Book review

The Tempest

Caliban: Heroic Anti-Colonial, Or Savage Rapist? Prospero: Pathetic Bookworm, or Forebearing Sorcerer? Best Be Gonzalo.

Caliban: Heroic Anti-Colonial, Or Savage Rapist? Prospero: Pathetic Bookworm, or Forebearing Sorcerer? Best Be Gonzalo.

I’m revisiting Shakespeare’s plays. Began with The Tempest.

Tempest (1610-1611) preserves excellently the unities. The timeline: just two days, as delimited by the Prospero’s Act I promise to Ariel, his chief fairy-servant, to free him at the expiry of that period. The setting: an island on which Prospero and his then-toddler daughter Miranda washed up as exiles a dozen years ago, after Prospero’s brother usurped him as Duke of Milan.

Now, by Prospero’s doing, all his old enemies – his brother; and the King of Naples, who aided the usurpation; as well as Gonzalo, the Milanese who stayed loyal to Prospero; and all their retinue – are shipwrecked on Prospero’s island. This is Prospero’s vengeance.

It’s a very mild vengeance: confront his captors, and heap on their heads coals of fire. Indirectly, Tempest warns of the dangers of being on the wrong side during a political revolution. Prospero happens to be a forgiving man: all the same, I’d feel safest as Gonzalo, the old man who helped Prospero when he was down. When the world, or your country, is in political turmoil, which side do you at take? This can never be an easy decision. And it’s history that proves you wrong: whichever side wins in the end is the side that writes itself as right.

Act I establishes Tempest’s love story: Prospero lures Ferdinand to his now-grown (ahem, fifteen-year-old) daughter Miranda. Ferdinand is son of the King of Naples, i.e. Prospero’s treacherous brother’s ally – ergo Prospero’s enemy. Miranda, island-bound, has never seen a young male; she instantly falls in love with Ferdinand. More incredibly, Ferdinand, who as a mainland European Prince has seen thousands of women, instantly falls in love with Miranda. Their tedious love-affair drags on for five acts, and is one prong of Prospero’s plan of vengeance.

Magic serves Prospero as a kind of elixir of youth: transforming him: from a man whose lifelong bookishness (and concomitant ignorance of political matters) doomed him – into a sorcerer who commands armies of fairy-servants, and has his enemies in his power on his remote foothold. Prospero’s figure is familiar throughout history: the king who foregoes politics to pursue artistic or scholarly pursuits. Depending on the resources he requires to satisfy his artistic tastes, such a figure can be a villain (Nero) or a tragic/romantic hero (Shah Jahan). Prospero was a scholar, apparently well-loved by his people – though I wonder why. If he didn’t fulfill his ducal duties to administer his state, why did his people love him? If he was locked away in his study with dusty books, how did his people even know him?

Caliban is the play’s most interesting figure. Son of a human witch and an unknown father, Caliban is, like Ariel, Prospero’s prisoner and slave. Prospero calls Caliban a savage; Caliban claims it’s Prospero’s savage treatment that made him a savage; Prospero retorts by accusing Caliban of having attempted to rape Miranda. What is the truth?

Notably, Caliban speaks, like Duke Prospero, in verse. Verse is in Shakespeare generally the domain of nobles; Caliban’s verse speech is all the more notable given that many of the play’s villainous characters – some of whom are noble by birth – speak in prose. Did Shakespeare intend us to read Caliban as a savage, or as a colonial subject bravely resisting repeated threats of punishment to defy his coloniser and plot his overthrow?

Ariel, also a slave, and facing similar threats, does Prospero’s bidding. Ariel is a figure of delight, but flimsy as a fly’s wings.

I don’t know how Shakespeare intended us to read Caliban. Structurally in Tempest, Caliban is cast as evil: Prospero=good, Miranda=good, Trinculo+Stephano (with whom Caliban plots against Prospero)=evil. Ergo, by sheer structural calculus, Caliban must be=evil. But there is in Caliban enough substance to resist this purely structural interpretation. Caliban is deep waters: he’s all that saves Tempest from being fluff.

Nonetheless, Caliban remains a disturbing figure: full of vain hatred for his oppressor, but inspiring in his articulate resistance against a foreign force.

The Tempest is well worth an idle evening’s reread.

Read The Tempest here.


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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