Another essay I did for university, on the nature of the character Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest
The Tempest was written in 1611 and is believed to be the last play William Shakespeare wrote, or wrote by himself. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other works, The Tempest is not based on any one historical incident or previously published works. However, according to American scholar, Todd Borlik, The Tempest may derive its inspiration from the lost medieval narrative, the Life of Saint Guthlac (Borlik 2012). The 1609 shipwreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda as recorded by author William Strachey (Strachey 1609) is possibly also a source for the play.
In 1603, James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I of England, and became James I of England. The period of his reign, 1603-1625, is known as the Jacobean era. During this time, England embarked on many foreign expeditions, not the least of which was the colonisation of Jamestown, Virginia, a locale originally inhabited by the native American Powhatan people. From the beginning there was an unequal partnership between the colonists and the native inhabitants. It is feasible that Shakespeare read of the Jamestown colony and its exploits and fictionalised them in The Tempest. Certainly, as Caliban states: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me” (1.2.331-332) is a clear sign for many that Caliban’s island was conquered by Prospero. Yet as Marshall suggests, Shakespeare would not have had any knowledge of North American slavery, since the first slaves were introduced in 1619, eight years after The Tempest was written (Marshall 1998). Was Shakespeare also egalitarian-minded enough to couch his putative disapproval of slavery in the artistic terms The Tempest presents? It is perhaps unlikely, as nowhere within the play is there any outward disparaging of the concept of slavery. On the contrary, Ariel and Caliban are both presented as if slavery is their natural condition.
With The Tempest, the character that seems to seize the most attention with scholars and critics is Caliban. This character, a slave that Prospero has bound into indeterminate service, has been subject to a whole array of interpretations, some ranging from nothing more than the monster Shakespeare overtly states he is, to representations of native people whose land and culture were usurped by European colonialism and expansionism. As Marshall also suggests, scholarship has been quick to make Caliban the “poster boy” for various racial and oppression issues around the world (Marshall 1998). Borlik also says that Caliban has mutated over the years in the eyes of the public and critics from being a grotesque to the stock character known as the “noble savage” (Borlik 2012).
It is not difficult to see why, at least at first glance, Caliban has been interpreted like this. He is the original and seemingly sole surviving non-spirit inhabitant of the isle and ostensibly its master and lord of all he saw before Prospero’s landfall. From the play, he lived in some variety of primal harmony with his island. Prospero’s arrival therefore must have been an irreversible and permanent upheaval, analogous to the upheavals native cultures underwent after European invasion. Although Prospero taught Caliban language (Prospero’s language), basic astronomy and some dietary niceties, Caliban’s return favour of teaching Prospero self-sufficiency on the island was rewarded was Caliban being placed into servitude. “Cursed be that I did so!” (1.2.339) were his bitter words of regret for teaching Prospero what he had. Now he finds himself a slave of the exiled Duke of Milan, relegated to flunkey or mere wood fetcher. To use common parlance, Caliban is now a second-class citizen in his own land – if he can be called a citizen at all. Parallels can be drawn here with the fate of many indigenous cultures around the world, including Australia’s own indigenous people, who up until 1967, were not even classed as Australians for census purposes.
In 1999, a performance of The Tempest directed by Simon Phillips opened in Brisbane. This performance was notable in that indigenous Australians from the Jagera Jarjum dance company performed many parts in the play, including the enslaved characters of Ariel and Caliban (Campbell 2004). Rather than a boat containing the usurping royalty of Milan and Naples, the boat that crashed on the shore in this version was a British ship echoing the events of 1788. Apart from the subjugated native people, the island was also inhabited by Prospero and Miranda: both white people of foreign extraction. Prospero, played by actor John Stanton, was rendered as a brutal tyrant who ruled the island with both an iron fist and an iron will (Campbell 2004).
This depiction reinforces the suffering and alienation the indigenous people of Australia experienced when their country was colonised, a fate they had no say in. As Campbell states in her review of the play, indigenous Australians have not only had to fight for their rights and heritage, they have also struggled to get their history told, especially by themselves (Campbell 2004). The Jagera Jarjum troupe were also aware of the innate power of performing arts as a vehicle for social and cultural change. By performing their rendition of what it essentially a European work of literature, they could not only get their story across, but perhaps instigate changes in the way mainstream society views them, and go to some length to redress shortcomings. As Campbell (2004) also states, the play was warmly received and it was performed in other venues at later times.
However, some feel that this kind of reading of Caliban as a dispossessed native is perilous. Edward Pechter suggests that the colonialist reading of The Tempest begs the question of critical interpretation rather than asks it (Pechter, cited in Robson 2009). This is to say, many who espouse such a textual reading actively believe it and consider it the default. Caliban was not some sort of devil-spawned monster: “a freckled whelp hag-born, not honour’d with a human shape” (1.2.419-420) but the representation of a subjugated or conquered indigenous person, culture and heritage forever lost. As Robson further suggests, there can be no neutral readings of The Tempest and no critic can read the play objectively (Robson 2009). So essentially, it will mean different things to each person who reads it. Robson also cites Ania Loomba, who states that the takeover of the island by Prospero and the subjugation of Caliban is “both racial plunder and a transfer to patriarchy” (Loomba in White, cited by Robson 2009) which is commentary on the island’s former ownership by Sycorax, a female character.
Is Caliban truly a native or indigenous inhabitant of the island? The play states that Sycorax is from Algiers or Argier to use 17th century naming – not the island. Caliban’s father is a devil or the Christian Devil himself, whose abode according to Christian tenet is everywhere. There is no doubt that Caliban was there first which is an important distinction but the play makes it clear that he himself is the son of a migrant. Also, these newer readings of The Tempest overlook or ignore salient points about the character of Caliban. He is a rapist – or at least wants to be – “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else this isle with Calibans.” (1.2.501-503). His desire for Miranda is quite gleefully admitted on his part.
Throughout the play, Caliban is frequently described in distinct quasi-human or non-human terms. The above-mentioned quote about him not being honoured with a human shape being one such instance. Additionally, many characters remark on his physical non-humanity. In the play, Trinculo and Stephano both refer to him as a monster and one of them confuses him for a fish. Borlik suggests that Caliban is an amalgamation of many legends from the Lincolnshire district of England; specifically he represents the Tiddy Mun, a fen-inhabiting monster that dwelled in the marshes (Borlik 2012). Caliban’s resentment of his plight may mirror that of the fen-dwelling people of Lincolnshire who were losing their land and traditions to reclamation schemes (Borlik 2012). In fact, the word “fen” is mentioned three times in The Tempest. It is therefore possible that Shakespeare is describing a marsh-dwelling bugbear out of legend.
The overarching themes of The Tempest are forgiveness and reconciliation. Despite being wronged and left for dead by usurpers, at the end of the play Prospero has abandoned all thoughts of revenge and retribution, and has forgiven those who overthrew him. Caliban has apparently been emancipated and his island is his own again. This theme is echoed in the aforementioned play by Simon Phillips, which stresses the need for healing between conqueror and conquered, coloniser and colonised (Campbell 2004). This is further reflected in the on-going culture of reconciliation in Australia. So, whatever Caliban’s ultimate or true nature, and whatever The Tempest was intended to mean, both character and play can be viewed as cautionary tales with a hopeful resolution.
Borlik, T, 2012, ‘Caliban and the fen demons of Lincolnshire: the Englishness of Shakespeare’s Tempest’, Shakespeare, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 21-51
Campbell, A, 2004, ‘The Tempest: Creating dialogue from points of difference’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 28, no. 82, pp. 15-24
Marshall, T, 1998, ‘The Tempest and the British imperium in 1611’, The Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 375-400
Robson, M, 2009, ‘Case Studies in Reading II: From Text to Theory’ in Hiscock, A & Longstaffe, S (eds), The Shakespeare Handbook, Continuum, London, UK
Strachey, W, 1609, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britinia, public domain
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