Pedro Calderón de la Barca (January 17, 1600 – May 25, 1681), was an important dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age.
Calderón was born in Madrid, Spain. His mother, who was of Flemish descent, died in 1610; his father, who was secretary to the treasury, died in 1615. Calderón was educated at the Jesuit College in Madrid, the Colegio Imperial, with a view to taking orders and accepting a family living; abandoning this project, he studied law at Salamanca.
Between 1620 and 1622 Calderón competed with success in a series of poetry competitions held in honour of St Isidore at Madrid. Calderón's debut as a playwright was with Amor, honor y poder, performed on the 29th of June, 1623. This was followed by two other plays that same year: La selva confusa and Los Macabeos. Over the next two decades, Calderón wrote more than 70 plays, the majority of which were secular dramas written for the commercial theatres.
According to one of his biographers, Vera Tassis, Calderón served with the Spanish army in Italy and Flanders between 1625 and 1635; but this statement is contradicted by numerous legal documents indicating that Calderón resided at Madrid during these years. Early in 1629 his brother Diego was stabbed by an actor who took sanctuary in the convent of the Trinitarian nuns; Calderón and, his friends broke into the cloister and attempted to seize the offender. This violation was denounced by the fashionable preacher, Hortensio Félix Paravicino, in a sermon preached before Philip IV; Calderón retorted by introducing into El príncipe constante a mocking reference (afterwards cancelled) to Paravicino's florid oratory style. Calderón was punished for his impertinence with three days of house arrest.
By the time his predecessor, Lope de Vega, died in 1635, Calderón was recognized as the foremost Spanish dramatist of his time. Calderón had also gained considerable favour in the court, and in 1636-1637 he was made a knight of the order of Santiago by Philip IV, who had already commissioned from him a series of spectacular plays for the royal theatre in the newly built Buen Retiro palace.
On May 28, 1640 he joined a company of mounted cuirassiers recently raised by Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count-Duke of Olivares, took part in the Catalonian campaign, and distinguished himself by his gallantry at Tarragona; his health failing, he retired from the army in November 1642, and three years later was awarded a special military pension in recognition of his services in the field.
His biography during the next few years is obscure. His brother, Diego Calderón, died in 1647; and a son, Pedro José, was born to Calderón between 1647 and 1649 of an unknown mistress, who died around the same time, possibly in childbirth. Calderón committed his son to the care of his nephew, José, son of his brother, Diego. Perhaps for reasons relating to these personal trials, Calderón became a tertiary of the order of St Francis in 1650, and finally reverted to his original intention of joining the priesthood. He was ordained in 1651, and was presented with a living in the parish of San Salvador at Madrid. According to a statement he made a year or two later, he was determined to give up writing secular dramas for the commercial theatres.
He did not adhere strictly to this resolution, but he did confine himself largely to the writing of Mythological plays for the palace theatres, and to the composition of autos sacramentales--one act allegorical pieces written for performance during the feast of Corpus Cristi, in which the mystery of the Eucharist was illustrated dramatically. In 1662 two of Calderón's autos, Las órdenes militares and Mística y real Babilonia, were the subjects of an inquiry by the Inquisition; the former was censured, the manuscript copies were confiscated, and the condemnation was not rescinded till 1671.
Calderón was appointed honorary chaplain to Philip IV in 1663, and this royal favour continued into the next reign. In his eighty-first year he wrote his last secular play, Hado y Divisa de Leonido y Marfisa, in honor of Charles II's marriage to Marie-Louise de Bourbon. Notwithstanding his position at court and his universal popularity throughout Spain, his closing years seem to have been passed in relative poverty.
Calderón initiated what has been called the second cycle of Spanish Golden Age theatre. Whereas his predecessor, Lope de Vega, pioneered the dramatic forms and genres of Spanish Golden Age theatre, Calderón polished and perfected them. Whereas Lope's strength lay in the sponteneity and naturalness of his work, Calderón's strength lay in his capacity for poetic beauty, dramatic structure and philosophical depth. Calderón was a perfectionist who often revisited and reworked his plays, even long after they debuted. This perfectionism was not just limited to his own work. A significant number of Calderón's plays are recasts of existing plays or parts of plays by other dramatists; and in each case Calderón's version shows greater depth, complexity and unity than the original. It should be noted that the recasting of existing literary works was a common practice at that time among European playwrights such as Molière, Corneille and Shakespeare. Where Calderón excelled above all others was in the genre of the "auto sacramental", in which he showed a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for giving new dramatic forms to a given set of theological constructs. Calderón wrote 120 "comedias", 80 "autos sacramentales" and 20 short comedic works called "entremeses".
Some of Calderón's works have been translated into English, notably by Denis Florence MacCarthy and Edward Fitzgerald. A major new English translation of La vida es sueño was published by the University Press of Colorado in 2004.
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