“Here we meet the truly extraordinary thing: we are now considering as possible something directly contradicted by our own experience.”

The Tempest

Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From A.D. Nuttall:

the tempest julie taymor 1“Meanwhile the civilizing agents in the drama are a morally dubious lot. Stefano and Trinculo are vulgar as Caliban himself could never be, and even Prospero is in the grip of some moral distress that is never explained to the audience. Ferdinand is a moral blank. Gonzalo and Miranda emerge as the only manifestly good civilizers. Caliban’s sexual violence is ironically mirrored in Ferdinand (‘Mr. Right’). Remember, mirrors reverse. The two are explicitly paralleled in the log-bearing scenes (II.ii and III.i). When Prospero begins to fulminate against premarital sex, Ferdinand (who must be played by Hugh Grant) says, ‘The white cold virgin snow upon my heart/Abates the ardor of my liver.’ (IV.i.55-56). This means either ‘The coldly chaste nature of the love I feel has reduced physical desire’ or else (if Prospero has just surprised the lovers embracing) ‘The cold purity of the girl I am pressing to my heart dispels thoughts of sex.’ Either way it is disconcerting. When Othello asserted the un-physical character of his love for Desdemona (I.iii.261-65), his language was distorted by social embarrassment, and meanwhile Desdemona stands in the play as an approved example of strong natural sexual desire. It is as if Ferdinand is saying to Prospero, ‘You really don’t have to worry about me, sir; I’m not a bit like that frightful Caliban. Actually, I don’t have much sexual feeling at all.’ Ferdinand is hardly a blazing anti-type to the baseness of Caliban. His virtue is almost comically limp.

What meanwhile of the sexuality of Prospero? It will be said that he has none or, what comes to the same thing with a fictitious person, none is attributed to him in the play. But Shakespeare has chosen to set us wondering, as the opening exchange of the courtiers in The Winter’s Tale set us wondering. Prospero carries an obscure load of guilt. His speeches are systematically biased in a certain direction. Where one would expect a benevolent father overseeing a welcome marriage to speak with affectionate warmth to his prospective son-in-law, most of Prospero’s energy goes into telling Ferdinand in the fiercest terms that he must not lay a finger on Miranda until they are married. Then we remember that the crisis in Prospero’s relations with Caliban can when Caliban made a sexual move, attempted to take Miranda. The thought forms: ‘Prospero is not gaining a son; he is losing a female.’ The presentiment is assisted by the desert island setting (to this day cartoonists know that ‘desert island’ means ‘sexually limited environment – only so many possibilities.’) The nubile Miranda is alone on the island (until other parties come into view) with three males, Prospero, Caliban, and Ferdinand. Prospero is ‘out’ because he is her father, Caliban is ‘out’ because he may not be human, and Ferdinand is just perfect – except for the fact that he lacks a sex drive. The obvious explanation is that Prospero is fighting his own incestuous desire for his daughter. There is not a line in the play that supports this inference directly. But if we think of the other late romances, the thought may begin to seem less wild. Pericles begins with a full-blown tale of incest. Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the principal source for The Winter’s Tale, contains an incest episode, and as we have seen, there is in Shakespeare’s play the oddly powerful moment when Leontes begins to respond sexually to his own daughter and is rebuked by Paulina (V.i.223-25). Incest is, one might say, never very far away in this half-Greek world of romance.

What, then, of Caliban? It will be said, ‘But rape is rape.’ Even if we are sure, however, that Caliban’s act is wholly unforgivable, the model or models of civilized sexuality in the play hardly compose a satisfactory ‘correction from on high.’ They are too obviously tainted. But all this, in its turn, is predictable by the logic of pastoral, according to which the courtly, unnatural complex is the truly disgusting thing.

I have noted that ‘civilization’ is etymologically antithetical to ‘pastoral.’ ‘Political,’ from the Greek polis, is ‘a city,’ is antithetical in much the same way. The anti-Arcadian Utopian is a political animal. But in this play both the Arcadian dream of innocence and the Utopian dream of good government are subverted by radical uncertainty. This reaches a pitch found elsewhere in Shakespeare – not even in Hamlet. D.G. James in The Dream of Prospero asked an interesting question: ‘What happened to the ship in The Tempest?’ The beginning of the play is a spectacular explosion in which we all witness the wreck of a ship. In Act V the Boatswain joyfully tells us that the ship supposed wrecked is in perfect condition, ready to sail. (V.i.221-25). Ariel observes in an aside to Prospero, ‘Sir, all this service/Have I done since I went’ (V.i.225-26). So what did happen to the ship? We have two possible sequences: first, the ship was really wrecked and was afterwards put together again, magically, by Ariel; second, the wreck was a delusion, the ship was never really broken up, and that is why it is ready to sail at a moment’s notice. Most will say that Ariel’s aside to Prospero settles the question, in favor of the first story. But Ariel could mean only that he led them to the (undamaged) ship. This is more in his line. Reconstituting a smashed sea-going vessel sounds like bigger magic than Ariel can command. Prospero could have done it, but he does not say he has. So some will continue to entertain the second possibility. Here we meet the truly extraordinary thing: we are now considering as possible something directly contradicted by our own experience. We know as clearly as we ever know anything within a drama that the ship broke up – ‘we split, we split!’(I.i.61, 62) – accompanied no doubt by a loud rending noise. To say that the ship was never smashed is to say that we the audience, may have been deluded by Prospero. Miranda is certainly sure that she has seen a shipwreck, but Prospero, fascinatingly, says quietly to her, ‘There’s no harm done…no harm’ (I.ii.15). That Miranda should be benevolently deceived by her magician father (in line with the second hypothesis) is quite conceivable, but I know of no dramaturgical precedent for member of the audience being slowly brought, by the unfolding character of the play, to a point at which they wonder whether they too ought to believe their eyes.

We have reached a pitch of uncertainty more radical than anything we have seen before. Ever since Edward Dowden wrote that Shakespeare’s final period was a time of ‘large, serene wisdom’ in which the poet ‘had attained some high and luminous table-land of joy,’ it has been common practice to assume that The Tempest is like the other romances, a radiantly happy work, deep comedy. The pattern of the family smashed by a storm and afterwards reunited is obviously present. But where the endings of Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale are simultaneously this-worldly and Paradisal, the ending of The Tempest seems somehow infected. The source of the contagion may be uncertainty.

The term ‘Paradisal’ is mine. The other romances never mention Paradise. But it is almost as if Shakespeare in The Tempest decided to interrogate the idea of an earthly Paradise. He read Montaigne on noble savages. He politicizes and analyses a notion that had operated in the other romances with healing imaginative force. Early in the play the earthly Paradise is subjected to a process of comic diminution and caricature in Gonzalo’s ‘ideal commonwealth.’ When Ferdinand and Miranda are ‘discovered’ playing chess together (V.i.172), we have a curious late instance of the Shakespearean habit of establishing a stereotype and then working against its grain. Here the conventional form of the episode is that we expect the lovers to be caught in a sexually compromising action but find instead that they are behaving with perfect propriety. Meanwhile, however, the brief dialogue between the chess-players looks like the beginning of a quarrel. Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating, he says that of course he hasn’t cheated, and she tells him that it’s all right, she loves him just the same. If Ferdinand has cheated, his lying is disquieting. If he hasn’t Miranda’s reply is utterly infuriating. The word ‘wrangle,’ Shakespeare’s word for sour marital exchanges (As You Like It, V.iv.191), follows a line later. When Shakespeare wrote against the grain of stereotype in 2 Henry IV it was to impart an unlooked-for beauty to the conversation of Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet, to make the seemingly disgraceful strangely graceful. But here he makes the seemingly virtuoso a site of implied dissension. We have seen in earlier comedies many morally dubious persons in some way transfigured by the joyous fact of marriage. That feeling is perhaps less vivid in The Tempest than in any other play. The enervating uncertainty has got into those very quasi-Platonic comedic structures that elsewhere stand in splendid contrast to the human imperfection of the persons of the play. Our sense meanwhile of political resolution, of dynastic healing, as Prospero forgives his enemies, is weakened by the fact that Prospero’s thoughts are now all on his own impending death (V.i.312). A good death, for which the dying man is thoroughly prepared, might be the surest way to heaven. But in Prospero’s case (more uncertainty!) we are far from sure of his ultimate destination. A Faustian smell still hangs about the figure of the magician. We have seen throughout the play Prospero appears to be haunted by a consciousness of some sin that is never explained to us, the audience. The strangest thing of all, to one interested in the strength of early modern dramatic convention, is the intrusion into Prospero’s Epilogue of a plea that the audience should pray for him. Prospero explains how he feels his powers draining out of him and adds, ‘My ending is despair/Unless I be reliev’d by prayer.’ (Epilogue, 15-16). It is almost embarrassing. Remember Puck’s Epilogue at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which so elegantly reassured the audience and, most important, told them when to applaud. As Prospero comes forward to speak our hands, perhaps, are already raised, prepared for clapping, but then, as he speaks of prayer, some will bring their hands together, not with a plosive sound but softly, in anxious assent to his bizarre request.”


And from the book Living with Shakespeare, director Julie Taymor’s essay on The Tempest, “Rough Magic.”

the tempest julie taymor 2“Driven by the bitterness and fury of its lead character, the sorceress-scientist Prospera, The Tempest is at once a revenge drama, a romance, and a black comedy. It is the mother’s protective love for her daughter, Miranda, that fuels the tempest she has conjured and all the subsequent events on the island in the space of a day.

Shakespeare was the ultimate screenwriter. More of his plays have been made into movies than any other writer’s. His palette was immense, limited only by the boundaries of his imagination. In The Tempest, he wrote of real and fantasy worlds, of philosophies, both lofty and poetical, juxtaposed with rock-bottom crude and scatological fare. Young lovers in the mode of Romeo and Juliet are scripted with an understanding of the delicate, vulnerable, and awkward comedy that comes with first love. Smashed up against these scenes stumble the abominations of three of Shakespeare’s best and bawdiest lowlifes. And mirroring this comic trio’s treacherous escapades are the wicked, cynical, and corrupt lords, whose lives get turned upside down in the maelstrom of Prospero’s fierce vengeance. In addition to the human characters, Shakespeare created a most singular and complex being in the form of the spirit Ariel.

The Tempest, in other words, offers a great opportunity for a film director – from its wondrous and diverse parts for actors to its visual dimensions and challenges that are ripe to be realized through extraordinary locations and experimental visual effects.

The Tempest is the second of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve directed for film: the first was Titus, which featured the great Anthony Hopkins. Titus Andronicus (1591-1592) was among Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and The Tempest (1610-1611) was among his last. Titus is messy, raw, a young man’s cynical, mad, and outrageous first tragedy, and, like a pearl in an oyster, it has its own perfection which one has to mine to reveal.

The Tempest, in contrast, is more neatly tied up in terms of its themes – and yet it’s still not what could be called a conventional drama. It’s more of a philosophical treatise, or a state of being, and so it’s very difficult to make work as a film, a medium in which audiences expect stories to unfold in a linear way. Since this narrative is constantly moving from one group of players to another around the island, it doesn’t provide the same feeling of satisfaction as those plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, which follow the main characters more closely.

My first Shakespeare to direct in the theater was The Tempest. It was on a small stage in New York City in 1986; the play began with the silhouette of a young girl building a sandcastle on the top of a black sand hill. Suddenly a stagehand, garbed in black and holding a large watering can, ran to the girl and started to pour water on the castle. As the lights shifted focus, illuminating only the castle and the falling water, this mundane image was transformed into a ‘rainstorm’ that dissolved the fragile castle into the earth. Though Prospero’s ‘magic’ was exposed through the art of theater lighting, the audience was invited to believe that the tempest had begun. In this moment of theatrical conventions, the rules of the production were laid out. The form and style of theatrical storytelling illuminated the substantive meaning of the piece – Prospero was the ultimate puppet master, the string-puller and engineer of illusions.

Revealing the mechanics of the theater creates its own alchemy, its rough magic, and the audience willingly plays ‘make-believe.’ In cinema, however, where one can actually film on real locations and create seemingly naturalistic events, the temptation is to throw away the artifice and go for the literal reality. There is something inherently sad about this. Even in fantasy cinema the audience expects the worlds that are created to feel ‘real,’ or at least plausible, and it is not required of viewers that they fill in the blanks or suspend their disbelief.

In the film of The Tempest, I had an opportunity to act on these two impulses: to combine the literal reality of location – its natural light, winds, and rough seas – with conjured visual effects that subvert the ‘natural’ and toy with it. As in the theater version, we begin the film with the close-up image of a black sandcastle. The camera pulls away, and we realize that the castle is tiny, fitting onto the palm of a hand. Rain begins to fall and the castle dissolves through fingers as the camera finally reveals the surprised expression of the young girl belonging to the hand, Miranda. Lightning cracks, and we cut to what she sees: the wide roiling sea and a distant ship caught in a ferocious storm. The long shot of the tempest looks like a Turner painting come to life. The juxtaposition of these two moments and the play with perception and scale signals the style of the film: from visceral reality to heightened expressionism.

At the start of the drama, one of the major themes of the play is posited: Nature versus Nurture. In one brief ideograph, civilization, represented by the simple form of a child’s sandcastle, is destroyed in a downpour. The perilous storm that destroys the ship also establishes this theme, by exposing the fact that the lofty position of the King of Naples on board is rendered meaningless when Nature is in control. The irony is that it is Prospera who, at this moment in time, is in control of Nature. Her conflict with the abuse and renunciation of such power unfolds as another critical theme of The Tempest.


I have chosen to discuss three of the main characters in this essay, as the proved to be the most conceptually challenging. The decision to switch the gender of the lead character, Prospero, renamed Prospera, was a diving board to a whole new appreciation of the play. Shakespeare’s unique creations Caliban and Ariel are ripe for endless interpretations. Emblematic and surreal, they require total invention in shaping and designing the presentation of their natures. Prospera’s two ‘servants’ represent opposites, the earth and the air, within and without, and she struggles to unite and ultimately to release.


the tempest julie taymor 3Having twice directed the play with Prospero as the principal character, I made subtle discoveries with the gender change to Prospera. The reason I decided to make the switch had everything to do with Helen Mirren and a coincidental exchange that we had while I was mulling over possible actors for the part. It was not that I wanted to do the play with a woman in the lead, it’s that I wanted to do it with this particular actor. There are very few roles for women over forty in Shakespeare, and I was intrigued by the possibility of discovering a new one in Prospera, while still being true to the essence of the original play. Once I fixated on Helen Mirren for the role, examination of the text and how it would change become illuminating. Except for the obvious ‘he’ to ‘she’ and ‘sir’ to ‘mum’ or ‘ma’am,’ very little of the text would need to be altered to accommodate the change. Curiously, we discovered that one word that couldn’t be changed was ‘master,’ since in the English language ‘master’ does not equate with ‘mistress.’

The major adjustment to the text was in the reshaping of the character’s backstory, which was reconceived and put into verse. In the original Tempest, Prospero los this dukedom because he hadn’t been paying it proper attention; he confesses that the liberal arts had been all his study and that he had neglected all worldly ends, ‘dedicated/To closeness and the bettering of my mind’ (1.2.105-106). In our backstory, Prospero’s husband, the Duke of Milan, being quite liberal, has allowed her to practice in secret the arts of alchemy, midwifery, and herbal medicine – a path of study usually forbidden to women. When her husband dies, Prospera becomes heir to his dukedom. Antonio, her ambitious and treacherous brother, seizes the opportunity to accuse her of witchcraft, which was punishable by death at the stake – a much heavier charge than being accused of political negligence. Here we resume the original text, which describes how the faithful councilor, Gonzalo, helps to save Prospera and her four-year-old daughter Miranda, by secreting them aboard a small bark and sending them out to sea. Their survival is a miracle.

When we first meet Prospera, she has already suffered twelve years of exile. As sole ruler on an almost deserted island, she is at once the master despot and the vengeful mother. Her source of power stems from a mother’s natural and ferocious protective passion and a scholar-scientist’s obsession with the ability to control Nature for both dark and benign purposes.

The themes of power, revenge, compassion, and forgiveness become more complex in the relationships that Prospera has with Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel, and Caliban. Prospera’s protective feelings for her daughter are quite different from those of a father. There is no male ego involved, no competition with the young suitor, and no ‘honor’ defiled as in most attempted rape scenarios. But instead, Prospera’s actions are a direct result of her knowing intimately what Miranda is experiencing as a young virginal woman and where the dangers lie. Moreover, similar to the way that a tigress takes care of her cubs – a metaphor which characterizes Tamora in Titus – there is no fiercer parent than a mother. In this gender twist, it is because Prospera is a woman that her dukedom could be stolen from her, and the bitterness of this fact infiltrates her relationships with those characters who affect her daughter.

These are subtle nuances that in no way alter the essence of Shakespeare’s play, but rather give it another layer of depth and a new way to experience a familiar tale. In doing research on the play I was surprised to discover that the well-known speech of Prospera’s in which she describes her ‘rough magic’ is almost identical to the witch Medea’s speech in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Here is Prospera:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,

And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him

When he comes back: you demi-puppets that

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,

Whereof the ewe not bites: and you whose pastime

Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice

To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid –

Weak masters though ye be – I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twist the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire, and the rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt: the strong-based promontory

Have I made shake and by the spurs plucked up

The pine and cedar. Graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth

By my so potent art.


Although Shakespeare knew Latin and could have read Ovid in the original, he might have modeled his wording on the first English translation of Arthur Golding, published in 1597 as The Fifteen Books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The passage begins in Book 7, at line 265:

Ye Ayres and Windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of

   Woods alone,

Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye


Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much

   wondring at the thing)

I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to

   their spring.

By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make

   the rough Seas plaine,

And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them

   thence againe.

By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the

   Vipers jaw.

And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and

   trees doe draw.

Whole woods and Forestes I remove. I make the

   Mountaines shake,

And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to


I call up dead men from their graves; and thee O

   lightsome Moone

I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy peril


Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes

   the Sun at Noone.

The identification and accusation of Prospera as a witch begins in the Milan flashback. Yet she sees herself as an alchemist, a scientist, engaged in the study of Nature in order to understand and control its positive forces. Given that Nature is identified as ‘the Mother,’ knowledge of the medicinal elements of the earth has traditionally been the purview of women. The battle, however, between white and black magic in our story begins on the island, with the enslavement of Caliban. It is brought into sharp focus as Prospera spews her disdain for the ‘foul witch, Sycorax,’ the mother of Caliban and the torturer of Ariel. At the top of the story, Prospera does not yet recognize or acknowledge her own dark side, but as the play progresses Prospera and Sycorax become mirrors to one another in their malignant and abusive use of the black arts.

Helen Mirren brings many conflicting characteristics to her Prospera, and this makes her a classic protagonist in Shakespeare’s canon. With her erratic fury, maternal warmth, cold authority, and poetic introspection, she plays the witch, the scientist, the poet, the ferocious tiger protecting her cub, the steely leader, and more. It is not near. She is neither perfect nor benign, but twisted by a tempest within that stems from guilt over being the cause of her innocent daughter’s role and the urgency to exact revenge on those also responsible.

To Miranda, in explaining the tempest she has conjured:

I have done nothing but in care of thee –

Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter – who

Art ignorant of what thou art: nought knowing

Of whence I am, nor that I am more better

Than Prospera, master of a full poor cell,

And thy no great mother.

(adapted from 1.2.19-24)

And later, concerning her enemies:

     I will plague them all,

Even to roaring.


Prospera is complex, in a way similar to Titus Shakespeare enjoys setting up his characters one way and then almost immediately controverting them. Prospera’s kingdom has been usurped, but then she usurps Caliban’s island kingdom; Caliban seems like a wronged innocent, but then we learn that he has attempted to rape Miranda. They all abuse; they’ve all been abused. Shakespeare’s characters are so multilayered that you find yourself loving, disliking, admiring, and disrespecting them, potentially all at the same time.

Prospera believes in her own positive and benevolent nature until the end of the drama, when she finally acknowledges her magic as black, as ‘rough’ – it has become perverse and twisted through her dark fury: ‘But this rough magic/I here abjure’ (5.1.55-56).

In this speech of renunciation, she finally acknowledges that her own vengeful needs have pushed her over the top and caused her to misuse her power. With her spirit Ariel’s help, she then gives up her power and finds her way back to compassion.

Once Prospera’s mission is accomplished, her enemies punished and her magic renounced, she asks Ariel to help attire her so that she can ‘myself present/As I was sometime Milan’ (5.1.90-91). As Ariel straps her into a tight corset, the court costume she arrived in, which is much more constricting than the free, androgynous clothing she had fashioned for herself on the island, her pained face reveals her sacrifice. In the original play, Prospero is being reinstated as the Duke with his fancy hat and robes; he will have his authority restored and will resume his lofty status in society. But with Prospera re-garbed in woman’s dress, I wanted to emphasize the decision she makes in returning to her woman’s place in Milan society – that the power and freedom she has wielded on the island will now be subject to the rules of the society to which she returns. This choice to return to Milan is made out of the great love she has for her daughter.

In the design concepts for both the landscape of the cell and her magical robe, we tapped the essence of Prospera herself as a living volcano, burning from within, primed to erupt and destroy, but ultimately to redeem and regenerate.


THE TEMPESTAriel is the embodiment in spirit of human emotion, vulnerability, and compassion. How does an actor play pure spirit, both and beyond male and female, appearing and disappearing on command, able to change shape and size, and yet able to move the audience to laughter or tears? In the theater I utilized the art of puppetry in the form of a disembodied mask that could be moved in any direction, defying gravity and human limitations. The purely theatrical choice was quite moving precisely because the artifice was so blatant, yet could project subtle emotions. In the film, however, the character of Ariel was conceived as an actor’s fully human performance treated with the use of cinematic visual effects. The challenge was to retain the visceral, nuanced performance that only a human can give, while transforming his physical presence into the essence of light, fire, wind, and water, and the corporeal manifestation of harpies, frogs, stinging bees, and bubbling lava.

Ben Whishaw plays an androgynous Ariel, simultaneously evincing both the feminine and the masculine without diminishing either, which produces an ethereal but intense sexuality. Since in my previous theatrical productions I had always had a female Ariel to the male Prospero, this gender change to Prospera added a different dynamic to the subtle erotic pull between the two characters.

In casting Ben, I had to accept a significant condition: he would be unavailable until the end of the shoot and thus never on location with us in Hawaii. That meant that Helen would have to shoot most of her Ariel scenes without Ariel. It was a daunting, yet fortuitous challenge. After all, Ariel is not human, does not walk on the ground, and is constantly transforming. This limitation was an invitation to Kyle Cooper, the visual effects designer, and myself to invent an entirely new way of combining a live actor’s performance with CGI. Because of Ben’s limited availability, most of his performance was filmed in the studio, in front of a green screen, making it possible for us to manipulate his image in postproduction and place him in the pre-shot backgrounds with Helen.

Not all of his scenes were shot this way, however. It was important for some of their most intense exchanges that Helen and Ben be able to act together. We were left then to alter his arrivals and exits, his physical form, whether it be translucent, grossly deformed, or multiplied, with the help of postproduction effects. A few scenes, such as his appearance as a sea nymph with Ferdinand, were shot through a large glass containing a few inches of water. Ben was underneath, able to move freely and speak his lines, yet his image appears to be fractured and distorted through the lens of water – the miracle is that the effect is live, in camera, and not computer generated. It was extremely liberating to be able to preserve a great actor’s performance and yet transform him into the various elements and creatures that are delineated by the text.

There is one scene, however, in which I purposefully left Ariel untreated, corporeal. It is an intimate scene with Prospera in her cell. Her enemies have been brought low and she asks Ariel how they are faring.

Ariel:…Your charm so strongly works


That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

Prospera:  Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel:  Mind would, master, were I human.

(adapted from 5.1.19-23)

Because this is the first time that we see the full human being of Ariel, every little nuance of expression becomes that much more intense and felt. This is the scene that finally leads Prospero to understand that ‘the rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance’ (5.1.31-32). It’s an extraordinary shift to the realization of what she has done, of how far she has abused her power and taken the revenge and anger – it’s an ennobling awareness, a true moment of grace. And it is the spirit, Ariel, as an agent of reconciliation, who signifies this compassion, forgiveness, and ultimate redemption.


the tempest julie taymor 5He is addressed or described as ‘thou earth thou,’ a foul-smelling ‘plain fish,’ a ‘puppy-headed monster,’ a ‘poisonous slave,’ the bastard of an evil witch, and one guilty of the near rape of Miranda, Prospera’s precious daughter. Caliban may also be perceived as simply a native of this remote island, and the above depictions as a product of the prejudicial point of view of the Europeans who are shipwrecked on it, in particular those of Prospera, who now governs the island and Caliban as her own. In casting an African in this role, one automatically brings to the forefront the obvious themes of colonialization and usurpation that clearly were part of Shakespeare’s worldview, derived from stories culled from journeys of exploration to Africa and the New World.

But in order to truly serve Shakespeare’s unique vision of this character, one must go beyond sociopolitical commentary achieved through a casting choice. Djimon Hounsou went through a four-hour makeup ordeal every day to achieve the look of his Caliban. His skin was made to resemble the island’s cracked red earth and black volcanic rock, with raised scars of obscenities he had carved into his flesh. He says to Prospera:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse. The red-plague ride you

For learning me your language.


The nickname ‘Moon-calf,’ endearingly coined by Stephano for Caliban, suggested the white circular moon that frames his one blue eye, which in itself was motivated by the notion that he is the whelp of that ‘blue-eyed hag,’ Sycorax. The ‘calf’ part of the equation is delivered in the maplike patches of white on black skin that add to the ‘otherness’ of this unique racial mash-up. This Caliban – half black, half white, with the one blue eye – partakes of both races and yet is an outsider to both. The webbing between his fingers and the long nails that can dig pignuts adds that touch of monster fantasy that speaks to the ‘strange fish,’ as Trinculo calls him. All in all, this Caliban, both beautiful and grotesque, is the island: Nature personified. And Djimon’s athletic and antic movement, inspired by the Japanese dance form Butoh, completes his physical embodiment.

In casting Djimon Hounsou in this role, we were privileged to have not only a great actor but one who brought with him experience, belief, and respect for the power of white and black magic. His personal stories of sorcery in his country, Benin, were both inspiring and harrowing.

There was never any question in Djimon’s mind that the figure Helen was playing, the sorceress, could control Caliban. He is the ‘natural’ that Prospera tries and fails to reform in her nurturing. Their clashes leave the audience discomforted, unsure as to whom to root for, as Shakespeare never chooses sides. Djimon’s Caliban is multifaceted: he can be physically threatening and violent in one scene and native and puppylike in another. He is comedic, foolish, elementally human, and profoundly tragic, bestowed with the innate intelligence to speak some of the most elegant and moving poetry of The Tempest.

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not:

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.


In these lines, famous because of their ethereal beauty, Caliban gives voice to something of Ariel’s otherworldliness – and Ariel, who is air, who is transparent, who is the soul and spirit, is also, at times, bawdy, mischievous, and earthly. Everything in Shakespeare has duality. None of his characters exist on just one level, since even his inhuman beings are reflections of  human complexities.

At the end of the original, Caliban begs for mercy. Prospera dismisses him, and it is sorrowful and unresolved, for there is no apparent understanding and Prospero seems to feel no remorse. I wanted to make it clear that Prospera realizes what she has done to Caliban, and so included an intense and silent moment when Caliban fearfully looks at Prospera’s staff, knowing full well that if she raises that staff he will indeed be ‘pinched to death’ (5.1.311) – but she doesn’t move it. They simply look at each other with a complete understanding of what has passed between them, and then Caliban climbs up the stairs and out of the cell without looking back: he is free.

The word ‘free’ becomes the most significant word of the play. Caliban is free. Ariel is free, the court is free, and the only one who is not going to be free is Prospera, since she must return to that rigid Milanese society, stripped of her liberating power. Although the initial decision came from the desire to work with Helen, I discovered that the story arc is in some ways more intense with a female lead, since what Prospera will be giving up is that much more keenly felt.

Shakespeare’s characters are already full of contradictions, and changing the gender of the lead allowed us to participate in that creative process with Shakespeare himself to explore new ways of portraying all the complexities of the human condition. We all have that rough magic within us, and – as Shakespeare knew – the question for each of us is when to use it, when to abjure it, and when to transform it into the liberating white magic of the imagination.”


And with that…Julie Taymor’s film, The Tempest

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

Oh.still looking for Shakespeare tattoo ideas…anyone?

Our next reading:  The Tempest, Act Four

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

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4 Responses to “Here we meet the truly extraordinary thing: we are now considering as possible something directly contradicted by our own experience.”

  1. Yes! Finally something about telephotography.

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  3. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I
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  4. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You definitely know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your blog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

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