By Lauren Cooper
Women dressed as men, feuds fueled by honor, a power struggle for a foreign throne, and a swordfight to the death. This plot summary could describe any Shakespearean drama that the typical American student has been forced to read time and time again throughout her prolonged education. After a while, the tropes become old and bleed together until they are nearly indistinguishable. But what if I told you that the final battle wasn’t staged with swords, but kazoos—a massive kazoo battle culminating in a dance-off. The play doesn’t sound Shakespearean any more, does it?
In fact, it’s not Shakespeare, the English Bard, but his Spanish contemporary Pedro Calderón de la Barca, whose 1635 comedy La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) not only enjoyed massive popularity in its day, but has also played a key role in the twentieth-century Spanish and French avant-garde movements. These two playwrights, who created during the same period in rival empires, tell nearly identical stories. Hamlet and La Vida es Sueño, for example, are steeped in drama, suspense, and occasional bawdy humor. But it is the centrality of the humor, or lack thereof, that distinguishes the two.
The first place that this humor shows is in the text itself. The first scene in Hamlet shows a ghost; the first scene in La Vida es Sueño shows someone falling off of a horse—the tone of each play is set from the first lines. However, more than the text itself, the differences between these two national playwrights can be seen in the portrayal of their works on stage. When confronted with a three-hour long play, stage directors are forced to make cuts to the text, and they are often faced with a choice between the subplots that add to, but don’t define, the narrative (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and humanizing fillers (suggestive jokes that appear between scenes). In modern day productions, directors of Hamlet seem to side with the dramatic, while directors of La Vida es Sueño, as evidenced by the kazoos used in a recent English adaptation at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, emphasize the absurd.
It is difficult to determine exactly why this difference has emerged in the modern day. Looking at production styles from the seventeenth century, it seems that Shakespearean plays—both tragedies and comedies—could be raucous events, just like Calderón’s plays in Spain. At some point, this changed in England, perhaps due to the events shaping English society during the following centuries. As the fledgling English empire grew, gaining control of a good portion of the world’s landmass, perhaps a more serious image was required. This conservative style is certainly reflected in later English cultural production. Meanwhile, the once powerful Spanish empire, recently defeated in a naval battle with England, entered into a period of decline known as the Decadencia. Confronted with a loss of political power, perhaps the humor present in political dramas became a central and sustaining focus.
Turning to the modern day, Shakespeare has not only entered into, but has also become a central figure in a literary canon filled with dramatic texts. It is perhaps this academic focus that prevents the modern reader or audience from fully appreciating the humor in Shakespeare’s texts. Calderón, on the other hand, while well known in certain literary circles, remains largely unstudied in academia. Read in the context of other Spanish works—often defined by satire, parody, and absurdism of a level unseen in the English canon—Calderón’s humor can be appreciated without diminishing his importance within the Spanish literary canon.
You’ve heard of Shakespeare—he’s good. Even if he seems a bit conservative, he deserves your recognition. But so does Calderón. And within his dramatic texts you may find something altogether different, something that that you don’t feel the need to “take seriously.”