Response to “Unpacking Caliban”


In “Echoes in the Bone,” under the “Performing Origins” heading, Roach discusses Henry Purcell’s 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas, quoting in particular the “Eccho Dance of the Furies,” where an off-stage chorus “choreograph[s] the fated catastrophe”: “In our deep-vaulted cell the charm we’ll prepare, / Too dreadful a practice for this open air.” Roach uses this example to illustrate his point that in operas of the era, “Witches, like the spirits of the dead, allowed those among the living to speak of […] the hidden transcript of succession.” Roach is referring here to the Exclusion Crisis of the 1680s, but I want to focus on another “transcript of succession”: Prospero’s seizure of the rulership of the island from Caliban. The “crisis of royal succession,” Roach writes, “is perforce a crisis of cultural surrogation, necessarily rich in performative occasions and allegories of origin and segregation,” and I think it’s valuable to focus on the origin and segregation stories that Prospero allows to be told.

Spencer’s “Unpacking Caliban” post notes that Prospero claims that Caliban’s father is the devil:

“Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself
Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!”

“If this were true,” the post states “then it would further explain Caliban’s cruel nature.” The “if” here is huge: Prospero clearly has a stake in having his daughter believe (and, if we read the magician as a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, in having the audience believe) that his rulership of the island is just. Everything we learn about Sycorax comes from Prospero, the man who took the island she claimed for herself, and is confirmed by the ay’s and no’s of Prospero’s slave in a conversation that slave (Ariel) seems to be trying to hurry up and get over with. We should also be careful with the assertion that Caliban’s servitude was a punishment for having attempted to rape Miranda. This might be the correct interpretation, but it’s not definite. Prospero’s exact words on the matter are the following:

“Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child.”

I think an equally acceptable interpretation implied by these lines is that Prospero took Caliban for a servant before Caliban’s attempted rape, but that Prospero asserts that Caliban was treated “with human care” in slavery before the incident. “Unpacking Caliban” also asserts that Prospero’s seizure of the island cannot be directly equated to colonialism since Sycorax, not Prospero, should be read as the true colonizer. I’m not sure that this is true: the history of colonialism is rife with one colonizer being overthrown by another (the seizure of Dutch New Amsterdam by the British, who turned it into New York, comes to mind), and in some examples the colonizer/conqueror may themselves not be the European we expect when we think of colonialism. When Columbus arrived in the Antilles, the people he encountered called themselves the Taino, meaning good, or noble, to contrast themselves with the Carib people, who had migrated to the Antilles from the Orinoco Basin of South America and had engaged in warfare against the less war-oriented Taino (and were therefore not good, or noble).  I think “Unpacking Caliban” is overly charitable to Prospero, and glosses over the fact that Prospero holds many other spirits in slavery who seem blameless, but it does bring up the important point that the “true island natives” are “Ariel and the other spirits.” The blog Blogging Shakespeare, edited by a number of Shakespeare scholars and development managers at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has published a blog post on the ownership of the island which addresses Ariel’s interest in ruling it (which is to say, none). Ariel’s main goal during the action of the play is to win back his freedom, which by the end he has done. The successful completion of Prospero’s plans will mean that he will go back to Italy, leaving either Caliban (if Caliban is set free, which is unclear) or the rest of the fairies to take ownership of the island. As Ariel dresses Prospero, he imagines what his freedom will be like in a song:

“Where the bee sucks. there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

Ariel’s idea of freedom is to spend the day idly, and he doesn’t seem worried about retaking the island from Caliban, regardless of the fact that Ariel himself was enslaved by Caliban’s mother and then imprisoned by her. In this sense, Shakespeare’s attitude towards Ariel might be read as reflective of European attitudes towards Native Americans, who the Europeans understood to have renounced their claim to their land by not making use (or correct use, as the document we recently read in class shows) of it.  

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