Posted by: regisreed | December 13, 2020

Physicality and the Visual: The Tempest

In our investigation into visual culture we have looked at a menagerie of images and various texts concerning Victorian life and its intersection with visuality. Something we have not really touched on however is how the visual lends itself to our understanding of humanity, standing in (many, but not all ways) opposition to monstrosity, specifically so concerning physicality and bodily visuals. How are our ideas of humanity centered around seeing certain forms as human and others as non or sub-human? In thinking about this, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features two specific characters, both distinguished either by what their bodies look like or are able to do, even as the actual visual description of these remains fogged and illusive.

Odilon Redon, “The Sleep of Caliban” 1895-1900
William Bell Scott, “Ariel and Caliban” 1865
William Hogarth, “Shakespeare’s The Tempest” 1730

Featured above are various artistic representations of the character Caliban, famous in Shakespearean study for his inability to have a pinned form of what he looks like. His bodily characterization always references monstrosity, as it comes up multiple times through the play, but actual description of him is vague. In 1.2. he is referred to as a tortoise, “a freckled whelp, hag-born not honoured with a human shape”. In 2.2, “A man or fish?” “Legged like a man, and his fins like arms”. On a darker note, he’s called “thing of darkness” (5.1.300), “misshapen knave” (5.1.127), “demi-devil”, and is noted as “monster” 46 different times. I argue that this lack of clear human shape forces Caliban in a place of servitude, his form denying him the means to escape enslavement and move about the world as a free person, and can speak more broadly to the ways in which incorrect performances of social norms or beauty standards leave people open to ridicule, abuse, and exploitation.

I come to this conclusion not just through Caliban’s experience and treatment in The Tempest, but also through that of his fellow servant, Ariel, a spirit, fairy creature. Whereas Caliban is scathingly described by those who meet him as demon-like and malformed, Ariel receives high praise for his beauty. In 1.2, it’s noted that he “carries a brave form” (490), “might [be called] a thing divine” (499), and that he can be thought of as “a goodly person” (494) based off of his form. Multiple times his and Caliban’s master, Prospero, refers to him as “Delicate Ariel”, emphasizing the gentleness of his form in contrast with Caliban’s strangeness. Ariel, however, is no less strange than Caliban, and he notes himself that he is not human when speaking to Prospero in a later scene in the play. This indicates that Caliban is not put down for his lack of humanity, but for his lack of being beautiful in that, making him sub-human, whereas Ariel exists within an acceptable form of non-humanity. As Caliban ends the play still indentured to Prospero, Ariel is able to move beyond both his inhumanity and bondage, gaining his freedom and leaving with a happy ending.

The visual in the play is incredibly central to these characters and their plot lines, with ideas of beauty being linked directly to humanity and those of ugliness with monstrosity. A disfigured or obscure form in this context is a punishable offence, just as a socially constructed beautiful one, both in the play and in the real world, continues to be a profitable one. It is also interesting to note the impact visual culture has on readers. Even as the narrative gives little concrete description of Caliban, there is an image in mind of what he looks like- we are able to easily conjure a pictured form of monstrosity and otherness. Where does that image come from? Socially accepted standards of beauty (a visual construct, nothing else) show what a human form is and isn’t- without these, I wonder if we would ever be able to picture Caliban. Or, if we could, would he look that different from us?

On a different note, I feel it is important to also look at the ways in which profit plays a role in non/sub-human acceptability. Ariel works hard for his freedom, performing multiple “charms” through out the play, from impersonating a spirit, to playing a harpy, to conjuring the images of various gods and goddesses. He is useful in a way that, pair with his beautiful form, allows for the overlooking of his inhumanity. He is worth something. Caliban, conversely, holds less profitability for Prospero as he has already shown Prospero how to live on the island he inhabits. Physical labor and small curses are shown to be the main aspects of Caliban’s powers, which, paired with his form, don’t make for much in terms of bartering for his freedom. The visual in this way allows or restricts mobility, either giving freedom or continuing bondage.

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