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.

in thunder, lightning, and in rain

I’ve just started teaching Macbeth for the sixty billionth time. Okay, the fifty billionth time. Well, actually it’s the twenty-third time, but the point is that in the course of a teaching career there are some texts that come up over and over again. People think this must get tedious. My standard reply is to remind them of all the Maths teachers, teaching Pythagoras’ Theorem and quadratic equations year in year out, or the biologists with photosynthesis, or the French department conjugating present tense verbs: now that’s what tedious is. With Macbeth, at least you’ve got some blood and guts involved.

There are some parts of Macbeth that are fantastic to teach. I’ve just got to the end of Act One Scene Three with my Year Tens, and we’ve been focusing on how Shakespeare builds up a sense of Macbeth in our minds before we even meet him. There’s that tantalising mention by the witches in Act One Scene One: what do they want with him, exactly? And then there’s the account of his prowess in battle by the wounded captain in the next scene, telling us of his sword that smokes with bloody execution and of how he killed the treacherous Macdonwald by unseaming him from the nave to the chaps. Scotland has been invaded by Norway, and a number of Scottish thanes have betrayed their king: in fighting against them, Macbeth is cast as not only brave and ruthless, but also loyal. So, we’ve got mixed messages about him. It’s not surprising, then, that he reacts to the witches in the way he does. He starts, and seems afraid. It takes him a while to find his voice. And when he finds out that he is indeed going to become Thane of Cawdor, his mind starts to work overtime. On Friday, we looked at his aside in Act One Scene Three, where Shakespeare explores the thoughts that are beginning to take shape:

[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. — I thank you, gentlemen. —
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Look at the quibbling in this speech. He doesn’t know whether the witches’ words are good or bad. If they’re bad, why have they brought him something good? If they’re good, why are they making him think of something so awful that he can’t even name it, so terrible that it makes his heart pound and his hair stand on end? Nothing is but what is not; fair is foul and foul is fair. This is a man whose world is about to be turned upside-down, who is contemplating something that goes against everything his identity has been built on.

Macbeth also introduces students to the idea that you need to know something about the context of a work of literature in order to inhabit its imaginative world. There are the obvious things that students can research – beliefs about witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England, the Divine Right of Kings, and the status of women – but I also like to show them images of Hell from the ‘doom paintings’ that decorated the walls of medieval churches, to show them that Hell was something that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen as very real and utterly terrifying, and therefore to underline just what Macbeth faces as a result of killing Duncan. There’s a fantastic example in the church of St Peter and St Paul at Chaldon in Surrey. It dates back to the thirteenth century, and depicts the seven deadly sins and the weighing of souls. In one image, the condemned are thrown into a boiling cauldron, with leering demons poking them with giant forks: in another, some poor unfortunate is suspended by his ears while his nether regions are roasted over an open fire. Imagine sitting in church every Sunday, looking at pictures of flame-grilled genitals and eternal torture: that’s what Macbeth has in store for him. The other thing I like to get them to do is to find out when Macbeth was first performed, and then to find out the date of the Gunpowder Plot. Why would James I have been so keen on a play that points out the evils of regicide? You can see the students putting the dates together. Oh.

Doom mural at St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon (Source: Peter Trimming at Geograph Britain and Ireland; licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

The main problem I have with Macbeth is that it jumps the shark. There are the brilliant early scenes with Lady Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, the unravelling of Macbeth’s mind, the breakdown of his relationship with his wife (look at how he tells her, just before the murder of Banquo, to ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’, and contrast it with how much he needed her earlier in the play). There’s the chaos unleashed in Scotland, the banquet scene, and Macbeth’s return to the witches. And then there’s that tedious conversation between Malcolm and Macduff, and the unravelling of the second set of prophecies. And it’s all a bit rubbish. I remember sitting in a Year Eleven lesson when I was studying Macbeth for GCSE, and thinking, ‘is that it?’ Some verbal quibbling about a C-section, and a group of men cutting down branches? Compared with the end of King Lear, it seems contrived, a bit of a trick. You’d tell him to go back and have another go, if you were his beta reader.

I expect you know that Fleance, in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth, was played by Keith Chegwin, later of Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and, after several years in the wilderness, the Channel 5 gameshow Naked Jungle. Did you know, though, that Paul Farley wrote a poem about Chegwin’s role? It’s here, at the Poetry Society website. The most atmospheric Macbeth I’ve ever seen: the production in the crypt of the Norman church of St Peter in the East in Oxford, now the library of St Edmund Hall. It was December 1991, the end of my first term, and there were actual bats flapping around. And my favourite Macbeth-related moment: back in 2017, when we were driving up to Orkney, we passed through Birnam, and a group of forestry workers were cutting down trees.

In the beginning

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It’s September 1987, the first week of the new school year, and we’re doing Shakespeare. We’re allowed to do Shakespeare because we’re in the top set. It gives us a sense of importance, of privilege: we square our shoulders and underline our headings and brace ourselves for the task ahead. There are two top sets, one in each half of the year, and the other one is doing Twelfth Night. We’re doing The Merchant of Venice. We’re in Mrs Ferns’ class. I’ve never had her before, but my friend Catherine has, and says you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her. Mrs Ferns has half-moon spectacles that she will lower occasionally, peering over the top of them and fixing some poor unfortunate with a beady glare. She keeps singling me out to answer questions, and for a while I think she’s picking on me, until my mum says that she’s probably just trying to test me out. Then I start putting my hand up more often, and she moves on to someone else.

It seems a bit weird, this Shakespeare business. My impression of studying Shakespeare has been formed by Adrian Mole, who writes in his diary of ‘translating Shakespeare into modern English.’ It takes us a while to get Salarino and Solanio sorted out, and we whinge about why it didn’t occur to him to choose names that were a bit easier to distinguish. We suspect that Mrs Ferns is playing mind games, sometimes, when she asks us to interpret what kind of language Shakespeare has used, why he’s used this particular word and what it might suggest. We complain that we’re reading too much into it. (Reading too much into it: that thing that every English teacher will be accused of, at some point. Surely Shakespeare didn’t mean to use all those metaphors and things?) But we’re a biddable class, and we do our homework diligently. We’re doing this new qualification, the GCSE, and know that it’s important to work hard right from the start: we’ll be doing coursework soon, and it’ll go towards our final grades. Shakespeare is all part of this. He’ll help us to do well.

In Venice, things are afoot. Antonio is borrowing money from Shylock because his friend Bassanio wants to marry a woman called Portia, who lives in Belmont. We’re not quite sure why he needs money to do this (new clothes? hiring a carriage?) or why Antonio is getting himself in debt for him. Mrs Ferns tells us that Antonio is sometimes played ‘a bit queer’, and because it’s 1987, nobody thinks to pull her up on this, although I know it’s a comment that at least one of my classmates still remembers over thirty years later, citing it as one of the things – the slow drip-drip of ingrained thoughtlessness and prejudice – that made him feel different, and isolated, without any hope of ever fitting in. Mrs Ferns also tells us about the roots of anti-Semitism, and about stereotypes of Jewishness. We think of Shylock in his gaberdine, a bogeyman, another outsider, pleading for acceptance. If you prick us, do we not bleed? In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket, and learns that all that glisters is not gold: the Prince of Aragon, not wanting to opt for what many men desire, picks the silver, and is rewarded with the portrait of a blinking idiot. We know, from long-ago fairytales, that both of them were obviously misguided, that the third casket, the least special, is the right one to pick. But the story is trying to teach us something, as well as to entertain us, and so we let it.

There is news on the Rialto. Antonio’s ships have run aground on the Goodwin Sands: immediately after Bassanio claims Portia as his, he hears that his friend’s ventures have failed. All the riches of Tripoli, of Mexico, of Barbary and India, all lost. We picture silks and spices, rich brocades and woven cloths, all floating on the sea or sunk at the bottom of the English Channel. None of us has ever been to Venice. We know it’s in Italy, and that the streets are canals filled with gondolas, but that’s about it. We know that the Rialto is a bridge, but not what it looks like. We imagine somewhere busy and bustling, alive with colours, the scents of distant lands. Shylock is ready to exact his bond, and Portia puts on her disguise, ready to make her speech. The quality of mercy is not strained: It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath … Mrs Ferns makes us learn it off by heart, and I can still remember it even now, reciting it as my party piece whenever my students complain about having to learn quotations.

Our GCSE coursework is to write the front page of a newspaper, reporting on the trial. I have an idea of what I want to write but can’t make it work. I don’t know how to get the sentences to sound right. I get 16 out of 20, and ‘Good’ in red biro, but I don’t know why I got 16 out of 20, or how I could have got 17 or even 18. That wasn’t how schools worked, then. Today we’d have been given assessment criteria and mark schemes; we’d have been shown examples of what a good piece of work looked like and had the chance to get feedback on a draft of our work before having a go at the finished version. But it’s 1987, so we accept what we’ve got, and move on to our piece of work, on the War Poets, where we do even more reading-things-into-things and where our answers never seem to match up to the ones in Mrs Ferns’ head.

*             *             *             *             *

We tried to go to Venice in 2000, but there was an air traffic control strike in Italy and all the planes were grounded. Then life got in the way, as life does, and we didn’t try again until 2016. This time, we made it. It was February half-term, the week after the Carnevale, and we arrived in a misty Cannaregio towing our suitcases and hardly believing we were here. Venice! But backstreet Venice, away from the tourist hubs. Humpbacked bridges and buildings scarred with graffiti and patched with damp. Elderly men and women with wheeled shopping trollies and small dogs, going about their daily business. I remembered something I’d read in a biography of Edith Wharton, about how the interesting places were always to the side of the important monuments, hidden away.

And then we were at the Rialto. Covered in scaffolding, but still, the Rialto! Shylock wouldn’t have recognised it. The silks and brocades were cheap scarves; the spices were sachets of dried herbs for making different types of pasta sauce. There was Murano glass and fake designer handbags and bottles of olive oil. The bridge sloped under my feet and I stood and bounced, absorbing it through my soles. This was the Rialto and this was Venice and in some ways, this was where it all began. I thought of Mrs Ferns’ lessons and of everything that had happened since, and the people flowed past me on either side, oblivious.