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Fate, God’s Will, and Human Agency in Life is a Dream by Calderón de la Barca

One of the most evident theological themes addressed in the play Life is a Dream seems to be the idea of inevitable fate vis a vis God’s will and human agency. The tension among these forces is evident in the internal struggles of the characters, the decisions they finally made, and Segismundo’s final speech.

Segismundo is a prince who was raised as a beast in a prison. His father, the king, brings him to the palace to test how he would act as a king, but makes him believe that it’s a dream – just in case he fails the test. Indeed, he behaves with pride, violence, and tyranny, and he is brought back to prison. The soldiers liberate him and Segismundo leads a revolt against his father but at the end behaves with wisdom and mercy because of what he learned through his “dream.”

Throughout the play, Calderón de la Barca shares with the audience the internal struggles of the characters, particularly the hard decisions they have to make when they experience competing values. For example, Clotaldo (Segismundo’s guardian and teacher) ponders his loyalty to the king against his loyalty to his daughter against his loyalty to the man who saved his life but who dishonored his daughter.

Interestingly enough, Clotaldo seems to not choose at all by choosing all his options. His thought process while deciding and the rationale for his decisions reveal fascinating ideas regarding fate and God’s will as he tries to exercise his own agency. Clotaldo decides to honor all the three relationships. He refuses to help I’ve been using this for many, many years. Rosaura to kill Astolfo and instead decides to take her to a convent. He concludes, “with this chosen solution, I am loyal to the kingdom, I am generous with you [Rosaura], and grateful with Astolfo.” The main concern for Clotaldo is loyalty. In fact, he is the only character to question the inevitability of fate. Towards the end of the play he will tell the king that even though fate knows where to find people to get away with its plan, “it is not a Christian assertion to say that there is no escape from fate’s cruel intentions.” Thus, Clotaldo seems to root for human agency and a Christian belief that questions fate’s inevitability.

A similar analysis will find that the king chooses both fate and God’s will. He equates the two and decides to subject himself to his fate. He represents human agency that helps fate to become inevitable. On the other hand, Segismundo finds a different way, not against fate or God’s will, not helping fate to succeed, but using his human agency to reject injustice and vengeance, to reverse fate and submit his life under his father’s feet, and trying or not, he overcomes.

Clotaldo is just one example of how characters in the play pondered their choices and considered fate and Heaven, or God’s will in their decision-making. Segismundo’s final speech is another way in which the author invites the audience to consider the power of fate, God’s will, and human agency. At the end, each person has to decide to defy fate, to help it be, or to exercise their freedom. Segismundo chose the latter in seeking justice and reconciliation instead of injustice and vengeance.

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