Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream explores the conflict between fate and free will. Fate, or destiny, assumes that one’s life follows a predetermined path that can’t be altered through individual choices or actions. Free will, on the other hand, assumes that one is able to freely choose a path from multiple courses of action. In Calderón’s play, Basilio, King of Poland, imprisons his son, Segismundo, from birth because an astrological sign prophesizes that Segismundo will be “the most insolent man, / the most cruel prince, / and the most impious monarch.” Segismundo is destined to be a monster, and under his rule, Poland will be “fragmented and divided.” To save his kingdom and himself, Basilio denies Segismundo his role as prince and locks him away, but Basilio soon regrets his decision and frees Segismundo on a trial basis. While Segismundo initially behaves in a way that reflects his destiny as monster, he ultimately discovers that his actions are entirely his own. Through Life is a Dream, Calderón argues that one’s existence is not ruled by fate or destiny; rather, one has the ability and free will to control their destiny through their actions.
Throughout the play, Calderón’s characters constantly challenge fate and try to change their destinies, which hints from the start that fate isn’t fixed after all and is instead based upon free will and independent actions. When the prophecy predicts that Segismundo will be the end of his father, Basilio locks Segismundo up “to see whether a wise man / can prevail over the stars.” According to the prophecy, it is Basilio’s fate that his son will kill him, but Basilio hopes to change this by locking him up. As the years pass, however, Basilio begins to doubt his decision to imprison Segismundo and questions whether the prophecy is a true indication of his son’s nature. Basilio reasons that perhaps Segismundo’s violent nature won’t dictate his behavior, saying: “[E]ven the most dire fate, / the most violent inclination, / the most evil planet, / merely dispose our free will in a certain direction, / but never compel it in that direction.” Simply put, while Segismundo’s prophecy makes it more likely that he’ll have a violent nature, it does not force him to behave violently. When Clotaldo, Segismundo’s jailer and his only contact with the outside world, tells Segismundo that he is actually a prince imprisoned because his fate “promises a thousand disasters,” Clotaldo reminds him of his free will. Clotaldo believes that Segismundo’s “good sense” will “cancel out the planets’ decree— / because a highminded man / can resist them.” Like Basilio, Clotaldo believes that Segismundo is capable of changing his destiny with his own free will.
Despite Basilio and Clotaldo’s belief that Segismundo does not have to be a monster simply because fate decrees it, Segismundo behaves in a way that suggests he really is a violent “animal.” Once Segismundo is released from prison and told he is a prince, he throws an innocent servant from a balcony simply for suggesting it is inappropriate for Segismundo to kiss the hand of Estrella, a woman who is betrothed to another. Segismundo’s violent reaction to the servant’s reasonable warning suggests that perhaps Segismundo is destined to be a monster after all. When Clotaldo tries to calm the violent rage Segismundo flies into after discovering his true identity, Segismundo quickly turns on Clotaldo and threatens to kill him. “I’m a tyrant,” Segismundo says, “and by now it’s no use trying to pacify me.” Segismundo, is seems, is a monster, and Clotaldo can’t talk him out of it. Segismundo even threatens to kill Astolfo, his cousin and heir to the throne, when Astolfo saves Clotaldo from Segismundo’s wrath. Just as the prophecy claims, Segismundo is a violent monster and there seems to be nothing that can be done to change his fate.
By the end of the play, after Basilio has returned Segismundo to prison, the kingdom begins to revolt over Basilio’s decision to keep the rightful prince from the people. The rebellion breaks Segismundo out of prison and, in a violent uprising, quickly gains control of the kingdom. With Basilio at his mercy, however, Segismundo no longer behaves violently. Segismundo realizes that it is his father’s actions—of imprisoning him and treating him like an animal—that turned him into a monster, not fate. “I might have been born tractable / and humble,” Segismundo says, “all that was needed / was that way of life.” As it is Basilio’s actions that have made Segismundo into monster, it is Segismundo’s actions that can deliver him from this same fate. By simply choosing not to be a monster, Segismundo ultimately takes control over his own fate and destiny, demonstrating that free will can indeed triumph over destiny.
Fate vs. Free Will ThemeTracker
Fate vs. Free Will Quotes in Life is a Dream
Segismundo, if you know
that your misfortunes are so great
that you died before you were born
because of a heavenly law; if you know
that these shackles are a bridle to your arrogant
fury to keep it in check,
and reins to call it to a halt,
why do you brag? Guards, lock
the door to this cramped prison;
hide him within it.
Heaven help me! What’s this I hear?
I still can’t decide whether what’s happening is
an illusion or reality.
This sword is the one that I
left with beautiful Violante
as a token that the man who bore it
girded to his waist would find me
as a loving son
finds an affectionate father.
So, what am I to do (woe is me!)
in a dilemma like this,
if the man who wears it for his benefit
is actually wearing it for his death,
seeing that he has surrendered to me
under sentence of death! What a singular
dilemma! What a sad fate!
What a changeable fortune!
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.
The day of her delivery arrived
and, the forecasts coming true
(because evil forecasts never lie,
or, if so, only belatedly),
he was born at such an astrological conjunction
that the sun, tinged with its blood,
was fiercely entering
into a joust with the moon,
and, with the earth for their barrier,
the two celestial lamps
were struggling light to light,
since one cannot say “hand to hand.”
The greatest, most terrifying
eclipse ever suffered by
the sun from the time when it bloodily
bewailed the death of Christ,
was this one: because the globe,
drowned in living flames,
seemed to be suffering
its final paroxysm.
I, referring to my books,
found in them, and in all things,
that Segismundo would be
the most insolent man,
the most cruel prince,
and the most impious monarch,
through whom his kingdom would come
to be fragmented and divided,
a school for treason
and an academy of vice;
and that he, carried away by his fury,
amid fearful crimes,
would one day set his foot
on me, and that I, surrendering
would find myself groveling before him
(with what anguish I say this!),
the gray hairs of my beard
serving as a carpet to his feet.
Well, I, lending credence
to soothsaying fate,
which forecast harm to me
in dire predictions,
decided to lock up
the wild beast that had been born,
to see whether a wise man
can prevail over the stars.
The third and final factor
is the realization that it was a tremendous mistake
to lend easy credence
to the predictions of events;
because, even if his nature
is inclined toward outrages,
perhaps it won’t overcome him,
since even the most dire fate,
the most violent inclination,
the most evil planet,
merely dispose our free will in a certain direction,
but never compel it in that direction.
I wish to determine whether heaven
(which cannot lie,
especially after giving us
such great displays of its severity
with regard to his cruel nature)
can be assuaged, or at least
mollified, and whether, overcome
by merit and wisdom,
it can go back on its word;
because man has dominion over the stars.
Sire, you ought to know
that you are crown prince
of Poland. If you have lived
in hiding and retirement,
it was in obedience
to the severity of fate,
which promises a thousand disasters
to this realm at such time
as the laurel of sovereignty
wreathes your noble brow here.
But, in the firm belief that your good sense
will make you cancel the planets’ decree—
because a highminded man
can resist them—
you have been brought to the palace
from the tower in which you were dwelling
while your spirits
were overcome by sleep.
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.
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
I was born, so resembling her
that 1 was a portrait, a copy of her,
not in beauty
but in luck and deeds;
and so, I won’t need
to say that, an unfortunate
heiress to her lot,
I had the same as hers.
The most I can tell you
about myself is about the lord and master who has stolen
the trophies of my honor,
the remains of my good name.
Sire, even though fate knows
every pathway and finds
the man it seeks amid the thickness
of rocks, it isn’t a Christian
belief to say that there’s no protection against its fury.
There is, for the man with foresight
can gain victory over fate;
and, if you are not yet secure
against distress and misfortune,
create that security for yourself
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!