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Copyright © 1992 Pedro Calderon de La Barca
All right reserved.
1. SPAIN AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (1600)
When Calderon was born in 1600, Spain was the most powerful country in the world, but the seeds had already been planted of a decline that would take it, by the time of his death in 1681, to the humiliating status of a second-tier power. The story of Spain's rise and fall is the sobering tale of a country that collapsed under the burden of its own achievements. Rather than chronicle that process in detail, which would occupy much more space than this Introduction allows, I will begin with three salient general features of early modern Spanish society: religious intensity, inequality before the law, and a deep sense of national pride that suffered serious blows throughout the seventeenth century. These three characteristics are important because they forcefully underpin the ideology of Calderonian Spain and, more broadly, of what is known as the Old Regime, that is, the set of social and political norms that held sway across Europe prior to the French Revolution in 1789. Thus, although none of the characteristics is unique to Spain, they all imply assumptions about the world strikingly different from those that inform modern liberal democracies (including present-day Spain), and their examination will provide an essentialpreface to the survey of Spanish literature and culture with which I end this section of the Introduction.
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Calderon was born in an age of deep religious conviction. It may be difficult for westerners of the early twenty-first century, anesthetized by the freedom of worship that all liberal democracies guarantee, to grasp the significance of this fact. Especially in Spain, whose Middle Ages were defined by a long struggle to reunite the peninsula under Christian rule, religious belief was not a matter of choice, and Catholicism permeated all aspects of life and determined the course of history. Even language reflects the omnipresence of religion: to speak Spanish became (and remains) synonymous with speaking "Christian," and official correspondence of the period referred to "both Majesties" in deference to God as well as the king. Early modern Spanish identity, to the extent that one can generalize about it, was forged in a crucible of religiosity that never wavered.
Many of the major events and institutions associated with this period came about as a result of that religiosity. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1478 with the purpose of rooting out heresy, especially among Jewish (and later Muslim) converts to Christianity. Unlike the Papal Inquisition, which had been in place in other parts of Europe since 1233, the Spanish Inquisition was placed under almost exclusive control of the Spanish kings; the pope's power was limited to naming the Inquisitor General. Because its jurisdiction was limited to baptized Christians, its power was considerably increased when all unbaptized Jews were forced either to convert or to leave the peninsula in 1492. Also in 1492, the pope honored King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella with the title Catholic Monarchs upon their reconquest of Granada, the last independent Muslim kingdom on the peninsula; in 1609 the Moriscos (Moorish converts to Christianity) suffered the same fate the Jews had in 1492. In 1540 Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit Order, dedicated to an active (rather than a speculative) pursuit of faith. The Jesuits provided great impetus to the Counter Reformation, which had come into full swing as Spain united with Rome to stay the rising tide of Protestantism. Costly religious wars between Catholics and Protestants ensued across Europe, exhausting the Spanish treasury in its struggle against countries like England (which it tried to invade) and the Low Countries (part of its Hapsburg patrimony, which it was able to hold only by force) in addition to its traditional Mediterranean rival, France. Finally, a great cost in manpower and wealth was imposed by the evangelization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
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As modern readers, we also take for granted the legal sanctity of individual equality and political representation, a product of Enlightenment thought that has become the cornerstone of liberal democracy. But in early modern Europe, no such principles existed in practice. A few examples from Calderon's Spain must suffice.
First, the distribution of power was not equitable. At the top, of course, reigned the king and his court. The powerful nobility, concentrated in the countryside, had its own estate in Parliament, as did the clergy, which, along with the military orders (religious in character), wielded considerable influence. A third parliamentary estate was occupied by the major municipalities, which were considerably diverse in structure and tended to represent a democratizing force. Above the municipal level, however, citizens had no political representation; nor was there trial by a jury of peers, for the king was the ultimate arbiter in cases of injustice. Private property was held primarily by the crown and the first two parliamentary estates, whereas the municipalities were allowed to lease land from the crown for public use. Taxation was regressive, with the poor shouldering the burden of contributions to the state treasury. The inferiority of women, peasants, slaves, Indians, and the unbaptized was routinely (although not universally) asserted, and discrimination against such groups not only prevailed but was also legally sanctioned. For example, in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews, as those who chose to convert rather than leave the country began to occupy civil and clerical positions of authority, promulgation began of the famous "pure-blood" statutes-analogous to the English anti-Catholic laws-which excluded anyone of non-Christian lineage from occupying positions of power. The anguish subsequently felt by the many writers and intellectuals of the period who were of Jewish descent became, according to the twentieth-century Spanish historian Americo Castro, a defining feature of early modern Spanish literature.
Despite all these factors, the term absolute monarchy gives an incorrect impression of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, which was actually "one of the freest nations in Europe, with active political institutions at all levels. Remarkably free discussion of political affairs was tolerated, and public controversy occurred on a scale paralleled in few other countries." The fact that the system was inequitable does not mean its inequities were not perceived, and the literature of the period amply documents many diverse perspectives regarding justice and equality. As far back as the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) had argued for the radical equality of all human souls, and his principles were now invoked in Spain to defend the rights of Indians and women. Typically, however, such arguments were directed against individuals who abused the system or against particular manifestations of the system rather than against the system itself. This is an important distinction. Men like Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566) and Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546) argued for humane treatment of the Indians, but they firmly supported the effort to convert them to the Catholic faith. Hence the New Laws of 1542-promulgated largely in response to Las Casas's unpublished manuscript, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevisima relacion de la destruccion de las Indias)-abolished the encomienda (the land-tenure system that required the natives to pay rent or to work in exchange for the right to continue living on their ancestral territories), the abuse of which had turned the Indians into de facto slaves.
Teresa of Avila ("Saint Teresa," 1515-1582), for her part, notes in the first chapter of her autobiography that her father's caring nature led him to pity the plight of slaves (ownership of which was legal throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe); yet rather than question the system that permitted slavery to exist, he simply refused to own them himself and treated those owned by others with kindness. Similarly, the lesson that Maria de Zayas apparently intends to teach her female readers through the harrowing tales of her Eye-Opening Love Stories (Desenganos amorosos, 1647) is not to rebel against male authority but simply to dissociate themselves from men altogether, as does the character Lisis upon entering the convent at the end of the last story. Finally, regarding the inherent inequality believed to exist between lords and vassals, it is telling that when the peasants of Lope de Vega's Sheep's Fount (Fuente Ovejuna, 1619) rise up to overthrow and murder their tyrannical master, literally tearing him to pieces, they do so with shouts of "Long live King Ferdinand! Death to evil Christians and traitors!"
Lest there be any doubt, however, the occasional real threat to the values of the Old Regime was met with a severity that tended to discourage future attempts: the Comuneros revolt of 1520, the Morisco uprising of 1568, the Catalonian insurrection of the 1640s (in which Calderon himself fought on the side of the king), the Pueblo rebellion of 1680, and so on.
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In most people's minds, the year 1492 is associated with Columbus's maiden voyage to the Indies, an event that richly deserves all the importance attached to it. Although Columbus (1451-1506)-who was financed by the Spanish crown and wrote his diary in Spanish but was not Spanish by birth (he was born in Genoa and later moved to Portugal)-died insisting he had reached India, it soon became apparent that he had come upon two great continents previously unknown to Europeans. Spain's primary claim to those continents and to whatever riches and natural resources they contained catapulted it almost immediately from its traditional, Mediterranean sphere of influence onto the center stage of European politics, forever changing the course of its history. Eventually, Spain's pretensions in the New World would put it at odds not only with its traditional Mediterranean rival, France, but also with two rising Atlantic powers, Holland and England, toward whom its animosity only grew with the success of the Protestant Reformation.
Columbus's voyage, together with the other momentous events of 1492 and several that soon followed, cemented in Spaniards' identity a proud nationalism bound to a profound sense of manifest destiny. By the seventeenth century, however, national pride was coming under increasing strain. An ominous portent was the catastrophic defeat of the Invincible Armada by the English Navy in 1588. More important, the shiploads of gold and silver that flooded into the country from the New World, much to the envy of Spain's European enemies (and subject to relentless pirate attacks by those enemies), were not nearly enough to finance the staggering military expenditures of the Spanish crown against those same European enemies on the continent; and the treasury was forced to declare bankruptcy at least eight times between 1557 and 1680. At the same time, the influx of American bullion into the peninsula came about without a corresponding rise in productivity, thus creating a galloping inflation that necessitated a seemingly endless series of currency devaluations throughout the seventeenth century, popularly known as the "currency dance" (baile del vellon). Intelligent observers interpreted these factors as dire warning of the country's political decline, confirmed in 1648 when the Peace of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years' War) formalized Spain's surrender of European hegemony to France. By the time of Calderon's death in 1681, Spaniards could look back to the time of the Catholic Monarchs only with nostalgia, as a golden age of their country's history from which they had been forever expelled.
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Spain's literary golden age also took root in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, although it did not reach fruition until much later. In this sense, the year 1492 is yet another milestone. Antonio de Nebrija (1444-1522), a renowned humanist and professor at the University of Salamanca, published in that year his Grammar of the Castilian Language (Gramatica de la lengua castellana), the first grammar of a modern vernacular language, which prophetically argued for the use of Spanish as an instrument of empire. In December of the same year, Juan del Encina (1468-1529), a student of Nebrija's, composed and performed several short nativity sketches, which he called eclogues, in the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Alba outside Salamanca. In the history of Spanish drama, which had no significant medieval tradition upon which to build, these unrefined plays are tremendously important and can be seen as the starting point of an unbroken dramatic tradition that eventually culminates in Calderon and Life's a Dream. (More detail on the evolution of Spanish theater is offered in the next section of the Introduction.)
Spanish poetry and prose also flourished during this period. In 1496 Encina published his eclogues together with a treatise titled Art of Spanish Poetry (Arte de poesia castellana), the first manual of poetry written in Spanish, in which he argues for the beauty and poetic potential of the Spanish language. He was proven right only a few decades later: through incorporation of traditional Italian Renaissance meters, Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-1536) conferred on Spanish poetry a previously unknown prestige. A hundred years later Luis de Gongora (1561-1627), although much maligned during his time, gave seventeenth-century poetry its most unique voice with his sixty-three-stanza Myth of Polyphemous and Galatea (Fabula de Polifemo y Galatea, 1613). In narrative, landmarks included the anonymous picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1558), a devastating critique of laxity and corruption at all levels of society, as well as the two volumes of Cervantes's masterpiece Don Quixote (1605, 1615). Straddling both poetry and prose are the sublime writings of three of sixteenth-century Spain's most intensely spiritual authors: Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Fray Luis de Leon (1527-1591), and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591)-all of them, significantly, from families of Jewish origin (as were Nebrija, Encina, Gongora, and possibly Cervantes). Of great importance for historiography, finally, is the first generation of New World chroniclers to follow in Columbus's footsteps: Las Casas (1474-1566), Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557), Cortes (1485-1547), Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490-c. 1557), and Diaz del Castillo (c. 1495-1584).
By Calderon's time, Spanish literature had assumed a set of characteristics that later critics, borrowing from art history, termed Baroque. Formally speaking, the Spanish Baroque in all literary genres employed elaborate or highly stylized syntax, frequent use of Latin- and Italian-based neologisms, and a heavy dependence on greatly exaggerated metaphors and wordplay. The first two of these characteristics are usually associated with the term culteranismo and the latter with conceptismo. Rather than opposed, as many critics tend to view them, the two phenomena are intricately connected and represent two sides of the coin that is Baroque language, of which the poetry of Gongora is perhaps the prime example. Thematically, Baroque writers came to terms with their disappointment over Spain's political decline by emphasizing the deception and uncertainty of earthly existence, harking back to the biblical view of life as a walk through "the valley of the shadow of death" (Psalms 23.4); such a life was a mere illusion that could be shattered only through the liberating embrace of death. To emphasize the illusory nature of this existence, the Spanish Baroque relied on three central metaphors: life as art, life as theater, and, most important for Calderon, life as a dream.
Apart from literature, Spain's contribution to written culture (I leave aside painting and music) in this period can be grouped into three main areas: theology, philosophy, and science. To begin with, it is instructive to point out that this distinction would not likely have been made in Calderon's time, which considered philosophy and science as two branches (one theoretical, the other practical) of the same tree of knowledge. Theology, furthermore, given its perceived relationship to truth, had been thought of in the Middle Ages as the "Queen of the Sciences" and was still referred to that way in Cervantes's Don Quixote, although its popularity as a course of study notably declined in the Renaissance.
Excerpted from Life a Dream by Pedro Calderon de La Barca Copyright © 1992 by Pedro Calderon de La Barca. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 6, 2000
After I read this Calderon's drama in college, I understood my own life. It is a drama about the most basic elements of our life. If your life have never been a dream, it will be.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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