Friday, June 04, 2010

The Tempest, part 2 - Caliban, the native

So, did you ever read Michel de Montaigne's essays? Me neither. Although as it's possible that some of you actually did read Montaigne's essays, I should say, rather, that I hadn't read any of his works until recently. But Shakespeare would have known about about them, seeing as Montaigne's opinions on native peoples and colonialism were the talk of the town in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and his Essaies were translated into English as early as 1603.

Montaigne, you see, was a philosopher. He influenced lots of people you probably have read, including Rousseau (who borrowed at least some of his idea of the "noble savage" from Montaigne), and he claimed his motto was "Que sais-je?" (What do I know?). He argued that imperialism and colonialism were wrong because of their negative impact on the indigenous peoples, about which he said in his essay "On Cannibals", "These nations seem to me, then, barbaric in that they have been little refashioned by the human mind and are still quite close to their original naiveté. They are still ruled by natural laws, only slightly corrupted by ours." Montaigne, raised to be a humanist, believed that nature was superior to man. "All our efforts cannot create the nest of the tiniest bird: its structure, its beauty, or the usefulness of its form; nor can we create the web of the lowly spider. All things, said Plato, are produced by nature, chance, or human skill, the greatest and most beautiful things by one of the first two, the lesser and most imperfect, by the latter."

This is a people, I would say to Plato, among whom there is no commerce at all, no knowledge of letters, no knowledge of numbers, nor any judges, or political superiority, no habit of service, riches, or poverty, no contracts, no inheritance, no divisions of property, no occupations but easy ones, no respect for any relationship except ordinary family ones, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. From "On Cannibals"
But Kelly, you say, aren't you digressing? Not this time. In Shakespeare's time, the word "cannibal" was sometimes spelled "canibal". A little shifting about and hey, presto, you have "Caliban." Also? The natives who Columbus and others discovered on those islands in the West Indies were not called "Caribbeans" at the time, but "Caribans". In the immortal words of the Brain: "Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?"

Caliban sounds a lot like Cariban, and is an anagram of canibal. Neither of those things is accidental. Cariban is the island native, who was ruled by natural laws until Prospero, the imperial colonialist, turned up. Shakespeare tells us, in fact, that until Prospero got there, Caliban had a lot in common with Montaigne's cannibal:

Montaigne: "no knowledge of letters, no knowledge of numbers"

Caliban:When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in 't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less . . .

Miranda: I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.
. . .

Caliban: 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! Act I, scene 2
Montaigne: "no habit of service, riches, or poverty"

This island's mine by Sycorax, my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. . .

. . . All the charms
of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you,
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' th' island. Act I, scene 2

        Ariel draws Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo into the bog

Montaigne: "no clothes"

[Enter Ariel, loaded with glistering apparel, etc.]
Ariel . . . Come, hang this line.

[Enter Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, all wet.]
. . .

Trinculo: O King Stephano, O peer, O worthy Stephano, look what a wardrobe here is for thee!

Caliban: Let it alone, thou fool. It is but trash.
Act IV, scene 1
Also, there was a long-standing tradition of having Caliban appear dressed in something akin to native dress - a bear skin or other animal skin, usually with long, wild hair, thereby tying Caliban not just to Caribans/cannibals, but to the wild men of England, the wodwo, and to the Greek satyrs, wild animal-men who lived horny lives, mating with beautiful women just as Caliban wished to mate with Miranda, speaking in flippant and obscene ways, and generally living in a Bacchanalian, close-to-nature manner. Like Caliban, satyrs are lovers of wine, women and song, and are known to be somewhat subversive and dangerous. They were featured in satyr plays, light-hearted or humorous short plays that were offered as "dessert" after serious heroic dramas during the Athenian festivals honoring Dionysus. (In fact, competing playwrights had to write three dramas and one satyr play as a requirement for entering their plays.)

But now I am indeed digressing.

Montaigne: "no agriculture"

Caliban: . . . And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Act I, scene 2

I'll show thee the best springs. I'll pluck thee berries
I'll fish for thee and get thee wood enough.
Act II, scene 2
Montaigne: "no use of wine or wheat"

Stephano: He's in his fit now, and does not talk after the wisest. He shall taste of my bottle. If he have never drunk wine afore, it will go near to remove his fit. . . .

Come on your ways. Open your mouth. Here is that which will give language to you, cat. Open your mouth. This will shake your shaking, I can tell you, and that soundly. You cannot tell who's your friend. Open your chaps again.
. . .

Caliban: These be fine things, an if they be not sprites. That's a brave god and bears celestial liquor. I will kneel to him. Act II, scene 2.
Caliban is repeatedly called a savage and a slave throughout the play, and Prospero on at least one occasion refers to him as "earth", reflecting his close association to nature in its natural state. ("What ho, slave, Caliban!/Thou earth, thou, speak!" - Act I, scene 2.) His incorporation into the play is not truly necessary to the main story lines; rather, it's Shakespeare's attempt to discuss the indigenous peoples found in the New World. That this is so is made clearer still, by Trinculo's assessment of Caliban's marketability when he assumes him to be a fish, and by Stephano's greedy comments when he spies Caliban and Trinculo, both lying prone under Caliban's cape. He believes he has found a four-legged, two-mouthed monster, and he immediately starts to plot how much he can get for him, much in the way that "Indians" were brought to England and put on display - for money.

Caliban is more than just a figurehead, however. He is a fairly complicated character, who can be understood sympathetically, in accordance with Montaigne's analysis. Because he is "foreign", he is branded as a savage; but who is more savage: Caliban, who is kind to Prospero and Miranda when they first arrive, showing them how to live off the island, or Prospero, who uses his "art" to enslave Caliban, restricting him from moving about the island freely, forcing him to perform hard labor, and tormenting him physically with beatings and pinchings and other unpleasant things?

Moreover, that we are supposed to find some measure of nobility in the lowly Caliban is made clear by his speech. In Shakespeare's plays, high-born men and heroes tend to speak largely in iambic pentameter, sometimes employing rhyme to show off their special skill with the language. Comic characters and those of low rank or status do not typically speak in verse, and often use malapropisms or slang or dialect.

Caliban, though low-ranking when viewed by Prospero, speaks in perfect iambic pentameter almost all the time. Even when inebriated. And though he doesn't use Prospero's overblown phrases, there is a simple, natural poetry in much of what he says. His explanation, in Act III, scene 2, of Ariel's music reveals that he does not understand all of what's going on around him - he doesn't know it's Ariel, for instance - but that he possesses the heart of a poet:

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.
That "Be not afeard" sounds just like the angel in the second chapter of Luke, doesn't it? And then Caliban speaks of how at times the music is so lovely that he hated to wake up from the lovely dreams (or daydreams) it generates. Completely lovely, despite its absence of reference to "cloud-capped towers" and the other comparisons made by Prospero.

So, to sum up: Caliban is there to represent the native, and I think (though your mileage may vary) that Shakespeare was trying to hint that natives are not inherently less noble than their imperial overlords. That said, Shakespeare couldn't afford to flat-out condemn colonialism, which was the trend of the times - it would have been impolitic to do so. And certainly what's "different" about Caliban (which is a lot) makes him appear less "civilized" than noble men. But surely the depictions of Stephano, the drunken butler, and Trinculo, the Jester, reveals Caliban to be a better man than they. And smarter, too.


P.S. - I'll be back a little later today with our first contest of the month, as well as with the order of the next few plays.

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