Often times people draw upon inspiration from their own lives when trying to come up with something creative. A novelist might recall a childhood friendship when writing a children’s book about making new friends. An actor might remember an especially emotional moment they experienced when trying to draw forth tears for a scene. An artist might think of a time when they felt pure joy or devastating sorrow when painting a masterpiece. This method of looking back on past experiences is not a new concept, in fact it has been used by artists throughout history. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, famous Spanish Golden Age dramatist, is no exception. His tumultuous life filled with fights, academia, lovers, trauma, spirituality, drama, and passion no doubt played a role in his writing. When considering this, one play in particular stands out; arguably his most famous, La Vida es Sueño, or Life is a Dream. The characters and themes found in this play lie in the realm of possibility and probability when taking into account their relation to the writer’s history. Calderón’s complex toxic relationship with his father manifested in his playwriting, especially in his writing of La Vida es Sueño.Calderón’s authoritarian father treated him in a way that was likely very traumatic for him. Although it was not uncommon in that society for fathers to be strict and oppressive, his actions and treatment clearly left a mark on his son. At a very young age he was forced into the schooling of the church, a move instigated by his grandmother’s will and later by his father’s. These two both badly wanted Calderón to become a priest and no doubt punished him while they were alive for any disobedience he may have shown. It is likely that this pressure to conform to his family’s wishes is what caused Calderón to do exactly the opposite. Bruce Wardropper writes that, “Instead, he wrote plays… many of them featuring an unappealing character who is a tyrannical father, against whom a son rebels” (1). This character most likely stems from Calderón’s experience with his own father. Because of the nature of the society of the time and the normalization of this toxic relationship, it was likely that Calderón never got the chance to stand up to his father or rebel in a big way while his father was alive. Calderón’s father passed away when he was relatively young, and because of this it’s probable that he never achieved closure for the trauma he experienced. Melveena Mckendrick writes that he, “… consistently depicts the father-child relationship as an extremely problematic one… the role played by the family in fashioning individuals into responsible members of society is a continuing theme in his work” (161-162). Perhaps Calderón’s repeated writing of this relationship was his way of achieving the closure he needed. Calderón’s illegitimate brother and the secrets his father kept about him could also prove to be a factor behind his obsession with writing about toxic father-son relationships. Francisco González Calderón was unknown to Pedro or his legitimate brothers until their father wrote about him in his will. Alexander Parker writes, “The existence of this illegitimate lost son, abandoned by the father for his bad conduct, also to be disinherited if her ceased to obey his father’s wishes after the latter’s death, completes the background for the way in which the father-son relationship is presented in Calderón’s drama” (72). This treatment is yet another example of the strict and tyrannical nature of Calderón’s father and his rejection of disobedience. The plot device of an unknown son is one that is often seen in his plays, which supports the belief that Calderón not only used his own turbulent relationship with his father as inspiration for his characters but his brother’s as well. Parker writes, “… a recurring theme, that of a stern, authoritarian father in conflict with a wild and rebellious son, who is sometimes not acknowledged to be an actual son until the end of the play, having appeared until then to be a youth of unknown parentage” (71). It is possible that Calderón found a kinship in this brother that he did not know because of their shared experience with their oppressive father, and used this to aide in his writing. The play in which Calderón’s life connects the most closely to is La Vida es Sueño. The protagonist, Segismundo, experiences a conflict with his father that, in a way, parallels Calderón’s issues with his own father. Calderón’s feelings of disapproval and his belief that he was doing the wrong thing even though it’s what made him happy are also felt by Segismundo. Anthony Cascardi writes in his book, Ideologies of History in the Spanish Golden Age, that “The alienation Segismundo experiences… is due to a violent dislocation in the structure of authority that in traditional, patriarchal societies is meant to pass from father to son” (93). This challenge he poses to the normal way father-son relationships were run in society is similar to Calderón’s own defiance towards this norm. But with defiance comes an initial repression, which both men experience. Cascardi writes in The Limits of Illusion: a Critical Study of Calderón, that “Segismundo has been repressed physically, deprived of political freedom, and of self-knowledge; he has been reared apart from his father. He seeks to overcome his repression. He wants freedom and understanding” (18). This disconnect from his father is seen in Calderón’s life as well as he lost his father at a relatively young age, his father and never gained a true understanding of his son.
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