1902 Encyclopedia > Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Spanish dramatist
(1600-81)




PEDRO CALDERON DE LA BARCA, (1600-1681), the most eminent representative of the Spanish national drama, was born in Madrid, January 17,1600. His pros-perous life was undistinguished by striking incidents. He received his education at Salamanca, and after having been, as would seem, for some years a retainer or dependant of various noblemen, in 1625 entered the army, where it is hinted that he did not distinguish himself. He had begun to write for the stage in 1622, and in 1636 he was summoned to court, and soon became habitually employed as a writer of court spectacles by King Philip IV., a munificent patron of authors and artists. He was also made a knight of Santiago, and saw some further military service in CataIonia; but in 1651 be entered the church, and from that period wrote nothing but spectacular plays for representa-tion at court, and the religious pieces known as Autos Sacramentales. He received various ecclesiastical pre-ferments from Philip IV., and prolonged his days in wealth and honour until his death on May 25,1681. Very few traits of his personal character have been preserved, and little else can be extracted from the sonorous eulogium of his friend and biographer Vera Tassis than that he was held in esteem for gravity, urbanity, and modesty. A surer testimony to his character is the spirit of his works, which are animated throughout by a lofty ideal of honour and religion according to the conceptions of his age and country, and are wholly free from the usual impurity of the stage. He must evidently have been a highly accom-plished man, possessed of a large stock of erudition.

The entire number of pieces comprised in Hartzenbusch's edition of Calderon, which does not include the autos sacramentales, is 122. There are 72 autos. It is of course impossible to notice here more than a fraction of this prodigious mass of dramatic poetry. We shall briefly characterize the classes under which it admits of being distributed, adducing a few of the more remarkable dramas as representatives of the whole, and following in the main the admirable arrangement of Schack.

1. Religious Dramas.—Of these Schack reckons sixteen, including The Statue of Prometheus and Life is a Dream. This division comprises some of Calderon's most famous pieces, in particular The Wonder-working Magician, in which the brilliancy of his poetical imagination is displayed to the fullest extent, and by Shelley's translation of which he is hitherto best known in England. The subject—the voluntary surrender of a human soul to the Evil One— offers striking analogies and equally strong contrasts to Goethe's Faust. The comparison of the two pieces is most instructive, and most forcibly attests the vast progress in depth of thought and complexity of emotion of the modern over the mediaeval world. The Devotion of the Gross is another of the most remarkable pieces of this class, rich in poetical beauties, and exhibiting Catholic antinomianism in its most unmitigated form. There is a deeper vein of thought in Life is a Dream, in which the poet is compara- tively free from ecclesiastical influences, and which is also one of his most striking and original productions. The Constant Prince, founded on Don Ferdinand of Portugal's captivity, is the very flower of Spanish religion, courtesy, and chivalry, and, like Life is a Dream, is an excellent acting play. The Schism of England and The Bay spring in Copacavana, apart from their great poetical merits, are interesting as indications of the national feeling with regard to nearly contemporary events.





2. Nineteen of Calderon's dramas are classed as historical tragedies. These generally exhibit his talent for effective theatrical situation in the most advantageous light; but in psychological depth and truth he is far behind the great dramatic masters of other countries. The most celebrated of these pieces are founded on incidents in Spanish and Portuguese history, from the posthumous coronation of Inez de Castro to the heart-rending story of Gomez Arias's Leman, and the powerful domestic tragedy of the Alcalde of Zalamea, which displays more individu- ality in the delineation of personal character than is usual with him. Nowhere can a fuller insight be obtained into the peculiarities of the Spanish character and the national ideal while the nation was still a great Catholic and Cru- sading power. Calderon's treatment of historical fact, it need hardly be said, is frequently as free as Shakspeare's. The most remarkable of his historical plays, whose plots are not derived from the history of his own country, are Wo Monster like Jealousy, a most powerful tragedy on the story of Herod and Mariamne ; The Locks of A bsalom, so greatly admired by Shelley ; and Zenobia the Great.

3. The subjects of twenty-four of Calderon's pieces are derived from mythology, chivalric romance, or novels. Most of these are merely spectacular, affording little scope for strictly dramatic power, but dazzling from the opulence of the poet's invention, and the sweetness and variety of his versification. He has here given his imagination the freest rein, and is nowhere more truly himself. No Magic like Love, a play on the story of Circe; Echo and Narcissus ; and The Bridge of Mantible may be cited as characteristic examples.
4. Sixteen romantic dramas, generally melodramas or tragi-comedies, form the transition from Calderon's tragic to his comic theatre. None of his plays are more distin-guished for ingenuity of conception and grace of style. The Loud Secret is perhaps the most celebrated, but the rest are of hardly inferior merit.

5. We now come to Calderon's comedies of intrigue, the so-called " comedies of cloak and sword," his delineations of the manners of his day, and of the actual human life around him. His range is an exceedingly limited one in comparison with that of the English dramatists. It hardly transcends the sphere of ordinary good society,—the valets and other representatives of the lower orders being for the most part merely conventional types. The motive of his pieces, moreover, seldom comprehends more than the two prime factors of love and jealousy. Within these limits, however, his perception is commonly correct, and his characters are depicted with more individuality and subtlety than in his more serious pieces. Even his high-flown strain of chivalric sentiment and his punctilious formality correspond to fact. They are artificial indeed, but not affected, for they actually represent the ideal of the best contemporary society, and represent the Spanish cavalier, if not precisely as he was, yet as he wished to be esteemed. The capital merit of these pieces, however, is the prodigious ingenuity of the plots, and the fertility of invention by which our attention is kept continually on the stretch. Calderon's expedients are inexhaustible ; every fresh incident surprises, and none appears capricious or unnatural. Twenty-five plays are included under this head. The Fairy Lady and 'Tis ill keeping a House with Two Boors are perhaps the most generally known ; all however are nearly upon a level.

6. Autos Sacramentales.—A volume might be written upon this most peculiar of all the forms of the modern European drama. We can only describe it here as a development of the mystery or miracle play of the Middle Ages, designed like it for public representation on some specified religious occasion, and falling like it into two classes, the strictly Biblical play, of which Calderon's Brazen Serpent is an instance, and the religious allegory. The latter is Calderon's characteristic department, and nothing can surpass the boldness and qnaintness of his personifications. Man, the World, Guilt, the Morning Star, the Synagogue, and Apostacy figure, for example, among his innumerable dramatis personœ. The riches of his invention and his diction are nowhere more abundant ; but the profoundness of his philosophy and Iheology have been greatly over-estimated by writers of his own religious communion.

7. Minor Pieces.— Calderon also composed numerous farces, interludes, and other brief occasional pieces, the greater part of which are lost.





Calderon received the Spanish drama from his predeces-sors in a flourishing condition, exhausted, in conjunction with his numerous gifted contemporaries, every phase of which it allowed, and left it at his death in a condition of total decay. His retirement from the theatre in middle life was probably occasioned by the conviction that it admitted of no further development. In his relation to his predecessors he appears as an innovator, chiefly in the simplification of metrical forms. Though at least half of each of his plays is still in complete rhyme, he nevertheless resorts to assonances more liberally than his forerunners. If, on the one hand, this brings him nearer to the language of reality, it on the other sometimes betrays him into verbosity. In his earlier pieces the exuberance of his genius, and the example of the popular lyrical poets of the day, tempted him into conceits and extravagances of diction which are less apparent in his later works. He yet has more fire and colour than any other of the Spanish dramat-ists, and may be described as the one among them in whom the Oriental element is most largely developed. He shares with his rivals the reproach of repetition, of calculated stage effect, and of stereotyped forms of expression, which become at length mere convention and surplusage. The peculiarity of the form of composition cultivated by Calderon renders it difficult to assign his relative rank among poets of the first class. The Spanish drama is a creation sui generis, and all attempts at a comparison between it and other theatrical forms must be futile for want of a common measure. The art of Calderon attains its purpose not less completely than that of Shakespeare or Sophocles; all that can be said in its disparagement is that this purpose is less elevated. It falls below the art of Greece, inasmuch as it makes no pretension to represent the ideal either of divinity or of manhood; and below the art of Shakespeare, inasmuch as, instead of offering a mirror to universal nature, it is restricted to the representation or poetic expression of a temporary and accidental phase of manners. It is the most perfect embodiment conceivable of all the romantic and chivalrous elements of Spanish national life; there is not, perhaps, such another example in literature of the wonderful power of poetry to eliminate all baser matter, and present the innermost idea of a society in untarnished brightness. Calderon is also the most perfect representative of the state of feeling induced by unconditional allegiance to the Catholic Church, at the critical moment when the scales of faith and knowledge are yet in equilibrium. Great Catholic poets may yet arise, with even more than Calderon's depth of conviction, but none can again enjoy Calderon's serenity. There is no disturbing element in his world, either of innovation or of resistance ; he is everything which by theory a consummate Catholic poet ought to be. It is therefore but logical that he should be set up as the rival of Shakespeare by the partisans of the mediaeval revival, of whom Frederick Schlegel is the most eminent literary representative. It would be a waste of time to contrast the conventional uniformity of his pieces, reducible to five or six types at most, with Shakespeare's infinite variety; the faint in-dividualization of his characters with Shakespeare's mira-culous subtlety ; his class prejudices with Shakespeare's universal sympathy; his stereotyped cast of thought with Shakespeare's comprehensive wisdom. It is enough to remark, that greatly as he is admired and widely as he is read, he has not contributed a single appreciable element to the literature of any country but his own, while Shakespeare has revolutionized the taste of Europe. His relation to his contemporaries is also different from Shakespeare's. Shakespeare is a sun among stars; Calderon the brightest star of a group. We shall render him most justice, not by instituting a vain parallel with Shakespeare, or even Goethe, but by regarding those qualities which he necessarily has in common with all poetical dramatists. In these respects it is impossible to praise him too highly Nothing can surpass the fertility, ingenuity, and consistency of his constructive faculty on the one hand, or the affluence of his imagery and melody of his versification on the other. The poet and the playwright are happily combined in him j the development of his plots holds the spectator in suspense from first to last, and the diction, except in designedly comic passages, seldom lapses below the pitch of dignified and exquisite poetry. Even the extravagance of his hyperboles appears almost natural amid the general torrent of impassioned feeling. The interminable length of many of his speeches is certainly a fault, and is partly attributable to the fluency and facility of his metre. If we regard him as a tragic poet, we must allow him power, restricted by the absence of any philosophical view of human nature or destiny. As a comic poet he excels in the vis cómica of situation; but his dialogue is more remarkable for vivacity than humour. His proper and peculiar sphere is that of the fancifully poetical. His inventiveness is here equal to any feat of construction, and his imagination to any opulence of adornment. After Shakespeare and Aristophanes, no dramatist has understood so well how to transport his reader or spectator to an ideal world.

Calderon's metrical forms, although, as already stated, less rich and intricate than those of the earlier Spanish dramatists, are nevertheless a great obstacle to his being adequately translated. No language but the German, in fact, is adapted to render him. Gries's version in that language is very celebrated. Schlegel and Schack have rendered some plays very well; and the autos have been translated by Lorinser. Shelley's version of some scenes of the Wonder-working Magician is incomparably the best English interpretation, and no reproduction in our language will ever be perfectly successful that does not proceed upon his principle of intermingling blank verse with irregular lyrical metres. Mr Fitzgerald and Mr D. F. M'Carthy, two excellent translators, have erred,—the former by resorting to blank verse entirely, the latter by discarding it altogether. Mr Fitzgerald's version is too English, and Mr M'Carthy's too Spanish ; the peculiar delicacy of the assonant rhyme, which he has endeavoured to preserve throughout, is entirely imperceptible in our language. Mr Fitzgerald has rendered six plays, and Mr M'Carthy eleven. There is perhaps no more congenial field for a writer of a poetical temperament than the translation of Calderon.

The chronology of Calderon's pieces is unsettled, but much has been done to adjust it. Many of them were printed during his life, but the first collective edition was that published in 1685 by his friend Vera Tassis. It is not quite complete, and some plays, in- cluding most of the author's dramatic trifles, are irremediably lost. The best edition is that by Hartzenbuseh in Aribau's Biblioteca de Autores Españoles (4 vols., Madrid, 1848-50). It does not contain the autos, which were published at Madrid in 1717 and in 1759-60. There is also a good edition by Keil (Hamburg, 1827-30). Accounts of Calderon will be found in Bouterwek, Ticknor, and other his- torians of Spanish literature ; but the best and fullest is that by Schack in his Geschichte der dramatischen Literatur und Kunst in Spanien, vol. iii. (Berlin, 1846.) (E. G.)




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