OK, this is supposed to be a blog about science and wonder. I find myself more and more interested in other subjects, and so I write about them, too. But this time I do have a connection, of sorts.

What an amazing time we live in! I decided to take up another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. I was able to download not just The Tempest but the entire collected works of Shakespeare to my e-reader in a matter of seconds for the great sum of 99 cents. After reading through the play once (and, frankly, missing a lot of the intended action), I found a performance of The Tempest on YouTube by the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. While following along with the text on my Nook, I watched the entire 2+ hour performance on my laptop, pausing, rewinding, and replaying at my leisure. Has their ever been a better time than this?



So on to the play. The Tempest is a  troublesome play for a modern reader, mostly due to the play’s most interesting character, the man-monster Caliban. It is so tempting, as a modern reader, to see Caliban with modern eyes – as the misunderstood, abused slave who can and will be redeemed. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the character just won’t allow it. The Tempest is filled with bewitching magic, lovely poetry, burning sexual desire, and some truly funny scenes. But it is not, and cannot be transformed into, a treatise on the evils of slavery. Shakespeare portrays Caliban as an ungrateful slave who turns on his master with an ill-conceived and immediately doomed plan, then has Caliban beg for forgiveness and gratefully re-enter the master-slave relationship. One simply cannot escape the plain meaning of the text.



Shakespeare’s problem is that he’s just too good. Just as with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, just as with Iago and Macbeth and Edmund and probably other villains that I’ve yet to encounter, in Caliban Shakespeare has created a character who at times elicits our sympathy. Here is Caliban’s most memorable quote (from Act 3, Scene 2)

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.




If the man-monster can have thoughts like these, then are we really meant to dispise him? Why does Prospero hate Caliban so? Well, Shakespeare gives the reason – Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and his boasting of it later:

“O ho, O ho! Would’st had been done!/Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/This isle of Calibans.”

I’m beginning to believe more and more that Shakespeare is interesting not so much in what he gives us from the 1600s but in how we interpret Shakespeare today. I’ve written already about the wholly modern, and un-Shakespearean, twist that Patrick Steward gives Macbeth in delivering the Scot’s last line. I love that ending, because it twists Shakespeare’s meaning in a way that is, somehow, still true to the struggle about which Shakespeare was writing, the struggle between the old world of revenge and violence and the new world of ideas and justice. This is the very struggle that Steven Pinker writes about in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and both here and in The Tempest I think we see a glimpse into the very struggle about which Pinker writes.

According to Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human, Caliban has become the politically-driven focus of many modern versions of The Tempest, and it is unfortunate.

“(Caliban) has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at this view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.”

I understand what Bloom is saying here, but I take a different meaning from this need to actually follow Shakespeare’s words. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare creates a deeply interesting character in Shylock, but any reading that papers over the blatant antisemitism of the play misses something crucial.  In the same way, the interesting character of Caliban cannot cover up the fact that Shakespeare, a man of his time, had an unfortunate view of race, station, class, and slavery. To try to cover that up that error in Shakespeare’s morality misses something crucial.

Shakespeare was an amazing writer, but his morals were in many ways the morals of late 16th-early 17th century England. Just as we have made scientific and technological progress since those times, as Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we’ve made moral progress. as well. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants to see further into the natural world, we stand on the shoulders of those who made slavery, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia the moral wrongs we recognize them as today.

We know the forced conversion of Shylock is a great evil; we know that the continued enslavement of Caliban is a great evil. We can look back now and see that even a writer as talented and sophisticated as Shakespeare didn’t know, yet we do. We’re getting better, one small step at a time. And that, maybe more than anything else, is the positive message to take from the troublesome play The Tempest.