Act I, scene ii (continued)
Miranda’s awakening through end of the scene (I.ii.309–506)
After Miranda is fully awake, Prospero suggests that they converse with their servant Caliban, the son of Sycorax. Caliban appears at Prospero’s call and begins cursing. Prospero promises to punish him by giving him cramps at night, and Caliban responds by chiding Prospero for imprisoning him on the island that once belonged to him alone. He reminds Prospero that he showed him around when he first arrived. Prospero accuses Caliban of being ungrateful for all that he has taught and given him. He calls him a “lying slave” and reminds him of the effort he made to educate him (I.ii.347). Caliban’s hereditary nature, he continues, makes him unfit to live among civilized people and earns him his isolation on the island. Caliban, though, cleverly notes that he knows how to curse only because Prospero and Miranda taught him to speak. Prospero then sends him away, telling him to fetch more firewood and threatening him with more cramps and aches if he refuses. Caliban obeys him.
Ariel, playing music and singing, enters and leads in Ferdinand. Prospero tells Miranda to look upon Ferdinand, and Miranda, who has seen no humans in her life other than Prospero and Caliban, immediately falls in love. Ferdinand is similarly smitten and reveals his identity as the prince of Naples. Prospero is pleased that they are so taken with each other but decides that the two must not fall in love too quickly, and so he accuses Ferdinand of merely pretending to be the prince of Naples. When he tells Ferdinand he is going to imprison him, Ferdinand draws his sword, but Prospero charms him so that he cannot move. Miranda attempts to persuade her father to have mercy, but he silences her harshly. This man, he tells her, is a mere Caliban compared to other men. He explains that she simply doesn’t know any better because she has never seen any others. Prospero leads the charmed and helpless Ferdinand to his imprisonment. Secretly, he thanks the invisible Ariel for his help, sends him on another mysterious errand, and promises to free him soon.
You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I.ii.366–368)
The introduction of Caliban at the start of this section gives Prospero yet another chance to retell the history of one of the island’s denizens, simultaneously filling the audience in on the background of Sycorax’s unfortunate son and reasserting his power over the dour Caliban. Unlike Ariel and Miranda, however, Caliban attempts to use language as a weapon against Prospero just as Prospero uses it against Caliban. Caliban admits that he once tried to rape Miranda, but rather than showing contrition, he says that he wishes he would have been able to finish the deed, so that he could have “peopled . . . / This isle with Calibans” (I.ii.353–354). He insists that the island is his but that Prospero took it from him by flattering Caliban into teaching him about the island and then betraying and enslaving him. Prospero lists Caliban’s shortcomings and describes his own good treatment of him, but Caliban answers with curses. We sense that there is more at stake here than a mere shouting-match. If words and histories are a source of power, then Prospero’s control over Caliban rests on his ability to master him through words, and the closer Caliban comes to outdoing Prospero in their cursing-match, the closer Caliban comes to achieving his freedom. In the end, Caliban only relents because he fears Prospero’s magic, which, he says, is so powerful that it would make a slave of his witch-mother’s god, Setebos.
The re-entrance of Ariel creates an immediate and powerful contrast between Prospero’s two servants. Where Caliban is coarse, resentful, and brutish, described as a “[h]ag-seed” (I.ii.368), a “poisonous” (I.ii.322) and “most lying slave” (I.ii.347) and as “earth” (I.ii.317), Ariel is delicate, refined, and gracious, described in the Dramatis personae as an “airy spirit.” Ariel is indeed a spirit of air and fire, while Caliban is a creature of earth. Though the two are both Prospero’s servants, Ariel serves the magician somewhat willingly, in return for his freeing him from the pine, while Caliban resists serving him at all costs. In a sense, upon arriving on the island, Prospero enslaved Caliban and freed Ariel, imprisoning the dark, earthy “monster” and releasing the bright, airy spirit. Readers who interpret The Tempest as an allegory about European colonial practices generally deem Prospero’s treatment of Ariel, and especially of Caliban, to represent the disruptive effect of European colonization on native societies. Prospero’s colonization has left Caliban, the original owner of the island, subject to enslavement and hatred on account of his dark countenance and—in the eyes of Prospero, a European—rough appearance.
Prospero’s treatment of Ferdinand at the end of this scene re-emphasizes his power and his willingness to manipulate others to achieve his own ends. Though he is pleased by his daughter’s obvious attraction to the powerful young man, Prospero does not want their love to get ahead of his plans. As a result, he has no qualms about enchanting Ferdinand and lying to Miranda about Ferdinand’s unworthiness. This willingness to deceive even his beloved daughter draws attention to the moral and psychological ambiguities surrounding Shakespeare’s depiction of Prospero’s character.
Though many readers view The Tempest as an allegory about creativity, in which Prospero and his magic work as metaphors for Shakespeare and his art, others find Prospero’s apparently narcissistic moral sense disturbing. Prospero seems to think that his own sense of justice and goodness is so well-honed and accurate that, if any other character disagrees with him, that character is wrong simply by virtue of the disagreement. He also seems to think that his objective in restoring his political power is so important that it justifies any means he chooses to use—hence his lying, his manipulations, his cursing, and the violence of his magic. Perhaps the most troubling part of all this is that Shakespeare gives us little reason to believe he disagrees with Prospero: for better or worse, Prospero is the hero of the play.
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