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Caliban’s Lament: A Critique

by on 21 August 2020

Caliban’s Lament

by Anne Warrington

Critique by Quentin Weiver

The whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Now here is an adage worth hanging on to when considering William Shakespeare’s most enigmatic, and arguably his best, play The Tempest.  Dig deeper and a corollary emerges when examining the play’s two most enigmatic protagonist, Prospero and Caliban, that intellect is more than a sum of knowledge.  Anne Warrington has done just that in her poem, Caliban’s Lament.

What is more galling than the Wiki-genius with a smart phone!   You may know your subject back to front; you may have earnt your living for decades on an application of its skills; you may even have an Oxbridge professorship on this very subject, or a Noble Prize come to that; but along comes the Wiki-genius.  You will recognise him: he probably wears a baseball hat (which reduces his IQ by 50%) and possibly wears it back-to-front (which reduces it by a further 50%).  However, in his pocket he has access to what he considers to be unassailable facts, “facts” from the Internet.   A few taps on the smart phone and out comes the pseudo-trump card to lay on your subject.   No one has told him that knowledge is far more than a collection of facts, just as a wall is more than a collection of bricks.

By the same token, culture is equally not a collection of habits.  It has a precious and beautiful intricacy that does not lend itself to brutal dismantling.   The culture of a people or a place is more than just the physical existence of that people or that place.  There is the intangible cement built over centuries from the collective psyche that holds the culture together.   The coarse anarchist who topples a statue into a harbour misses the point.  Destroying the physical representation of a culture does not destroy the cultural history of the people that hold it in their hearts, just as killing an individual does not kill the soul or the memories held of that person. 

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Caliban has a brilliance of subtle balance.  Here is a man demeaned as a monster, a known attempted rapist and a would-be murderer, who nevertheless is written with such a delicate empathy, that one cannot help but feel for him and with him.   Caliban is given some of the most beautiful lines in the play, which vie in their beauty only with those of Prospero who holds mastery over him. 

Postcolonial polemicists have appropriated The Tempest in a way that Shakespeare could not have imagined, reinventing his story to be a microcosm of the transatlantic slave trade.  Probably Shakespeare was not placing his “isle full of noises” in any specific location, but various geographers and experts on navigation have looked at clues in the text.  Prospero is set adrift on southerly currents from the north of Italy and Antonio’s ship is shipwrecked sailing from Tunis to Naples, whereas in the backstory Caliban’s mother Sycorax had been exiled from Algiers.  All these clues point to Lampedusa, that island that sits eighty miles off of the African coast although part of Italy, which now reoccurs in the news for the illegal immigrants trying to get in, rather than Prospero trying to get out.   

Nevertheless, this has not stopped Caliban’s situation being reinterpreted as that of an African slave in the Caribbean, surely far from Shakespeare’s intention.   Neither was he a native North American.  Late Elizabethan travellers were full of admiration for the civilisations of the American tribes.  Bear witness Thomas Harriot’s 1590 Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, which is full of beautiful illustrations by Theodore de Bray that are full of wonder and respect.   

In Caliban’s Lament Anne Warrington imagines Caliban post the events of The Tempest, on his island, free of the new interlopers, and free of Ariel, free of Miranda and mirabile dictu free of Prospero, he having left on equitable terms.  But Caliban questions why he is not happy.  There is everything there, but he cannot put it together.  The poem is written as a series of lists.  There are his blessings, “bird song, crickets chirruping in tall grasses swaying in the wind, crystal clear rivulets rippling through lush vegetation, calm seas [that] gently lapped on golden beaches”.  Nevertheless, Caliban is unhappy.  He wants to re-create the ambience that surrounded Prospero, “the festivals he missed – sumptuous feasts, carnival, celestial music”. 

So Caliban puts together his shopping list “… broken staff… the library of books … the cloak… symbols and signs … strings of numbers”.  It’s all there, but like a vocabulary without a grammar, a body without a soul, a computer without a programme, he cannot “change the weather, control the seas, cause tempests, command spirits” as he would wish.

Such it is with cultures.  No more than Prospero could absorb Caliban’s culture, Caliban cannot usurp Prospero’s culture.  It is more than just knowing how to use a toolkit, there are innate congenital skills that cannot be recreated. 

Caliban though is embittered.  Prospero freed Ariel but indentured Caliban; Caliban could not win Miranda and now Prospero had “left him behind, without a backward glance, to work out his own destiny”.   

Here’s the rub, as Shakespeare would say.  Now Caliban wants power; power such that “all the stars and the planets in the heavens would give up their secrets”.   The irony is that, for all his despising and hatred of Prospero, his sole desire is become the Tyrant.

With the succinct pithiness that is poetry, Anne Warrington pulls tighter these challenging concepts in a tight piece that is an incisive and thought-provoking allegory.

Quentin Weiver, August 2020

Photography by Clive Barda and images after Theodore de Bray

From → On-Line, Poems

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