Friday, April 17, 2009

Play of the Week: The Tempest

We've all read The Tempest. It's a story about a guy who focused on study rather than ruling his dukedom and was usurped by his younger brother. Now we get to watch him not only exact his revenge but learn to forgive as well. A very human story with a lesson for us all. Not to mention the actor-proof scene in the middle of the play about the blossoming love of two young people. Oh, and there is a bunch of fairies and special effects too.

But I want to talk about Caliban.

In the recent decades, this play has been read through a post-Colonial lens. A member of the white aristocracy arrives on a previously inhabited island and enslaves the local population. He forces him to live by white man's rules, tries to impose a white man's education on him, and in the end punishes him for resenting this inherent oppression. Caliban then is afforded the moment to lament his fate and curse his oppressor. Sentiments that have rung through history and something we can easily latch on to.

However, what if a production was daring enough to strip Caliban down to his self-described essentials: a monster. He is the offspring of an evil sorceress and not a native of this island. Inherently wicked and cruel, Caliban is not a character that should not elicit sympathy. He is on par with Grendel (who also has been given a sympathetic voice in modern readings of his character.) He had tried to rape Miranda; nothing Prospero could have done can excuse that. Caliban says so himself and takes every opportunity to display behavior to support his claim that he is a monster and a villain.

So what is a production embraced this idea. What if Caliban is costumed in dirty, matted fir, long claws and fangs, and grotesque features that identify him as completely non-human. What does this do to our reading of the play? How does this change the relationships between the other protagonists and antagonists? How does this portrayal color Miranda's perceptions of man-kind?

The rest of the play is very fantastical. There are all sorts of fairies and powerful creatures - why shouldn't there be one more. And at the end of the play, those who deserve punishment find it. Shakespeare makes no qualms about condemning those who should - why should we attempt to pardon Caliban the monster?

Happy Birthday: Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)

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