Happy Birthday Shakespeare!!!

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

–         Strangeness

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).

Defining personhood

"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.”

Stage and Screen

To tie this idea of blurring boundaries into my ‘Stage and Screen’ section, I’d like to look at one of both. The first is Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). This movie genuinely highlights the issue of how Shakespeare confounds our assumptions of what it means to be human. If you like nudity, this film is right up your alley. There are nude dancers throughout the film and I think that the exposed genitals suggest that we are human because we were produced by other humans. Yet, Ariel is played by a human. Or, shall I say, three humans! The part is divided into a child’s body, that of a teenager, and that of an adult. Sometimes they appear apart, and sometimes together. As opposed to multiple personalities, it’s one personality with several bodies. At the beginning of the play, we see the childlike Ariel peeing all over the place, which is a human or animal thing to do. His divided body makes him something other than human, yet when he suggests that he would be emotionally touched if he saw his family members suffering, I wonder how un-human somebody so empathetic could be.

And then there’s Caliban! What of Caliban? Greenaway’s vision of this character is a man in a loincloth, covered in body paint (which makes him a dark, earthy colour), and with horns coming out of his head, which reminds us of Prospero’s accusation that Caliban was “got by the devil himself”. Caliban doesn’t speak with his mouth; instead, we hear the words dubbed over as if they are his thoughts. What is most beautiful and haunting his how Caliban is an interpretive dancer who does not walk or crawl, but prances, stomps, or slithers, depending on his mood. Would a human do that regularly? Doubtful. But do animals wear loincloths? No, except for the Louis Vuitton-clad puppies I see around the neighbourhood. And there lie the blurred distinctions.

Ariel imprisoned in a 'cloven pine', also the puppet-Sycorax's hands!

The stage version I want to talk about is last year’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest, by far the best production of any Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen. This version was spectacular because the African actors genuinely understood the blurred distinctions between the human and spiritual world. Sir Antony Sher told The Telegraph: “On the first day of rehearsals, I asked how I should summon Ariel, and about 10 people stood up to say, ‘I’ll show you how to summon the spirits!’” I LOVED how they created the memory of Sycorax, Caliban’s deceased mother (I desperately tried to find a full picture, but to no avail!). Like Caliban, Sycorax is referred to as a witch, and a fornicator with the devil, and we can never put our finger on what exactly she’s made of. So, appropriately, they created her image out of separate giant puppet parts, confounding our ability to decide what exactly his mother was when she was alive.

This is an African adaptation, paying special attention to the politics of Apartheid. The word comes

Sher and Kani as Prospero and Caliban

from the Afrikaans (white South African) term for “apartness”, and its laws restricted black and white people from intermingling, and inspired a lot of hate and violence on both sides. The system was dismantled in 1994, with the re-writing of the South African constitution and then the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president.

Sir Antony Sher played Prospero as an enraged Afrikaans racist, and it was his relationship with John Kani’s Caliban that stole the show. When Prospero calls Caliban “Filth as thou art” and threatens to hurt him “with old cramps, / Fill all thy bones with aches,” the audience cringes for Caliban. For historical accuracy, Prospero abuses Caliban with a sjambok. the “traditional heavy leather whip of South Africa, sometimes seen as synonymous with apartheid.” This play focuses far less on Caliban’s brutal nature and instead highlights his Mandela-esque political consciousness and dignity in the face of oppression. His words to Prospero ring strong: “For I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king.” At the end, when Prospero leaves the island and Caliban is once more his own master, he throws off his shackles and breaks into a toyi-toyi – a “freedom dance associated in South Africa.”

When Prospero claims “This thing of darkness I / acknowledge mine,” the audience understands the lines anew: Prospero means that the discrepancy in how society values white and black lives is man-made – subjective instead of objective. When he speaks his final words: “As you from crimes would pardoned be / Let your indulgence set me free,” he speaks it to Caliban (instead of the audience, how it’s usually done) because it is from Caliban who he needs forgiveness for denying him of his humanity. And the South African Sher points out that it is not only Prospero or Caliban, but also the whole of South Africa, which feels “the pressing need for reconciliation, truth and forgiveness.”

Wrapping up

Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, and Djimon Hounson in Julie Taymor's upcoming Tempest

So that’s all, folks! I hope that this post did the following for you:

–       Got you celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday!

–       Got you excited to read more Shakespeare!

–       Got you thinking about how Shakespeare does not make us think conventionally, but actually forces us to re-evaluate what we assume is true!

–       Got you excited to see the upcoming Julie Taymor production, starring Alan Cumming, Russell Brand, Djimon Hounsou, and Helen Mirren as ProsperA!

–       And got you excited to see more Shakespeare productions in general, so you can compare them to the text and comment on my posts with your opinions!!!



Filed under Genres, Stage to Page to Stage and Screen

3 responses to “Happy Birthday Shakespeare!!!

  1. I am ridiculously excited about Julie Taymor’s film! The Tempest is my most favorite play of all Shakespeare’s plays, and I can’t wait to see what she does with it!

    Also, happy birthday!!

  2. RA

    Thank you for this enlightening commentary. Best wishes to you and the Bard.
    Love RAxx

  3. Leah

    Loved the post!!!! The Tempest is one of my favourites and you make it come to life even more. Happy birthday to you and the Bard!

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