This thing of darkness… (5.1.267-276) #StormTossed

PROSPERO     Mark but the badges of these men, my lords,

Then say if they be true. This misshapen knave,

His mother was a witch, and one so strong

That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,

And deal in her command without her power.

These three have robbed me, and this demi-devil

(For he’s a bastard one) had plotted with them

To take my life. Two of these fellows you

Must know and own; this thing of darkness I

Acknowledge mine.

CALIBAN                                            I shall be pinched to death. (5.1.267-276)


These two aren’t my problem, says Prospero: look at their badges, suggesting that Stephano and Trinculo are at least residually, and under their glistering stolen apparel, wearing livery, identifying them in its colours, and by means of a heraldic badge (here perhaps a crown?) with the royal household. You know them; they belong to you. But what about Caliban? Thus far Prospero has been refusing to explain, or at least giving only brief explanations in response to the wondering questions asked by Alonso and Gonzalo. But now he volunteers information, giving far more back-story than seems necessary, and like Antonio and Sebastian, Stephano and Trinculo, Prospero monsters Caliban; he is this misshapen knave. We’d probably have forgotten about Sycorax without this reminder: it’s curious that Prospero mentions her at all, here, but also that he details her powers so specifically. She was able to control the moon and hence the tides, associating her with Hecate and Diana – and Medea. What Prospero’s description of Sycorax most immediately recalls is his vivid, troubling account of his own power, in his moment of renunciation (Ye elves of brooks…), and it’s important that, by comparison, his own power is (or has been) evidently superior. Sycorax may have been able to control the moon (although without her power, suggesting that any control was not total) and the tides, but Prospero has already described his own ability to dim the noontide sun.His mother was a witch, he says of Caliban, but his father’s identity is here left more implicit: that he is a demi-devil suggests (as, indeed, Prospero has earlier claimed) that his father was the devil; he must necessarily be a bastard one.

Then to the point: all three of them have plotted to take my life. You’re responsible for these two, but this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. It’s possible for this even to be a tacit, ashamed acknowledgement of paternity, although it certainly doesn’t have to be. But Prospero’s claiming of some kind of responsibility for Caliban is a crucial moment. It can simply be an affirmation that Caliban is his servant (or slave), as much as Trinculo and Stephano are Alonso’s. But it’s also an admission of failure and, perhaps, of blame. If Prospero is a teacher, however flawed or misguided, he has been unable to enlighten Caliban, whatever that might mean. By one measure at least, Caliban is the project who has failed. And it is Prospero who has failed him. There is a long critical tradition, too, of this being the moment when Prospero owns his own darkness, whether that be his sublimated incestuous desire for his own daughter, his propensity to violence and cruelty—or his own woundedness, trauma, and melancholy. (It is also a moment that has opened up many significant conversations about race, colonialism, and empire in the performance and critical history of the play.) It is Caliban himself who breaks the spell of this resonant, troubled phrase: I shall be pinched to death, he says, bitterly? fearfully? resignedly?

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