Davies, G.A. “Poland, Politics and La vida es sueño.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 70 (1993): 147-163.
Jeanette M. Martínez Figueroa Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
The early seventeenth century was a time of internal and external political and economic turmoil in Spain and many of the literary texts of this period reflect the uncertainty and crises the country and its people faced. G.A. Davies successfully presents a complex and interesting image of the historical and political context surrounding the writing and publication of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (1635) in “Poland, Politics and La vida es sueño”. Furthermore, the author provides a broader understanding of how the play was influenced by and appears to repeat motifs and names of characters from other works written around the same time, particularly Suarez de Figueroa’s Historia moscovica from 1629. Davies central thesis is that Calderon’s play seeks to provide its audience with an outlet for the sociopolitical tensions of the time while at the same time responding to philosophical debates and reassuring them that “in the end all would be well” (161). He effectively develops his argument by focusing on the historical context and the ideas in the play.
Some of the elements of La vida es sueño which mirror Spain’s political context include the struggle between Estrella and Astolfo to be declared heir to the crown being similar to King Phillip’s brothers’, Carlos and Fernando, attempt to secure control of Spain during a grave illness that affected the Spanish king in 1627. Clotaldo, Basilio’s royal confidante or “privado”, is most likely based on Olivares, King Phillip IV’s chief minister and confidante, and, according to Davies, the Polish “privado” John Zamojski. Of particular interest was the common people’s attitude towards King Phillip IV; Davies states that they refused to pray for his health and accused him of tyranny, much like how the people of Calderon’s Poland turned against Basilio.
Davies focuses on the social and political ties between Spain and Poland that would have motivated Calderon to set his play there. The country’s political and religious situation at the time was of great interest to Spain’s monarchy insofar that it remained a Catholic country in the face of widespread Protestantism. Also, its well-known artistic and intellectual contributions to the Renaissance and its effective model for Counter-Reform by “improving the educational standards of both secular and regular clergy, and thus increasing the effectiveness of the Church’s teaching” (Davies 149), were all of interest to Spain and the works published in Poland were read by Spanish intellectuals. All of these things would have made Poland a good choice to set the play because it made the plot believable and not so foreign. Nevertheless, I would have added that Poland and an unspecified time in history were most likely chosen not only because it was a country familiar to the Spanish public, but also because it was distant enough that Calderon could avoid censorship and disguise a potential critique to King Phillip’s reign. The plays ends, after all, “with a successful coup against a supposed tyrant” (Davies 157) and such content could be seen as an attack on the monarchy. Yet, Calderon does make sure to name his characters in such a way that the audience would be able to identify them as related to their contemporary reality.
The tension between “fate”, as discerned by astrological means, and God’s Providence combined with the Catholic concept of free will is evident in La vida es sueño and Davies analyzes this philosophical theme very well. The play’s ending seems to sustain a defense of the Catholic faith, for it combines divine providence, every that happened was always meant to happen, with free will; Segismundo choosing to show forgiveness to Basilio and “obrar bien”. As Davies says: “God – through divine prescience – knew what choice Segismundo would, thus fulfilling preordained destiny. Yet…the Prince was free to choose differently” (158). Basilio’s obsession with astrology has, of course, elements of heresy, but it also reflects the interest in the study of planetary bodies during the Renaissance and an allusion to the contributions of Copernicus, who was Polish. It functions, additionally, to reinforce Catholic faith since the supposed future for himself and his kingdom that he read in the stars does not come to pass, rather his lack of faith in God’s Providence is brought to light by his desire to manipulate the future and deny Segismundo the ability to choose to be good. Davies, in the article, gives the reader a perceptive overview of the writings by other authors, like Justus Lipsius, from which Calderon bases his understandings of fate, providence, and free will.
Prudence, as Davies elaborates, is one of the central themes of La vida es sueño and in the first two acts the audience is presented with the negative consequences of actions taken by the characters due to passion; Rosaura’s lost honor and her impatience to act, Segismundo’s reaction upon waking up and learning he is a prince in the second act, and, throughout the entire piece, Basilio’s insistence in believing astrology with no evidence of Segismundo’s wrongdoing. In the other extreme is Clotaldo, the reflective intellectual who measures each of his decisions carefully but is often limited by loyalty and honor so that he is unable to respond effectively to the fast-changing tide of events. Tied up with the question of prudence is the concern over succession and tyranny; had Basilio and Segismundo acted prudently (“obrar bien”) then the civil war in the final act could have been averted as well as those actions of theirs, which seemed tyrannical in the eyes of the people. In his study Davies points out an interesting element of Calderon’s reflection on prudence: deceit and hypocrisy are criticized and rejected. So, Calderon’s perfect nobleman or noblewoman should act with prudence and valor, but never with flattery and lies.
Overall, Davies’ article contributes to a broader comprehension of the sociopolitical context in which La vida es sueño was produced and it also provides insight into the playwright’s influences. The author makes good use of quotes, appropriately citing them, to support his argument that this play was a response to the crises through which Spain and its people were traversing in the early seventeenth century. The article, while lengthy, is coherent and the development of each of the topics touched upon is thorough as well as written in a language that is accessible to the reader. Most importantly, the three aims outlined in the introduction: to highlight the image of Poland in Spain; to historically contextualize the play; and to trace the sources of the philosophical and political ideas presented in the play were accomplished. A greater appreciation for the time and the work is attained upon reading “Poland, Politics, and La vida es sueño”.