Exploring Caliban: ‘You never think of Shakespeare as being about things like that.’

Year Eight are doing The Tempest at the moment, and have done some fantastic work exploring the character of Caliban. I’m writing about it here because it illustrates a number of important things: how the study of literature contributes to critical thinking; how Shakespeare can be used to illuminate contemporary issues; and how sophisticated and thoughtful students can be, if they’re given the opportunity.

The Tempest can be a difficult play to teach. Its links to colonialism and slavery can seem tricky to negotiate: the play is complex enough in itself, with its long scenes and those really boring bits with Miranda and Ferdinand. (I mean, come on.) I’d argue, though, that the play’s historical context, and its stage history, make it ripe for exploring issues of representation and the idea of the Other, and raising students’ awareness of how decisions about how to present particular characters can convey complex messages about ethnicity and power.

With Year Eight, I keep historical context relatively simple. We look at the storm in Act 1 Scene 1, and discuss how a storm at sea might have been created on stage when the play was first performed. Then we examine the backstory outlined by Prospero in Act 1 Scene 2. He and his daughter Miranda have been exiled from Milan, put on board a ship, and left to the mercy of the seas. Eventually, they find themselves on an island. The island has been given by a witch, Sycorax, to her son, Caliban. We note that Caliban’s name is a near-anagram of ‘cannibal’. I remind them of when Shakespeare was writing, and ask them what they know about overseas exploration and exploitation at this time. We note that travellers were setting out from Europe and laying claim to other parts of the world, and share what students know about colonialism. And then we turn our attention to Caliban.

Before our first encounter with Caliban, I ask students to search for images of him in different stage and film productions. Wikipedia proclaims confidently that Caliban is ‘half man, half monster’, and Prospero describes him as a ‘mooncalf’ – a monstrous birth – and as ‘a freckled whelp hag-born, / Not honoured with a human shape.’ Many productions have taken their cue from this, and presented Caliban as a strange being who is only partly human. The students test Google Images to its limits, and find pictures of hairy wild men and strange scaly beasts. In one image he’s a weird lizard-man with green reticulated skin: in another, he’s encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. An early Caliban – Fyodor Paramonov in 1905 – seems almost human, but has enormous claws and spikes on his elbows. Hugh Griffith’s 1946 Caliban is warty and amphibious. A puppet version of Caliban, pictured on the RSC website, looks more like a giant toad.

Fyodor Paramonov as Caliban in 1905, complete with claws and spikes. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Many of these beast-like Calibans make the students laugh, but the more human Calibans get them thinking. We look at John Kani’s Caliban for the RSC in 2009, a dignified man who is almost a mirror image of Prospero, and Djimon Hounsou’s Caliban in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version of the play. We examine Calibans who have scars, who look aggrieved and exhausted. Why might Caliban feel this way? What might have happened in his past?

We place these images alongside the words that Prospero and Miranda use to describe Caliban. He’s ‘a thing most brutish’, a ‘savage’, ‘filth’. He is ‘got by the Devil himself.’ He is, shockingly, addressed as ‘slave’, ‘poisonous slave’, ‘abhorred slave’, ‘most lying slave.’ Prospero calls him a ‘tortoise’, and while the students initially think this is funny, I ask them to think of it alongside the references to slavery: Prospero is insulting him for not doing his bidding quickly enough. The students discuss these descriptions of Caliban, and think about how much more appalling they are if they’re directed at a human being, rather than a giant warty mutant. Is it more effective, I ask, to present Caliban as a monster, or as a human? The penny drops. One student says, ‘If you present Caliban as a monster, you’re kind of justifying why Prospero treats him in the way he does, because Prospero wants to bring him under control. But if you present him as human, it makes Prospero seem worse. Prospero’s more of a monster than he is.’

There are a number of moments in the play that students find particularly intriguing. One is Caliban’s description of how Prospero treated him when he first came to the island:

When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’th’isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so!

The students are outraged on Caliban’s behalf. ‘It’s not fair!’ one of them exclaims. ‘He treats Caliban as if he’s really special, and then takes advantage of him. Caliban just wants to show off his island, and he ends up having it taken away from him.’ Another is Caliban’s description of the way Prospero’s demons torment him:

For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.

We look at how the use of a soliloquy here enables Shakespeare to build sympathy for Caliban, allowing a direct communication with the audience. And then there’s the way Caliban reacts to Stephano, and the prospect of a new master. What does Caliban’s behaviour show us about him?

The students are full of ideas. He’s so used to being insulted that he almost throws himself at the first person who’s kind to him. He’s desperate to not be under Prospero’s power. One student points out that Caliban has been treated like rubbish for so long that he can only see himself as someone else’s servant: he doesn’t see himself as worthy of being free. I ask them to link these observations to the images we looked at, and they decide that the humanoid Calibans would just seem ridiculous at this point. One even says that the humanoid Calibans ‘seem funny, but when you think about it they’re actually really offensive.’ Their favourite Calibans, the ones they think are most powerful, are the human Calibans, those who are scarred and dignified. ‘It makes you think’, one boy says, ‘that Shakespeare was saying that colonialism was wrong, because this is what it did to people. It wasn’t just a physical thing, it was a mental thing as well. You never think of Shakespeare as being about things like that.’

The students will be writing their own Caliban monologues next week, exploring Caliban’s feelings about the island and the way Prospero has treated him. We haven’t read the whole play – we’ve missed out the Miranda and Ferdinand bits – and there hasn’t been a GCSE-style extract-based question in sight, but there has been a lot of rich discussion and close reading, and a real awareness of why representations matter.

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