Calderón’s Life is a Dream is often interpreted as a didactic play of moral and Christian instruction. In addition to the story of Segismundo and his transformation from monster to righteous and good man, the play also examines the moral dilemmas encountered by Clotaldo and Basilio. Special attention, however, is placed on the story of Rosaura, a woman of noble birth whose honor is stolen by Astolfo, the Duke of Muscovy and the potential heir to the throne of Poland. Just as Rosaura’s mother, Violante, was seduced by Clotaldo and left to fend for herself, Astolfo seduces Rosaura and then abandons her. Disguised as a strange man, Rosaura arrives at the palace in Warsaw with the intention of seeking revenge on Astolfo for stealing her virtue and honor, but she is unable to convince either Segismundo or Clotaldo to help her kill Astolfo. In refusing to help Rosaura kill Astolfo to avenge her honor, however, Segismundo actually restores both Rosaura’s lost honor and his own. Through the characters of Rosaura and Segismundo, and the unexpected way in which Rosaura regains her honor, Calderón effectively argues for the importance of morality and implies that there is nothing honorable about revenge.
At the start, both Rosaura and Segismundo are convinced that revenge is the key to regaining their lost honor. Clotaldo, however, tries to persuade them otherwise, which implies that seeking revenge is not moral. Clotaldo is not initially against killing Astolfo, until Astolfo intervenes on Clotaldo’s behalf when Segismundo tries to kill him. Astolfo arrives “disregarding his own peril, / to display in [Clotaldo’s] defense / his good will.” Despite his poor treatment of Rosaura, Astolfo proves himself to be a good and decent man in at least some situations, and Clotaldo can’t bring himself to harm his savior. Even though Clotaldo wants to help Rosaura and defend her honor, he refuses to kill Astolfo for her. Though the decision is difficult for him, Clotaldo essentially decides to prioritize integrity and gratitude over revenge. Clotaldo also tries to convince Segismundo that his desire to seek revenge on his father, King Basilio, for imprisoning him is not the right thing to do either—even if Segismundo is only dreaming. Clotaldo argues that Segismundo should honor his father at all times, and he explains that “even in dreams / good deeds are never wasted.” Clotaldo’s argument suggests that it is most important to always behave in a way that is moral and righteous, even if that means forfeiting one’s chance for revenge.
Segismundo recognizes the consequences of revenge and the importance of morality before Rosaura does, and, like Clotaldo, he refuses to help Rosaura exact her revenge on Astolfo. His refusal again suggests that Rosaura’s desire for vengeance is not righteous or moral. After Rosaura swears her loyalty to Segismundo and pleads for his assistance in defending her lost honor, Segismundo says “it is essential to honor” that he refuse Rosaura’s request. The honorable thing, Segismundo claims, is not to seek vengeance. “My voice doesn’t answer you,” Segismundo says to Rosaura, “so that my honor can.” In this riddle of sorts, Segismundo implies that while it may seem as if he is doesn’t wish to help Rosaura, he actually does want to—but to him, helping her means focusing on honor rather than revenge. Segismundo vows that he will restore Rosaura’s honor and good name before he recovers his own crown, although it will not occur in quite the way Rosaura envisions it.
It is through Rosaura, and with the help of Clotaldo, that Segismundo ultimately discovers that he cannot realize his rightful role as king if he seeks his own revenge against his father. After Segismundo spares his father’s life following the people’s revolt and is made king of Poland, he decrees that Astolfo must marry Rosaura to restore her lost honor. In ordering the marriage between Astolfo and Rosaura, Segismundo demonstrates that while honor is important, it doesn’t require revenge—and in fact, vengeance actually goes against honor. It is more honorable, Calderón thus implies, to always behave in a way that is moral. Segismundo’s actions restore both Rosaura’s honor and his own, as he has officially redeemed himself and proven that he is not an animal as the prophecy claims, but is instead a man of deep morals and righteousness.
Morality, Honor, and Vengeance ThemeTracker
Morality, Honor, and Vengeance 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.
Besides that, if I now pay heed
to the fact that he said he had come
to take revenge for an affront, a man
who has been affronted is base.
He isn’t my son, he isn’t my son
and doesn’t bear my noble blood!
But if it was some
critical situation of the sort that no one
can avoid, because honor
is of such brittle stuff
that it is broken with a gesture
or besmirched by a puff of air,
what more can he do, what more,
on his part, as a nobleman,
than to come in quest of his honor
at the cost of so many risks?
He is my son, he bears my blood,
since he possesses such great merit!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!