Ferdinand’s Renunciation

From The Constant Prince
Pedro Calderón de la Barca tr. Geoffrey O’Brien

First performed in 1629, when Calderón was twenty-nine, El Principe Constante (The Constant Prince or, in another rendering, The Firm-Hearted Prince) is founded on an episode of Portuguese history with which the playwright takes great liberties. According to surviving accounts, Prince Fernando, brother of King Duarte, led a military expedition to Tangier in 1437; after a lengthy siege he was trapped by reinforcements from Fez and taken prisoner. During the negotiations for his ransom, it was proposed at one point to restore the city of Ceuta, which Portugal had recently wrested from the Moors. There was considerable debate on the Portuguese side about the appropriateness of this restoration, and in the event the question of ransom remained unresolved; Fernando (who had pleaded that the exchange be made) died in Fez after years of captivity. Calderón radically revises the situation; here it is Fernando who, on learning that his recently deceased brother has ordered in his will the restoration of Ceuta to the Moors, defiantly refuses to be ransomed by placing a city under Christian rule in Muslim hands, and thereby embraces what proves a long and painful martyrdom. In the scene as presented below, which occurs in the second of the play’s three acts, Fernando (as translated here, Ferdinand) learns from his brother Henry (Enrico) of the death of their brother the king, while the prince’s captor the King of Fez looks on.

The long speech in which he makes his declaration is the exact center of the play; and the climax of the speech is Ferdinand’s action of tearing, and then eating, the royal document decreeing that Ceuta be ceded. Ferdinand, like so many of Calderón’s protagonists, is a logician of extreme rigor, insistent on pushing every argument toward its most extreme implications. Obedient to the theology that defines him, he asserts that such a document could not exist, since it contradicts the religious truths on which Christian royal authority itself is founded. By violently destroying the paper, Ferdinand heals the impossibility: the document could not have existed, no longer exists, and therefore it is as if it never existed. Taking the argument to a further stage, he declares that the ceding of Ceuta was intended to ransom a prince; but no such prince exists, since Ferdinand the prince is dead and now only Ferdinand the slave exists. He renounces his freedom in what amounts to a supreme act of freedom, disappointing the wishes of both his captors and his would-be rescuers.

As always with Calderón, the play’s form is both mathematical and musical. Its proportions are symmetrically patterned and its arias give musical shape to philosophical arguments. All paradoxes will be satisfactorily resolved, and the totality of human actions finally seen as an aspect of a larger harmony. Calderón’s genius is to preserve a logic—whether it is the logic of Catholic theology or, elsewhere, of male codes of honor—while expressing with incomparable precision and claustrophobic force the devastating price of that salvaging, the enormous and at times seemingly insane effort required to keep everything from falling apart. His tightly sealed constructions enact a supreme expression of the very chaos they ward off.   – G. O.

Henry:
After the armada was broken and undone
that with vain pride
made the seas tremble,
leaving behind in Africa
the captured prince,
I returned to Lisbon.
From the moment when Duarte
heard the tragic news
his heart was wrapped
in such sadness
that, his initial melancholy
giving way to lethargy,
by dying he gave the lie
to those who say sorrow cannot kill.
The King is dead, may he rest in peace.

Ferdinand:
Oh God! my imprisonment
afflicted him so much?

King of Fez:
                    Allah knows
how this misfortune affects me.
Continue.

Henry:
                    In his last testament
my lord the King ordered that at once,
in exchange for the person of the prince,
Ceuta be rendered up.
And thus invested with the powers
of his heir Alfonso—for only such a light
could make up for the sun’s absence—
I have come to surrender the city;
and so…

Ferdinand:
          Don’t go on. Stop.
Stop, Henry, for these
are words unworthy not only
of a prince of Portugal,
of a master who professes
the religion of Christ, but vile
even for a commoner, a barbarian
deprived of the light
of the eternal faith of Christ.
If my brother, who is in Heaven,
left this clause in his testament
it was not for it
to be read and acted upon
but only to affirm
his desire for my freedom,
to be sought for by any other
means and conveniences,
whether peaceful or cruel.
To say “Surrender Ceuta”
is like saying: “Before reaching
that point, do anything else.”
For how, how is it possible
that a just and Catholic king
could yield to a Moor
a city paid for with his own blood,
since he was the first,
armed only with sword and buckler,
who set his flags
flying on its ramparts?
And that’s the least of it.
For a city that confesses
its Catholic faith to God,
worthy of churches
dedicated with love and reverence
to his worship,
is it a Catholic action or
an expression of religion,
is it Christian piety
or a deed worthy of Portugal
that the sovereign temples,
Atlantises of the celestial spheres,
in place of golden
sun-reflecting lights
should behold Ottoman shadows,
and that these contrary moons,
these eclipses, in the church
should engender tragedy?
Is it right that its chapels
should be turned to stables,
its altars into mangers,
or, if this were not bad enough,
that they be turned into mosques?
Here I stop my tongue,
here my breath fails me,
here pain overwhelms me;
for at the mere thought of it
my heart breaks,
my hair stands on end
and my whole body trembles.
It would not be the first time
that stables and mangers
have given refuge to God.
But as mosques they would be
epitaphs, a testimony
of eternal dishonor,
saying: “Here God
once dwelled, until the Christians
denied it, and handed it over
to the Devil.” Further, is it not said,
to speak only of ordinary decency,
that no one should ever be insulted
in his own house? Could it be right then
that vice should enter
the very dwelling of God,
accompanied by us, ourselves?
That we should stand at the door
to keep vice within
and chase God outside?
The Catholics who live in that city
with their families and households
will perhaps abjure their faith
in order to save them.
Is it good that we
should bring about the occasion
of that sin? And the children
raised as Christians, would it be good
to let the Moors induct them
into their rites and customs,
to live in their sect?
Would it be good for so many lives
to end in miserable captivity
for the sake of one whose loss
counts for nothing?
Who am I? Am I more than a man?
If the fact of being a prince
bestows value, I am
a captive, and a slave
is incapable of nobility.
That is what I am. From now on
whoever calls me prince speaks error.
If I am not a prince, who ordains
that the life of a slave
should be sold at such a price?
To die is to lose one’s being.
I lost mine in a war.
I lost my being and thus died.
Since I am dead, it accomplishes
nothing to sacrifice
so many lives for a corpse.
And thus, these vain empowerments,
now broken in pieces, [He tears up the letter.]
will be particles of dust,
embers from a fire.
But no; I will eat them,
so that not one letter survive
to tell the world
the nobility of Portugal
ever harbored such an intention… [He swallows the torn-up pieces of the letter.]
King, I am your slave. Command.
Ordain. I want no freedom,
nor is it possible I should possess it.
Henry, return to our homeland
and say that in Africa you left me
entombed; for I will make
my life a semblance of death.
Christians, Ferdinand is dead;
Moors, a slave is left to you;
captives, from today on
a companion shares your pains;
Heaven, a man protects
your holy churches;
ocean, a sufferer augments
your waves with his tears;
mountains, a sorrower inhabits you,
the equal of your wild beasts;
wind, a pauper with his cries
amplifies your spheres;
earth, a corpse today
digs his grave in your entrails:
for king, brother, Moors,
Christians, sun, moon, stars,
sky, earth, sea and wind,
beasts, mountains, know all
that today a constant prince
amid pains and misfortunes
exalts the Catholic faith
and reverences God’s law;
since if no other reason existed
than to sustain in Ceuta
a church consecrated
to the eternal Conception
of she who is queen and mistress
of heaven and earth,
I would lose, by the Holy Virgin,
a thousand lives to defend it.


PEDRO CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA (1600–1681) began his career as a dramatist in his early 20s, and in 1635 succeeded Lope de Vega as theatrical director for the Spanish court. Toward the end of his life he estimated he had written 110 secular plays and 70 autos sacramentales, the form of religious drama on which he concentrated in the latter part of his career, particularly after retiring from the Court and entering the priesthood in 1650. His principal plays include Devotion to the Cross (1623), The Schism of England (1627), The Constant Prince (1629), The Phantom Lady (1629), A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard (1629), No Trifling with Love (1631–32), Love After Death (1633), Life Is a Dream (1635), The Surgeon of His Own Honor (1635), Three Punishments at a Blow (1636), The Wonder-Working Magician (1637), The Mayor of Zalamea (1640–44), The Painter of His Own Dishonor (1642), and The Daughter of the Air (1642–43). The best-known autos include Belshazzar’s Feast (1632), The Great Fair of the World (1635), and The Great Theater of the World (1641).

GEOFFREY O’BRIEN has published seven collections of poetry, most recently In a Mist (Shearsman, 2015). His other books include Dream Time: Chapters from the Sixties (1988), The Phantom Empire (1993), The Browser’s Ecstasy (2000), Sonata for Jukebox (2004), and Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows (2013).