Taymor depicts Caliban in the three scenes differently each time to show the different facets of his nature. After all, he is half human and half monster. Of all the characters in "The Tempest", Caliban stands out the most to me because he is full of emotions and is very expressive of them. He says whatever he feels.
In the first scene where he is shown with Miranda and Prospera, Caliban looming big over the humans shows his monstrosity which comes forth from his anger and bitterness that he feels over them, especially Prospera who he feels stripped him of his rights and has now enslaved him unjustly.
Caliban is still shown as a raging monster in the scene where he is carrying wood. When he speaks here we see that deep- seated anger against Prospera, where he wishes all sorts of curses on her. He is angry because he thinks that the island is his, and he is physically strong and capable but is made to do menial tasks like fetching wood. Caliban is shown against a very bare background here, which portrays his sense of solitariness. Although he is not the only being on the island, he has no companion and no one to call his friend.
In the final scene with Trinculo and Stephano, his largeness and giant- like stature is somewhat downplayed as he stands nearby the two men. Their sizes seem equal. Taymor shows a different side of Caliban here- a nicer and perhaps more pitiful side of him. His speech here is gentle and tranquil as he tells them not to be afraid of the island. It shows a more human part of him that can appreciate the pleasant sounds that he hears sometimes. This shows his softer side, that there might be some kindness and tenderness in him, making him less of a monster.
Taymor shows that there are always to sides to a person (or story).
My immediate reaction to seeing Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) in the Taymor version was that he was modelled on Baron Samedi, the Haitian voodoo spirit reprised in the James Bond film 'Live and Let Die'. Djimon Hounsou's Caliban is no servile minstrel - he is a way more charismatic and potent presence.
Having watched the BBC production of "The Tempest first", I found the Taymor production to be really interesting, with the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera. Caliban is introduced in the Taymor version as a powerful creature. To me he seems to have a strong character to go with the power of his physical appearance. His size means that he looms over Prospera and Miranda, confirming this physical power, which he has despite being in the control of prospera. The make-up on his face would seem to echo the yin and yang symbol, as do the different colour eyes. Perhaps the intention in this scene where he is shown to be huge and potent is to show that while Caliban is in the power of prospera, he still has the potential to command the elements around him, his environment. He is not chastened by the accusation of attempted rape of Miranda and says defiantly:
‘Would’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.’
Would he wish to create his own race?
He claims also,
‘You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse.’
Cursing conjures up the idea of spells. Will he be the successor of prospera when he is left on the island alone? Will he have the same power that prospera had to cause the tempest? The creature Caliban in the Taymor version is a commanding one, one who has a sense of who he is. In the BBC production he is shown to be half-animal and a whimpering cur sometimes. I prefer the Taymor Caliban, and were I ever to have produced The Tempest, I would have chosen to portray Caliban in that way.
In the scene where Caliban is carrying wood, his physical strength is again emphasised since he flings a large burden around quite effortlessly. There is obvious but also latent power here. He talks of how it is only the powers of prospera which cause other natural creatures to torment him:
But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire,
Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em’
The sounds of thunder suggest the arrival of more torment, but I think Caliban has some confidence since maybe he can hide? Will the natural forces around him protect him? It is a suggestion I find to be quite compelling.
The implication that he has the support of the natural world is echoed when he talks of the sounds of the island. He is not afraid of these since:
‘Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears’ and ‘in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me,’
This is a gentler, but still powerful Caliban, at one with his surroundings. In this way I think Shakespeare creates a character who will survive ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ’ and will control his surroundings once Prospera has gone.
Perhaps Prospera eats berries and fish, and drinks water – easily obtainable foods. On the other hand, Caliban knows about hidden and unusual foods such as crabs, pignuts (dug out with his long nails), jay’s eggs, filberts and mysterious scamels. And he knows how to snare marmosets. All of these seem to confirm that Caliban is the master of his environment; Prospera, despite his magical powers, is merely a transient visitor. What prospera ate was suggested when we first meet Caliban and he says:
‘When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t’.
When Prospera was early on being kind to Caliban, Caliban knew what the island could provide since he says,
[I] ‘showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.’
Had he inherited all this knowledge from his mother Sycorax, or was it inherent in him, being so much part of the island?
Writers have lots of drafts, but almost no final drafts. They never actually finish writing anything. They move on, just as I will do when there’s no more time to fiddle with these words I’m writing. But writers also never really move on. They rework the same concepts in different ways and forms. And sometimes, if a writer is lucky, she or he will live just long enough to figure out some ideas, get them down on paper, then die before muddling it all up again. What about film makers?
I found Taymor's choice to re-cast Prospero as a woman an interesting decision (I won't call it gutsy only because I don't know that it takes a lot of courage to hand the leading role to someone as talented as Mirren.)
Historically it is usually a man's role, though we can be sure there adaptations that have a woman playing the role. There is a modern day all female company who switches a lot of the genders. But Helen Mirren is probably the one who comes to mind when we think of Prospero being a woman. I saw the film and think she did a remarkable job. I don't remember thinking it odd that Prospero was a woman. In my view the role is not gender dependent; the role is that of a parent and wronged leader. Prospero strength stems from wisdom and love, though it would be fair to ask whether Prospero was written as a women, would she have been more compassionate towards Ariel and Caliban? Would she have taken pity on her creatures and treated them differently? If so, would Ariel gladly and freely done her bidding and would Caliban be more amiable towards the two castaways?
I think it is very possible to over-do Shakespeare in a sort of never-ending quest to give the world the latest, most outrageous, most whatever, after offering the standard observations in re. how universal he is, how he speaks to anyone with the sense to listen, etc.etc And then you get the Wilma Theatre's production of Hamlet featuring a black actress as Hamlet...endless verbiage about how 'the director has finally found her Hamlet' and so forth. A lot of stuff goes with Hamlet, and I think one of the givens is, Hamlet is a man. I know Sarah Bernhardt tried it in 1899, but that's another story. Shakespeare's confounding genius doesn't 'need' all the help he sometimes receives. I have seen nearly every one of his plays, and many of them more times than I can remember, and the abiding truth remains the language and the universal dilemmas his characters struggle with. And then you see the Lurhman R&J, and understanding it's a film with its attendant possibilities, I thank God for the Zeffirelli R&J. And the Zeffirelli "Taming of the Shrew". And the "Shakespeare-in-the-Park" (NYC) of "Taming of the Shrew" with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia. Branagh's Hamlet, Henry V, and Macbeth. Too many to list here. That's the tip of the iceberg.
I'm always open to well-grounded different interpretations.
But...Even though it was a wonderful film, I wasn't sure how much I gained out of the switch as a viewer. Yes, recasting this as the story of a powerful woman righting the wrongs done to her by and her daughter by a pack on untrustworthy men adds a layer of gender complexity... but where does THAT leave us?
Where it left me...? Well, I still found myself disturbed by the power dynamics in the film. In many ways Prospera makes me just as uneasy as Prospero does: riding roughshod over Caliban, manipulating everyone's perceptions of reality, treating everyone else like a puppet, etc. Oh its all with the very best intentions, of course.... but isn't it always?