo notes, is “brittle stuff” and can be easily broken. He decides he can’t possibly kill them, even if that means Clotaldo himself will be killed as punishment. As Clotaldo leads Rosaura and Clarín out of the secret prison, he can’t decide who has the greater misfortune.
Clotaldo is portrayed as a man of great integrity throughout the play. He constantly struggles with moral issues and his loyalty to the king, to himself and Rosaura, and even to Segismundo. Clotaldo’s reference to honor being “brittle” is ironic, as Rosaura has come to defend her honor, proving just how fragile it is. Clotaldo’s remark about his “sad fate” again suggest that life is predestined, but in contrast, his decision not to kill Clarín and Rosaura as ordered suggests that life is actually driven by free will and individual actions, not destiny.
At the palace in Warsaw, Astolfo approaches Estrella, who has just entered with her ladies-in-waiting. Astolfo flatters Estrella, comparing her to Athena and Flora, claiming that she is “queen in [his] soul.” Estrella isn’t impressed with his flattery, however, and while he may shower her with compliments, she knows that his secret thoughts are deceitful. Astolfo denies any such thoughts and claims his compliments are sincere.
Astolfo calls Estrella the “queen in his soul” because they both want to ascend the throne, which Astolfo thinks can be more easily accomplished if they are married. He is portrayed as having very little honor and is an opportunist who is simply looking for the quickest way to become king.
Astolfo reminds Estrella that their uncle, King Basilio, is childless and has no one to take the throne after his death. As the children of Basilio’s sisters, both Astolfo and Estrella have expressed interest in the throne, but Astolfo suggests they join together in marriage instead of fighting over the throne. Estrella agrees that marriage is probably the best idea, but she doesn’t trust Astolfo. She points to the pendant hanging from Astolfo’s neck and claims it holds the portrait of another woman. Just as Astolfo begins to explain the pendant, the trumpets sound, announcing the arrival of Basilio.
Astolfo and Estrella’s belief that Basilio is childless again highlights the conflict between illusion and reality within the play. In reality, Segismundo is the rightful heir to the throne, but the perception is that Basilio is childless. It is later revealed that the pendant around Astolfo’s neck holds the portrait of Rosaura, whom he presumably loves. Astolfo, however, has little honor, and he is willing to betray Rosaura and his love for her to become king.
As Basilio enters, both Astolfo and Estrella plead their case to ascend the throne. Basilio assures them that they will be treated equally, but first he must make a confession. A lifelong pursuit of knowledge and science has earned Basilio the title of “learned.” Yet despite all his knowledge, Basilio admits, he is merely a “self-murderer.” Years ago, his wife gave birth to a son, but the “monster in human shape” killed her. The boy’s, Segismundo’s, birth was accompanied by an “astrological conjunction” that claimed he would be an evil man and tyrannical king.
Basilio calls himself a “self-murderer” because by imprisoning his son and depriving him of his life and liberty, Basilio has, in a sense, killed his own image. Basilio questions the morality of his decision, even though he does it to save his people and kingdom. Basilio is depicted as a “learned” and enlightened man, yet he still mistreats his son. Segismundo’s prophecy—his “astrological conjunction”—claims Segismundo will be a “monster,” which seems to begin to come true with his mother’s death during childbirth. But of course, it’s possible that his mother died for any number of reasons; it’s merely the presence of the prophecy that makes Segismundo seem like a monster, rather than anything he actually does.
Under Segismundo’s rule, Basilio claims, Poland is destined to be torn and full of dissent. Their country will be divided by war and vice, and Basilio will find himself a servant at his son’s feet. Basilio cannot let this come to pass, so he keeps his son locked up “to see whether a wise man / can prevail over the stars.” He announced to the kingdom that the prince had been stillborn, and he had the secret prison built deep in the wilderness. He declared the prison forbidden and passed stiff laws against trespassing in the area. Clotaldo has been Segismundo’s only contact with the outside world and has served as his jailer and his teacher, in both science and religion.
Like Clotaldo, Basilio deeply struggles with his honor and loyalty. As the king, he has a duty to the people of Poland, and he sacrifices his son for his kingdom. Still, Basilio constantly questions if he has done the right thing and fights with the moral implications of his decision. Basilio is torn between what is best for his people and what is best for his son. As a “wise” and “learned” man, he is hoping to outsmart the stars by keeping Segismundo locked up. This way, Basilio hopes, Segismundo’s fate as a tyrannical king won’t be realized.
Basilio tells Estrella and Astolfo that there are a few important factors to remember. First, Basilio loves the Polish people so much that he has gone to great lengths to keep them safe from a tyrant. Secondly, the fact that Basilio has deprived Segismundo—his own son—of the rights given to him by law, both “human and divine,” is not Christian. In saving the people of Poland from a tyrant, Basilio has become one himself. Lastly, Basilio has recently been thinking that perhaps Segismundo’s evil inclinations won’t surface, as even the most violent person has free will and cannot be compelled to evil.
Basilio’s explanation lays out his moral dilemma. He is quick to point out that his decision to imprison Segismundo and deprive him of the rights given to him by both God and man isn’t Christian (i.e., it isn’t moral) but he argues he had good reason to do it. Calderón’s plays are often interpreted as moral guidebooks, and Basilio’s struggle to make the most ethical decision underscores the difficulty involved in maintaining one’s honor and morality. Meanwhile, Basilio’s belief that perhaps Segismundo can simply choose not to be evil suggests that life is not predetermined after all; perhaps Segismundo himself can “prevail over the stars” in the same way Basilio hoped to.
Basilio has decided to bring Segismundo to the palace tomorrow. Segismundo will be placed on Basilio’s throne and told to govern the people. In doing this, Basilio will accomplish three things. First, if Segismundo is a good and kind ruler, then Basilio will know that the prophecy was false and the people will have their prince back. Secondly, if Segismundo proves to be a tyrant, then Basilio will be justified in sending him back to prison. Lastly, if Segismundo must be returned to prison, then Basilio will join Astolfo and Estrella in marriage and present them to the people as the new king and queen.
Segismundo’s release is a sort of trial run, or experiment, to see if one’s life is governed by fate or by free will. If Segismundo acts violently and behaves like a tyrant, the prophecy is correct, and it is Segismundo’s fate to be evil. But if Segismundo resists his evil nature and is kind and gentle, then free will wins out. Plus, if Segismundo does behave like a tyrant and need to be put back in prison, then Segismundo’s imprisonment is punishment, not just a precaution, and Basilio is off the hook and can stop feeling guilty about treating Segismundo so badly. Of course, what Basilio doesn’t consider here is the way that his treatment of Segismundo has already shaped Segismundo’s disposition—a point that will become very important later on.
Astolfo agrees to Basilio’s plan to bring Segismundo to the palace, and the people yell out for their prince. As Astolfo, Estrella, and the people exit, Clotaldo enters with Rosaura and Clarín. Clotaldo immediately asks to speak with Basilio, and Basilio can sense that something is wrong. Clotaldo admits that a misfortune has indeed occurred. He points to Rosaura, still convinced that she is a man, and tells the king that she and her servant have entered the secret prison. Basilio quickly tells Clotaldo not to worry. He has already revealed the secret, Basilio says, and he pardons them for trespassing at the prison.
The shouts of the people for their prince foreshadow the uprising that is to come later in the play. The people won’t be deprived of their prince, and they rise up in a rebellion when Segismundo is sent back to prison. Again, Clotaldo is struggling with his duty to the king and his duty to Rosaura, who he believes is his son. Clotaldo is expected to carry out his duties to the king without question, but Calderón implies this isn’t so simple. In this case, the most ethical thing Clotaldo can do is disobey the king, since as far as he knows, that’s the only way to save his son’s life.
Clotaldo is relieved. Now he won’t have to tell Basilio that the stranger is his son. Rosaura turns to Clotaldo and thanks him for sparing her life, but he tells her that he has given her nothing. Rosaura has already told Clotaldo that she has come to Warsaw to seek “revenge for an affront,” and Clotaldo says that since “a vile life is no life at all,” she did not arrive with much of a life in the first place. Clotaldo secretly hopes that his words will push the stranger, whom he still believes is his son, into action to avenge his honor.
Here, Clotaldo implies that Rosaura’s life is worth less because her honor has been stolen, and to get it back, she must seek revenge. Calderón, however, ultimately argues the opposite. While he admits that honor is important, he implies in the play’s conclusion that vengeance isn’t moral or ethical, and that to seek vengeance actually works against one’s honor in the long run.
Rosaura admits that she doesn’t have much of a life, but that will change after she has her revenge. Clotaldo returns Rosaura’s sword, so that she may use it to avenge her honor, and asks her who her enemy is. She tells him that her enemy is Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy, but she refuses to tell him why. Clotaldo tries to convince Rosaura to go home and forget her quarrel with Astolfo—as a prince he couldn’t possibly have insulted her—but Rosaura can’t be swayed. She tells Clotaldo that she is not what she seems, and she says that if Astolfo has come to marry Estrella, then he has definitely insulted her.
Here, Rosaura’s story is finally revealed, even though she doesn’t tell Clotaldo everything. Her remark that she is not what she seems is a reference to her gender, but it further underscores the conflict between illusion and reality. The reality—that Rosaura is a woman and Astolfo’s jilted lover—is not known to Clotaldo, and his perception—that Rosaura is a man and his son—is wholly different. Rosaura’s story also highlights Astolfo’s despicable character. He pledged his love to Rosaura but has left her for Estrella so that he can become the king.