With Caliban Still Enslaved

A couple weeks ago on Twitter I had an interesting conversation about The Tempest and I’ve been meaning to post about it. A reader directed me to the poem Fuck / Shakespeare and I was left head scratching a bit at the ending:

Play ends / Cali still enslaved / Bruh / that shit fucked

My first thought was, “Is that really how it ends? That’s not how I remember it. Caliban gets the island. Prospero leaves. Sounds like freedom to me.”

Then I went back and looked at the text.

PROSPERO
He is as disproportion'd in his manners
As in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell;
Take with you your companions; as you look
To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.

CALIBAN
Ay, that I will; and I'll be wise hereafter
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I, to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool!

PROSPERO
Go to; away!

There is no moment of understanding between them. No “sorry for enslaving you, here, I’ll make it up to you by leaving and letting you have the island like you always wanted” exchange. Prospero’s last words to Caliban are, in fact, still those of master to slave.

I think my misunderstanding of the ending comes from two places. First, I’m visually thinking of Helen Mirren’s portrayal in Julie Taymor’s film version. If I recall that correctly, there is a clear moment (albeit in silence, since Shakespeare gave no words) that fills the need for what I wrote above.

The other is that I’ve just never really thought of The Tempest, my answer to “Which one is your favorite play?” in terms of slavery and racism and colonization. I love it as a story of fathers and children and forgiveness. That just goes to show just how good it is, that it can be both. You can read it as a happy ending fairy tale to your children about wizards and monsters and long lost princesses returning to their kingdoms. Or you can read it as a four hundred year old depiction of the darkest aspects of human behavior still on display to this day.

It’s given me a lot to think about. I’ve always known about those themes in the play, I’ve just never really focused on them, preferring instead to think of it as a positive book end to Shakespeare’s writing. Which is a bit ironic because in my modern reading I often chide books that wrap things up too nicely, and prefer those that give me something to think about and work on. If Caliban is forever enslaved because of what Prospero did, then how can we ever break the cycle?

Which ending do you prefer? Is Caliban free now to be king of the island? Or is he forever enslaved by what Prospero did to him, long after Prospero is gone?

2 thoughts on “With Caliban Still Enslaved

  1. I don’t think you’ve misunderstood at all. I believe yours to be the correct analysis. To wit:

    Prospero also gives Ariel (also his slave albeit the different relationship he has with Ariel as opposed to Caliban) one last command as master to slave before he frees Ariel. It’s conditional. Do this and you’re free.

    To Caliban:
    “Go, sirrah, to my cell;
    Take with you your companions; as you look
    To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.”

    Also conditional. Something will result. What else could that something be but Caliban’s release? In fact, although he’ll always be the brute, Caliban shows he has actually learned something

    “Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter
    And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
    Was I,______________________”

    In the Epilogue, Prospero, in effect, asks the audience to forgive him–in kind, *as he has forgiven*– for the things he’s done *because* he’s made attempts to remedy them and has forsworn all of those things. If Caliban, along with Ariel, is indeed not free, all of this makes little sense to me.

  2. PS. It’s tempting to think powerful allegory has to fulfill its own end. I think that’s what has happened with our friend the poet. The lesson can exist within the context of a story that ends differently than the lesson might indicate on its surface without hindering the learning process. It needn’t be *totally* literal to achieve its purpose. It is, after all, powerful enough to exist on its own *as* allegory.

    You wrote:
    “You can read it as a happy ending fairy tale to your children about wizards and monsters and long lost princesses returning to their kingdoms. Or you can read it as a four hundred year old depiction of the darkest aspects of human behavior still on display to this day.”

    Exactly. And Caliban needn’t remain enslaved to do that. It is both, existing side by side. Neither “reading” holds sway over the other enough to dictate how the story itself *must* end.

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