ysShakespeare’s paper is to bring to the
ysShakespeare’s plays incorporate an entire panorama of diverse subjectmatters. He deals with a lot of social, political and cultural issues inhis plays. He has the ability to highlight the different aspects of thesevarious issues through the perspectives of his various characters.On the one hand Shakespeare seems to foreground a lot of progressivediscourses in some of his plays and on the other hand he seems to be a partof the majoritarian sensibility in his other plays. How are we to reconcilethis discrepancy? The objective of this paper is to bring to the fore thetwo ends of spectrum of the issue of race that Shakespeare deals with intwo of his plays- Othello and The Tempest.
Othello, written in 1602-1604, shows Othello, the character, as aloyal, courageous and valourous general of the Venetian army. He is aservant of the state and is respected for his qualities of loyalty,innocence, valour etc. This is a revolutionary portrayal of a black personfor Shakespeare’s time. The contemporary Elizabethan society saw Othello’scolour as a distraction from the play’s ‘real issues’.
So much so that inits performances Othello was played out by white men and not black. Suchwas the mindset of the contemporary white society. The racial prejudiceswere extremely deep rooted. And writing a play like Othello, in such times,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 worthyof some credit.Caliban in ‘The Tempest’ (written in 1611), on the other hand, is anembodiment of all the negative stereotypes associated with the orient.Shakespeare doesn’t directly paint Caliban black but its difficult toescape what Homi Bhabha calls “those terrifying stereotypes of savagery,cannibalism, lust and anarchy.
” Caliban is constructed as an unthinking,evil and base creature. He is even denied a human shape and is referred toas ‘half-fish’, ‘a monster’, ‘the devil’ etc. This portrayal of the orientdoes seem to suggest that Shakespeare has fallen into the trap ofstereotyping the orient in a way that is in conjunction with the popularidea of the orient during that time.Caliban and Othello thus seem to be juxtaposed to each other but acloser inspection reveals that this is not necessarily true. There are lotsof parallels that can be drawn between the two. Caliban and Othello, both,partake of the racial discourse of the time. Caliban is animalised,commodified, infantalised, and bestialised in the play.
He is invested witha lascivious nature, violent behaviour, baseness and lack of intelligiblespeech. 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, ridiculousfigure. He becomes an instrument to evoke laughter by becoming a part ofcrude slapstick instances.It seems, in the case of Othello, that the white society is willing toaccommodate those eastern people who can be of service to them.
Then thequalities and nature of those orients is given a different colouringaltogether. Othello is not seen as violent or base. He is seen as valourousand courageous. His speech, unlike Caliban’s, is not seen as threatening-it’s seen as exotic and attractive. He is even characterised as beingnaive. This works to the advantage of Othello who wants to be accommodatedin the white society.
He is unable to reconcile his eastern identity withthis new western one.So both Othello and Caliban have been stereotyped. Though the latter hasbeen constructed positively (at least overtly) and the former negatively. This apart, there are numerous differences between theconstruction of Othello and caliban. Othello is not really discriminatedagainst, in the play, on the basis of his race. The only derogatoryreferences to his race are made by Iago, who being the villain of the playis discredited anyway. On the other hand, everyone treats Caliban alike.
And this shared perspective on Caliban is appropriated in the play as evenProspero, the hero of the play, denies Caliban any kind of individuality.This works as a complex sub-text as Prospero has been idealized as a kindand forgiving king who has been wronged and thus the audience tends to allythemselves with him and sub-consciously with his perspectives oneverything.Also what is worth noticing is that Prospero seems to have been kindto Caliban at first, before Caliban broke his trust by trying to outragethe modesty of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Quoting prospero here “thoumost 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, tillthou didst seek to violate the honour of my child!”Thus the play seemsto be exonerating Prospero for his treatment of Caliban.
It’s using themyths generated by the western imperialistic mission to justify slavery andcolonisation. It tends to normalize Caliban’s slavery by suggesting that hedeserves to be treated that way. This justification is reminiscent of thecolonial civilizing mission. But there is a gap in this portrayal.Prospero’s annexation of the island where Caliban lives echoes theimperialist ambition of the English society. It follows a familiarcolonialist pattern. Caliban’s slavery cannot be justified even beforeCaliban tried to rape Miranda.
The exploitation of Caliban becomes overt after he tries to rapeMiranda, a crime he doesn’t deny. But with this instance of trying to rapea white woman he again falls into the trap of being contained by the racialdiscourse of the black man as being dangerous to the white woman and thusin turn dangerous to the white race due to the white race’s fear ofmiscegenation.Othello on the other hand is, supposedly, in love with Desdemona.
So there seems to be a transcendental spiritual and emotional connection inthis case. Desdemona does not make even a single reference to his race inthe entire play and thus seems to love him for what he is. This works inhis favour.
But the fact remains that even though the Venetian society hassupposedly accommodated Othello within itself, it is visibly outraged whenOthello marries Desdemona. Othello keeps trying to show this union as not asexual one but a spiritual one. He thus tries to dissociate himself fromthe negative stereotype of the orient as being promiscuous, lascivious etc.
The question of race rests precariously in the case of Othello. Hisidentity as a western army general is always negotiating with his identityas an orient. There are other echoes of racial prejudices in ‘The Tempest’ inthe difference of treatment of the character of Ariel, who is an airyspirit, and Caliban.
Its interesting to note that both Ariel and Calibanare slaves of Prospero but Ariel is invested with qualities of goodness,kindness etc. It is imprisoned in an oak tree for fifteen years because itrefuses to carry out evil tasks for Sycorax (a hag, Caliban’s mother). Butfor some mysterious reason agrees to all of Prospero’s orders, like that ofraising the tempest etc.
, because he frees it from Sycorax’s curse.Prospero even promises to free Ariel if it carries out all its orders. ThusProspero is constructed as a somewhat more liberal master.
This in fact wasanother argument put forth by the colonial powers. Why otherwise does Arielagree to be a slave of one and not the other can also be given a racialcolouring. Ariel can thus be seen as an essentially white character.
Caliban on the other hand is seen as being capable of carrying outtasks of physical labour only. For e.g. getting the wood and building thefire. He isn’t even given the option of being freed later.Caliban has a sense of ownership of the island and is uncomfortablewith the master-slave relationship that he shares with Prospero. Also whatis interesting is the fact that Caliban doesn’t really want to be the ownerof the island later in the play.
He simply wants to displace one masterwith another, more liberal one. This willingness of his to serve, as putforth in the play, is extremely problematic.The differences between Sycorax and Prospero also need to beexamined.
Both Prospero and Sycorax perform magic but Prospero, by virtueof being a white man, uses his magic for the goodness of mankind and toavenge himself of the wrong that had been done to him. Once he achievesthis 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). She becomes an almostcaricaturised representation of the racial stereotypes associated with theorient like that of an evil and exploitative nature and the practise ofblack magic.
This obvious racial othering of Sycorax and Caliban tends to make thisplay extremely unstable on grounds of racialism.Hence to conclude – similar qualities of Othello and Caliban aremoulded differently to suit the interests of the playwright. Othello’squalities of naivet and taking people at face value serve to redeem him asthe tragic hero in the end. Whereas, similar qualities of Caliban are usedto reinstate him as a ridiculous and comic figure. So what works in favourof Othello makes Caliban look like a complete fool- a simpleton.
Othello’s speech is shown to be mesmerizing and exotic whereasCaliban is shown to use his speech to curse Prospero. Caliban says toProspero, ” you taught me language: and my profit on it is that I know howto curse.” Also, in the end, Othello calls himself the “base Indian who threw thepearl away.” He also highlights the fact that he has smothered the Turkishside in himself suggesting that he wants to see himself as a white man inthe Venetian society and wants to be given the same status that others aregiven. He is in complete denial of his eastern identity though, in the end,he realizes this split in his personality The portrayal of both Ariel and Sycorax serves to alleviate the complexnegotiation of the issue of race in this play.
In a nutshell we can conclude that both Caliban and Othello are differentsides of the same coin. They may appear to be distinct overtly but thequintessence of their characters is the same. Thus Shakespeare does end upstereotyping both these characters but we must give him credit for theportrayal of Othello as the hero of his play, which in itself was a verycourageous thing to do in the Elizabethan society of the time.
In thatsense the play Othello is a highly non-conformist play and we must notstrip Shakespeare of his progressive ideas, as we have to see his plays inthe social, cultural and historical context of his time.