Renaissance and Restoration Literature
A critical analysis of a passage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest
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Act I scene ii lines 320-365
The Tempest can be seen as a colonial text, containing New World ideas. Shakespeare was most probably influenced by recordings of an expedition to Virginia that took place in 1610. One of the ships carrying an admiral and a governor, was separated from the rest of the fleet by a tempest, and ran aground on an island. This island proved to be a haven where they were able to repair the ship, and from there they managed to arrive at Jamestown a year later. The survival of these men was at that time regarded as a miracle. Strachey, who was on this ship, made detailed recordings of the events in letters, in which he also mentions the impossibility of reforming the isle’s natives. This was a major issue in the Renaissance debate in Shakespeare’s time; The civilized versus the natural man, Art versus Nature. The Tempest deals with these issues, ultimately having art coming to terms with nature in the end.
Prospero, a mighty, authoritative man and magician, driven from his dukedom in Milan, has settled on an enchanted island with his daughter Miranda. They share the island with Caliban, a strange monster-like creature who is the island’s natural inhabitant. At first they get along well: Prospero enjoys educating Caliban and teaching him to speak, and in turn Caliban shows him the beauties and wonders of the island. However, when Caliban makes an attempt to rape Miranda, the relationship turns hostile; Caliban is to serve Prospero as his slave, and is confined to imprisonment in a rock.
Prospero, the civilized man, father, and colonizer, who is ruled by intellect and self discipline, uses his white magic (Art) to control Nature: He creates the tempest and controls the island, it’s inhabitants, and visitors, as a natural ruler. He has the ability to control others, and enjoys educating Caliban, but in doing so we may conclude that he is imposing his will on him, as colonizers did on the enslaved natives.
Prospero may appear cruel at times, and use his power for more nasty means: After the attack on Miranda he threatens Caliban continuously, tyrannically depriving him of his rights and liberty. However, one can argue whether this treatment is justified, as Caliban “didst seek to violate/ The honour of his child” (348-349). Prospero frightens Caliban, but in fact just may be wanting to educate him. He also evokes a tempest and causes shipwreck, but Prospero does seem merciful, as he does spare his enemies.
Prospero enjoys, and profits from his power, but at the same time it is the essence of his inner struggle; whether power is good and justified, or harmful and dangerous. At the end of the play he averts from his magic and with that, from his power. He then regains freedom through forgiveness and reconciliation.
God-like powers are attributed to Prospero; controlling nature and spirits, and causing a storm which resembles The Ordeal of flood of waters in The Bible. Other biblical features can be found in the play (which, due to lack of time and space, I cannot go into too deeply), like the enchanted island resembling the Garden of Eden, (In the Shakesperian times of expeditions, America was thought to be like the garden of Eden.) and Caliban being referred to as the “noble slave”.
Caliban is naturally ruled. Son to the witch Sycorax, he is portrayed as being monster-like, “got by the devil himself Upon thy wicked dam” (on four legs) (320-321), therefore not being born of a human union. In the play, however, there is no further description of his appearance. Some believe he is a black man, and in other accounts, he is depicted fish-like.
Caliban, on the other hand, does possess human qualities; He is moved by beauty and is impressed by higher beings, which is apparent when he recollects the events that took place when Prospero arrived on the island:
[i:1a1cab556f]When thou cam’st first
Thou strok’st me and made much of me; woudst 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.
Prospero’s response: “Thou most lying slave,/ Whom stripes may move, not kindness;” (345-346) therefore seems highly questionable, as Caliban appears sensitive to things on the island.
Prospero’s intellect is the complete opposite of Caliban, who behaves in accordance with his instinctual urges, not with any reasoning above that of the most elementary. He is in contact with the pure and original forms of nature and is not repressed by the meanings of custom. This makes him the essence of grossness, although he is not vulgar. He has an erotic nature and responds to passions, and feelings of pleasure, that being loved and petted gave him. This explains his assault on Miranda, as rape is a pleasure to him.
His human reasoning is also evident when he appears conscious of not only Miranda’s beauty but also of the reproductive function that the rape could have led to: “Would’t had been done; /Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans” (350-352).
Caliban is a very poetic character and always speaks in blank verse, which Shakespeare only attribute’s to noblemen. Caliban himself, though, states: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse.” (364-365), again stressing his vile nature.
The name Caliban is probably derived from the Greek words ‘kalos’, meaning noble and beautiful, and ‘benausos’, meaning mechanical and vulgar, which do sum up Caliban’s nature. ‘Carib’ was also the term for savage inhabitants, as was the word ‘cannibal’ that both resemble ‘Caliban’.
Prospero and Caliban are extreme opposites, but they settle things in the end, as Prospero gives him back his freedom. Both are now wiser men: Caliban has been educated, and can now name the beauties on the island, and Prospero has decided that having power and being able to control people is dangerous and that it was better to part from it.
It has been argued that, when at the end of the play Prospero states: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-276), he does not only accept Caliban but may also acknowledge Caliban as being part of his own identity.
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