Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream tells the story of Basilio, King of Poland, who imprisons his son, Segismundo, after a prophecy claims it is the young prince’s destiny to kill his father and divide his country. Years pass, and Basilio begins to doubt his decision to imprison Segismundo and deny the people their rightful prince. He decides to free his son, but just in case Segismundo really is a monster who will only bring ruin to his country and people, Basilio tricks Segismundo into believing he is dreaming so that, if need be, he can easily be placed back in prison without knowing his true identity. After being drugged with opium, poppy, and henbane, Segismundo, in a slumber resembling death, is brought from his prison cell to the palace in Warsaw and placed in his father’s luxurious bed. When he wakes, Segismundo indeed finds himself part of an unbelievable world that surely must be some sort of dream. Through the blending of dreams and reality in Life is a Dream, Calderón effectively argues that like dreams, life itself is an illusion.
Throughout much of Calderón’s play, reality turns out to be something other than what it seems, which suggests that reality itself is merely perception. When Rosaura, one of the play’s main characters, is first introduced, she is dressed as a man, and when she next appears, Rosaura is disguised as a lady-in-waiting at court. In reality, Rosaura is really Clotaldo’s secret daughter and Astolfo’s jilted lover, but she appears to be something else entirely. After Rosaura, disguised as a man, is apprehended by Clotaldo for unwittingly wandering into Segismundo’s prison cell, Clotaldo is convinced that Rosaura is his long-lost son. Rosaura carries Clotaldo’s sword, which he had left, many years before, to be given to his unborn son. In reality, Clotaldo has a daughter, not a son, but his perception is that Rosaura is his son. Furthermore, Astolfo, the Duke of Muscovy and Basilio’s nephew, believes that his uncle is without children and that he is next in line for the throne. In reality, Basilio’s secret son, Segismundo, is the rightful heir, but Astolfo nevertheless believes that he will be king, which again implies that reality is only a matter of perception.
When Segismundo wakes up as the Prince of Poland after spending his whole life in prison, his new existence is completely unbelievable. Even though he doesn’t quite believe it, this new perception is still Segismundo’s reality. In short, that which is real feels like a dream, just as that which is false often seems to be real. “To say I’m dreaming is mistaken,” Segismundo cries when he wakes in a lavish bed surrounded by servants, “I know very well I’m awake.” Segismundo is used to prison and isolation, not luxury and indulgence, and he is dubious from the beginning, but he still accepts his dreamlike new reality. As the Prince of Poland, Segismundo is overwhelmed and unsure of himself. “As for me,” he says to his servants, “all of this is making me angry. / Nothing seems right to me.” However, when Basilio attempts to convince Segismundo that his experience as the prince was all just a dream, Segismundo refuses to believe him. “I’m not dreaming,” Segismundo claims, “because I feel and believe / that which I was and that which I am.” Segismundo makes it clear here that humans have little choice but to accept perception as reality—even when that reality feels like a dream.
Once Segismundo wakes up back in his prison cell, he decides that it doesn’t matter if his experience was all a dream or not. “Living is merely dreaming,” he claims. Through Segismundo’s experiences, Calderón suggests that life is only “an illusion, / a shadow, a fiction,” and one can never be fully certain that their perception is in fact reality.
Dreams vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Dreams vs. Reality Quotes in Life is a Dream
By Clorilene my wife
I had an unlucky son,
during whose gestation the heavens
exhausted their miracles
even before he emerged into the lovely light
from the living grave
of the womb (because birth
and death are similar).
Infinite times his mother,
amid the visions and delirium
of dreams, saw her entrails
being burst by a bold
monster in human shape;
dyed in her blood,
he was killing her, born
to be the human viper of the age.
I’m not dreaming, because I feel and believe
that which I was and that which I am.
And, even though you regret it now,
there’s not much you can do about it:
I know who I am, and even if you sigh
and grieve, you won’t be able
to undo the fact that I was born
heir to this crown;
and if you saw me formerly
a prisoner of my shackles,
it was because I didn’t know who I was;
but now I have been informed
as to who I am, and I know that I’m
a hybrid of man and beast.
Since we had been speaking
about that eagle, when you slept
you dreamt of empire,
but even in dreams it would have been proper
at that time to honor the man
who raised you with such great pains,
Segismundo, because even in dreams
good deeds are never wasted.
It’s true, then: let me restrain
my fierce nature,
my fury, my ambition,
in case I ever dream again.
And I will, since we exist
in such a peculiar world
that living is merely dreaming;
and the experience teaches me
that the man who lives dreams
his reality until he awakes.
I know you by now, I know you by now,
and I know that you do the same thing
to everyone who falls asleep.
For me there is no more pretense,
because, now undeceived,
I know perfectly well that LIFE IS A DREAM.
rise, father, from the ground;
for you must be the North Star and guide
to whom I entrust my success;
for 1 now know that I owe
my upbringing to your great loyalty.
Come and embrace me.
What are you saying?
That I’m dreaming, and that I wish
to do good, because good deeds
aren’t wasted, even in dreams
Fortune, let me go and reign!
Don’t awaken me if I’m asleep,
and, if this is reality, don’t put me to sleep.
But, whether it’s reality or a dream,
to do good is what matters;
if it should be reality, just because it is good;
if not, for the sake of winning friends
for the time when we awaken.
Why are you surprised? Why are you astonished,
when my teacher was a dream,
and in my anxiety I’m afraid
I may wake up again and find myself
once more in my locked
cell? And even if that doesn’t happen,
merely dreaming it might is enough:
for in that way I came to know
that all of human happiness
passes by in the end like a dream,
and I wish today to enjoy mine
for as long as it lasts,
asking pardon for
our faults, since it so befits
noble hearts to pardon them!