Calderón de la Barca
In my last post I looked at George Herbert. Calderón de la Barca was his contemporary in Spain. The two are not particularly alike, but I came across them both when I was a teenager. We studied El medico de su honra for A level Spanish. The story did not engage me in the least, but there was something fascinating about the language. I remember poring over these lines:
No te espantes que los ojos
También se quejan, señor;
Que dicen que amor y honor
Pueden, sin que a nadie asombre,
Permitir que llore un hombre;
Y yo tengo honor y amor.
Honor, que siempre he guardado
Como noble y bien nacido,
Y amor que siempre he tenido
Como esposo enamorado.
Do not be shocked that eyes//Also complain, my lord,//Since they say that love and honour//Can, to no one’s surprise,//Allow a man to cry;//And I have honour and love.// I have always kept my honour//As a well-born nobleman,//And love I have always had//As a loving husband.
Gutierre is talking to the King. He is about to confess that he believes his wife has been playing around with the king’s brother, the Infante. This is a moment of high emotional intensity. It is the crux of the drama: he loves her and he loves his honour; that is what is going to make him kill her.
Imagine me as a seventeen-year-old geek in Somerset, going for long walks on the hills at the weekends and reading all the time. That England was not close to Spain. All that talk of honour and nobility could not have been more distant from my experience of life as a common teenager in a posh school. It was fascinating. I was reading Shakespeare (and also studying him at a painful snail’s pace at school). The imaginative worlds of the two writers seemed to be radically different.
Shakespeare was open to the woods and the trees where I was walking at the weekends, whereas the world of Calderón was sharply cut and formally expressed in tight interior scenes. I could imagine it presented on the stage: the clear and inevitable denouement of the tragedy would be evident from the first scene; you would follow the language as it played itself out in those beautiful passages of verse.
Subsequently I read more of Calderón. La Vida es Sueño captivated me. What a strange play! A child, Segismundo, is shut away in a cave because his father believes a horoscope that says he will be the horror of the age. He brings him into the court and it turns out exactly as predicted so he is taken back to his mountain prison. There he is unable to tell whether his experience in the court was a dream or reality. When Segismundo eventually comes back into the world and claims his rightful place as king, he conquers his passions by reflecting continually that life is but a dream.
Calderón takes an idea and works it out on the stage. They are philosophical plays. The characters and personalities of the cast are not as important as that working out, and the poetry works along with it. There is a stark discipline in that writing. How many times does he mention the words honor and amor in ten lines? The only image is the eyes, which seem to be reflected in the extraordinary number of Os, culminating in that last line: como esposo enamorado.
I was used to the rhyming of nobles in Shakespeare. In Calderón the rhymes come back quicker because the lines are shorter. There is no time for the lilting of the pentameter here; no place for lyrical beauty. It is as though the language is squeezed in tight and purposeful to a restrictive formal code, which is I suppose how I thought about Spanish seventeenth-century culture generally.
There is an odd connection between Calderón and England. In 1623 the young Charles I made an extraordinary journey to Madrid under a false name in an attempt to win the Philip IV’s daughter. While he was in Madrid he saw one of the first plays by the Spanish dramatist. Perhaps if he had understood a little more of the language, he would have realized that the cocky language of “mounting Spain,” which he seems to have got from the Spanish Ambassador in London, would get him nowhere in the court of Philip IV.
In Spain there was a tight connection between amor and honor!