I love teaching Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. There is the sense that, nearing the end of his career, Shakespeare goes for broke and throws all his beloved tropes from throughout his career into one play. It’s delightfully weird, but also easy to teach, because this assemblage of motifs helps students draw connections with other plays on the syllabus: brothers become vicious enemies, and the space of exile becomes the space of transformation, just like in As You Like It. A legitimate ruler is overthrown by sabotage, like in Macbeth.
And like Othello, The Tempest asks how to define the British “us,” and who defines the “other.” Both Othello and The Tempest bear the stamp, then, of wider Early Modern interests in exploration and exploitation of Africa and the East and West Indies. Mentions of the Americas and India in the play cement this reading, as does the historical timeline. The East India Company (EIC) was incorporated by royal mandate in 1600; from 1607-1609, the EIC set up their first factory on the Coromandel coast. The Tempest was staged in 1610.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare gives us the character Caliban, the son of the Algerian witch Sycorax, who grew up on the remote, nameless island on which the play takes place. The banished Duke of Milan, Prospero, arrives on the island and presses Caliban into service chopping and carrying his wood. Caliban is the original inhabitant of the island (“this island’s mine by Sycorax my mother” [I.ii.347]), who taught Prospero how to find fresh water and gather food when he first arrived. After an assault on his daughter Miranda, Prospero concludes that Caliban is a “devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (IV.i.188–189). The abuses and threats hurled at Caliban continue throughout the play: he is called “poisonous slave” (I.ii.323), “tortoise,” (I.ii.319), “a freckled whelp, hag-born” (I.ii.285), “servant monster” (III.ii.5), “debauched fish,” (III.ii.24), the child of the devil himself.
Conventionally, Prospero is the hero of The Tempest: an author-figure, benevolent patriarch, even champion of the liberal arts. But as Caribbean novelist George Lamming notes, if a reading of The Tempest as a play that celebrates Caliban was a mistake, it was “a mistake, lived and felt by millions of men like me.” Rather than accept the insults hurled at Caliban at face value, Lamming and millions others like him (including me!) see these insults as a prime example of the way the play reflects Early Modern ideas about the limits of the human: ideas that enabled British colonial expansion.
But for that, we need some critical theory. Scaffolding Shakespeare’s texts with historical and theoretical frameworks lays the groundwork for the performance-based approaches I have adopted to teach these texts. In 1952, the Martiniquan psychologist Frantz Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks, a book that would become a foundational text in the field of postcolonial studies. Fanon weaves together anecdote, social analysis, psychology, and rhetoric to conclude: “[The black man’s] metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him” (110). In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon is writing about his own experiences as a colonized Black person, but he is also writing—you might say—on behalf of all the characters who are “colonized” by European literature: characters like Caliban.
The idea for this “Designing Caliban” assignment came out of a class I designed at the University of California, San Diego: Performance Studies for Theatermakers. The deservedly prestigious MFA program trains some of the most creative and impactful actors, designers, choreographers and directors in the US theatre world. But I was disheartened by the disconnect between the work I saw produced on stage and the readings I was doing to support my Ph.D., with its emphasis on critical race and gender studies. Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, depending on direction and design, is either the play’s scheming, stereotypical Moorish villain or the first example of a Black Power advocate in European literature: “Coal-black is better than another hue, / in that it scorns to bear another hue” (IV.2.103-104). Costuming him in a stereotypical hoodie, torn wifebeater, and saggy jeans sat at odds with the critical theory I was reading across campus in the library. Performance Studies for Theatermakers was born.
We read Fanon to introduce a unit on race and empire. In this iteration, I asked the MFA students to be dramaturgs for a day: one common task for a production dramaturg in an American theatre context is to create dossiers of reference images for the director and designer of a production. So we all brought in images of previous stage and film productions of The Tempest. How had other artists dealt with the character of Caliban? The results of our visual research were disheartening. Caliban was often covered in mud or adorned with antlers: usually at least mostly nude. Such choices reaffirm historical associations of blackness with primitivity and animality. The assignment proved that the split between theory and practice in theatre studies is a false dichotomy. Fanon, Shakespeare, and design are not indeed “strange bedfellows”—a phrase coined, by the way, in The Tempest itself (II.ii.19). Theory, literature, and artistic practice instead strengthen critical-thinking and close-reading skills when taught together.
That artistic decisions are interpretive decisions is something that theatre artists tend to know instinctively and viscerally. The difference between a heroic or villainous Aaron the Moor might hang quite literally on a hoodie. When I was asked to teach Shakespeare at FLAME, I wondered whether I could adapt this assignment. It was one thing to include Shakespeare in a Performance Theory class, but quite another to include a “performance-based research” assignment in a Shakespeare class. As an article by Dani Bedau and D.J. Hopkins that we read in class succinctly summarizes: “This disciplinary bias is firmly entrenched in the broader field of Shakespeare studies: that Shakespeare is literature.” With a LITR course code and everything.
The implicit bias against performance as a form of knowledge runs deep: because of the cross-cultural mingling that occurs in theatre audiences, because of performers’ association with licentiousness and sexual freedom, because performance, unlike print, necessarily disappears. To claim that performance might be an equally potent producer of knowledge as literary analysis when dealing with Shakespeare is bold, even in 2019. Isn’t Shakespeare the posterchild for English literature? Do a quick image search for “English Literature” and tell me whose face you see. As Ayanna Thompson suggests, “[The world] treats Shakespeare like intellectual spinach. He’s good for you. He’s universally good for you.” If Shakespeare is like spinach, then who are we to talk back?
That, I think, is the strength of this assignment: to present a design (drawn, designed on the computer, written in narrative, whatever) for the character of Caliban. If you have to take responsibility for every aspect of your design, you necessarily have to make decisions about Caliban’s look, his sound, his character. To leave him faceless, as one student did, is also a statement. There is no “neutral option,” just as there is no objective approach to the text. The performance-based assignment just makes it obvious.
Designing Caliban has led to conversations about hair: whether Caliban might have long hair to symbolize his power, or have his hair cut by his master Prospero as a sign of domination. We talked about language: how does Caliban speak? With a gravelly voice? With a smooth, musical accent? Has he accepted Prospero’s “gift” of the English language, or does he reject it—and how? Is Caliban tall and muscular, to show that Prospero’s “book learning” has more power in the play than physical strength? Or do the tasks of chopping and hauling wood overwhelm an emaciated and abject Caliban? Is his nudity just another dark body represented as an object-to-be-looked-at? Or is his nudity a site of pathos, as he wraps himself tightly with a ratty blanket cast-off from his masters?
Why do characters constantly refer to Caliban as a fish or turtle? Some suggested that this was because of his smell. Several students imagined Caliban with some kind of skin condition: keloided scars from whipping, or cystic acne, or skin so dry it’s scaly. Someone brought in the helpful reference point of the film The Shape of Water, in which a lonely janitor falls in love with an amphibious man-fish who is held as a research subject. One way, then, to interpret the fish insults is literally: that the project of the play is then to humanize those who appear to be less-than-human. But most of the class pursued the opposite line of thinking: that showing Caliban as fully human and not-at-all fishlike would show that these insults were baseless, racist.
Several of the design interventions were powerful re-interpretations of the play. One student, for example, designed handcuffs for Caliban that were actually beautiful bejewelled gold bracelets: the idea was that this “gift” of European culture looked nice, but was actually the source of Caliban’s enslavement. She imagined that the character might bite or chew at these shackles.
Another student also designed for Caliban a piece of jewelry that spoke volumes: a necklace comprised of natural treasures from the island, woven together with Miranda’s hair. Such a prop would show Caliban’s agency in exercising personal choice: Prospero is not the only “creator-figure” in the play, if Caliban too crafts objects of beauty.
One of the most radical adaptations of the character proposed that Caliban, like Prospero’s other servant, Ariel, was also a shapeshifter. But while Ariel had the ability to control his own shapeshifting, Caliban lacked the ability to choose his form. He then was forced to physically transform into the insults hurled at him: “hagseed,” “mooncalf,” “puppy-headed monster,” “fish.” An adaptation with such a Caliban poses a strong postcolonial critique.
“Representation Matters” is a 2019 commonplace, but representation has mattered since the 1600s. When the drunken butler Stephano stumbles upon Caliban, he basks in his good fortune: he could take Caliban back to England as part of a travelling exhibit of “New World Discoveries.” Putting Caliban on display could make him rich. This is not fictional: “Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (II.ii.17) is not idle talk. It is a likely reference to the display of embalmed Inuit corpses brought by Martin Frobisher from the Arctic to England in the late 1500s.
As our final class on The Tempest was winding down, I asked the students what they would choose as the final images of The Tempest, if they were directing a film adaptation. Shakespeare’s play itself does not specify Caliban’s fate, but what we imagine happens to Caliban is the moral litmus of the whole play. One student mused that she would show the European characters dressing up Caliban for such a display and leading him in chains toward a ship waiting to return to Italy. This student’s single image synthesized historical and theoretical approaches to the text into a singular moment of critique: a critique articulated not through academic argumentation, but through performance design. Teaching Shakespeare has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own complicated relationship with “the Bard.” More importantly, it’s given me the chance to think back on the worshipful and context-less Shakespeare classes I myself took in high school and college… and do something different.
Assistant Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies