January 07, 2021

#08-033: Life is a Dream

a long-haired man in antiquated clothes addresses a group of three soldiers and their captive
Scene from a live performance of La Vida es Sueño

Note: The Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, commonly called simply "Calderon," was a near-contemporary of Shakespeare, and holds a position in Spanish literature similar to that of the Bard in English (along with countryman Lope de Vega). Few of his works have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world like Life is a Dream, which has one of the cleverest philosophical plot twists imaginable.

Get Ready: Is it possible to think one is awake while dreaming--or dreaming while awake? Has this ever happened to you?

Calderon's play Life is a Dream focuses on a fictional Polish prince named Segismundo. An oracle had predicted that the prince would bring disgrace to Poland and kill his father, King Basilio. So the king secretly locked Segismundo in a tower. Segismundo doesn't know he's a prince, and feels he has been locked up simply for "the crime of being born."

When his cousins at court, a duke and a princess, suggest to Basilio that, if married, they should inherit the throne, the King reveals the imprisonment of his son Segismundo, and decides he must give his son a chance before turning the throne over to his nephew and niece.

So Segismundo's keeper (and tutor) Clotaldo gives the prince a sedative that puts him in a death-like sleep. He is brought to court where, when awakened and told his own history, he flies into a rage and ends up killing a servant.

The king demands an explanation, but Segismundo is belligerent, demanding his rightful place. The king warns him that if he doesn't behave, he may discover that he is simply dreaming. Unrepentant, he is about to get into a duel for his honor when the king has him sedated again, and returns him to the tower.

When he wakes in the tower, Segismundo tells Clotaldo about his "dream." His tutor reminds him that even in dreams, we must act kindly and justly. He leaves Segismundo reflecting on the human situation and the mystery of life.

When the people learn that they have a prince, they rebel against the king, and break Segismundo out of prison. When King Basilio is captured, his son decides to spare his life. This generosity causes the king to proclaim Segismundo the true heir to his throne. The prince becomes a kind and just king, and declares that, asleep or awake, one must strive for goodness.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. disgrace
  2. near-contemporary
  3. oracle
  4. philosophical
  5. plot twists
  6. rebel
  7. sedative
  8. spare
  9. strive (for)
  10. unrepentant

  1. work hard (to accomplish something)
  2. prophet; medium
  3. pertaining to the world of ideas
  4. not apologetic
  5. having a bad reputation
  6. refrain from taking
  7. drug that causes sleep
  8. one living at almost the same time
  9. surprises in a story
  10. rise up in arms

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 7, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. e; 2. h; 3. b; 4. c; 5. i; 6. j; 7. g; 8. f; 9. a; 10. d