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  • The Case of Rosaura's Honor, and the Problem of Modernity (La vida es sueño)
  • Joachim Küpper

Calderón's La vida es sueño (c. 1635) begins with a female character, Rosaura, stepping onstage. She is the daughter of Violante, a lady at the imperial court of Moscow. When Violante was young, she entertained pre-marital relations with a courtier named Clotaldo, who left her, although he knew she was pregnant. We are not informed of Clotaldo's motives, but he is likely to have acted out of career opportunism. He was offered and accepted a position at the court of the Polish King Basilio. When Rosaura comes to Poland some twenty years later, Clotaldo is what one might call the "privado," the first courtier of the Polish King. As an illegitimate child, Rosaura is without honor ("honor") in the sense of reputation and social acceptability. But she has yet another problem: at court in Moscow, she met a young nobleman named Astolfo, who succeeded in winning her favor. Afterwards, he did to her what her father had already done to her mother, Violante: he left her for selfish reasons. He went to Poland as a suitor to princess Estrella, because he hoped by marrying her to inherit the Polish throne from their common uncle, Basilio.

Born without honor and forsaken by her lover: this is Rosaura's situation at the beginning of the play, a situation largely brought about by contingency, by adversa fortuna, as it was called in the seventeenth century. She is not responsible for her illegitimate birth, and her surrender to Astolfo's carnal desires, although considered sinful from the standpoint of moral theology, was not a serious mistake measured by the standards of courtly society. Thus, one may regard Rosaura's being without a husband as the consequence of another interference of adversa fortuna: namely the fact that, by contingency, in a neighboring kingdom the dynastic situation is such that it offers Astolfo the prospects to achieve the rank of king. [End Page 509]

What Rosaura does in this situation is perfectly understandable by modern standards. She does not accept what contingency has inflicted upon her; she decides instead to claim agency by searching for her father and her lover to make them restore her reputation. She cross-dresses as a man and travels on horseback to Poland. My reading may well seem an over-interpretation, but I will try to substantiate it in the following argument: the function of Rosaura in this play is to represent an attitude towards life that we may call the basis of modernity, a radically different position from earlier periods. According to this attitude one should not simply accept the world and reality as they are; nor should one assign meaning to facts by interpreting contingency as a form of higher necessity (e.g. mythical necessity) or as a consequence of the will of God or Providence. Rather, one should try to set things right or to mend, as it were, the defects of the factual world. To cite a formula that was to become prominent roughly 150 years later, one should pursue one's happiness. One may call this basically modern attitude the project of self-assertion.

Of course, a Christian understanding of life's misfortunes also differs from the way these problems were treated in mythical ages—Christianity does not require that humans passively accept their fate. The crucial difference between traditional Christian and modern attitudes towards contingency, however, is that Catholic belief allows for agency only within certain limits, namely the limits of moral theology, that is, tradition and dogma. This excludes the freedom to transgress the boundaries of the "role," to put it in Golden Age terms, which God as the creator of all human beings has allocated to each individual at birth. In the case of Calderón's drama, this would refer to Rosaura taking on a masculine identity and thus denying being born female.1

This assessment of Rosaura's choice may well prompt a contemporary reader to ask what else she could have done to restore her honor: should she have submissively accepted her misfortune? The answer is...