A Hero’s Fate: Chaucer and Calderon

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First read this passage from Calderon’s Life is a Dream:

Segismundo:      “Ah woe is me! Ah, how wretched I am!

                                Heavens, I seek to inquire—

                                Since you treat me this way—

                                What crime I committed

                                Against you when I was born” (11).

Now read this passage from Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida (excerpt is not in Middle English):

                                “At length he said, ‘Fortune, what have I done?

                                In what have I offended you?  For pity

                                How could you deceive me thus?  Must Cressida

                                Be thieved away because you have willed it so? 

                                How can you find it in your heart to be

                                So cruel toward me?” (479) *

Do you see the similarities?  While Chaucer wrote Troilus and Cressida in the 14th century and Calderon wrote Life is a Dream in the 17th century, the two passages are extremely similar.  Both focus on a protagonist who ponders the power of “Fortune.”  Both characters ask predominantly again and again, “why me?”  And secondarily, they query, “is it possible to overcome the seemingly impossible?” 

In both of these cases, the one in which Chaucer creates and Calderon’s as well, the characters that do not alter their lives based upon the belief that “Fortune” or “Fate” ultimately has control are usually the heroes.  In Troilus and Cressida, Troilus maintains hope that his lady love Cressida will return to him.  Whereas, Cressida gives up hope and says that it is her fate to be separate from Troilus.  Much in the same way, Basilio puts extreme faith in the stars and fate, whereas Segismundo does not.

Something I found really poignant about the written play, which I missed in seeing the play performed was why Segismundo acted out at times.  Segismundo stubbornly refuses to admit that he cannot conquer his “fate.”  It is when someone for example, servant 2 says, “That can’t be done” (81), that Segismundo picks him up and throws him out the window.  It is the belief that it cannot be done, which spurs Segismundo into action, not some animalistic cruelty.  And Rosaura’s exclamation that, “…it wouldn’t dare—it couldn’t—overcome your respect for me” (93), is what causes Segismundo to lose control of himself with her.  What it really comes down to is a battle to defeat what is expected. 

So my question is this, why do you think such literary greats as Chaucer and Calderon focus so much on this idea?  Is it still relatable to us today, why or why not?  Do you think literary works focus more or less on this idea today?

Read more on Calderon's Life is a Dream

*Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Cressida. The Portable Chaucer. Ed. and Trans. Theodore Morrison. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 1977:345-555.

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