Caliban Groupies: Three Famous Portrayals of the So-Called Monster
by Andromeda Reyes
Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of any photos used in this essay.
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.
The Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2
One can infer from reading the lines above from Act 3 scene 2 that to create such affecting imagery, the character must be a lover of beautiful things and therefore sensitive and observant, and to some extent, kind at heart.
His name is Caliban, as you might have guessed. The character who delivers beautiful imageries in the play is frequently referred to as a “monster.”
One may even suggest that his name “Caliban” is an anagram for the word “cannibal” which derives itself from the Spanish word “canibal.” According to our ever trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary, it’s first known use dates back to 1553–which reminds us of the beginnings of the colonial era.
Character analyses of Caliban, such as Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan’s Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History , consider the Shakespearean character a colonial metaphor. Author Alden Vaughan, author and a historian specializing in American race relations, tells of a day in 1983 where he was driving across Canada en route a festival in Stratford with co-author Virginia and asked her, “Do you think Caliban was Shakespeare representation of an American Indian?” (Vaughan and Vaughan ix). The quest of the authors is motivated by their interest in what they classified as a “broader and timelier concern” which is “the myriad uses to which Caliban has been put–by actors, artists, and almost every category of writers –in the nearly four centuries since Shakespeare fashioned him for the Jacobean stage” (xi). They thus called themselves, “Caliban Groupies.”
According to the authors, the “changing interpretations of Caliban provide a window on cultural trends” (xi). Let us see for ourselves some notable performances of Caliban by the following actors:
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and
1. George Benett (1800-1879)
George Bennett has been a Shakespearean actor in London for almost 40 years. Vaughan and Vaughan described Bennett’s portrayal of Caliban by looking into the script of the play. In an 1847 staging of The Tempest, Vaughan and Vaughan cited excerpts from the script:
“Enter Caliban. Opening L of flat/ Crawling on all fours as a Beast, rises & threatens Prospero… .(181)”
To them, this portrayal depicts Caliban as “a man-beast, not simply as a monster.” Citing another excerpt from the promptbook, Caliban was expected to “speak[s] his other speeches either kneeling, sitting, or on all four like a beast” (qtd. in Vaughan and Vaughan 182). These acts of sitting, kneeling and being on all fours depict the image of Caliban as a being lesser than human and cannot both literally and figuratively stand up to Prospero or for himself.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917)
Beerbohm tree is an English stage actor noted for playing numerous Shakesperean roles. He played Hamlet in 1892, Shylock in 1908, and participated in a notable 254 consecutive showing of Henry VIII in 1910-1911. Beerbohm’s portrayal of Caliban is no less memorable.
Contrary to Bennett’s portrayal, Berrbohm “stressed Caliban’s humanity” in 1904 production of The Tempest (Vaughan and Vaughan (187). “Tree argued that Caliban had a human shape” that is seen in his “love of music and his affinity with the unseen world” that we are able to “discern in the soul which inhabits the brutish body of this elemental man the germs of a sense of beauty, the dawn of art (Tree qtd. in Vaughan and Vaughan 187).
Richard Burton (1925-1984)
Richard Burton is an award-winning Welsh actor noted for his performances in the 1963 film Cleopatra. His performance as Caliban was one of the rare time he appeared on television for he mostly did movies. It was a 1960 production of The Tempest for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
This performance was again evaluated by the Vaughan “Caliban Groupies” comparing to the performance of Bennett. According to them, it was similar to Bennett’s half-man half-beast representation. “He was a combination of an eighteenth-century monster and a nineteenth century rebel, mixed this time with traces of the mythic wodewose (an old word for a wild man who lives in the woods).
This kind representation undoubtedly shows the claim that adaptation of Caliban change over time as a reflection of the cultural environment. It must fit a template of what is considered to be the “outcasts” of the present age.
These three notable representations of Caliban are “transmedial” in a sense that:
1) Caliban walked through a journey of several creative minds who “recycled” the character to fit a modern audience.
2) The Tempest, thus Caliban included, is adapted to new media such as television and the big screen and while, it continues to be staged, the fact that “we will never know just what Shakespeare intended Caliban to be” (Vaughan and Vaughan 273) and thus we can only assume, if not create, a Caliban intended for today’s Shakespearean groupies.
Vaughan A. and Vaughan M. Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History. NY: Cambridge UP, 1991.
–> I was not able to find photos of the actors in their actual performances since they’re you know, “dead white men” from a time long ago that pictures on stage screen still are unavailable or if not, limited.