The Continued Conversation on Caliban and The Tempest

Noah had a very quick, and admittedly legitimate, criticism to my previous post regarding some of my interpretations of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are some claims that I won’t be able to defend, such as the question of Prospero’s honesty: It’s evident in the play that he’s not exactly the most forthright when it comes to his intentions. For example, he did hide Miranda’s origin from her for most of her life, and he constantly spied on and manipulated others with the use of Ariel and his magic. With that being said, many of Prospero’s claims regarding Caliban and the island could indeed be put under question.

I would, however, like to note the difference between Prospero’s and Sycorax’s rule of the island, and how they relate to colonialism: Prospero never met Sycorax, so it can be presumed that all he knew from her came from the word of Ariel. Sycorax’s oppression of Ariel is evident, as Ariel openly confirms Prospero’s summary of it:

“As though report’st thyself, wast then her servant.
And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorred commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee”

Ariel was given a choice by Sycorax: oppressive slavery or imprisonment. Because spirits are immortal beings, the imprisonment would have been, presumably, indefinite. While Prospero’s terms for servitude aren’t exactly justified by any means, I would like to assert that the temporariness of the servitude alone makes it significantly more humane than Sycorax’s tyranny. This is not the case with real-life instances of colonizers replacing colonizers, as the true natives, if they still existed, were rarely given more favorable conditions upon the usurpation of the land. In addition, Prospero had no intentions of making the island his permanent domain. Ultimately, he wanted to return home to reclaim his title, eventually returning the land to the natives.

The concept of slavery among fairies, as opposed to humans, also becomes complicated from a mythological perspective: It’s not uncommon to see spirits and fairies acting as servants in popular folklore at the time, such as their appearances in Shakespeare’s other work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and many of the fairy tales recovered by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, such as the Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. In some respects, people of the time would claim that fairies and spirits are supposed to be bound to servitude (However, I admit that this argument quickly falls apart when you compare it to those who claim the same for African slaves, and it certainly doesn’t explain Ariel’s eagerness for freedom).

I still believe that Caliban was not enslaved until after his attempted violation of Miranda, despite Prospero’s possible unreliability. Caliban is always one to speak his mind, and does so multiple times in defiance of his master. When Prospero claims, to Caliban’s face, that he was not a slave until he committed the crime, Caliban did not retaliate whatsoever. Instead, he admits to the crime, and even boasts about it.

“O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.”

Today’s world is not forgiving to sexual predators, nor should it be. There is little difference between slavery and imprisonment, so it can be argued that Caliban’s punishment is justifiable. Making it indefinite may seem cruel, but Caliban’s apparent refusal towards rehabilitation (although the belittlement from the others probably doesn’t help) makes it necessary for the safety of Miranda.

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