Clarín sits alone, held captive in an enchanted tower. He is being punished for what he knows, and he wonders what they will do to him for what he doesn’t know. Forced silence doesn’t suit a man with the name “Clarion” and he likens his punishment to death. Clarín thinks of his dreams from the night before, which were filled with thousands of delusions. He is weak from fasting and feels as if he may faint.
Clotaldo’s imprisonment of Clarín again suggests that he is not as moral and ethical as he pretends to be. Clarín has done nothing wrong, but Clotaldo punishes him because he poses a threat to him. As Clarín is portrayed as a chatterbox, his forced silence is the worst punishment imaginable. Clarín, too, is having a difficult time distinguishing dreams from reality.
Suddenly, Clarín hears the sounds of drums and people shouting outside. They are making their way into the tower, and Clarín fears they are looking for him, although he can’t understand why. As several soldiers pour into the tower and begin looking around, Clarín wonders if they are drunk. A soldier approaches Clarín’s cell and calls the other men over. The soldier offers to kiss Clarín’s feet, and all the men shout: “Long live Segismundo!” Clarín wonders if it is some sort of tradition in Poland to arrest someone each day and then make them a prince.
Obviously, the men, who are rebelling against the king and have come to break their prince out of prison, have mistaken Clarín for Segismundo, but Clarín doesn’t initially know this. This misconception further blurs the line between illusion and reality, as the men falsely believe Clarín to be their prince, when in reality, he is merely a servant from Muscovy.
Segismundo appears and asks who is calling his name, and the soldiers look at Segismundo and then back again to Clarín. Who, the soldiers ask, is the real Segismundo? Segismundo confirms that he is the real Segismundo, and Clarín immediately explains. Fearing a prophecy, Clarín says, King Basilio has deprived Segismundo of his liberty and plans to make Astolfo the new king. The commoners of the kingdom have revolted and will not accept the foreigner from Muscovy as their king, so the soldiers have come to the tower to recover their prince and overthrow the tyrant king.
The interaction between Segismundo, Clarín, and the uprising soldiers is quite comical, which offers a bit of relief in an otherwise serious play. At this point, Segismundo believes that his previous experience at the palace was just a dream, and he has no reason to suspect that he is actually the prince.
As the soldiers shout and praise Segismundo, Clotaldo enters to investigate the noise. Seeing the soldiers and Segismundo, Clotaldo immediately throws himself at Segismundo’s feet and begs for mercy. Segismundo insists that Clotaldo rise. He embraces Clotaldo, thanking him for his upbringing, and swears his loyalty to him. Clotaldo is confused and asks Segismundo what he is trying to say. “That I’m dreaming, and that I wish / to do good, because good deeds / aren’t wasted, even in dreams,” Segismundo proclaims.
By this point, Segismundo is completely confused, and he doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t. To Segismundo, they only thing that is real is his behavior and his treatment of Clotaldo. Furthermore, Segismundo’s mercy towards Clotaldo after the way he has treated him suggests that Segismundo isn’t really an animal as the prophecy suggests and is able to act on his own free will.
Clotaldo informs Segismundo that if doing good is the theme of the day, he cannot possibly join forces with him and fight against King Basilio. Clotaldo says that Segismundo will have to kill him if he expects him to betray the king, and Segismundo begins to grow angry, but he quickly stops himself. Segismundo isn’t sure if he is awake or not, so he tells Clotaldo that he envies his loyalty to the king and orders him to leave and join his king. They will meet later, Segismundo says, on the battlefield.
Again, Clotaldo is too loyal to turn on the king, which speaks to his supposed morality and strong ethics. Even though Basilio was wrong to imprison Segismundo, Clotaldo still will not betray him. Segismundo’s kneejerk reaction is anger, which again suggests his violent nature, but this time, he is able to overcome this feeling through his free will.
As the alarm sounds and Segismundo and Clotaldo exit the tower, Basilio and Astolfo enter. Basilio laments that his kingdom is torn and divided. Half of them are yelling for Segismundo; the other half cry for Astolfo. They are headed for great tragedy, Basilio fears. Astolfo urges Basilio to place the wedding plans on hold for now. Astolfo wants to be king, but if half of the people do not want him, he says, it is because he hasn’t yet earned their respect. Astolfo asks for a horse. He will win their support riding against Segismundo. Basilio continues to lament his plight. In trying to avoid division in his kingdom, he has driven his people directly into it.
Astolfo’s suggestion that Basilio hold off on making him king until he can win over the people again suggests that Astolfo isn’t as unethical and despicable as he at first seems. Even though Astolfo badly wants to be king, he doesn’t want it if the people object, and he would rather beat Segismundo fair and square and prove his worth.
Estrella enters. Basilio must get ahold of the uprising, she warns, or Poland is sure to be soaked in blood. Clotaldo rushes in, bringing news of the soldiers who broke Segismundo out of the tower. “[Segismundo] aims to make heaven’s prediction come true,” Clotaldo warns. Basilio asks for a horse and claims he will defend his crown. “I shall be Bellona,” Estrella says, exiting with Basilio and Asolfo.
Bellona is an ancient Roman goddess of war, and when Estrella compares herself to Bellona, she means that she intends to fight Segismundo as well. Segismundo plans to “make heaven’s prediction come true,” which is to say he intends to behave violently and avenge his false imprisonment.
Rosaura enters and approaches Clotaldo. She says that she arrived in Poland a poor, unfortunate woman, but she has found compassion in him. He advised her to assume a false name and stay away from Astolfo. Astolfo, however, could not be avoided, and he has again offended Rosaura’s honor, so she begs Clotaldo to end her trouble by avenging the insult to her honor. After all, Rosaura says, Clotaldo has already agreed to kill Astolfo.
Again, the fact that Clotaldo initially agreed to kill Astolfo to avenge Rosaura’s honor suggests that Clotaldo does not find revenge immoral per se; he only objects because Astolfo has since saved his life, demonstrating that revenge comes second to loyalty and gratitude. Calderón, however, ultimately implies that revenge, regardless of the circumstances, is not honorable or moral.
Clotaldo tells Rosaura that he very much wants to please her and restore her lost honor, even if that means killing Astolfo, but things have changed since Astolfo saved his life. When Segismundo wanted to kill Clotaldo, it was Astolfo who stopped him. So how, Clotaldo asks, is he supposed to kill Astolfo now? Clotaldo admits that he is torn between his loyalty to Rosaura and his newfound debt to Astolfo, but he ultimately cannot take the life a man who saved his. Rosaura maintains that Clotaldo is obliged only to her. Rosaura reminds him that she has received nothing from him since she was born, and it is time he be more generous with her, but Clotaldo still refuses to help her.
This exchange again speaks to Clotaldo’s moral dilemma. He feels obligated to both Rosaura and Astolfo, but in order to help one of them, Clotaldo must betray the other. In this way, while Calderón implies that honor is important, he also suggests it isn’t worth sacrificing one’s morals through revenge. It is ultimately more honorable, Calderón thus implies, to behave in a moral and righteous way.
As Clotaldo and Rosaura exit, trumpets sound and Segismundo enters with Clarín and a group of soldiers. Moments later, Clarín points to Rosaura as she re-enters wearing a long, flowing tunic and brandishing her sword. She approaches Segismundo and throws herself at his mercy. She tells him that she is a most unfortunate woman, and while she has met Segismundo three times, he has never known who she really is. She first met him at the prison dressed as a man, and the second time as one of Estrella’s ladies-in-waiting. Now she comes to him as both man and woman, dressed in fine clothing and wielding a sword, and she hopes that he may agree to protect her.
The fact that Rosaura has met Segismundo three times, each time in a different disguise, again highlights the conflict between illusion and reality. By this point, it is impossible for Segismundo to know who Rosaura really is. Instead, reality is merely whatever illusion Rosaura presents to Segismundo. Rosaura’s sword is a symbol of her true identity, but even that is inconsistent with her gender, which further confuses Segismundo and distorts reality.
Rosaura tells Segismundo that she was born to a noblewoman in Muscovy. Her mother, Violante, had been very beautiful and was seduced by the compliments of a man. He promised to marry her, and she gave herself to him so completely that she considered them already married. He left her alone, but he left her his sword. Rosaura was born later and is a “copy” of her mother in “luck and deeds.” Now, Astolfo has stolen Rosaura’s honor, just as her mother’s honor was stolen.
The sword identifies Clotaldo as Rosaura’s father, but because of Violante’s history with Clotaldo, Rosaura believes she is her mother’s “copy” and is destined to the same fate in “luck and deeds.” This again suggests that Rosaura’s life is predestined, and she does not have control over it.
Astolfo has come to Poland to marry Estrella, and Rosaura is heartbroken. Violante convinced Rosaura to follow Astolfo to Poland and defend her honor, instead of letting it go as Violante herself did. Violante told her to unsheathe her sword and “the greatest nobleman” would take notice, and she does this now as promised. She has come to offer Segismundo her assistance, and together she hopes they can stop Astolfo and Estrella’s wedding. She already considers Astolfo her husband, and she can’t allow him to marry another.
In telling Rosaura that “the greatest nobleman” would notice the sword and help her, Violante meant Clotaldo, but Rosaura is hoping that Segismundo will help her instead. While Rosaura believes that she is destined to the same fate as her mother, Violante’s advice that Rosaura go to Poland and defend her honor suggests that Rosaura actually has control over her fate and can change it with her own free will.
Segismundo is confused and doesn’t know whether or not he is dreaming. If this is a dream, Segismundo thinks, it is very close to the original. Still, Segismundo thinks, what one enjoys in dreams, one enjoys in reality as well, so one must always dream of happiness. Segismundo doesn’t directly answer Rosaura, but he vows to restore her honor before he takes the crown. He sounds the alarm for battle, and Rosaura is upset that he is leaving. She asks him to speak to her, and Segismundo tells her that if he is to restore her honor, he must do it with actions, not words.
Again, Segismundo has no idea what is reality and what is an illusion, and the only things that are real are his perceptions and how he treats people. Segismundo’s vow to restore Rosaura’s honor suggests that honor is important, but his refusal to restore it through revenge again indicates that vengeance itself is not honorable. Thus, Rosarua’s honor must be restored in a different way.
The sound of drums announces an attack on the palace, and the men begin to fight. As Clarín runs to hide, Basilio enters with Clotaldo and Astolfo, retreating from the fighting. Basilio’s men have been defeated by Segismundo’s supporters, and he tells Clotaldo that it is time to run. Gunshots erupt, and Clarín stumbles from his hiding place, bleeding.
The prophecy is correct in that the kingdom is divided by war, yet it is not Segismundo alone who brings the kingdom to this point. The dissent within the kingdom is the result of Basilio’s actions, not Segismundo’s, which again suggests that life is not predestined.
Clarín falls dead to the ground, and Basilio claims that it is God’s will. Clotaldo tells Basilio that it isn’t “Christian” to claim there is no protection from fate, as a “man with foresight / can gain victory of fate.” Another alarm sounds, and Segismundo enters. Clotaldo tells Basilio to run, but he refuses. Instead, he throws himself at Segismundo’s feet and begs for mercy.
In saying that it isn’t “Christian” to claim that one has no control over their fate, Clotaldo implies that this assumption isn’t true. He instead argues that one does have control over their fate through free will, as long as one has the “foresight” to acknowledge this control—and not fall prey to the idea that fate dictates everything.
Segismundo addresses the people with Basilio at his feet. He claims his father, the king, has turned him into a “human beast.” Had Segismundo been treated with kindness, he may have grown up to be a kind man. However, Segismundo says, the only way to overcome misfortune is through sacrifice. As such, Segismundo tells his father to rise and falls himself to Basilio’s feet, accepting him as his father and his king.
Again, Segismundo implies that it was Basilio’s actions and ill treatment of him, not fate or destiny, that caused him to be an animal and behave violently. In finally accepting Basilio as his father and king, Segismundo effectively proves the prophecy—and his father—wrong.
On account of Segismundo’s good will, Basilio immediately names him king of Poland. As his first act as king, Segismundo orders Astolfo to marry Rosaura and restore her honor. Astolfo, however, is hesitant. Rosaura is not of royal blood, he says, but Clotaldo interrupts and claims her as his daughter. Satisfied that Rosaura is indeed royal, Astolfo agrees to marry her, and Segismundo declares that he shall marry Estrella and make her his queen. Basilio is shocked by Segismundo’s goodness. Segismundo claims that he was taught to be good in a dream, and even now, he is afraid that he will wake up in his prison cell. If he does wake back in his prison cell, Segismundo says, even that will be enough, as all “human happiness / passes by in the end like a dream.”
Calderón ultimately implies that it is impossible to discern reality from illusion, and the only thing that is real for Segismunda is his perception—his sense of his feelings and his treatment of others. In restoring Rosaura’s honor in a nonviolent way, Segismundo ensures both Rosaura’s honor and his own and shows once again that vengeance is not necessary for maintaining honor. And by sparing Astolfo’s life even though he has treated both Rosaura and Segismundo badly, Segismundo effectively proves that he is not a monster as the prophecy suggested and instead has the power to change his destiny through his own free will.