Out of the Wings

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Los cabellos de Absalón (c.1634), Pedro Calderón de la Barca

English title: The Hair of Absalom
Date written: c. 1634
First publication date: 1677
First production date: sometime between 1640 and 1641
Keywords: morality > honour, morality > crime, morality > punishment, morality > justice-revenge, violence > personal, violence > murder, family > brothers/sisters, family > patriarchy, family > incest, family > parents and children
Genre and type: tragedy
Title information

Although Honig has translated Los cabellos de Absalón as ‘The Crown of Absalom’, the word ‘cabellos’ means ‘hair’. Absalom believes his beautiful long hair will bring him the crown through the people’s affection for his beauty, but in the ironic ending his hair is entangled in a tree, allowing him to fall victim to his enemy’s spear.


In this biblical tragedy based on an earlier play by Tirso de Molina, Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar sparks the revenge of their brother Absalom, who, with the death of Amnon, is next in line for the throne. But Absalom’s ambition to be King overpowers him and taking revenge for Tamar’s dishonour is not enough; he goes too far in pursuit of becoming heir to the throne and is killed in pursuit of his goal, ‘borne aloft by his hair’.


With this first act largely following the action of the second act of Tirso de Molina’s La venganza de Tamar (Tamar’s Revenge), King David returns to Jerusalem triumphantly from the wars at Rabat, joyfully greeting his sons and daughter. David’s first-born son and heir to the throne, Amnon, is noticeably missing—he has been suffering from melancholy and will only discuss his malady with one person, his half-sister Tamar. Amnon asks Tamar to play-act the part of his lover to aid his lovesick plight, but when he addresses her using her real name and forgets the game, she becomes suspicious of his motives. A prophetess predicts that David’s second son, Absalom, will be ‘borne aloft by his hair’, which the vain Absalom interprets as a good sign that his beautiful locks will help to win the people’s favour and lead to his crowning as king. Tamar avoids Amnon until David commands her to bring Amnon something to eat, a request Amnon made in desperation to see her. When she comes to him, he makes it clear that he is unable to control his lustful passion for her. She defends herself with a sword, and suggests that Amnon ask their father for her hand in marriage, but he overpowers her, and the first act ends with her imminent rape.

Act 2 (following the events of Tirso’s third act) begins just after Amnon has raped his half-sister Tamar, and he ejects her from his room, calling her a poison. She vows revenge and seeks the help of her full-brother Absalom, whose ambition to be king is growing strong. Absalom invites her to come to live at his country estate, away from the gossip and shame of the court. King David intends to punish Amnon for his crime, but when he sees his son, he melts with pity and forgives him. Absalom tries on his father’s crown, and although his father knows of Absalom’s growing ambition, David allows Absalom to take his brothers, including Amnon, to his country house for a banquet. David is aware of Absalom’s loyalty to Tamar and fears for Amnon’s life, but he allows them to go to the country anyway. Out in the country, Tamar converses with the shepherds who offer her cleansing and forgiveness, but she refuses, preferring to wait for vengeance. An Ethiopian prophetess offers her and her brothers meaningful flowers, giving each of them a plant relevant to their situation. Amnon comes for the feast, sees the veiled Tamar and without knowing it is her, tries to unveil her forcefully.  When he succeeds, he is horrified to discover her face, in which he believes he sees his own death. The men go in to the banquet, and shortly thereafter Amnon’s murdered body is revealed splayed out on the feasting table; he has been murdered by his brother Absalom to avenge Tamar, placing Absalom next in line for the crown. King David is informed of his heir’s murder and is distraught.

Two years pass between acts 2 and 3. This third act is Calderón’s original contribution, as he here continues the story where Tirso ended his play. In the two years, David has not made a decision as to whether Absalom is to be punished for killing Amnon, and David’s men want a decision. The prophetess tells David a story about her (fictional) son who had murdered his brother, and asks David’s advice as to whether she should turn him in to the authorities or face punishment for hiding him from the law. David tells her she need do neither, as she is not to blame for showing mercy to her son. The prophetess reveals this was a ruse to get him to see his own situation with Absalom, and David calls Absalom to him, intending to make a decision. However in their meeting David fumbles his words and makes no clear judgement, which Absalom interprets as a sign that he will not inherit, believing his father to favour Solomon as the heir instead. Angered, Absalom musters discontented peasants into an army against his father, keeping his intent a secret. Tamar fights alongside her brother Absalom. They recruit an old soldier, Ensay, who remains secretly loyal to David, and after he ‘agrees’ to join Absalom he goes instantly to King David to warn him as Absalom’s forces approach. David flees in fear. Absalom gives orders for his troops to force open the doors of his father’s harem and rape all of David’s concubines and wives. Despite all this, David, hiding in safety in the mountains, gives orders that Absalom is not to be killed, as he still loves and forgives his son. Despite the King’s orders, when Absalom finds himself trapped in the woods with his hair tangled up in high branches, David’s soldier Joab throws spears at Absalom to kill him. Just as the prophetess predicted, Absalom was ‘borne aloft’ by his hair, but not in the way the prince thought; instead of beauty and fame, his hair brought him death by preventing his escape from the woods. Tamar and the prophetess opt to spend the rest of their lives in a ‘living death’, presumably in the confines and solitude of a convent. David pardons all who took up arms against him, returns to his reign, and mourns the death of his son.


This play is a continuation of the story begun in Tirso de Molina’s La venganza de Tamar. In fact, the first two acts are very heavily inspired by that play, as the second and third acts of Tirso’s Tamar very nearly become the first and second acts of Calderón’s Cabellos. The final act of Calderón’s play is his own invention, based on the continuation of events in the biblical story from the second book of Samuel.  For comparisons of the two plays, see Calderón de la Barca 1973: 7-14; 1968: 35-42; and 1989: 13-26.

Critical response

Edwards’ 1973 edition did much to champion the work, despite the general critical consensus that the play was not among Calderón’s finest tragedies. Since his edition more has been written about the play focusing on performance, staging and metatheatre in the work, in addition to continuing the past trend to examine the play’s dramatic structure and compare it to La venganza de Tamar.

Further information

The exact date of composition for Los cabellos de Absalón is unknown, but is probably around 1634. Its source play, Tirso’s La venganza de Tamar, was published in this year; most editors claim Calderón’s play could not have been written much before that, and the verse forms used indicate it would not have been written much later. See Calderón de la Barca 1989: 15.

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1968. Estudio y edición crítica de la comedia Los cabellos de Absalón, ed. Helmy Fuad Giacoman. Valencia, University of North Carolina

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1973. Los cabellos de Absalón, ed. Gwynne Edwards. Oxford, Pergamon

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1989. Los cabellos de Absalón, ed. Evangelina Rodríguez Cuadros. Madrid, Espasa-Calpe

Information about the editions

The date of first production is unknown; Helmy Fuad Giacoman suggests that the incest theme may have made the play difficult to stage when it was written (Calderón de la Barca 1968), but it may be that details of the first production are simply lost or uncertain. It was certainly available for performance by 1640, and a play by this name was definitely performed in 1641.

Useful readings and websites
  • Dixon, Victor. 1976. ‘El santo Rey David y Los cabellos de Absalón’, Hacia Calderón, 3, 84-96 (in Spanish)

  • Dixon, Victor. 1984. ‘Prediction and its Dramatic Function in Los cabellos de Absalón’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 61, 3, 304-16

  • Edwards, Gwynne. 1971. ‘Calderón's Los cabellos de Absalón: A Reappraisal’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 48, 3, 218-38

  • Fischer, Susan L. 1976. ‘Calderón's Los cabellos de Absalón: A Metatheater of Unbridled Passion’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 28, 103-13

  • Fischer, Susan L. 1987. ‘Calderón's Los cabellos de Absalón and the Semiotics of Performance’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 39, 2, 225-42

  • Gordon, M. 1980. ‘Calderón's Los cabellos de Absalón: The Tragedy of a Christian King’, Neophilologus, 64, 3, 390-401

  • Holzinger, Walter. 1978. ‘Imagistic Patterns and Techniques in Calderón's Los Cabellos de Absalón and its Indebtedness to Tirso's La venganza de Tamar’, Neophilologus, 62, 2, 233-47

  • Lauer, A. Robert. 1988. ‘The Dramatic Symmetry of Calderón's Los cabellos de Absalón: A Semiotic Reading’, Romanistisches Jahrbuch, 39, 323-41

  • Sloman, Albert E. 1958. The Dramatic Craftsmanship of Calderón. Oxford, Dolphin

  • Stoll, Anita K. 1997. ‘“Venid a ver tan raro portento”: The Staging of Los cabellos de Absalón’. In The Calderonian Stage: Body and Soul, ed. Manuel Delgado Morales, pp. 69-80. London, Associated University Presses

  • Welles, Marcia L. 1995. ‘The Anxiety of Gender: The Transformation of Tamar in Tirso's La venganza de Tamar and Calderón's Los cabellos de Absalón’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 47, 2, 341-72

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Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 25 February 2011.

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