When people ask me what Shakespeare would do if he were alive today, I often speculate that he would be writing science fiction and my reasons for that are largely to do with his late play The Tempest.
The Tempest has a witch, Sycorax, (caliban’s mother) who ensnared Ariel in a tree. Her powers are mysterious; clearly powerful but not as powerful as Prospero. The Tempest abounds with magic, Prospero can raise the dead as he claims “graves at my command/ Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth.”
Caliban, despite being the son of a witch seems to be without powers himself, but this does not make him ordinary. It is not uncommon for stage productions to make Caliban half animal half human. The other half ranges from ape to fish, dog and even tortoise. So Caliban too has touch of the impossible fantastic about him, not quite human, not quite animal, in-between.
But neither Prospero nor Caliban are the most supernatural characters in the play. That honour must surely go to Ariel. A spirit with an ambiguous form able to change shape from humanoid, to fireball, to nymph, to harpy. The text does not even specify whether Ariel is male or female – although perhaps such questions are obsolete when Ariel is not even human.
To see some of the stage versions of Ariel and Caliban have a look at this flickr slide show.
This supernatural side to Shakespeare’s text has a lot of parallels with modern science fiction. A fascination with magic and an ambiguity over whether its powers are for good or evil. A cast of characters including those with superhuman powers and those who are not human. The half human Caliban who speaks some of the most touching lines of poetry in the play, and the non-human Ariel who fails to understand human foibles but in the end displays more compassion that Prospero. So what do we have here? Humans and non humans living side by side in a world where impossible things are possible. A half bred who struggles with his identity torn between the animal and the intellect, a shape shifter who strives to understand humanity yet shows it the error of it’s ways. What would Shakespeare have done in today’s world? Written episodes of Star Trek!
If you enjoyed this go to http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/ to read a different take on the idea of The Tempest and the supernatural