Caliban Never Belonged to Shakespeare

What Shakespeare's "Thing of Darkness" Tells Us About Gatekeeping and Language

In the front of the classroom, the tenured professor teaching this Introduction to Literary Criticism course my sophomore year of college lectures on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I am the student of language; he, the master of language. This is the reason I came to get a higher education, after all, hoping my mastering of language and my becoming expert in a field will secure me a job, a white picket fence, a 401k, financial security. I want to be all-knowing like this white professor and my white peers, like the white teachers in high school and the white children in my kindergarten classroom—because they are so smart, I tell myself, because their language is so pretty.

The Tempest is centered on the deposed Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda, who are stranded for years on a remote island. As the many examples across history of stranded Europeans in new places affirm, Prospero steals the island from the natives, Caliban and his mother Sycorax, going so far as to banishing Sycorax from the island (play) and then enslaving her son and the spirit, Ariel. The play’s plot begins with a tempest induced by Prospero to shipwreck some of his former foes from Milan so that he may enact his revenge for being ousted.

We close-read this play for weeks. A text imbued with meanings, a discourse to enter if one has the right framework and frame of mind, a difficult text—which is why we still read it today, the professor notes.

It’s not the first time I read Shakespeare. In my tenth grade English class I read Macbeth, but it feels inaccessible at the time. In college I take two upper-level Shakespeare courses. I feel bold: I analyze lines and characters with confidence. I value my thoughts and writing for the first time in my life. I no longer feel as Caliban-like as before though I—as the educated white women professor reminds me as she shoots down my ideas because they are inflected by race and sexuality, giving me lower grades on my essays because I write on how whiteness operates in the texts—am still Caliban.

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Speaking and writing as these Prosperos do doesn’t make it enough.

No matter how much confidence I gain as a critic, Shakespeare’s oeuvre still confounds me. I boggle over lines, dwell on stanzas, wonder on the motivations of characters. I change my mind over meanings I thought were settled. I possess no mastery of these texts. And it takes me a long time to reconcile with the fact it’s okay to not understand or to feel like the text rejects me. It takes me a long time to learn it’s okay to linger in not knowing because there’s pleasure, there’s knowledge, to be gained in the mystery of words, of what words can do.

This kind of relationship to literature, however, is a privilege given to particular writers. The language of Shakespeare, like the language of a Melville, Whitman, Faulkner, Foucault, is difficult, hard at times, elusive and allusive, and sometimes inaccessible. And they are literature, read widely and read in classrooms. Other kinds of writers—the Morrisons or the Torres or the Kincaids—we expect to represent and identify, to speak for entire cultures and communities, to be forthcoming and transparent. We expect those who are not like the Shakespeares and the Whitmans and Foucaults to not put up a fight to be understood, to be unchallenging and welcoming, accommodating and unobtrusive.

What you think you some kind of Shakespeare, an uncle or a cousin asks mockingly when I use my fancy words and phrases like a white boy.

Something becomes clear to me throughout the years taking these many classes in the United States education system. Something becomes clear to me while writing from the margins, as a poor and gay and mentally ill and fat and Mexican-Puerto Rican person existing in the margins of the United States. I, Caliban, am meant to be in awe of, always under the tutelage and auspices of, an imitation of and a foil to, never, dare I even say it, to surpass, these many Prosperos.

Prospero, with staff in hand, wielding magic, casting spells on what is and what cannot be.

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No one in my family ever read Shakespeare. The closest thing we get to the man is the 1996 film Romeo and Juliet. My mother buys it on VHS because John Leguizamo is the Puerto Rican Tybalt Capulet, and she feels represented. She soon finds out representation isn’t enough. No one seems to understand the language. My father who only speaks Spanish doesn’t even sit through half the movie.

I learn from this moment the language of Shakespeare is the language of whiteness. And that’s okay. Shakespeare was white. His ideas and language were crafted in response to the culture he lived in, the poetic and dramatic traditions he was working through, the impacts colonization and enslavement his homeland Britain was fully participating in had upon his psyche. And this does not mean those like my family are unable to ever understand Shakespeare. Shakespeare takes time and effort which those like my family barely have time to undertake when their work hours are so long, their duties to family and friends exorbitant.

There is nothing wrong with a language of whiteness. It’s what people do with whiteness; it’s when it represents snobbery and elitism, used to trick and manipulate, and mobilized against other people and civilizations, that it is a problem. What you think you some kind of Shakespeare, an uncle or a cousin asks mockingly when I use my fancy words and phrases like a white boy. I ask my mother why I can’t call my father dad instead of papi as a child, like the other children in school do, like how they do it on TV and books, and she replies because you aren’t a white boy, are you? Nothing but a wannabe white boy in their eyes.

From the moment I can think, I make the connection between whiteness and language. Not to mention my Spanish is taken from me as a child in speech pathology classes, and the Purépecha language which my family at one point spoke is a twice removed robbery. Whiteness is an aspiration, a fantasy of upward mobility, a pseudo-guarantee that I and my kind will be removed from generational poverty and racial violence, a condition hundreds upon hundreds of years in the making. The tone of whiteness as it is used in the university, or in kindergarten classrooms, or creative writing workshops, or the emails one has with an editor, is one to make distinctions between who is worthy of opportunities and financial security, and who is not.

There I am through these nearly 30 years of life, being Caliban, wanting to learn the language of my many Prosperos in order to use it against them. And my family? Those dark and huddled masses? Who plays them in Shakespeare’s comedy? They are Sycorax, banished from the plot, no dialogue, no stage directions, outside the margins of one of literature’s greatest masterpieces. Cursed Sycorax, bound by no play, damned to whatever meaning, whatever fate, we wish for her.

*

Shakespeare’s Caliban has long been an allegory for oppressed peoples. In an essay published in 1971, Cuban writer Roberto Fernández Retamar theorizes how Caliban is a symbol of the Americas, an image of abjection and savagery given to us by the European colonizers, yet can be an image we embrace and take back in order to mobilize for a revolutionary politics. Aimé Césaire reimagines The Tempest as a postcolonial fantasia in which Prospero is a slave master, Ariel a mulatto, and Caliban an enslaved person, the politics of Césaire’s Black Caribbeanness front and center.

Djimon Gaston Hounsou plays Caliban in the 2010 film adaptation of the play, playing with the idea that Caliban, contrary to popular portrayals of the character across time, can be beautiful and Black, a muscular hunk we fantasize about rather than detest. Not to mention the film entertains the idea a woman can play Prospero, in this case the illustrious Helen Mirren, and, if we go one step further, it affirms white women, too, can be colonizers and imperialistic and take part in the oppression of other human beings. Caliban becomes a figure of revolution and anticolonial sentiment, along with a representative of the condition that colonization, enslavement, dispossession, and imperialism have wrought upon the world.

To return to the line which opened that paragraph: Shakespeare’s Caliban. I write this for stylistic effect, at first, the sound of those two proper nouns in sequence resonating on the tongue. This syntactical construction, the apostrophe of possession doing the work it does, underlines how Caliban belongs to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Caliban, indeed. And here we are, the various generations of thinkers and creators, identifying with Caliban, this name and character and idea belonging to a white man. Do we break free from it? Should our intent be to craft new characters, new ideas, new Calibans?

Some editors who read my work, who so happen to be white, note how my prose is “too difficult.” Just a subjective critique, that’s all, because tastes are just tastes, classless and raceless and genderless and sexualityless and apolitical.

Yet Caliban was and is and will always be us. Us, those who have mother tongues stripped from them and languages foreign imposed upon them, those who have masters and those who have been conquered, those who have been told they think incorrectly or they dream too ambitiously or they write too dangerously. It’s unquestionable Shakespeare was thinking of the New World when penning his Caliban. He had read the essays of Montaigne, essays like “Of Cannibals” which described, sensationally and in prototypically European fashion, the ceremonies of the Tupinambá people in Brazil. For sure Shakespeare read pamphlets, treatises, poems, and other literature about exotic peoples with strange bodies, fantasies of a world to be explored, to be identified, to be taken. He certainly annotated these texts which extolled the riches to be gained from contact and conquest.

Shakespeare was a man of his time, a worldly man. Molding a character through the writings and images and culture he lived in, Shakespeare put down on paper a composite of Africa, of Asia, of the Americas, and his Prospero boldly affirms the authority over such a composition near the play’s end about Caliban, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” though all these things of darkness in the world he could never acknowledge his, because they never were his to begin with.

Caliban was never Shakespeare’s creation.

Caliban is ours.

*

Some editors who read my work, who so happen to be white, note how my prose is “too difficult.” Just a subjective critique, that’s all, because tastes are just tastes, classless and raceless and genderless and sexualityless and apolitical. So the fantasy goes.

The age-old dilemma: Caliban is speaking like a white boy.

Except now it’s not the dark and huddled masses saying this to Caliban. It’s not his Sycorax. It’s Caliban’s beloved Prospero, the role cast as either man or woman, college-educated and liberal, typically and usually, white. Prospero on his pedestal lecturing on diversity. Diversity catered to their tastes and comfort, tweeting and reposting and sharing and ranting about diversity where diversity becomes a platform for their own achievement, their own success, their own wealth. Diversity is profitable, diversity is in, that is, particular kinds of diversity, diversity that does not challenge the status quo. Prospero, with staff in hand, wielding magic at the gates telling Caliban he speaks too refined, he speaks in tongues, he speaks too dangerously.

I, who have mastered the language of his many Prosperos—too well, perhaps—am not supposed to be Prospero but rather to emulate, to approximate, to try and try but never fully become; am there upon the island, in this Manhattan on any given Monday or Wednesday or Saturday, at a computer typing away thoughts and paragraphs and ideas and sentences, the sequel never meant to happen.

*

Another reviewer of my writing, who so happens to be white, writes how they wish my writing would be more “personal,” more about “my inner conflict and pain from living with my identities,” and less “analytical.” They cannot “connect to my work.” They say they can’t connect and there I am again in the kindergarten classroom with my teacher telling me she can’t connect to me because I speak Spanglish, because I stutter, because I speak in tongues. They say they can’t connect and there I am again during office hours with an undergraduate professor telling me I don’t write objectively enough, that my sentences are a tad bit too long and my ideas a bit too ambitious, and I should contemplate if I really want to continue on as a writer. They say they can’t connect and there I am again in the graduate course with my professor telling me she doubts whether imperialism and colonization is important enough to consider in an analysis of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, if the argument I am making and the words I am using have any validity, any substance.

Brown boy, Caliban as you are, read between the lines, as these Prosperos have trained you to do: too much thought, too foreign for them. But, ah, there is the conundrum: I write the personal, as any Caliban does. Our lived reality shapes the prose and the language and the content. Our style of writing is personal.

If we want a seat at the table, if we want the financial security which comes with having a seat at the table, we do as they say because they are Prospero. We are merely Caliban though should be more like Ariel. Ariel does, Caliban questions. Ariel obeys, Caliban refuses. Ariel free by the plays end, Caliban not so much. Ariel, enchanting and bending reality to Prospero’s will, illusions and fantasies to Prospero’s liking. Ariel-like, we pretty up and restructure to make our writing sound less this or more that, performing stories of minority struggle and overcoming easily told and easy to understand. If we want to get paid, want broader distribution and promotion and access, we need to internalize these Prosperos’ words, give an image of Caliban they demand.

Prospero, with staff in hand, wielding magic. Prospero with subjective tastes. Prospero’s sensibilities? We are made to believe Prospero has none because they are everyone’s, universal and global. Shakespeare is the most universal writer, after all, plays produced worldwide and translated into hundreds of languages. Shakespeare, however, is a product of his time. Shakespeare’s tastes, like all of our tastes, are not created in a void. His culture and upbringing determined his sensibilities. We are all are trained to read in certain ways and trained to judge in certain ways and trained to create in certain ways. Shakespeare, too, like Prospero.

Calibans are to bring diversity on a silver platter, the expectation to make it palatable to the tastes of any Prospero, to the tastes of whiteness. Are we groveling for a seat at the table? Or do we want the table and all that is on top of it to be flipped over in order to see what we can build in the wreckage?

I don’t want Caliban’s fate. Stuck on the island. I want to be Ariel. Somewhere off that island, somewhere unimaginably free. Then again, maybe it is Sycorax I want to be. Free as she is entirely from this farce, this comedy, this play, this most Shakespearean nightmare.

Or maybe thinking within the framework of Shakespeare’s classic is too limiting. Maybe there are no Ariels, Calibans, Prosperos, and Sycoraxs. Maybe it’s foolish to think we can think outside those character types and plot structures. Maybe we’re all just doing this wrong and that’s the place where the work really begins. At being okay with not knowing.

*

Calibans at their desk. Toni Morrison writing her, Sula, giving us the character of Eva, a woman whose leg mysteriously disappears, disappearing into rumors of how and when and where it happened, Eva mythologizing her missing limb to try to grasp what a mother will do, what a mother must do, to provide for her children in small-town America. The scratches of a pen in haste as James Baldwin writes his essay, “Stranger in the Village,” reminding us how like Caliban he is, how Shakespearean is his Swiss Alps tragedy, Caliban there “in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.” The immediacy, the force, the verve of Ocean Vuong writing, “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read.”

These writers are for everyone though some may say no. No because they write too particularly and Calibans are not universal, supposedly. No because they write too densely or demand a second glance or are too hard to understand or require another read-through and Calibans are not to be difficult, to be unwelcoming, to be demanding, supposedly. Caliban, as I am (a specific kind of Caliban for all Calibans possess their specificity, their particularity), writes for everyone. As all writers should be.

It’s for those who share my experiences, and for those who do not. It’s for people to relate to, to be confronted by, to experience something else I cannot even predict. Writing is universal when it’s sensuous. An arrangement of words on the page giving us a skin tingle, a line which moves us to tears, a paragraph which stirs us to action, a chapter we re-read time and time again to feel alive.

It’s the paragraph-long sentence in Justin Torres’ We the Animals, the father dancing in the kitchen, “as if from this dance we could know about his own childhood, about the flavor of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements, as if Puerto Rico was a man in a bathrobe, grabbing another beer from the fridge and raising it to drink, his head back, still dancing, still stepping and snapping perfectly in time.” Or it’s the aphoristic, the might of a compacted, well-worded sentence addressing one’s Prospero, as Jamaica Kincaid does in her little book on Antigua, A Small Place: “Even if I really came from people who were like monkeys in trees, it was better to be that than what happened to me, what I became after I met you.” It’s Audre Lorde in, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, giving us supple sentences dedicated to a woman named Delois, who lives on 142nd Street in Harlem, a woman rough and unladylike, Lorde defying her mother’s wishes by desiring her: “But I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.”

Caliban in Manhattan. In his overpriced apartment there on the island, at his rickety desk, writing in notebook and in laptop, struggling to live though alive.

It’s the sensuous that moves us in ways to fight anti-blackness and poverty and white supremacy, to learn how the legacies of colonization and enslavement and imperialism endure, to connect with others through our differences. Our Calibans, there at their desks, writing the beautiful and the difficult and the sensuous, these Calibans us, writing against the odds for a common ground, a New World.

*

Caliban in Manhattan. In his overpriced apartment there on the island, at his rickety desk, writing in notebook and in laptop, struggling to live though alive. Zoom in on the territory and Caliban is in Washington Heights. He in his well-lit apartment with the window open. Life enters with the breeze: the abuelita throwing rice onto the street for the pigeons, the churro vendor selling her wares, the chubby little boy with his first-generation Spanish.

This isn’t an essay about New York. Not one of those essays written as a love letter to New York, à la Didion, à la Biss, and all those other writers who fell in and out love with New York. I’m just writing it from New York. I’m occupying that most common narrative: the writer in New York, soul-searching and seasonally depressed, broke and jaded, in this metropolis of cement and steel. And, yet, this is an essay about New York. It’s about all the dreams I brought with me, and all the dreams I let go of. It’s about wanting to be cliché. To fall in and out of love with writing, with ideas and theories, with lovers and friends, with sentences and paragraphs, with New York, with this thing called life. These most ordinary and mediocre stories us Calibans have a right to want, too. These most difficult and personal and inaccessible and analytical and sensuous ways of writing and speaking us Calibans have a right to want, too. Not according to some Prospero’s taste.

Alas, there are our many Prosperos. On the other side of an email, in the submissions manager or fellowship application, the little voice in our ear. Prospero justifying and legitimizing who is Literature, and who is not. Prospero, with staff in hand, wielding magic.

But here is where the metaphor runs its course.

Curtain call, these Prosperos and Calibans to their places.

Marcos Gonsalez
Marcos Gonsalez
Marcos Gonsalez is a writer and doctoral candidate in English Language and Literature based in New York City. His memoir about coming of the queer son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant and Puerto Rican mother in white America, Pedro’s Theory, is forthcoming with Melville House. His essays have appeared in Electric Literature, Ploughshares, Inside Higher Education, Ploughshares, Catapult, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.





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