Caliban, Colonialism, and Me

Hatred of Caliban was the running joke of Shakespeare on the Green’s production of The Tempest. Justified with just five words (“He tried to rape Miranda!”) our cast decided that there was no jest too mean to level against Caliban. Our choice to physically mark him as other via his green, lizard-like skin (complete with a scale design I cut out from a cheap makeup bag) cemented this outsider-status and condemned him to be unsympathetic. He was the butt of every joke. We said that no scene in the play was complete without a good jab at his expense, feeling no guilt for belittling a character supposedly guilty of such a crime.

Beth’s conversation in class on Friday really complicated this notion for me. Specifically, in the context of thinking ahead toward my “care as the antidote to violence” essay, I found myself guilty of not offering any special care or consideration to Caliban. In many ways, the text encourages this. Even though Caliban is presumably in control of his own words, The Tempest doesn’t offer him up as a protagonist. At best, he might be worth a passing thought of pity. Even in his admission of guilt in Act I Scene II, my belief that Caliban has done anything wrong deeply wavers in light of Beth’s comment that “if someone tells you what you are for long enough, you’ll start to believe it too.” There is no shortage of insults hurled at Caliban by everyone from Alonso to Trinculo to Prospero. Indeed, the only real consensus in this consideration of the effects of perspective in collective memory is that Caliban is ugly and unworthy of niceties.

Caliban’s internalized inferiority is evident in his urgency to serve somebody, anybody, who isn’t actively seeking to do him harm. It’s this desperation, coupled with an apparent naivety, that leads him to become Stephano’s “foot licker,” even after Stephano ponders selling him to the highest bidder as an oddity mere pages earlier (Act II Scene II). These measures of success or right to agency fit in closely with the document from Friday’s class where Native Americans are referred to almost exclusively as “savages” and their contributions and possession of lands are considered to be insufficient grounds for continued rights to said land. Caliban showed Prospero the bounties of the land and offers the same to Stephano, acting as a tour guide to allow for colonization of resources as well as people in this “strange” land (Act II Scene II).

When I looked at Ariel, the only other native islander in the show, I started to see The Tempest as less of a genre-defying adventure story and more of an early Enlightenment look into colonizers’ perception of colonized peoples’ psychology. Ariel is smart, quick, and unearthly. I purposely use the pronoun “they” here to refer to Ariel, whose gender has been interpreted as fluid or uncertain. Ariel is not confined to human ability or categorization, and yet they crave the approval of Prospero as a master. They even go so far as to demand, “Do you love me, master? no?,” demonstrating a need for Prospero’s attention even as they agitate for their freedom in previous scenes (Act IV Scene I). Despite their frequent reminders to Prospero of the freedom he promised, Ariel never forces the issue. The sole confrontation in this respect results in Ariel’s clipped sentences that admit to all Prospero has done for them since coming to this island and becoming their master. This parallels the concept that Europeans are justified in colonizing the Americas because they are more capable of “marrying” the land and using it to its full potential.

I’m so appreciative of this course for complicating my surface-level understanding of the text and better realize it for its potential as a text that, at least to some extent, captured European attitudes towards colonization and their potential to erase the experience of colonized peoples. This perspective encourages me to reevaluate my need to understand texts in terms of heroes and villains and question the motives of authors who assign those categories.

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