I’ve always been drawn to Caliban. From an early reading of The Tempest, I came away with the impression that he was wronged and misunderstood, more sinned against than singing. The impression was reinforced last year, when I watched a fabulous performance of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe. Caliban stole the show. “… that when I waked/ I cried to dream again…” was delivered with all the captive longing and pathos that I had always imagined. Caliban’s outrage at his treatment by Prospero seemed both genuine and justified, and his desire for revenge founded on good cause (if a trifle disproportionate). I began to wonder if it was possible to interpret the play (within the constraints of its text and structure) as an indictment of colonialism, even though Shakespeare himself might not have intended it to be so.
Recently, however, I read Aime Cesaire’s postcolonial retelling, titled A Tempest, before going back and re-reading the original. It is only when you read Cesaire’s version that the colonial tropes and prejudices in Shakespeare’s play actually begin to stand out. Cesaire takes almost every scene that is steeped in stereotypes about the colonial native, and then “writes back” to Shakespeare. The juxtaposition makes for some fascinating reading.
In The Tempest, Caliban features prominently in four scenes. He is first mentioned in the middle of Act I, Scene II, when Prospero refers to him (off-stage) to Ariel as “a freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with/ A human shape.” Prospero next speaks of him to Miranda, observing that “we cannot miss him: he does make our fire,/ Fetch in our wood and serves in offices/ That profit us.” When Caliban does enter – unwillingly – and insults Prospero for calling him out, Prospero’s response is that of a petty and vindictive slave-master: “For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,/ Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins/ Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,/ All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch’d/ As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging/ Than bees that made ’em.” Caliban’s response is defiance. He insists that the island belonged to him, and that Prospero took it from him by deceit, before shutting him up in a rock, to be let out only to serve his masters.
At this point – in the mind of the reader – Prospero seems to be having the worse of the exchange, at least in moral terms. The prejudice seems to be in his mind, and he has more or less admitted to practicing extractive colonialism – exploiting the resources of the colonised land by making the native work it. Caliban himself has used the vocabulary of the coloniser to lay claim to the land by virtue of being its original inhabitant.
The moral tables are then turned very abruptly, through two exchanges. In response to Caliban, Prospero insists that he treated him well, until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Caliban’s answer is a proud acknowledgment – “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans.” A disgusted Prospero then points to his attempts to teach Caliban language, to which the latter replies: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!“
I am reminded here of Byron’s lines from The Isles of Greece: “You have the letters Cadmus gave/ Think you he meant them for a slave?” Language is ever the first marker of the transition from savagery to civilisation. Sex and language – the two most effective tools possible – have been used to dehumanise Caliban. He is the savage native who has no idea about sexual propriety – going so far as to attempt to rape the white man’s daughter – and nor can he be bothered to educate himself into civilisation, except under duress.
In A Tempest, Prospero makes precisely the same claims. That Caliban (who is a black slave) makes, however, a very different response: “In the first place, that”s not true. You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand your orders: chop the wood, wash the dishes, fish for food, plant vegetables, all because you’re too lazy to do it yourself.” Here, language is no longer the universal market of civilisation, but an alien imposition upon a local inhabitants, who were fully able to communicate before the arrival of the coloniser – in their own language. The point is driven home by Caliban later in the scene, where he renounces his own name – “Caliban” – as a creation of Prospero’s.
“Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history… well that’s history, and everyone knows it! Everytime you summon me, it reminds me of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity! Uhuru!”
Only, of course, “everyone” doesn’t know it. The readers of Shakespeare’s The Tempest certainly don’t. Caliban’s lines go beyond simply rejecting Prospero’s claims to language, but are about reclamation: the reclamation of a history that the coloniser is determined to destroy in order to justify his rule, going so far as to assume the God-like prerogatives of (re-)naming his subjects – but which the colonised is equally determined to preserve.
The response to the rape claim is considerably more ambiguous. Caliban does not deny it explicitly. He says, instead:
“Rape! Rape! Listen, you old goat, you’re the one that put those dirty thoughts in my head. Let me tell you something: I couldn’t care less about your daughter, or about your cave, for that matter. If I gripe, it’s on principle, because I didn’t like living with you at all, as a matter of fact. Your feet stink!”
So, did or did not the Caliban of A Tempest attempt to rape Miranda? I think Cesaire deliberately leaves the question hanging, because he is concerned to address another colonial trope: the European woman as an object of uncontrollable fascination for the native (which is what leads to the attempted rape). Here, Cesaire makes Caliban assert the contrary: “I couldn’t care less about your daughter.” Whether it is false or true is besides the point: the fact that Caliban is able to say it at all is what is significant.
Let us return to Shakespeare’s Caliban. We next meet him in Act II, Scene 2, where he comes upon the clowns Trinculo and Stepano, and persuades them to supplant Prospero by force. He does so by cozening up to Trinculo: “I’ll kiss thy foot; I’ll swear myself thy subject”, while presumable intoxicated. The image of the sly, ingratiating oriental, too weak to fight honourably from the front, is in full display here. When Caliban ends the scene with “‘Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban/ Has a new master: get a new man./ Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom,/ hey-day, freedom!“, it is the pathetic cry of a drunkard, more to be pitied than anything else.
In the same scene in A Tempest, the nakedly colonial ambitions of Trinculo and Stepano are clear from the outset. On first discovering Caliban (asleep), Trinculo says: “Ah, an Indian! Dead or alive? Yóu never know with these tricky races. Yukkk! Anyhow, this will do me fine. If he’s dead, I can use his clothes for shelter, for a coat, a tent, a covering. If he’s alive I’ll make him my prisoner and take him back to Europe and then, by golly, my fortune will be made! I’ll sell him to a carnival.” When Caliban does wake, like his namesake, he recruits Trinculo and Stepano to his cause by promising them the rule of the island after they have dispatched Prospero. This, however, is not a drunk Caliban, but a very sober one, strategising how best to take back his lost land. The difference is illustrated starkly by the song Cesaire’s Caliban sings: it is a song about the beauty of the island – about the quetzal, the hummingbird, the ringdove, and the white blossoms; so when he ends – like his Shakespearean namesake – with “Freedom hi-day! Freedom hi-day!”, it is not the meaningless gibberish of a drunk, but an actual call for reclaiming all the freedom that was sung of and lost.
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…”
In A Tempest, the confrontation takes an entirely different form. When Caliban comes to attack Prospero, the latter walks out unarmed, and dares him to strike. “Go on! You don’t dare! See, you’re nothing but an animal…you don’t know how to kill.” When Caliban refuses to do so, Prospero has him taken prisoner. Here, we have a fascinating reversal: it is precisely because Caliban is not “civilised” in the sense Prospero is (and there are references throughout the play to Caliban’s closeness with nature), he is unable to act like a “man” would, and kill an unarmed person – even if it means losing his one chance at freedom. There is almost a whiff of the “noble savage” here, and it’s something I’m not quite sure how to interpret. Is it an actual portrayal of the colonised as incapable of dissimulation? But surely, Cesaire is too sophisticated a writer to fall into that trap! Or is it a wry, ironical take on the concept of the noble savage itself – in tune with himself and with nature, and too gullible to resort to deceit or trickery? I think so.
The play ends with a dialectical exchange between Prospero and Caliban, Prospero insisting that he has civilised the island, while Caliban responds with the words of the dispossessed: “you ended up by imposing on me/ an image of myself:/ underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent/ that’s how You made me see myself!/ And I hate that image…and it’s false! But now I know you, you old cancer/ And I also know myself!” What happens between them at the end is left unsaid.
There are many other scenes and references in Cesaire’s play (including a fascinating discussion between Caliban and Ariel – who appears as a mulatto slave – on the uses of violence), but in sum: the Caliban of The Tempest can at best be an object of sympathy and pity, mingled with shock and disgust at his fallen state. The Caliban of A Tempest commands our respect, and makes a claim upon our conscience as an equal human being. That is Cesaire’s enduring contribution in this retelling.