September 10, 2008

Some thoughts on Caliban

A message from correspondent Juliet in response to (Northern) Natives Do the Bard:When I was in college, I wrote a term paper on 'The Tempest.' ... Caliban struck me as a modified 'wild man' character.  The 'wild man' was a stock character of pastoral romances (this is all I remember).  Shakespeare used what he read of Caribbean natives to make his version slightly different from the others.

Prospero's treatment of Caliban, at first accepting him into the family, then casting him out and enslaving him, does echo European treatment of indigenous peoples.  It influences how the pastoral elements are used in the plot.

Since then, I've concluded that a modern production of 'The Tempest' could make Caliban less villainous with no violence to the script.  From the first performance, people have assumed that Caliban is a thoroughgoing villain.  Moderns might not think so.  He had an abusive mother, Sycorax (a malevolent witch), who apparently didn't teach him how to speak (at least, Prospero and Miranda didn't think Caliban could speak when they met him).  He had also kept a sprite named Ariel in captivity.  We have only Prospero's word that Caliban attempted to rape Miranda (whose memories could be contaminated).  And Caliban's rejoinder, 'else I had peopled this island with Calibans,' could thus be considered sarcastic commentary on what Prospero thought of him (rather than the original idea that Caliban is inherently evil, and his children would be evil).  Either Prospero and/or Miranda misconstrued an innocent act, or he was too warped by his mother to know how to act as he underwent puberty.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Native Plays and Other Stage Shows.

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