Complexity and especially ambiguity are what make Shakespeare, Shakespeare. The Bard has many strengths: the grace of his verse and the ease with which he coined the perfect phrase or word, the ability to make esoteric and highly specific situations universally understandable, the prolific speed with which he wrote powerful and enduring plays, and the innate understanding he had of deepest human nature. But the biggest reason that Shakespeare’s characters are compelling is their complex and ambiguous nature. Writing one-sided characters that are either too purely evil or too purely heroic is the sign of a weak writer, so we should embrace the moral ambiguity of Shakespeare’s characters instead of trying to overlook their flaws or complain when our hero isn’t heroic enough.
So when we read Shakespeare, we should be looking for the ambiguity and embracing it. We as humans often make decisions that are impulsive, wrong, or go against their own interests, and so do The Bard’s characters.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the protagonist Prospero is a larger than life heroic character. It’s probable that Shakespeare based the wizard on himself in some respects so we might see some special treatment of Prospero if we look for it. He is magically powerful and sympathetic. He is given some of the best lines in the comedies, including the incredible “We are the stuff that dreams are made on” speech which scholars believe might have been Shakespeare’s own final goodbye to the theatre since it’s likely that The Tempest was his last play.
But at the same time, we can’t think of Prospero as a flawless hero. His treatment of the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban definitely raises eyebrows. Shakespeare probably based much of The Tempest on an account of a shipwreck in the New World and it is this fact combined with our modern knowledge of how Europeans treated the native peoples of the New World that cause us to look at Prospero as part heroic wizard and part imperialist conquistador.
So it is in the portrayals of Ariel and Caliban that we find the real substance in any performance of The Tempest. Even though they aren’t given as many lines as some of the other characters, it is these two natives of the island that give us the most to chew on when we’re considering the plot of Shakespeare’s last play. In these two slaves, we get two fundamental responses to servitude. Ariel cares for his master, serves him faithfully, and while he desires freedom and asks for it, he doesn’t fight back or curse Prospero when he continually tells him “not yet.”
Caliban, however, never comes to accept his servitude. Caliban is a very complex character to begin with. We are told that he attempted to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda and this is why he receives such cruel treatment from Prospero. Rape is a horrible crime and this is why we often don’t have any sympathy for Caliban, especially when he is played with unrepentant anger on stage. But when we have a Caliban on stage who is more pitiful we can — not exactly forgive him — but see him as a character with more than one side and defined by more than one singular action, because he is and should be. I certainly don’t mean to play down the seriousness of the crime itself, but when we consider Caliban’s punishment we should consider several things. First and foremost, Caliban probably isn’t human. We aren’t told what exactly he is, whether he’s more animal — he certainly seems animalistic — or if he is partly some kind of supernatural monster by merit of his mother being the witch Sycorax. Whatever Caliban might be, he certainly lacks intelligence, often sounding more like a whimsical child than a grown adult.
We may never like or even forgive Caliban — and I’m not sure we should — but one of the goals of good storytelling is to make us think twice about pigeonholing or stereotyping characters. A good Caliban doesn’t need to make us love him or hate him; a good Caliban just needs to make us think twice.
If we are given flat performances of Ariel and Caliban on stage, we lose the most powerful ambiguity and it doesn’t feel as much like Shakespeare anymore. Without his troublesome status as a conqueror and slaver, the story of Prospero is a revenge story about a betrayed duke. It’s still a good story but it doesn’t make you think as much and we really lose something if you walk out of a Shakespeare play and aren’t thinking long and hard about why you liked some characters and hated others.
So it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Jeremy Gershman’s portrayal of Caliban was what made Richmond Shakespeare’s recent production of The Tempest. The show was delightful overall, but it Gershman’s Caliban that gave the show its power. Gershman begins the play with Caliban’s unrepentant admission of his attempted rape of Miranda which set us up to hate the monster, but throughout all his cursing and raging Gershman kept Caliban low to the ground with fearful body language, pitiful tone and pathetic wails. We start by hating Caliban and then immediately start doubting that decision. When I heard Caliban say he would have populated the island with his descendants if Prospero hadn’t prevented his raping Miranda, I wondered if Gershman’s Caliban was truly unrepentant or if he was simply saying the most hateful thing he could just to get under Prospero’s skin, akin to a child screaming “I hate you!” at his parents.
For this reason I couldn’t disagree more with local critic Rich Griset’s contention that “The show’s only misstep is in the portrayal of…Caliban…the decision to make the character more pitiful than evil makes Raintree’s Prospero seem unnecessarily cruel.” For the reasons I’ve listed above, Gershman’s portrayal of Caliban gives us exactly the Caliban we need.
This isn’t the first time I’ve disagreed with Mr. Griset. Last summer he wrote a scathing review of Cymbeline that focused almost entirely on the text of the play and barely addressed the actual performance of the play. Mr. Griset would have been better off writing a book review if he wanted to only discuss the merits of the text and not the performance. With The Tempest, he swung the pendulum too far in the other direction and seemed to look at the performance without thinking about the text at all and this I think is why he missed the point when it came to Caliban.
As I’ve said, The Tempest was a fantastic show overall. The lighting and set design were able to give us a dreamy, magical setting and the costuming decisions couldn’t have been more perfect. The steampunk/turn of the century style was a fresh and interesting way to modernize the look of the characters in a way that refreshed them but stayed relevant. And changing the “ship” to a zeppelin was so clever it made me giggle in the opening storm scene.
While the entire cast gave strong, compelling performances, there were standouts who took the whole show to another level. John Mincks as Ariel was so energetic and moved so quickly and entered every scene with such an explosion that it required no suspension of disbelief to see him as an air spirit. And while he was loyal to Prospero, Mincks’ Ariel also showed depth when he was visibly disappointed each time Prospero denied him his freedom. Gershman’s Caliban was perfect. Thomas Bell who played Sebastian and David Janosik who played Stephano are two actors known for their comedic timing and wise cracks who are able to deliver laughs with surgical precision. Isabelle Andrews used all the strengths of her youth to play a flawless Miranda while leaving all the weaknesses at home. Her Miranda was appropriately nervous and at times overwhelmed — especially on seeing Ferdinand — but Isabelle herself showed as much confidence and looked as at home as any of the adult actors she worked beside.
Richmond Shakespeare’s The Tempest not only doesn’t disappoint; it gives a real Shakespeare fanatic the total package while keeping it accessible, magical and fun for Bard neophytes. Sometimes it’s not easy to please the scholars and the newcomers at the same time, but when you do it, that’s perfect Shakespeare. Richmond Shakes took one of the most familiar plays in the canon and made it fresh and exciting again without sacrificing any of the important themes and issues in the story. I’ve seen The Tempest performed more times than I’ve ever seen any other Shakespeare play but this production was by far my favorite.