Life Is A Dream – 1st Day of Lenaia 2020

Meditation for the first day of Λήναια, is the last scene from Life is A Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. After having tasted both the sweetness of a prince’s life and the harshness of a prisoner’s life, Sigismund finally gets to the point where good or bad conditions have no more power on a prince’s heart.

Does experience make a person wiser? Does suffering make someone a prince? How can we define who is a prince or not? The prince is the Latin princeps, which means the “first one”. Isn’t being the first one, like being a ruler on one’s own life? and not ruled by anyone else? Being the first, means being the first one in the chains of causes and effects. Or, better said, the motor of decision. Can one be really free? Can one have the first decision? For Calderón de la Barca, freedom apparently comes with experience and reason. The experience from a world of illusions. Our question is: doesn’t experience come first?




A SOLDIER. Mid the thickets of the mountain,

Neath these dark boughs so united,

The King hides.

SIGISMUND. Pursue him then,

Leave no single shrub unrifled,

Nothing must escape your search,

Not a plant, and not a pine tree.

CLOTALDO. Fly, my lord!

BASILIUS. And wherefore fly?


BASILIUS. Astolfo, I’m decided.

CLOTALDO. What to do?

BASILIUS. To try, Clotaldo,

One sole remedy that surviveth.


If ’tis me thou’rt seeking, Prince,

At thy feet behold me lying.


Let thy carpet be these hairs

Which the snows of age have whitened.

Tread upon my neck, and trample

On my crown; in base defilement

Treat me with all disrespect;

Let thy deadliest vengeance strike me

Through my honour; as thy slave

Make me serve thee, and in spite of

All precautions let fate be,

Let heaven keep the word it plighted.

SIGISMUND. Princes of the Court of Poland,

Who such numerous surprises

Have astonished seen, attend,

For it is your prince invites ye.

That which heaven has once determined,

That which God’s eternal finger

Has upon the azure tablets

Of the sky sublimely written,

Those transparent sheets of sapphire

Superscribed with golden ciphers

Ne’er deceive, and never lie;

The deceiver and the liar

Is he who to use them badly

In a wrongful sense defines them.

Thus, my father, who is present,

To protect him from the wildness

Of my nature, made of me

A fierce brute, a human wild-beast;

So that I, who from my birth,

From the noble blood that trickles

Through my veins, my generous nature,

And my liberal condition,

Might have proved a docile child,

And so grew, it was sufficient

By so strange an education,

By so wild a course of living,

To have made my manners wild;—

What a method to refine them!

If to any man ’twas said,

“It is fated that some wild-beast

will destroy you,” would it be

Wise to wake a sleeping tiger

As the remedy of the ill?

If ’twere said, “this sword here hidden

In its sheath, which thou dost wear,

Is the one foredoomed to kill thee,”

Vain precaution it would be

To preserve the threatened victim.

Bare to point it at his breast.

If ’twere said, “these waves that ripple

Calmly here for thee will build

Foam-white sepulchres of silver,”

Wrong it were to trust the sea

When its haughty breast is lifted

Into mountain heights of snow,

Into hills of curling crystal.

Well, this very thing has happened

Unto him, who feared a wild-beast,

And awoke him while he slept;

Or who drew a sharp sword hidden

Naked forth, or dared the sea

When ’twas roused by raging whirlwinds

And though my fierce nature (hear me)

Was as ’twere the sleeping tiger,

A sheathed sword my innate rage

And my wrath a quiet ripple,

Fate should not be forced by means

So unjust and so vindictive,

For they but excite it more;

And thus he who would be victor

O’er his fortune, must succeed

By wise prudence and self-strictness.

Not before an evil cometh

Can it rightly be resisted

Even by him who hath foreseen it,

For although (the fact’s admitted)

By a humble resignation

It is possible to diminish

Its effects, it first must happen,

And by no means can be hindered.

Let it serve as an example

This strange sight, this most surprising

Spectacle, this fear, this horror,

This great prodigy; for none higher

E’er was worked than this we see,

After years of vain contriving,

Prostrate at my feet a father,

And a mighty king submitted.

This the sentence of high heaven

Which he did his best to hinder

He could not prevent. Can I,

Who in valour and in science,

Who in years am so inferior,

It avert? My lord, forgive me,

[To the King.

Rise, sir, let me clasp thy hand;

For since heaven has now apprized thee

That thy mode of counteracting

Its decree was wrong, a willing

Sacrifice to thy revenge

Let my prostrate neck be given.

BASILIUS. Son, this noble act of thine

In my heart of hearts reviveth

All my love, thou’rt there reborn.

Thou art Prince; the bay that bindeth

Heroes’ brows, the palm, be thine,

Let the crown thine own deeds give thee.

ALL. Long live Sigismund our King!

SIGISMUND. Though my sword must wait a little

Ere great victories it can gain,

I to-day will win the highest,

The most glorious, o’er myself.—

Give, Astolfo, give your plighted

Hand here to Rosaura, since

It is due and I require it.

ASTOLFO. Though ’tis true I owe the debt,

Still ’tis needful to consider

That she knows not who she is;

It were infamous, a stigma

On my name to wed a woman . . . .

CLOTALDO. Stay, Astolfo, do not finish;

For Rosaura is as noble

As yourself. My sword will right her

In the field against the world:

She’s my daughter, that’s sufficient.

ASTOLFO. What do you say?

CLOTALDO. Until I saw her

To a noble spouse united,

I her birth would not reveal.

It were now a long recital,

But the sum is, she’s my child.

ASTOLFO. That being so, the word I’ve plighted

I will keep.

SIGISMUND. And that Estrella

May not now be left afflicted,

Seeing she has lost a prince

Of such valour and distinction,

I propose from mine own hand

As a husband one to give her,

Who, if he does not exceed

Him in worth, perhaps may rival.

Give to me thy hand.


By an honour so distinguished.

SIGISMUND. To Clotaldo, who so truly

Served my father, I can give him

But these open arms wherein

He will find what’er he wishes.

A SOLDIER. If thou honorest those who serve thee,

Thus, to me the first beginner

Of the tumult through the land,

Who from out the tower, thy prison,

Drew thee forth, what wilt thou give?

SIGISMUND. Just that tower: and that you issue

Never from it until death,

I will have you guarded strictly;

For the traitor is not needed

Once the treason is committed.

BASILIUS. So much wisdom makes one wonder.

ASTOLFO. What a change in his condition!

ROSAURA. How discreet! how calm! how prudent!

SIGISMUND. Why this wonder, these surprises,

If my teacher was a dream,

And amid my new aspirings

I am fearful I may wake,

And once more a prisoner find me

In my cell? But should I not,

Even to dream it is sufficient:

For I thus have come to know

That at last all human blisses

Pass and vanish as a dream,

And the time that may be given me

I henceforth would turn to gain:

Asking for our faults forgiveness,

Since to generous, noble hearts

It is natural to forgive them.

Life Is A Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Translated by Denis Florence MacCarthy

Picture Credits: Salvador Dalí 〈Sigismund in Chains〉

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