Here is a copy of my paper for your pleasure. I would just like to add that this is a topic in which I could have written 10-20 pages more on, but as you know at the end of the semester time is tight, so this is just a short version. The similarities between Caliban and Prospero representing the oral vs. literate is fascinating. Hopefully you will enjoy the discovery as much as I did.
Where Oral and Literate Cultures Clash: The Tempest
Throughout the study of oral traditions, many dimensions have come to the forefront. The idea of two cultures clashing, and one becoming more dominate than the other has been a topic of many discussions, yet through looking at the play by William Shakespeare, The Tempest, these two divergent life views come into focus. Prospero who has been cast out onto this deserted island epitomizes the literate culture. He has used the tools of reading and writing to maneuver control over the natural world, namely Ariel, and in turn over the natural world’s inhabitants, namely Caliban. Caliban on the other hand is still quite rooted in the oral tradition or mind frame, although he has acquired some language skills, taught how to speak English, he still is amazed by Prospero’s command over the natural world and speaks of destroying his books, the key to Prospero’s power. Exploring how this work encompasses the pre-literate and literate domains of society will be the focus of this paper. Showing the ways in which the life views and consciousness of the two characters are diametrically opposed through the text will prove the theories Walter Ong asserts regarding writing and reading changing consciousness and with this, losing the ability to hear the songs nature sings.
Prospero comes to the island a highly literate individual, his “magic” or art is contained in his books, and it is this obsession with the literate world which has lead to his overthrow as Duke of Milan. When he arrives in this foreign land, he is able to free the spirit of air, Ariel, and befriend the only other man, Caliban. (Some would dispute if Caliban was fully human, or half monster, but given the time the play was written, native inhabitants would have been viewed as not human, so that may explain some of the implications in the text.) Yet when Caliban is implicated in the attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, he becomes enslaved by Prospero. Whether Caliban understood the subtitles of the charge of rape, being unsavvy in the English language, brings to light the power that foreign language has over a primarily oral culture. Because Caliban is not aware of the subtle nuances of this accusation, he is guilty of the offense without being aware of the gravity, caught between a truly oral or natural culture that does not have a term for rape, and of the literate cultures that have laws and customs preventing this type of offense. Caliban goes on to abhor the language that Prospero has taught him, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” (1.2.366-68). Although this quote does not take into account the language that Caliban already possessed, the language of nature, or the song that the earth sings.
Caliban claims the island belongs to him, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother/ Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first/ Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me/…and teach me how/ To name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee, /And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle” (1.2.334-40). Examining this quote shows how Caliban, who is in touch with nature, helps Prospero survive, by showing him the goodness of nature and the island. Yet he is then cast aside when a misunderstanding regarding the language that Prospero has given him, without full understanding, misappropriates the written codes. This quote sets up perfectly the ways in which the two characters look at nature. Caliban sees nature from an oral perspective. He is in touch with the land, can find the “fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile”, whereas Prospero must rely on his books and “magic” to gain control over the inhabitants of this land to survive (1.2.341). Without Caliban and his ability to speak the language of the earth, to know the earth and nature in a deeper sense which allows him to coexist with nature. It is this knowledge that Caliban in turn tries to teach Prospero, the language of the island, a much more powerful gift than the language given to Caliban. Kane points out, “human dialogues with the earth and sky vary with the relationship humanity has with it’s environment”, so the dialogue that Caliban has with nature is divergently different than the dialogue Prospero has with nature (Kane 24).
Prospero looks to control the natural world, whereas Caliban sees nature as a part of his consciousness. This is where the idea of Ong’s that “writing changes consciousness” comes into play. Because Prospero is so intertwined with the literate world, and his books, he is unaware of the language of the earth, or the language that Caliban speaks with, “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,” (3.2.130-33). Prospero has lost the ability to converse with the natural world, and according to Kane because populations are, “[n]o longer constrained by the checks and balances of survival in nature, populations are now controlled by social class” (Kane 21). Prospero is more concerned with enslaving nature and her inhabitants rather than understanding Caliban and his world. It is this ability to separate oneself from the natural world, and give time to introspective thought or as Ong states, “[b]y separating the knower from the known, writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectively, opening the psych as never before not only to external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set” (Ong 104). Precisely because Prospero has been able to focus his energy on thought outside of mere memorization, he has gained the ability to become more analytical, yet has lost the ability to converse with nature, he has traversed the boundaries of the natural world to that of the unnatural convention of reading and writing, a boundary that Caliban has not made, and therefore will be at odds with each other’s life views.
Yet Caliban is not a fool, and understands the power that Prospero holds is within his books. When he has enlisted the aid of Stefano and Trinculo to kill Prospero he warns them to “first seize his books” (3.2.84). As Ong asserts, “[w]riting is often regarded at first as an instrument of secret and magic power,” and Caliban sees Prospero’s book as his “sorcery”, “I say by sorcery he got this isle;/From me he got it” (3.2.50-51). So although, as stated earlier, Caliban does not posses a full understanding of the language Prospero has taught him, he can see the power in which this new technology holds, a sort of magic, that is able to control the natural world.
By exploring the play, The Tempest, one can see the way in which the clashes of the oral culture and the literate culture are already playing out. As stated before the writing culture has moved towards a social class structure and this enables a context of “otherness”. The oral culture, represented by Caliban, is seen as not quite human, or lacking the cognitive ability to control nature, whereas in reality it is just simply a different life view. Caliban does not feel the need to enslave the natural world, but is content to listen and sing the songs of the earth, “…an affectionate counterpoint to the earth’s voices, with no ambition to direct them or force them to give up their meanings” (Kane 14). Prospero is fully entrenched in the typographic culture and feels the need to control the earth with his knowledge and books, therefore exhibiting the clash of the two cultures.