Monday 8 July 2024

Love after Death by Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Originally Amar después de la Muerte, also known in English as To Love Beyond Death. I read the translation by Roy Campbell, in The Classic Theatre: Volume III (edited by Eric Bentley), which also contains The Trickster of Seville, Life Is a Dream, The Siege of Numantia, and a play adaptation of Celestina (though I read a different translation of Life is a Dream—Gwynne Edwards).  

1/ The good thing about reading many different authors from the same country and the same period is that you get to see different perspectives and the larger context. In Don Quixote, Cervantes writes about the expulsion of the Moors (1609-1614). In this play, Calderón writes about the period before the expulsion, the period of discrimination and conflict and rebellion. He especially focuses on the perspective of the Moors. 

“MALEC […] though it was just 

That Arab speech and customs must, 

In the long run, give place to Spanish, 

Yet such a harsh and furious thrust 

Some few surviving traits to banish 

Which of their own accord would vanish 

I thought excessive and unjust, 

And begged them to restrain their zeal 

Lest violence prove resort to steel, 

When ancient custom’s spurned as dust…” 

(Act 1) 

Malec is an old Moor, and he’s physically struck by Don John of Mendoza. 

“MALEC […] I’ll go around, persuading all. 

It would be infamous disgrace 

Such wrongs as mine in vain should call 

Demanding vengeance from our race.” 


This is good. Like Cervantes, Calderón portrays the Moors sympathetically. Don John of Mendoza, he depicts as hateful. Now you may argue that I’m looking at it through modern eyes, but Love After Death begins with the Moorish characters and when we get Mendoza’s words “The Moors—despicable and vile!”, they’re quoted by Matec and seen through his perspective. 

Calderón later depicts Mendoza in his own voice, and Mendoza sounds like a racist, especially in that scene where Zuñiga (the magistrate) tries to make peace between Don John of Mendoza and Matec by getting him to marry Matec’s daughter Doña Clara. 

“MENDOZA […] It’s indecent to mix Mendoza blood with 

The blood of the Matecs. They do not ring

Together in the same selfsame sort of key—

“Mendoza” with “Malec” cannot agree!

VÁLOR Don John Malec’s a man…

MENDOZA And one like you! 

VÁLOR Yes, for his ancestors were a whole line 

Of kings on either side, and so were mine. 

MENDOZA Yes, but my own, although they were not kings

Were higher than the kings of Moors; they were 

Castilian highlanders and mountaineers.” 

(Act 1) 

How vile. 

And yet, it’s not so simple. Whereas Lope de Vega writes two-dimensional villains and unambiguously good characters, that’s not the case with Calderón. Don John of Mendoza, everyone will agree, is racist towards the Moors, and yet he has a secret love affair with Doña Isabel Tuzaní, sister of Don Alvaro Tuzaní, and a Moor who converted to Christianity. 

2/ Look at Garcés, a Spanish soldier:  

“GARCÉS […] No soon were we by those crags surrounded 

Than he gave tongue, and all the rock resounded 

With Moorish horns responding to his yelp. 

Like dogs they rushed their fellow-cur to help…”

(Act 2) 

Calderón depicts (some of) the Spaniards as hateful and barbaric, and the Moors as vengeful—but justifiably so. 

“GARCÉS […] Have then no pity 

On children, let the old men not escape, 

And let the women be for spoil and rape—

It is this last I’m recommending chiefly.” 


I don’t doubt that Calderón has sympathy for the Moors (even if the comic character of Alcuzcuz might be seen as problematic). It is more obviously sympathetic than Shakespeare’s attitude about the Jews. 

Calderón also has sympathy for women: 

“CLARA […] How base of Nature and how cruel 

To trick us out for ear and eye 

With wit and beauty, each a jewel, 

And honour, too, with them to vie, 

A blazing diamond, brighter yet—

But ah! how insecurely set! 

What greater woe is there to feel 

For women, than that we can steal 

A husband’s honour, or with shame 

Besmirch even a father’s name—

Yet not restore or wash the same…” 

(Act 1) 

That’s good. That’s very good. 

3/ I read Shakespeare’s history plays and saw there were too many Henrys. Now Calderón’s play has too many Don Johns: Don John Malec (“New Christian” of Moorish descent), Don John of Mendoza (the Spanish racist), and Prince Don John of Austria. 

4/ I don’t want you to think that Love After Death is only interesting for its social themes and progressive attitudes—Calderón’s poetry seems great, even though I only read it in translation. 

For example: 

“DON JOHN OF AUSTRIA Insulting, bold, rebellious mountain range

Whose wild uncultured ruggedness, whose strange

Outlandish height, whose awful weight, whose horrid

Monstrous build and overwhelming forehead 

Fatigue the ground, expand the air and earth, 

And make the sky conceive a monstrous birth! 

Primeval lair of bandits, thieves, and vandals, 

Whose breast, a thundercloud of plots and scandals, 

Gives forth seditious lightings, word for word, 

That striking here, in Africa are heard!...” 

(Act 2) 

Striking imagery. 

Or this passage, when Don John of Mendoza points at the landmarks: 

“MENDOZA […] That other, there, they call Galera, maybe

Because its keeled foundation’s like a galley’s 

Or that it rides an ocean of scrolled rocks, 

Curling like waves, and heaves a foam of flowers 

Spuming around, like a shawl of spray. 

It looks as though, subjected to the winds,

It turned and veered with them above the world.” 

(Act 2) 

If only I could read all this in the original! 

“GARCÉS […] Any moment

You can expect the mountain-side to burst 

And fill the sky with thunderclouds of dust…” 

(Act 2) 

All this is a very good. The translator himself, Roy Campbell, is a poet. 

Look at Don Alvaro Tuzaní’s description of war and destruction: 

“ALVARO […] All adders 

The houses are, of coiling flames, 

Of spiral smoke, gyrating screams 

That go on winding up the ladders 

Of their own ruin till it seems 

They re-establish there on high 

A capital of ghastly dreams 

And ghoulish nightmares in the sky!...” 

(Act 3) 

This could fit in a Shakespeare play. 

The greatest scene in Love After Death is probably after Don Alvaro Tuzaní watches his beloved Doña Clara Malec die:

“ALVARO […] You heavens that look down upon my pain, 

You mountains that behold my wrongs in vain, 

You winds that hear my sorrow and you fires

Who witness this the wreck of my desires, 

How could you have permitted that the best 

Light of this world, the star of all the west, 

Should be put out? The fairest flower grow pale? 

The sweetest breath be missing from the gale?

[…] My sole belief, 

Creed, faith, hope, or religion is my grief…” 

(Act 3) 

What a magnificent monologue. 

“ALVARO It is the most unearthly grief, 

A sorrow that surpasses all belief, 

Beyond alleviation or relief, 

To have seen die (how lamentably! how 

Piteously!) the partner of one’s vow, 

The person that one loves! It is the summit 

Of icy, piercing grief. It is the plummet 

That deepest sounds the gulf of black despair…” 


I don’t see such depth of feeling in Lope de Vega, at least not in the plays I have read. Calderón is my boy.  

This is a great play. Spanish Golden Age drama doesn’t get much attention in the English-speaking world, methinks—if you read only one play, go for Calderón’s Life Is a Dream; if you want to read two plays, add Love After Death or The Dog in the Manger

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