lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 24 07:45:11 MDT 2016
Ever in the shadows of the play, even Caliban’s features are never quite
precisely described—Shakespeare’s list of characters describe him simply
as a “savage and deformed native of the island, Prospero’s slave,” and
he is continuously referred to as a “monster” by the other characters
inhabiting The Tempest, ambiguously described as being an animal or
half-animal. Trinculo and Stefano degradingly address Caliban as “this
puppy-headed monster. / A most scurvy monster!” “half a fish, and half a
monster,” and “debauched fish.” From Shakespeare’s own evidence, we can
assert that Caliban is not an animal—he is a sentient man, with his own
thoughts and feelings, his own wants and claims to the island, who
naturally dreams of peopling the “isle with Calibans.” The very name
Caliban is a Shakespearean anagram of the word cannibal, the English
variant of the Spanish word canibal, which originated from caribal, a
reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus
thought ate human flesh. It is there that the word Caribbean originated.
By simply being born Caribbean, all “West Indian” people are already,
etymologically, born savage. Whole worlds codified around my discovery
of this simple fact of language, the linguistic fact of my birth, and I
knew that from this one barbarous root, my debut poetry collection,
Cannibal, was born.
The evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare not only set The Tempest
on a Caribbean island, but included a native American major character.
The play's ambivalent attitude toward this indigenous slave Caliban
serves not only as a useful window into 17th century racial attitudes,
it also helps us understand our own period as well. The name Caliban, it
should be added, is regarded as a form of "Carib," the name of the
original inhabitants on the islands invaded by Columbus.
In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England to shore up John
Smith's Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the new world.
As most people already know from their high-school propaganda, Smith was
condemned to death by Powhatan, but was saved at the last minute when
his 13 year old daughter Pocahontas interceded on Smith's behalf. The
British returned the favor a couple of years later by burning down
Indian villages and attempting to enslave them.
One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up
on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave a highly imaginative
account of the shipwrecked crew's experiences. Evidently Shakespeare got
the idea for his play from this background material since The Tempest is
a tale about shipwrecked Europeans colonizing an American island and
enslaving the native population.
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