Fiction > Harvard Classics > Pedro Calderón de la Barca > Life Is a Dream
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681).  Life Is a Dream.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Act I
Scene II
The Palace at Warsaw

Enter on one side ASTOLFO, Duke of Muscovy, with his train: and, on the other, the PRINCESS ESTRELLA, with hers.

  ASTOLFO.  My royal cousin, if so near in blood,
Till this auspicious meeting scarcely known,
Till all that beauty promised in the bud
Is now to its consummate blossom blown,
Well met at last; and may—        5
  ESTRELLA.        Enough, my Lord,
Of compliment devised for you by some
Court tailor, and, believe me, still too short
To cover the designful heart below.
  AST.  Nay, but indeed, fair cousin—        10
  Est.        Ay, let Deed
Measure your words, indeed your flowers of speech
Ill with your iron equipage atone;
Irony indeed, and wordy compliment.
  AST.  Indeed, indeed, you wrong me, royal cousin,        15
And fair as royal, misinterpreting
What, even for the end you think I aim at,
If false to you, were fatal to myself.
  EST.  Why, what else means the glittering steel, my Lord,
That bristles in the rear of these fine words?        20
What can it mean, but, failing to cajole,
To fight or force me from my just pretension?
  AST.  Nay, might I not ask ev’n the same of you,
The nodding helmets of whose men-at-arms
Out-crest the plumage of your lady court?        25
  EST.  But to defend what yours would force from me.
  AST.  Might not I, lady, say the same of mine?
But not to come to battle, ev’n of words,
With a fair lady, and my kinswoman;
And as averse to stand before your face,        30
Defenceless, and condemn’d in your disgrace,
Till the good king be here to clear it all—
Will you vouchsafe to hear me?
  EST.        As you will.
  AST.  You know that, when about to leave this world,        35
Our royal grandsire, King Alfonso, left
Three children; one a son, Basilio,
Who wears—long may he wear!—the crown of Poland;
And daughters twain: of whom the elder was
Your mother, Clorilena, now some while        40
Exalted to a more than mortal throne;
And Recisunda, mine, the younger sister,
Who, married to the Prince of Muscovy,
Gave me the light which may she live to see
Herself for many, many years to come.        45
Meanwhile, good King Basilio, as you know,
Deep in abstruser studies than this world,
And busier with the stars than lady’s eyes,
Has never by a second marriage yet
Replaced, as Poland ask’d of him, the heir        50
An early marriage brought and took away;
His young queen dying with the son she bore him;
And in such alienation grown so old
As leaves no other hope of heir to Poland
Than his two sisters’ children; you, fair cousin,        55
And me; for whom the Commons of the realm
Divide themselves into two several factions;
Whether for you, the elder sister’s child;
Or me, born of the younger, but, they say,
My natural prerogative of man        60
Outweighing your priority of birth.
Which discord growing loud and dangerous,
Our uncle, King Basilio, doubly sage
In prophesying and providing for
The future, as to deal with it when come,        65
Bids us here meet to-day in solemn council
Our several pretensions to compose.
And, but the martial out-burst that proclaims
His coming, makes all further parley vain,
Unless my bosom, by which only wise        70
I prophesy, now wrongly prophesies,
By such a happy compact as I dare
But glance at till the Royal Sage declare.
Trumpets, etc. Enter KING BASILIO with his Council

  ALL.  The King! God save the King!
  ESTRELLA  (Kneeling.)        Oh, Royal Sir!—        75
  ASTOLFO  (Kneeling.)        God save your Majesty—
  KING.        Rise both of you,
Rise to my arms, Astolfo and Estrella;
As my two sisters’ children always mine,
Now more than ever, since myself and Poland        80
Solely to you for our succession look’d.
And now give ear, you and your several factions,
And you, the Peers and Princes of this realm,
While I reveal the purport of this meeting
In words whose necessary length I trust        85
No unsuccessful issue shall excuse.
You and the world who have surnamed me “Sage”
Know that I owe that title, if my due,
To my long meditation on the book
Which ever lying open overhead—        90
The book of heaven, I mean—so few have read;
Whose golden letters on whose sapphire leaf,
Distinguishing the page of day and night,
And all the revolution of the year;
So with the turning volume where they lie        95
Still changing their prophetic syllables,
They register the destinies of men:
Until with eyes that, dim with years indeed,
Are quicker to pursue the stars than rule them,
I get the start of Time, and from his hand        100
The wand of tardy revelation draw.
Oh, had the self-same heaven upon his page
Inscribed my death ere I should read my life
And, by fore-casting of my own mischance,
Play not the victim but the suicide        105
In my own tragedy!—But you shall hear.
You know how once, as kings must for their people,
And only once, as wise mien for themselves,
I woo’d and wedded: know too that my Queen
In childing died; but not, as you believe,        110
With her, the son she died in giving life to.
For, as the hour of birth was on the stroke,
Her brain conceiving with her womb, she dream’d
A serpent tore her entrail. And too surely
(For evil omen seldom speaks in vain)        115
The man-child breaking from that living tomb
That makes our birth the antitype of death,
Man-grateful, for the life she gave him paid
By killing her: and with such circumstance
As suited such unnatural tragedy;        120
He coming into light, if light it were
That darken’d at his very horoscope,
When heaven’s two champions—sun and moon I mean—
Suffused in blood upon each other fell
In such a raging duel of eclipse        125
As hath not terrified the universe
Since that which wept in blood the death of Christ:
When the dead walk’d, the waters turn’d to blood,
Earth and her cities totter’d, and the world
Seem’d shaken to its last paralysis.        130
In such a paroxysm of dissolution
That son of mine was born; by that first act
Heading the monstrous catalogue of crime,
I found fore-written in his horoscope;
As great a monster in man’s history        135
As was in nature his nativity;
So savage, bloody, terrible, and impious,
Who, should he live, would tear his country’s entrails
As by his birth his mother’s; with which crime
Beginning, he should clench the dreadful tale        140
By trampling on his father’s silver head.
All which fore-reading, and his act of birth
Fate’s warrant that I read his life aright;
To save his country from his mother’s fate,
I gave abroad that he had died with her        145
His being slew; with midnight secrecy
I had him carried to a lonely tower
Hewn from the mountain-barriers of the realm,
And under strict anathema of death
Guarded from men’s inquisitive approach,        150
Save from the trusty few one needs must trust;
Who while his fasten’d body they provide
With salutary garb and nourishment,
Instruct his soul in what no soul may miss
Of holy faith, and in such other lore        155
As may solace his life-imprisonment,
And tame perhaps the Savage prophesied
Toward such a trial as I aim at now,
And now demand your special hearing to.
What in this fearful business I have done,        160
Judge whether lightly or maliciously,—
I, with my own and only flesh and blood,
And proper lineal inheritor!
I swear, had his foretold atrocities
Touch’d me alone. I had not saved myself        165
At such a cost to him; but as a king,—
A Christian king,—I say, advisedly,
Who would devote his people to a tyrant
Worse than Caligula fore-chronicled?
But even this not without grave mis-giving,        170
Lest by some chance mis-reading of the stars,
Or mis-direction of what rightly read,
I wrong my son of his prerogative,
And Poland of her rightful sovereign.
For, sure and certain prophets as the stars,        175
Although they err not, he who reads them may;
Or rightly reading—seeing there is One
Who governs them, as, under Him, they us,
We are not sure if the rough diagram
They draw in heaven and we interpret here,        180
Be sure of operation, if the Will
Supreme, that sometimes for some special end
The course of providential nature breaks
By miracle, may not of these same stars
Cancel his own first draft, or overrule        185
What else fore-written all else overrules.
As, for example, should the Will Almighty
Permit the Free-will of particular man
To break the meshes of else strangling fate—
Which Free-will, fearful of foretold abuse,        190
I have myself from my own son fore-closed
From ever possible self-extrication;
A terrible responsibility,
Not to the conscience to be reconciled
Unless opposing almost certain evil        195
Against so slight contingency of good.
Well—thus perplex’d, I have resolved at last
To bring the thing to trial: whereunto
Here have I summon’d you, my Peers, and you
Whom I more dearly look to, failing him,        200
As witnesses to that which I propose;
And thus propose the doing it. Clotaldo,
Who guards my son with old fidelity,
Shall bring him hither from his tower by night
Lockt in a sleep so fast as by my art        205
I rivet to within a link of death,
But yet from death so far, that next day’s dawn
Shall wake him up upon the royal bed,
Complete in consciousness and faculty,
When with all princely pomp and retinue        210
My loyal Peers with due obeisance
Shall hail him Segismund, the Prince of Poland.
Then if with any show of human kindness
He fling discredit, not upon the stars,
But upon me, their misinterpreter,        215
With all apology mistaken age
Can make to youth it never meant to harm,
To my son’s forehead will I shift the crown
I long have wish’d upon a younger brow;
And in religious humiliation,        220
For what of worn-out age remains to me,
Entreat my pardon both of Heaven and him
For tempting destinies beyond my reach.
But if, as I misdoubt, at his first step
The hoof of the predicted savage shows;        225
Before predicted mischief can be done,
The self-same sleep that loosed him from the chain
Shall re-consign him, not to loose again.
Then shall I, having lost that heir direct,
Look solely to my sisters’ children twain        230
Each of a claim so equal as divides
The voice of Poland to their several sides,
But, as I trust, to be entwined ere long
Into one single wreath so fair and strong
As shall at once all difference atone,        235
And cease the realm’s division with their own.
Cousins and Princes, Peers and Councillors,
Such is the purport of this invitation,
And such is my design. Whose furtherance
If not as Sovereign, if not as Seer,        240
Yet one whom these white locks, if nothing else,
To patient acquiescence consecrate,
I now demand and even supplicate.
  AST.  Such news, and from such lips, may well suspend
The tongue to loyal answer most attuned;        245
But if to me as spokesman of my faction
Your Highness looks for answer; I reply
For one and all—Let Segismund, whom now
We first hear tell of as your living heir,
Appear, and but in your sufficient eye        250
Approve himself worthy to be your son,
Then we will hail him Poland’s rightful heir.
What says my cousin?
  EST.        Ay, with all my heart.
But if my youth and sex upbraid me not        255
That I should dare ask of so wise a king—
  KING.  Ask, ask, fair cousin! Nothing, I am sure,
Not well consider’d; nay, if ’twere, yet nothing
But pardonable from such lips as those.
  EST.  Then, with your pardon, Sir—if Segismund,        260
My cousin, whom I shall rejoice to hail
As Prince of Poland too, as you propose,
Be to a trial coming upon which
More, as I think, than life itself depends,
Why, Sir, with sleep-disorder’d senses brought        265
To this uncertain contest with his stars?
  KING.  Well ask’d indeed! As wisely be it answer’d!—
Because it is uncertain, see you not?
For as I think I can discern between
The sudden flaws of a sleep-startled man,        270
And of the savage thing we have to dread;
If but bewilder’d, dazzled, and uncouth,
As might the sanest and the civilest
In circumstance so strange—nay, more than that,
If moved to any out-break short of blood,        275
All shall be well with him; and how much more,
If ’mid the magic turmoil of the change,
He shall so calm a resolution show
As scarce to reel beneath so great a blow!
But if with savage passion uncontroll’d        280
He lay about him like the brute foretold,
And must as suddenly be caged again;
Then what redoubled anguish and despair,
From that brief flash of blissful liberty
Remitted—and for ever—to his chain!        285
Which so much less, if on the stage of glory
Enter’d and exited through such a door
Of sleep as makes a dream of all between.
  EST.  Oh kindly answer, Sir, to question that
To charitable courtesy less wise        290
Might call for pardon rather! I shall now
Gladly, what, uninstructed, loyally
I should have waited.
  AST.        Your Highness doubts not me,
Nor how my heart follows my cousin’s lips,        295
Whatever way the doubtful balance fall,
Still loyal to your bidding.
  OMNES.        So say all.
  KING.  I hoped, and did expect, of all no less—
And sure no sovereign ever needed more        300
From all who owe him love or loyalty.
For what a strait of time I stand upon,
When to this issue not alone I bring
My son your Prince, but e’en myself your King:
And, whichsoever way for him it turn,        305
Of less than little honour to myself.
For if this coming trial justify
My thus withholding from my son his right,
Is not the judge himself justified in
The father’s shame? And if the judge proved wrong,        310
My son withholding from his right thus long,
Shame and remorse to judge and father both:
Unless remorse and shame together drown’d
In having what I flung for worthless found.
But come—already weary with your travel,        315
And ill refresh’d by this strange history,
Until the hours that draw the sun from heaven
Unite us at the customary board,
Each to his several chamber: you to rest;
I to contrive with old Clotaldo best        320
The method of a stranger thing than old
Time has a yet among his records told.  [Exeunt.


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