Welcome back, Reader! I don’t know whether this will make you squeal with joy or pout in dismay, but this is not going to be a biographical blog post to honour the Bard’s date of birth. Did you know that aside from today being my birthday (!!!), and Shakespeare’s birthday, it was also his death day? Next piece of trivia: The Tempest was recorded as the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own. I am not the first to connect the play with the end of his life, but I would like to be the first to share this connection with you!
The Tempest is a play about Prospero, the former Duke of Milan. He was overthrown and exiled on a rickety boat during a tempest (giant storm) by his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples, when he was too busy playing with magic to rule. When the Alonso and Antonio sail the seas to go to a wedding, Prospero uses his magic to set off another tempest, shipwrecking them on the island where he lives and rules over all the creatures with his magic. Once he has his revenge, he tells them he forgives him, but he promises never to forget their sins against him. His daughter and the king’s son marry, Prospero promises to drown his magic books, and he is able to return home with a promotion and the scars of his former grudge.
Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into several genres, and The Tempest falls into the most complicated one: Romances. Not to be mistaken with the romantic comedies of today, Shakespearean Romances are known to include the following:
- Families torn apart and then reunited, but with visible scars
- Endings in which the conflicts seem to be resolved, but that resolution is never unconditional
- An element of the supernatural
Shakespeare delved into the Romances at the end of his career, and I think they are so steeped in strangeness and the supernatural because Shakespeare was personally grappling with the idea of the afterlife, or: “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.” In this context, his thoughts would have ranged from angels and devils to whether he would be reunited with his own family on the other side.
What caught my attention in The Tempest was how Shakespeare incorporates the supernatural (his musings on the characters who might star in his own afterlife) with seemingly normal human life. This play takes every type of self-aware being and puts it in a blender, leaving us with blurred distinctions of what defines being a ‘person’. Think of it as a spectrum:
Animal ——- Human ———Spirit ——-Demon
One character doesn’t have to fall into a single slot; instead, they can hover over several.
The best example of a character that just will not stay in one category is Caliban. Trinculo, Alonso’s drunken butler says:
Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree as Caliban, 1904
What have we
here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish:
he smells like a fish;
In other sections of the play, he is called monster, mooncalf, son of the devil, and his name is actually an anagram for the word ‘cannibal’. Because Shakespeare left no drawn sketches of what he wanted his characters to be like, we’re left with this totally ambivalent (going in many directions) description of Caliban. When putting the play on stage and screen, directors have to make the decision: do I make Caliban fish-like? Do people call him devil out of cruelty, or should I outfit him with horns to match?
Well, Shakespeare wanted to make it one degree more difficult. To contrast with his monstrous image, Caliban happens to have a poetic mind. When leading the fearful Trinculo and his friend Stephano through the island, he comforts them by saying:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
This verse has made critics take pause and say: we know Caliban is visually unattractive, but Caliban can speak so poetically! Does the ability to speak poetry make one a person? Or does it force us at least to believe he’s not an animal, but could be some other being? Search the play all you want: there is no definite answer. That is because Shakespeare was a master at blurring distinctions, thereby forcing us to realize that what we think of as ‘truth’ is defined subjectively (based on personal feelings) rather than objectively (representing stone-cold facts).
"What care these roarers for the name of king?", Designed by Walter Crane
Different characters in this play would define personhood in different ways. Alonso, the king of Milan, tells the mariners to ‘Play the men’ while sailing through the tempest. To him, people overcome their natural instincts whereas animals would flee in fearful situations. To the Neapolitan (from Naples) nobility, personhood is not enough of a distinction: men must also be classified in a social hierarchy. Their beliefs are shattered during the tempest when the boatswain begs the king to go back to his cabin because he’s interfering their attempts to survive. The king assumes he’s privileged because of his social status and the Boatswain rebukes him with one of Shakespeare’s most deliciously egalitarian lines: “What care these roarers for the name of king?” These words thrust the nobility into a ‘green space’: a place where the way of life is different and forces them to re-evaluate the crooked social codes they followed at home.
But this green space doesn’t just teach Alonso’s men a lesson: it teaches Prospero. Although he rules over the spirits, his fairy-like personal assistant, Ariel, is the one who tells him to forgive and forget. When Prospero and Ariel watch over the shipwrecked and horrified Neapolitan nobility, it is Ariel who suggests:
Your charm so strongly works ‘em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero, who is up to his elbows in magic, has lost that essential humaneness which comes with being human. He asks Ariel for advice: “Dost thou think so, spirit?”, to which Ariel responds, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Only then does he realize he’s gotten in too deep and must drown his books to regain his humanity.
Sir Antony Sher's "Bottled toad" Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984
So back to the question: what does it mean to be a person? Is it empathy? Is it looks? Caliban is ‘not honoured with / A human shape’, but he could have been born deformed, like Richard III, who was called a ‘toad’ and ‘bottled spider’ in his self-titled Shakespearean play. To Prospero, humanity and self-control go hand in hand. When he first got to the island, he treated Caliban well, feeding him “water with berries in’t.” Then Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. From then on, Prospero considered him unworthy of humane treatment, calling him “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself,” treating Caliban as a slave and forcing him to fetch his wood and build his fires.
Do I think Caliban is a person? I’d say yes. Why? Because he knows that Propsero, too, has lost his self-control. Prospero has let the magic take over his humanity, and Caliban knows he can overthrow Prospero by stealing his magic books. He tells Trinculo and Stephano that in order to rule the island, they must:
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am
Caliban is aware that he and Prospero share something in common: human weakness. Just as Caliban was outnumbered by the spirits Prospero sent to physically torment him when he didn’t fetch food fast enough, the old and magic-less Prospero could never win when outnumbered in hand-to-hand combat. And just as Caliban acknowledges Prospero as one like himself, Prospero later admits: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”