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?