Some of my favourite lines in Shakespeare are the beautiful and haunting ones he gives to Caliban to describe “his” island:
"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 sometime 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 Caliban, Ariel, and of course Prospero, Shakespeare created three of his most memorable and enigmatic characters who are inevitably open to various interpretations in productions of the play. These can be nicely illustrated by what critics have said about them in theatre reviews. The Library & Archive holds newspaper reviews of productions at the RSC (and its predecessor the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre) that date back to 1879. It is a treasure trove of information on interpreting Shakespeare.
A taste of these is given below:
There has been a rich variety of Prosperos at Stratford from the magisterial, brooding John Gielgud (1957), the avuncular Alec McOwen (1993), the manipulative Patrick Stewart (2006) to the anguished Antony Sher (2009) who requests pardon at the end, not from the audience as normally happens but from Caliban.
1993 “[Alec McOwen’s Prospero] .. a magician who has outgrown his own magic, but also .. a political creature who has learnt from his own mistakes, physically tense, gaunt, an imperious figure, calm and collected, but with a powerful undercurrent of irascibility that he firmly controls.” -John Peter, Sunday Times, 15th August 1993
2006 “[Patrick Stewart is]…a tormented and embittered magician with a tattooed skull, vexed to the bitter end.” -Christopher Hart, Sunday Times, 13th August 2006
2009 “Antony Sher’s Prospero is…not evil-Prospero, to counterpose with noble-Caliban, but a man who grows restive when, to his incomprehension, all does not go perfectly under his considerate but misconceived government of the island.” -Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, 21st February 2009
Usually played by a woman from the Restoration until right into the 20th century, Ariel may be ethereal and fairy-like, or sinister and indulging in the role of Prospero’s avenging tool.
1993 “[Simon Russell Beale’s Ariel] wears a mandarin’s silk suit…His quality is a preternatural stillness. His face is white, his eyes are lines with kohl. He even achieves a kind of delicacy by his gait; he steps lightly on bare feet, as if soundlessness were second nature.” -Kate Kellaway, Observer, 15th August 1993
2006 “A figure of Beckettian austerity - white-faced, black-garmented, unsmiling – [Julian] Bleach creeps around the stage clutching an hour-glass, his handheld countdown to personal liberty. How greatly he craves that freedom is communicated by nothing more extravagant than his haunted eyes.” -Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 10th August 2006
2009 “Atandwa Kani…is more a dangerous slave than “delicate” sprite. He is tall, athletic and dreadlocked, with white stripes painted on to black skin. His obedience, he makes terrifyingly clear, is conditional on the promise of his release. -Kate Kellaway, Observer, 1st March 2009
Caliban can be portrayed as a monster or a man enslaved, fallen from a more benign relationship with Prospero because of his attempted rape of Miranda; as a native islander with all the overtones of colonialization, or, as the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare puts it, a second generation immigrant.
1993 “[David Troughton] is no repulsive symbol of animal savagery, just a semi-naked man with a shaven head and a mellifluous way with verse.” -Martin Hoyle, Mail on Sunday, 15th August 1993
2006 “John Light’s demented polar explorer of a Caliban.” -Patrick Carnegy, Spectator, 19th August 2006
2009 “John Kani’s formidable Caliban [is], crippled by servitude, yet every inch the noble savage, hymning the delights of the isle with gravely touching eloquence.” -Patrick Carnegy, Spectator, 28th February 2009