La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) is a Spanish-language play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. First published in 1635 (or possibly early in 1636), it is a philosophical allegory regarding the human situation and the mystery of life. The play has been described as “the supreme example of Spanish Golden Age drama”.
The story focuses on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower by his father, King Basilio, following a dire prophecy that the prince would bring disaster to the country and death to the King. Basilio briefly frees Segismundo, but when the prince goes on a rampage, the king imprisons him again, persuading him that it was all a dream.
The play’s central theme is the conflict between free will and fate. It remains one of Calderón’s best-known and most studied works. Other themes include dreams vs. reality and the conflict between father and son. The play has been adapted for other stage works, in film and as a novel.
(close of Act II)
We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years,
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life? a tale that is told;
What is life? a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams are themselves a dream*.
Calderón de la Barca
Engravings by Salvador Dalí, circa 1975
*Focusing on Segismundo’s line, “Y los sueños, sueños son”, a more accurate English translation, better representing Calderón’s poetic and philosophical intent, may be given as: “And dreams themselves are merely the dreams of dreams”, implying and underscoring the ephemeral nature of human life and physical existence.