Born: January 17, 1600 C.E.
Died: May 25 1681, also in Madrid.
Chief accomplishment in between: published over 200 plays. Approximately 120 of them have survived to the present day. Also published many autos sacramentales
-style pieces that utilize allegorical
characters to treat upon the Eucharistic Mystery
), more than 70 of which survive to the present day.
Calderón was the son of a minor official at the royal court of Spain. He received his education at a Jesuit preparatory school, which was typical in his day for a youth of his social ranking; from there, he went on to study law at the University of Alcalá de Henares and the University of Salamanca, but did not earn a degree. Calderón managed to garner the attention of Lope de Vega (Spain's most prominent playwright at the time) in 1620, when he won a poetry contest that was being held in honor of St. Isidore, which Lope judged entries for. In 1623, Calderón's first play was performed at court, entitled Love, Honour, and Power-- standard fare during Spain's Golden Age. Calderón did some short stints in the military, then began to really garner public attention with his plays after 1626. In 1635, Lope died, and Calderón took his place as the nation's most important playwright.
Calderón was knighted by King Philip IV and became principal court playwright in 1635. 1636 saw the publication of what is regarded as his most significant play: La Vida Es Sueño (Life Is a Dream). His career remained celebrated-- until tragedy struck (cue dramatic incidental music).
In 1648 his mistress died (Calderón had never married her). He chose to adopt and raise her son, who may have been his natural child, and in 1651 he entered the priesthood, overseeing a parish in Toledo. His bishop discouraged him from writing plays, and thus from this point on Calderón published only autos sacramentales. He was so successful in this genre that between 1647 and 1681, the only autos sacramentales enacted in Madrid were those which Calderón had penned. In 1663, he was made chaplain to the king; this was the last honour he ever took.
Calderón's plays fit very neatly into the two genre's most popular in Spain's Golden Age of Theatre: capa y espada ("cape and sword") plays, which are heroic and romantic; and love-and-honour plays, in which a character is torn between acting out of love, or acting out of... you get the idea. (For example, in La Vida es Sueño, the character of Clotaldo must choose between saving the life of the person he believes is his son, or performing his duty to King Basil and executing said person.) Calderón died the undisputed master of the auto sacramentale genre of production, and he holds that distinction to this day.
Sources for this writeup: The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 3rd Edition; http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03156a.htm; http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc49.htm.