Shakespeare’s plays incorporate an entire panorama of diverse subject matters. He deals with a lot of social, political and cultural issues in his plays. He has the ability to highlight the different aspects of these various issues through the perspectives of his various characters. On the one hand he seems to foreground a lot of progressive discourses in some of his plays and on the other hand he seems to be a part of the majoritarian sensibility in his other plays. How are we to reconcile this discrepancy?
The objective of this paper is to bring to the fore the almost opposite nds of the spectrum of the issue of race that Shakespeare deals with in two of his plays- Othello and The Tempest. Othello written in 1602-1604 shows Othello, the character, as a loyal, courageous and valourous general of the Venetian army. He is a servant of the state and is generally respected for his qualities of loyalty, innocence, valour etc. This is a very revolutionary portrayal of a black person for Shakespeare’s time. This play was very controversial.
So much so that in many of its performances Othello was played out by white men and not black. Such was the mindset of the contemporary white society. The racial prejudices were extremely profound and a play like Othello, which portrayed a black man as a tragic hero, as opposed to the villain (which was usually the case during the time), does make Shakespeare worthy of some credit. On the other hand Caliban of The Tempest (written in 1611) is an embodiment of all the negative stereotypes associated with the orient.
Shakespeare doesn’t directly paint Caliban black but its difficult to escape what Homi Bhabha calls “those terrifying stereotypes of savagery, cannibalism, lust and anarchy. ” Caliban is constructed as an unthinking, vil and base creature. He is even denied a human shape and is referred to as “half-fish”, “a monster”, “the devil” etc. This portrayal of the orient does seem to suggest that Shakespeare has fallen into the trap of stereotyping the orient in a way that is in conjunction with the popular idea of the orient during that time.
Caliban and Othello thus seem to be at complete disjunction with each other but a closer inspection reveals that this is not necessarily true. There are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the two. Caliban and Othello, both, partake of the racial discourse of the time. It seems, in the case of Othello, that the white society is willing to accommodate those eastern people who can be of service to them. Then the qualities and nature of those orients is given a different colouring altogether. They are no more seen as violent or base. They are now seen as valourous and courageous.
Their speech is not seen as threatening- it’s seen as exotic and attractive. They are also seen as being naive. This works for the advantage of Othello who wants to be accommodated in the white society. He is unable to reconcile his eastern identity with this new western one. Caliban on the other hand is animalised, commodified, infantalised, and bestialised in the play. He is invested with a lascivious nature, violent behaviour, baseness and lack of intelligible speech. He is constructed as a threat to the dignity of the white woman (Miranda) and later on in the play he is reduced to a credulous, ridiculous figure.
He becomes an instrument to evoke laughter through crude instances. So both Othello and Caliban have been stereotyped. Though the former has been constructed positively (at least overtly) and the latter negatively. This apart, there are lots of differences between the construction of Othello and caliban. Othello is not really discriminated against, in the play, on the basis of his race. Iago, who being the villain of the play is discredited anyway, makes the only derogatory references to Othello’s race. Everyone, on the other hand, treats Caliban, alike.
And this shared perspective on Caliban is appropriated in the play as even Prospero, the hero of the play, denies Caliban any kind of individuality. This works in a very complex way as prospero has been idealized as a kind and forgiving king who has been wronged and thus the audience tends to ally themselves ith him and sub-consciously with his perspectives on everything. Also what is worth noticing is that Prospero seems to have been kind to Caliban at first before Caliban broke his trust by trying to outrage the modesty of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.
Quoting prospero here “thou most lying slave, whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have us’d thee’ 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! ” Thus the play seems to be justifying Prospero’s treatment of Caliban in a very visibly imperialistic way. It tends to normalize Caliban’s slavery by suggesting that he deserves to be treated that way. This justification is reminiscent of the colonial civilizing mission. But there is a gap in this portrayal.
Prospero’s annexation of the island where Caliban lives echoes the imperialist ambition of the English society. It follows a familiar colonialist pattern. Caliban’s slavery cannot be justified even before Caliban tried to rape Miranda. The exploitation of Caliban becomes overt after he tries to rape Miranda, a crime he doesn’t deny. But with this instance of trying to rape a white oman he again falls into the trap of being contained by the racial discourse of the black man as being dangerous to the white woman and thus in turn dangerous to the white race due to white race’s fear of miscegenation.
Othello on the other hand is supposedly in love with Desdemona. So there seems to be a transcendental spiritual and emotional connection in this case. Desdemona does not make even a single reference to his race in the entire play and thus seems to love him for what he is. This works in his favour. But the fact remains that even though the Venetian society has upposedly accommodated Othello within itself, it is visibly outraged when Othello marries Desdemona. othello keeps trying to show this union as not a sexual one but a spiritual one.
He thus tries to dissociate himself from the negative stereotype of the orient as lascivious etc. The question of race rests precariously in the case of Othello. His identity as a western army general is always negotiating with his identity as an orient. There are other echoes of racial prejudices in The Tempest in the difference of treatment of the character of Ariel, who is an airy spirit, and Caliban. Its interesting to note that both Ariel and caliban are slaves of Prospero but Ariel is invested with qualities of goodness, kindness etc.
It is imprisoned in an oak tree for fifteen years because it refuses to carry out evil tasks for Sycorax (a hag, Caliban’s mother). but for some mysterious reason agrees to all of Prospero’s orders, like that of raising the tempest etc. , because he frees it from Sycorax’s curse. Prospero even promises to free Ariel if it carries out all its orders. Thus prospero is constructed as a somewhat more liberal master. Another argument put forth by the colonial powers. Why otherwise does Ariel agree to be a slave of one and not the other can also be given a racial colouring.
Ariel can be seen as being an essentially white character. Caliban on the other hand is seen as being capable of carrying out just physical labour like getting the wood and building the fire. He isn’t even given the option of being freed later. Caliban has a sense of ownership of the island and is uncomfortable with this master slave relationship that he shares with prospero. Also what is interesting is the fact that Caliban doesn’t really want to be the owner of the island now. He simply wants to displace one master with another more liberal one.
This willingness of his to serve, as put forth in the play, is extremely problematic. The differences between Sycorax and prospero also need to be examined. Both prospero and Sycorax perform magic but Prospero by virtue of being a white man obviously uses his magic for the goodness of mankind and to avenge himself of the wrong that had been done to him. And once he achieves this end he stops performing magic altogether. Sycorax, on the other hand, is referred to as being “an old witch” and being born in Argier (Algeria in Africa).
Thus being black she will obviously be evil and exploitative and will practise black magic only. This obvious racial othering of sycorax does tend to make this play very problematic. So to sum up-similar qualities of Othello and Caliban are moulded differently to suit the interests of the playwright. Othello’s qualities of naivet and taking people at face value serves to redeem him as the tragic hero in the end. Whereas, similar qualities of Caliban are used to reinstate him as a ridiculous, comic figure. So what works in favour of Othello makes caliban look like a complete fool- a simpleton.
Othello’s speech is shown to be enrapturing and exotic whereas Caliban is shown to use his speech to curse prospero. Caliban even says, ” you taught me language: and my profit on it is that I know how to curse. ” Also in the end Othello calls himself the “base Indian who threw the pearl away. ” He also highlights the fact that he has smothered the Turkish side in himself suggesting that he wants to see himself as a white man in the Venetian society and wants to be given the same status that others are given. The portrayal of both Ariel and sycorax serves to alleviate the roblematic negotiation of the issue of race in this play.
All in all we can conclude that both Caliban and Othello are different sides of the same coin. They may be different overtly but the essence of their characters is the same. thus Shakespeare does end up stereotyping both these characters but we must not deny him the portrayal of Othello as the hero of his play which in itself was a very courageous thing to do in the contemporary time. in that sense the play Othello is a highly non- conformist play and we must not strip Shakespeare of his progressive ideas as we have to see his plays in a certain context of his time.