How can the dramatic presentation of Caliban and Miranda affect the dominant readings of the play
How can the dramatic presentation of Caliban and Miranda affect the dominant readings of the play?
The Tempest is seen to be a richly complex play; the play itself conforms to John Fletcher’s definition of a Tragicomedy.
‘A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no tragedy’. (From the preface to The Faithful Sheperdess .)
Due to the level of complexity and leeway of vivid thought, this play has been interpreted in many different ways to be dramatised. I am going to explore the dramatic presentation of Caliban and Miranda to see how their characters affect the dominant readings of The Tempest.
Shakespeare’s play was written in the renaissance period and said to be written as part of entertainment to celebrate the betrothal of King James the first's daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, who was the Elector of the German Palatine states. It has also been highlighted that The Tempest might have been influenced by another contemporary writer which Shakespeare would have known; Montaigne’s Essay, Of Cannibals. The Tempest itself is set on a remote island which might have been somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea because Italy is mentioned in the beginnings of the play. Shakespeare uses contextual points of the times that are integrated somewhere in the play. For example; the idea of Colonialism, enslavement of the Africans and the conventions of the renaissance period Themes of Nature or nurture, Masters and Servants and The Supernatural run profusely in the play and of which I will elaborate later on in the essay.
Caliban, the only native of the island as well as Prospero’s slave is described as part man, part beast and a mixture of humanity, as well as boorish wickedness. In dramatisations of the play, he is usually played by a black man to emphasise issues of colonialism and the enslavement of the black people from Africa throughout the play. In simple words, he is used as a catalyst in a contextual point of view to symbolise an outcast. He is the son of Sycorax a renowned and evil witch.
“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou tak’st from me”. (A1, S2. L331-332)
This suggests that the he feels the island was taken away from him out of his control. I think it has an undertone of bitterness and resentment which can be clearly seen when he speaks to Prospero, his master. I think that at times Caliban’s situation can be distinctly paralleled with the situation of Prospero. Just as Caliban feels his island was taken away from him, is how Prospero feels his brother Antonio usurped his dukedom of Milan. The scene which consists of Caliban, Prospero and Miranda is a key point in the play, because the roles of both Caliban and Miranda can be assessed in light of both characters in comparison. In this scene Caliban accuses Prospero of using him, because at first when Prospero acquainted Caliban he treated him kindly, while he found out about the ways of the island and then once he knew all that he needed to, he enslaved Caliban to take over the island. This mirrors the situation between Prospero and his brother also.
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Prospero responds angrily stating that he only changed his attitude towards him when he tried to rape Miranda.
‘Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate, the honour of my child.’ (A1, S2 L346-248)
This part of the play destroys any sympathy that may have accumulated for Caliban by the reader and displays the true nature of Caliban and his role in the play.
The character of Prospero is an intense and multifaceted one. He is the foundation of the play itself. When on stage, he remains the staple ‘prop’ as it were because of his associations with all of the characters. He has been described by other critics as the Father of all the ‘children’; Caliban, Ariel as well as his real daughter, Miranda. Even when Ferdinand arrives on the island, Prospero treats him as his own property. This idea of patriarchy conveys the basis of Prospero’s personality as the controller.
Although Caliban’s character is described chronically as a character only worthy of abhorrence, I think that he has an insightful side and at times can be sympathised with. He is a product of nurture. He was taught only to be bitter and resentful by his mother Sycorax, his more sensitive side is seen when he poetically describes his island.
’ Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not’ (A3, S2 L136-138)
This displays a more vulnerable side to Caliban and endears me to think more deeply into the nature of a Caliban’s character and forces directors of new productions to treat his character more diversely than what he appears to be. A Marxist critic of Caliban’s character would say that he is a victim of a hierarchical structure. They would argue that the ruling class always exploit those beneath them and treat him differently because of his outward appearance. This exploitation leads us to link the contextual points that at this time in history, exploitation of the foreign man is accepted because of the idea of the island being colonised by the west.
In my own dramatisation of the play, I would use a black person with unkempt hair, torn clothing and bare feet; pieces of board tied with strings under his feet to portray him being bound from the feet upwards; symbolising his role in the play as a slave. He should be relatively aged, slightly hunched over, and would look up to Prospero when he spoke, regardless of the fact that he is physically facing the ground. This will emphasise that despite his occupation as a slave, he possesses dignity even when his own physical state defies it. His presence on stage can be complimented with elements of the island which would show his connection and relativity with it. Possibly music could be used, earthly and soothing island related sounds. I also would make it so that Caliban seems to have a kind of speech impediment, but in reality he is speaking his own language. He speaks the language of Miranda and Prospero but not so clearly, and it seems as though he is speech impaired but in fact is quietly mixing his own language with the one taught to him. I also think that when he speaks to Stephano and deems him his new master, he should appear excited and vulnerable, having a slight bounce in his step and trying to be as close to Stephano as possible. Also when Caliban is speaking with Prospero, and when Prospero scolds him, he would look away as if to show that he cannot bare the maltreatment and refuses to acknowledge himself as uncivilised and unmannered. The setting of the stage will be minimal in terms of props, I think the stage should stay the same throughout to emphasise the remoteness of the island. The only props on set should be a fire in the midst of the stage, two seats and a mirror at the back of the stage. This will be for when Miranda looks into the mirror, to show that she is alone, and will also be used for when Miranda becomes physically aware of her beauty after Ferdinand arrives. The minimalist prop use is to emphasise that the only inhabitants of the island are Prospero and his daughter, Caliban and Ariel the spirit, the other characters will come afterwards, but the staple inhabitants are the aforementioned four. Also to project the idea of the characters being the only needed props for the play to progress, and to convey the complexity of the characters by contrasting it with a simplistic set.
I am now going to explore the character of Miranda, the daughter of Prospero and the only female character in the play. She is fifteen years old, and has spent 12 years on the Island since Prospero was usurped as Duke of Milan and replaced with his brother Antonio. She is adored and admired by many, especially her Father and later Ferdinand. He becomes besotted with her beauty, elegance and her compassion. Prospero describes her as his ‘cherubin’, and states that it was because of her he plucked up the courage to endure the hardships when he was usurped and nearly killed in the ‘leaky boat’. Miranda’s kind nature and compassionate traits are first seen when she hears about the Tempest and the lost people on the ship.
‘...O I have suffered with those that I saw suffer...Had I been any God of power, I would have sunk the sea within the earth...’ (A1, S2 L5-6, L10-11)
This is a clear display of her genuine consideration for others, even those of who she doesn’t think she has any relation to. (She does not yet know that her future life partner is a victim of Prospero’s Tempest). Miranda’s exterior beauty is a reflection of her inner goodness. She is virginal and pure, as well as the only woman on the island. She was described as a ‘goddess’ by Ferdinand and Alonso, and a ‘nonpareil’ of beauty by Caliban. There hasn’t been a purer woman in Shakespeare’s plays except in Measure for measure, but even Isabella refuses to sacrifice her virginity to save her brother’s life. Thus, the difference between her and Miranda is that in Miranda’s eyes, the next person is more valuable to her than herself. Miranda’s selfless character has even been described as ‘Christ-like’ and it is this extreme propensity towards compassion and purity which allows Miranda a place in the list of Shakespeare’s unforgettable characters. The only occasion on which Miranda is ill-spoken of someone is where she speaks of Caliban.
‘Tis a villain, sir, I do not love to look on’ (A1, S2 L311-312)
All of Miranda’s encounters are characterised by her simple honesty and goodness and still only speaks the truth when speaking of Caliban, because of his attempt to rape her.
Miranda’s moral stature in the play is reflected in her meeting with Ferdinand, where she instantly falls in love with him even after only knowing him for a short while. She apologises to Ferdinand constantly when Prospero bounds him as a slave to prove his love for his chaste daughter. When Miranda proposes to Ferdinand, the depth and intensity of her love is proven when she states the lengths she will take if declined by Ferdinand.
‘ I am your wife, if you will marry me; If not, I’ll die your maid, To be your fellow you may deny me, but I’ll be your servant whether you will or no’. (A3, S1 L83-86)
This quote is lucid evidence of Miranda’s innocence and intense capacity for love and emotion. She is innocent, yet forthright and direct. The way she is portrayed in this play is also a clear indication of Shakespeare’s image of her almost consecrated persona.
In my own dramatisation of The Tempest, the actor playing Miranda’s part would have to be carefully picked. I think she should be white, quite young with long hair to symbolise youth and virginity. Her flawless appearance would symbolise her inner goodness. She would be soft spoken, but direct. Her positions on stage would be usually centre pointed to reflect her importance and the symbolism of her presence. The other reason for why she should be white is because of the scene between her, Prospero and Caliban who is black. This will show a stereotype of the 17th century where it was rumoured that black men’s desire to have sex with white woman; undertones of colonisation in this scene also. When speaking to her father, I would make it so her posture is straight but she would bow her head slightly when in conversation with Prospero, this will convey the degree of respect she has for her father, so much that she thinks it wrong to look him directly in the face. I also would have a slight white light shone on her when on stage to show the degree of purity and sacredness Shakespeare wanted the reader to notice within her persona. I think for costume, she would be wearing a staple white dress, with earth coloured corset tops on top, with brown walking type boots. The white dress would symbolise the purity of her character. The corsets were of renaissance fashion and also to show her being bound as the daughter of her father, who is extremely protective of her. The change in costume would be at her wedding, when she is wearing a white dress and no corset but with other more elegant attire on top of her dress such as lace. Also she would be wearing a wreath of white flowers on her hair. This would distinguish her from her everyday wear to her wedding day. It would also echo her ‘Christ-like’ image.
Miranda’s consecrative character is singular, and Shakespeare had never written of such an unflawed woman in any of his other plays. She is portrayed as beautiful, simplistic yet intelligent. Feminist critics disagree with the portrayal of her as an ideal woman. She is seen as passive, meek and obedient to her father. The notion that she reached utmost happiness when she met and married Ferdinand implies that the ideal woman’s goal in life is to marry well, and to the man her father chooses or accepts. Other interesting points are that the ideal woman is beautiful, or otherwise seen as a ‘trophy’, manhood is measured by the splendour of his wife.
As for an alternative critical perspective, I think it influences the readings in the sense that they view it in their own interpretation, For example, a person with a strong political interest. That person would slant their views towards a political perspective and see Caliban’s character as an oppressed inhabitant of the ‘new world’ which links into the idea of colonisation at the time. However, other interpreters seem to dismiss that suggestion and find that the play is based on a nature vs. nurture dispute.
I have explored the characters of both Miranda and Caliban and their presence in the play. Caliban is one of Shakespeare’s most exquisite characters, because of his complexity and multiple sided personas and the portrayal of Miranda as the ideal woman; virginal and obedient. I do not think that the presence of Caliban and Miranda alter the dominant readings of the play, because of its tragicomedy genre, the dominant themes of nature and nurture are reflected in the presence of the two characters because where Caliban reflects nature, Miranda is a product of positive nurture. Nurture can also be argued in defence of Caliban due to the nature of his mother as an evil witch. Thus, highlighting my opinion that the presences of these two extremely complex characters were part of the plan to create one of the greatest plays of all time.
I declare that I, Shaheen Rostom used the following resources to aid me with my coursework.
- The Oxford Shakespeare-The Tempest-Stanley Wells/Stephen Orgel-1998
- York Notes-The Tempest-David Pinnington-1998
Word Count- 2,532 (excluding bibliography)