Two of the dramas contained in this volume are the most celebrated of all Calderon's writings. The first, "La Vida es Sueno", has been translated into many languages and performed with success on almost every stage in Europe but that of England. So late as the winter of 1866-7, in a Russian version, it drew crowded houses to the great theatre of Moscow; while a few years earlier, as if to give a signal proof of the reality of its title, and that Life was indeed a Dream, the Queen of Sweden expired in the theatre of Stockholm during the performance of "La Vida es Sueno". In England the play has been much studied for its literary value and the exceeding beauty and lyrical sweetness of some passages; but with the exception of a version by John Oxenford published in "The Monthly Magazine" for 1842, which being in blank verse does not represent the form of the original, no complete translation into English has been attempted. Some scenes translated with considerable elegance in the metre of the original were published by Archbishop Trench in 1856; but these comprised only a portion of the graver division of the drama. The present version of the entire play has been made with the advantages which the author's long experience in the study and interpretation of Calderon has enabled him to apply to this master-piece of the great Spanish poet. All the forms of verse have been preserved; while the closeness of the translation may be inferred from the fact, that not only the whole play but every speech and fragment of a speech are represented in English in the exact number of lines of the original, without the sacrifice, it is to be hoped, of one important idea.
A note by Hartzenbusch in the last edition of the drama published at Madrid (1872), tells that "La Vida es Sueno", is founded on a story which turns out to be substantially the same as that with which English students are familiar as the foundation of the famous Induction to the "Taming of the Shrew". Calderon found it however in a different work from that in which Shakespeare met with it, or rather his predecessor, the anonymous author of "The Taming of a Shrew", whose work supplied to Shakespeare the materials of his own comedy.
On this subject Malone thus writes. "The circumstance on which the Induction to the anonymous play, as well as to the present Comedy [Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew"], is founded, is related (as Langbaine has observed) by Heuterus, "Rerum Burgund." lib. iv. The earliest English original of this story in prose that I have met with is the following, which is found in Goulart's "Admirable and Memorable Histories", translated by E. Grimstone, quarto, 1607; but this tale (which Goulart translated from Heuterus) had undoubtedly appeared in English, in some other shape, before 1594:
"Philip called the good Duke of Burgundy, in the memory of our ancestors, being at Bruxelles with his Court, and walking one night after supper through the streets, accompanied by some of his favourites, he found lying upon the stones a certaine artisan that was very dronke, and that slept soundly. It pleased the prince in this artisan to make trial of the vanity of our life, whereof he had before discoursed with his familiar friends. He therefore caused this sleeper to be taken up, and carried into his palace; he commands him to be layed in one of the richest beds; a riche night cap to be given him; his foule shirt to be taken off, and to have another put on him of fine holland. When as this dronkard had digested his wine, and began to awake, behold there comes about his bed Pages and Groomes of the Duke's Chamber, who drawe the curteines, make many courtesies, and being bare-headed, aske him if it please him to rise, and what apparell it would please him to put on that day. They bring him rich apparell. This new Monsieur amazed at such courtesie, and doubting whether he dreamt or waked, suffered himselfe to be drest, and led out of the chamber. There came noblemen which saluted him with all honour, and conduct him to the Masse, where with great ceremonie they give him the booke of the Gospell, and the Pixe to kisse, as they did usually to the Duke. From the Masse they bring him back unto the pallace; he washes his hands, and sittes down at the table well furnished. After dinner, the Great Chamberlain commands cards to be brought with a great summe of money. This Duke in imagination playes with the chief of the Court. Then they carry him to walke in the gardein, and to hunt the hare, and to hawke. They bring him back into the pallace, where he sups in state. Candles being light the musitions begin to play; and the tables taken away, the gentlemen and gentlewomen fell to dancing....