“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,” says Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Trying to quiet Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina), new arrivals on the island Caliban calls home. As his listeners look on him in some awe, the black man goes on to describe the respite he finds in dreaming: “The clouds methought would open, and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again.”
Caliban’s distress at waking is a function of his life as a slave. And it’s a central problem for The Tempest, which is hardly updated (though Prospera is here an angry mom rather than a father) and so has to find a way to represent slaves—unhappy and fuming and determined to be free, even as the play justifies their slavery, essentially by their race.
At the time Caliban meets Trinculo and Stephano in The Tempest, his master is Prospera (Helen Mirren). Another intruder who’s lived on the island for years now, Prospera actually lords over two slaves, the dark and colossal Caliban and the exceedingly light Ariel (Ben Wishaw). Their differences are marked repeatedly, in Shakespeare’s language, in the film’s casting, and in Julie Taymor’s striking, if uneven, cinematic staging. The differences are central to Prospera’s characterization, as she treats each slave so disparately. She uses her awesome powers to exact vengeance against the men who ran her out of Milan years ago, namely, her conniving brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), Alonso, the king of Naples (David Strathairn), the king’s brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and his counselor Gonzalo (Tom Conti). It’s not a little creepy that Prospera initiates her retribution by pairing off Miranda (Felicity Jones) to with Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), Alonso’s blandly pretty, pliable son. When a rainstorm she’s ordered up lands their ship on her island, she sets to work, taunting and manipulating their every move.
While Miranda can’t help but note Prospera’s obsession (she’s been at it for years, after all), she’s also a dutiful daughter (sometimes involuntarily, by dint of spells Prospera casts on her). And so she goes along, easily captivated by Ferdinand and happy enough to be headed off the island where’s she spent virtually her entire life. The film showcases the girl’s sense of captivity as it shows everyone now stuck on the island with her. Prospera rigorously manages their fortunes (mostly via Ariel’s shenanigans) and the scenes cut awkwardly from her, along with Miranda and Ferdinand, to the king’s party traipsing about in the woods, to the buffoons Trinculo and Stephano, who are feeling lucky to have stumbled on Caliban.
Miserable under Prospera, Caliban is quite ready to give himself over to the brutish fools Trinculo and Stephano, especially when they ply him with drink. “I’ll swear upon that bottle to be thy true subject,” he exults as they watch him with a mix of wonder and disgust, “For the liquor is not earthly.” While their interactions make clear the nasty effects of rapacious colonizers bearing drugs, they also follow the play’s framework, making Prospera’s abuses of Caliban look positively genteel by comparison.
Still, they are abuses, and the film underscores both the master’s meanness and Caliban’s outrage. It’s helpful also that Honsou’s performance makes this much scorned “monster” sympathetic, ignorant surely, but also given to flights of poetry, in both the language he’s learned from Prospera (“You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse”) and, even more conspicuously in this version, his own physicality.
Caliban’s first appearance displays his slave status, his frustration, and Prospera’s cruelty, which she deems righteous (“Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself”), but he resists. In this, Caliban is only the most extreme “subject” for Prospera, who exploits her daughter and Ariel as well. Where Ariel is agile and submissive (if “moody”), Caliban is rebellious. He lurks literally beneath the land surface over which Prospera and her daughter approach, crouches in the rocky cave where he lives (the women also have a cave, but one that’s nicely appointed, with books and heat and light). Ass he emerges into the blustery light to heed his master’s voice, Caliban mutters against her and Miranda (“Drop on you both! a south-west blow on ye / And blister you all o’er!”).
Caliban is dense and daunting by virtue of Honsou’s extraordinary body: when he stands near the white folks, he is indeed a man-mountain, made up with crusty, mottled skin, one blue eye and one brown, his musculature massive. Again and again, he’s an arresting figure amid The Tempest‘s clutter, in plots and sets and, most distractingly, special effects. Ariel’s androgynous affect is enhanced by digitized breasts and white-blue pallor, and tweaked into hellishness during a brief transformation into a slick-skinned siren, but he’s a very, very busy spirit, and finally tedious too. The tragedy of this comedy is made visible when the two slaves fid their fates: having obeyed commands, Ariel the “tricksy spirit” is let loose, while Caliban is condemned to more servitude: “I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace,” he says slowly, agreed to perform for Prospera after all.