Lies, accusations, and admissions: peopling the isle with Calibans (1.2.345-352) #StormTossed

PROSPERO                             Thou most lying slave,

Whom stripes may move, not kindness; I have used thee

(Filth as thou art) with humane care and lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate

The honour of my child.

CALIBAN        O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done;

Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else

This isle with Calibans. (1.2.345-352)

Caliban’s apparent ingratitude, at least initially, is what seems most to provoke Prospero’s fury (again) – and the sense that Caliban (like Ariel) is putting forward a competing version of their shared history. You’re lying. And, again, slave, who responds only to violence – the stripes of whipping – rather than kindness. I was kind to you, even though you don’t deserve it, because – and an outburst of vicious insult – you’re filth. (I have used thee doesn’t mean exploitation as such; to use someone is to treat someone, to be accustomed to act towards them, in early modern usage.) My care of you was humane – which could also mean human – so there’s a quibble here: I was kind, humane towards you; I cared for you as a human would, but you are inhuman, subhuman, bestial. And the rock you’re complaining about being shut up in – that’s my cell, my home. (Apparently a cave. But a key difference in perception: one man’s glorious solitude, a place of study and contemplation, is another’s rocky prison.)

But then a darker turn (and it’s weird – or perhaps revealing – that Prospero doesn’t lead with this): I was nice to you – until you tried to rape my daughter. Unambiguous, and the honour of my child makes it particularly stark: given that Prospero finishes on a half line, he could have said my daughter’s honour, or simply my daughter or the honour of my daughter. My child makes her immediately more vulnerable, because more obviously young (but it also makes it more about Prospero than Miranda – she’s not named, but identified purely in relation to her father). And Caliban is unrepentant, apparently, and doesn’t attempt to deny it. Thou didst prevent me, he says – and a desperate, even violent scenario is conjured, a father intervening to protect his daughter. The reason he gives for attacking Miranda is, perhaps, surprising: he wanted to people this isle with Calibans, suggesting that he had a calculated aim, that his attack was not random, but premeditated. A startlingly modern understanding of rape: not sex, but (ultimately) power. I had peopled else also, perhaps, glances back to Prospero’s protestation that he was humane or human in his treatment of the (beastly) Caliban: to be anachronistic, Caliban is asserting his own personhood, his humanity, as well as his ownership of the island. Caliban has a pretty decent understanding of how colonialism works. And the moral calculus keeps shifting; how can an audience take sides?

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