Essays (2): “Caliban our Contemporary”

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Ralph Berry

I never saw a better job of rehabilitation than Caliban. In it, the stage catches at a symbolic figure, a focus for what is happening in the Western world today. The changing attitudes to Caliban stand cipher for an evolving debate about the upper layers of established Western civilization, and the social elements that challenge it. Caliban, in this debate, appears in an ever more favourable light.

The twentieth-century history of Caliban is a sustained movement to bring him within the ambit of civilized society. He starts, in the Folio dramatis personae, as Caliban, a savage and deformed slave. To the Victorians and Edwardians, he was a figure of loathing and repulsion, a monster against whom society’s resource was exclusion. Sir Frank Benson used regularly to play Caliban hanging upside-down from the branches of a tree, gibbering. That would not be possible today, and the modern attitude begins to edge into view with Beerbohm Tree’s highly sympathetic portrayal (1904), ending with the famous tableau of Caliban alone on his island peering after the departing Milanese and Neapolitans. More recent Calibans have been grotesque, unlikeable, even repellent. But all start from the premise that Caliban has a case, which must be given a hearing, and that some prospect of his readmission into society must be entertained. For actors and the general audience, extreme penalties for attempted rape and conspiracy are not to be imposed.

A strategic technicality is the assignment of the speech

Abhorred slave,

Which any print of goodness will not take (The Tempest, 1.2.353-4)

to Prospero or Miranda. Until modern times editors assigned this speech to Prospero, overriding the Folio’s Miranda. They did this on the grounds that the speech was out of character for the passive, feminine Miranda, and much more in keeping with Prospero. The reasoned conservatism of today’s editors does not incline them to amend the Folio without good cause, and they are much more ready to see in this energetic speech another side to Miranda, rather than a fault of transmission. She is her father’s daughter, after all. On stage, my impression is that directors prefer to assign the speech to Miranda.

This decision sketches in the beginnings of a relationship between Miranda and Caliban, in which she has tried to teach him; it hints at a plea on behalf of Caliban’s later behaviour, presenting the core of the attempted rape as amorous rather than revenge upon Prospero. Thus the contingent nature of evil is suggested, and the worst aspect of Caliban is softened, if not condoned.

The identity of the contemporary Caliban on stage is what now concerns us. I can see two categories. The first is colonial, or historical; on this reading, Caliban must fit in to the history of the white man and the ethnic groups which have contested his imperial expansion. This is easily done on stage. Jonathan Miller’s notable Mermaid production of 1970 presented both Caliban and Ariel as blacks in a colonial island shortly before independence. Caliban was the detribalised, dispossessed field hand, Ariel the clever house boy sure to do well in the administration after independence. These castings illustrate an assumption of the 1960s and 1970s, that one could easily read The Tempest in terms of colonialism, as a parable for the times. But this reading may be less popular today. I suspect that directors have become bored with Caliban as a symbol of colonial oppression. Nothing frightens a director so much as the imputation of cliché or stereotype. It is true that Jonathan Miller retained the dual black casting for his Old Vic revival of 1988.

And The Times reported (23 March 1999) a Bajan Tempest staged in Bridgetown, Barbados, with Kylie Minogue as Miranda and the black actor Ade Sapara as Caliban. This was a couple of miles from a powerful statue commemorating freedom from slavery, the slave raising his hands in triumph, the newly broken chains still dangling from the manacles on his wrists. Sapara gave the same signal of victory, recalling his opening words to Prospero: ‘This island’s mine…that thou takest from me.’ The special circumstances of Barbados made for a memorable interpretation of The Tempest, and the audience clearly remembered its past. And a South African touring company recently brought The Tempest to Stratford-upon-Avon, the production being led by that excellent actor John Kani. His Caliban was no kind of slave, but a fiercely independent freeman of the island. At the end, Prospero’s references to ‘Go, sirrah to my cell;…As you look/To have my pardon, trim it handsomely’ were cut. Caliban is effectively saying ‘No more Mr Janitor for me. I’m looking for a seat on the De Beers board.’ He looks like getting it, too. Even so, the colonial framework is a constriction of the play that may have outlived its usefulness.

The alternative category is anthropoid. In this, Caliban escapes from the allusion to history. Indeed, a director such as Peter Brook, who formally repudiates history as a context for his productions and has never directed a Shakespeare history play after an early King John, can scarcely do other than turn away from direct reference. It is easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting. Caliban as some kind of outcast from the human race, who is nonetheless not without an appealing aspect, is a more inviting prospect.

The ‘anthropoid’ category — which is large, loose, and convenient — has easy relations with pop culture. There are numerous generic models to which Caliban can be linked, openly or subliminally. The films of Spielberg and Lucas specialize in creatures that are non-human, but have an easily-grasped human identity. Again, gorillas have resumed their hold over the human imagination (Gorillas in the Mist). This is an enduring theme. In this pop-cultural hinterland is Tarzan, and the circle of Kipling’s Mowgli. Common to all these models is the sympathetic partisanship of the animal or non-human world. On the ultra-grotesque side, The Elephant Man has lodged its message: ‘I am a human being.’ This message structures the deformities and alien qualities of Caliban. Generally, the anthropoid Caliban will put forth an appeal that may border upon charm. Declan Donellan, whose Cheek By Jowl Caliban was entirely human, insisted that Caliban ‘is very attractive and consequently very dangerous.’

Caliban, in brief, is the outsider who can generate some sympathy and regard in the audience. The apotheosis of the contemporary Caliban may have been reached in an agency photograph that went around the world in October 1988. Queen Elizabeth II visited the National Theatre to see Sir Peter Hall’s production of The Tempest, and there met the actors. In the photograph, Caliban (Tony Haygarth) is being presented to the Queen. He is naked save for a sumo wrestler’s loincloth combined with a most noble codpiece of arresting dimensions, and he is dark stained. There are no distortions to his face. He has clearly retained for the occasion the rough and manly charm that distinguished his performance. Caliban, one might say, has been received into society at the highest level. His sins are symbolically forgiven.

I have been describing a stage phenomenon, as it is linked to the outside world of ideas and values. There is some lexical evidence that catches at the same drift. ‘Caliban’ is the name that is recognised in dictionaries, and the Oxford English Dictionary conveys the unmistakable flavour of the nineteenth century Caliban, with (after the derivation) ‘thence applied to a man of degraded bestial nature.’ The citations include George Eliot: ‘Grandcourt held that the Jamaica negro was a beastly sort of baptist Caliban’ (Daniel Deronda (1876) iv.xxix). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961) offers ‘a person or thing that is or is felt to be [note the qualification] slavish, brutal, monstrous, or deformed.’ But the Random House (2nd edition, 1987) offers only ‘the ugly, beastlike slave of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest’, which is distinctly milder. The current meaning is beginning to cast off its original moorings. The concentrated essence of loathing, so plain in the Eliot citation, has been diluted over the years.

Caliban is the beneficiary of a tidal movement of twentieth- and twenty-first century-thought. He is now perceived as the underdog, as the underprivileged, as the exploited. In his contention with his master, Caliban is seen as the victim of authoritarian and repressive tendencies. Whatever his offences, the play acts for Caliban like a good lawyer and gets him a suspended sentence. With it goes an ambiguously-phrased acknowledgment of responsibility from the ruling spirit:

This thing of darkness I

Acknowledge mine…

He is as disproportioned in his manners

As in his shape. (5.1.278-9, 294-5)

Prospero, like the play, cannot condemn Caliban, and in the end is reduced to shaking his head at Caliban’s ‘manners’, as though he were the Earl of Chesterfield lamenting his blockish son. Prospero, of course, has become a discredited figure, a tyrant whose bad temper is put down to thwarted designs upon his daughter Miranda. Caliban is the play’s victim, a pre-Rousseau sketch for the Noble Savage whose lineaments excite much admiration today. The strategies for rehabilitating Caliban work along two fronts.

The first strategy is to clear him of guilt from his offences as charged. A difficulty, you might think, because the charge of attempted rape upon Miranda is admitted:

O ho, O ho! Would’t have been done!

Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else

This isle with Calibans. (1.2.348-50)

To which the defence lawyers reply: Prospero is projecting upon Caliban his own incestuous desire for Miranda. And in accusing Caliban, Prospero creates an excuse for the state of servitude in which he keeps him. The mutual needs of servitude and crime balance each other.

This defence is not overwhelmingly convincing. There is no evidence whatever for Prospero’s alleged designs upon Miranda, whom he does, after all, marry off to a most eligible young man. He is no Barrett of Wimpole Street. It is certainly true that Prospero finds Caliban useful, as a criminal. The island becomes a penal settlement where Caliban acts as a servant:

Miranda ‘Tis a villain, sir,

I do not love to look on.

Prospero But as ‘tis,

We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,

Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices

That profit us. (1.2.309-313)

Still, this is post hoc arguing. To take advantage of Caliban’s misbehaviour is not the same as provoking it. And the facts of the matter — Caliban’s attempted rape — are not in dispute. Only the interpretation is.

Caliban, in brief, benefits from a tendency in contemporary Western life that has received striking illustrations in the recent legal history of the USA. The criminal is transformed into the victim, and thus receives a verdict either of not guilty or a sentence so light as virtually to equal acquittal. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero hands down this sentence on Caliban:

Go, sirrah, to my cell,

Take with you your companions. As you look

To have my pardon, trim it handsomely. (5.1.292-4)

This is about three hours of token community service. As sentence for conspiracy to murder, it has all the ferocity of a slap upon the wrist.

And now consider the positive strategies for supporting Caliban. The key word emerged at the International Shakespeare Conference at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1994. He is an environmentalist!

Caliban, in the vision now granted, is the supreme guardian of the earth, an Islander who lives in harmony with Nature on his own terrain. Here is his programme for Stephano:

I’ll show thee the best springs, I’ll pluck thee berries;

I’ll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough…

I prithee let me bring thee where crabs grow;

And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts,

Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how

To snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll bring thee

To clust’ring filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee

Young scamels from the rocks. (2.2.156-68)

Caliban emerges as a man who lives for preference on fruit and nuts. ‘Crabs’ are ‘crab-apples’, ‘pignuts’ are ‘peanuts’, ‘filberts’ are ‘hazelnuts’. ‘Scamels’, editors believe, are shell-fish or sea-birds. It is true that Caliban speaks of snaring marmosets (a black mark, this) but he does not actually urge Stephano to eat them. He might just like to keep marmosets, or even release them after catching them for the fun of it. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. The ‘jay’s nest’ suggests that Caliban enjoys the sport of birds’-nesting; perhaps he even collects birds’ eggs. Well, it was not illegal then. Caliban’s approach to ecologically-correct diet maintains the most exalted standards of our day. If not a hard-core vegetarian, Caliban is a fish-and-nut man who may confidently be expected to have few cardiac problems in his later years.


There’s more. Against Caliban, the spokesman for an environmentally sensitive lifestyle, stands Prospero. Prospero, naturally, represents exploitation. But not only does he exploit people, reducing them to serf status. He also exploits the land and he is associated with that avatar of modern evil, logging interests.

I’ve already noted Prospero’s admission of Caliban’s uses: ‘He does make our fire,/Bring in our wood.’ Young Ferdinand, temporarily under Prospero’s domination, enlarges the point. The opening stage direction for Act 3, scene 1, is Enter Ferdinand, bearing a log. That’s a strong visual image of human subordination to the logging interest, and is extended into

I must remove

Some thousands of these logs, and pile them up

Upon a sore injunction.

The compassionate Miranda adds

Alas, now pray you

Work not so hard! I would the lightning had

Burnt up those logs that you are enjoined to pile!

(3.1.9-11, 15-17)

The matter is heavily underscored. One might say that Prospero just needs to keep warm; he’s an old man, and the island’s climate sometimes suggests England. But that would make him a greedy ravisher of the earth’s energy supplies, a self-indulgent consumer of fuel. The Caliban/Prospero opposition takes on a new dimension, that of conservationist versus exploiter.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have their own agendas, and one tries hard to discover these agendas in the works of Shakespeare. There is often something of value in these contemporary discoveries: we read into Shakespeare our own concerns, and learn with extraordinary frequency that Shakespeare has anticipated us. What goes wrong is the special pleading in these latter-day revelations of Shakespeare’s complicity with our times. There’s a high-minded silliness in the determination to degrade Prospero, and raise up Caliban, that is at odds with the basic nature of The Tempest. The moving parts of Shakespeare can be pushed only so far beyond their natural functioning. One comes back to Shakespeare’s own formulation. The Folio, which is presumed to reflect Shakespeare’s intentions, has a salvage [savage] and deformed Slave. It is not easy to sentimentalise that description.

A Shakespeare conference in Stratford-upon-Avon spent a little time speculating on the post-Tempest future of Caliban. What does he do? Stay on the island, or go off to link up with the rest of humanity? I will add my speculation. Caliban, I say, stayed on the island, and developed it according to his own scale of values. He gave it over to up-market tourism, with emphasis on marine protection and landscape conservation. And he did not disdain for his island some offshore banking.

Ralph Berry spent most of his teaching career in Canadian and US
universities. He has held university visiting appointments in
Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and Kuwait.
His background is in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama.

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