Something that seems to have died out of the world today is the strong sense of honor depicted in many of the plays and other literature produced in numerous countries throughout the past several centuries. This code of honor that has been passed down to us through many different mediums and in many different voices comes in two parts. First, there is the code of honor to one’s personal world, the honor of place or status, personal behavior and pride. Then there is the code of honor to one’s state or nation, the rulers and leaders of the world and the rule of law that governs over all. In the past, this honor of place and nation often overcame and kept in check the personal acts of revenge that individual honor might otherwise require, but this doesn’t mean they didn’t often come into conflict. This interplay of personal versus national honor is a major theme within Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s medieval play Life is a Dream. It is discovered in the king’s decisions regarding his son, the subplot of Rosaura and in the actions of Segismundo.
As the condition of the kingdom of Poland is revealed in Act 2, it seems as if the old King Basilio has neglected, to some degree, the welfare of his kingdom in that he hasn’t remarried or made any attempt to establish a clear heir. However, as he makes his case to his assumed inheritors, the king reveals the depth of the problem he faced as he announces that his son is still alive. He tells them that in reading the stars at the time of his son’s birth, he found “that Sigismund would be the most cruel of all princes, of all men the most audacious, of all monarchs the most wicked; that his kingdom through his means would be broken and partitioned” (Act 1, scene 6, p. 18). While it was a necessity for the welfare of the country that this destructive son be stopped, the king also wanted to do what he could for the boy and ensured that he was educated and treated as well as possible. Now that he’s had a chance to perhaps tame the inner savage, the king proposes to bring him back to court and give him the opportunity to take his rightful place. Basilio brings the prince back to the palace to see if he will act with honor, fully prepared to transfer the crown and spend the rest of his life in repentance for having imprisoned him for so long. These decisions illustrate the complexities of honor in which one must prioritize where loyalty must be given. Entrusted with the welfare of the nation his family had built, the king must put the needs of the country before his own desires if he is to act with honor. However, he must also be merciful and loyal to his family in order to remain honorable. When confronted with a son who was both family and a detriment to the kingdom, the king had few choices available to him and stood as the highest example of honor by doing his best for both nation and child, up to and including ensuring his son would have a chance to prove himself before any lasting decisions were made.
The younger characters are not as well-balanced in their understanding of prioritizing one’s loyalties. While the subplot of Rosaura may seem unnecessary to the main story of Segismundo, it is through her actions and lessons that Segismundo begins to understand his proper role in life. It is clear from the opening of the play that Rosaura is on a mission of revenge fueled by the need to uphold her personal honor. While the exact nature of her quest remains in question through the beginning of the play, her honorable inner nature is demonstrated in the way in which she treats her servant, recognizing her as a thinking, feeling human being. As she meets Clotaldo, the proper hierarchy of honor is established – first to nation and ‘natural allegiance’ as a means of referring to previous commitments, and then to the personal and the duties of individual promises. Clotaldo establishes this hierarchy best when he works through his priorities after discovering something of Rosaura’s identity, “To drag him now before the King were death; but to hide him from my master, that I cannot do, according to my duty as a vassal. Thus my loyalty and self-love upon either side attack me; each would win. But wherefore doubt? Is not loyalty a grander, nobler thing than life, than honor?” (Act 1, scene 4, p. 12). While Rosaura understands this hierarchy, she is still dedicated first to her own internal agenda as the act draws to a close, but she is learning the values of her society. It isn’t until she learns to hold her hand in deference to those older and wiser than she in dedication to the higher authority of a foreign crown that she begins to understand the dangers of following a path of personal honor without consideration or respect for greater events around her. Her progress serves as an example of expected behavior and honor within the society for the confused prince.
Like Rosaura, Segismundo has a legitimate reason to seek revenge against others for committing a wrong against an innocent and starts his life strongly devoted to his own agenda. Unlike Rosaura, though, he seems unsure of whom to blame and unclear as to how he would ever be able to exact this revenge given his long-term imprisonment. His situation is made clear from his first appearance in the play as he ‘enjoys’ his limited time outside, chained to the rocks and still left wondering what he ever did to deserve such a harsh isolation from the rest of his community. In this isolation, he asks “how have I offended more, that the more you punish me? Must not other creatures be born? If born, what privilege can they over me allege of which I should not be free?” (Act 1, scene 2, p. 5). Thus, he already has a sense of honor, but it is not fully placed in perspective yet. He struggles to make sense of the world he finds himself in when he awakes in the palace by calmly asking questions of those around him, yet he remains in healthy doubt of what is actually happening. Although Clotaldo attempts to educate Segismundo about the hierarchy of loyalty and thus prove his own honorable and devoted service, Segismundo is not listening, instead giving into righteous anger at having been knowingly held in ignorance and isolation. It is Rosaura’s words that hold him in check when he would have attacked Clotaldo and it is her actions that continue to remind him what true honor is. That he has learned the lesson is shown in Act 3 as he releases Clotaldo to return to his king rather than putting him to death as he wishes. “The fidelity I envy must be honored and admitted” (Act 3, scene 4, p. 60). In this statement, Segismundo has turned the corner from seeking inner satisfaction of honor in favor of a more rounded perspective of events and a concern for greater justice which is favored by his society and expected of its king.
A code of honor is seemingly an inherent trait in all of these characters as they seek the most honorable answer to their problems. Although the king is faced with a difficult choice, he tries to choose for the welfare of his people first and provide for his son as well as he might. While this seems to backfire on him, his intentions as explained to the court were honorable for everyone involved. His identity is based upon his ability to objectively measure his own wants and needs against the needs of his community and to uphold the values of the group. The younger people are not so well-versed in how to handle conflicts of honor as shown through Rosaura and Segismundo as they continue to seek fulfillment of their identity through the channels of honor and its enforcement. Each of these characters have suffered wrongs they didn’t deserve but learn to put this aside for the greater good, thus demonstrating the code of honor as it was understood by the Spanish of Calderon’s time.
Calderon, Pedro. “Life is a Dream.” 2009. Web.