This page is referenced by:
The True Form and Shape of Caliban: Monstrous Birth at the Edge of the Human
-- Rochelle Smith
Anodd and unsettling moment in early English drama occurs at the comic climax of The Second Shepherds’ Play, when three angry shepherds come to Mak’s home in search of the sheep they are sure Mak has just filched. Mak and his wife Gill have concealed the stolen ram in their cradle under a blanket, pretending it is Gill’s newborn child. When the third shepherd lifts the blanket and uncovers the fat wether, his initial response is not, “Here’s our sheep,” but rather, “What the dewill is this? He has a long snowte!,” to which the first shepherd replies, “He is merkyd amis. We wate ill abowte” [“He’s deformed. We do ill to be prying about”].
For a modern audience, the strangeness of the moment is obscured by the comedy: we laugh because we think the shepherds have mistaken a sheep, the very wether they are in search of, for a baby. But a closer look suggests something more disturbing. The first shepherd’s comment that the baby is “merkyd amis,” marked in a way that shows something is seriously amiss, indicates his first thought is that Mak and Gill’s child is deformed. The second shepherd agrees, citing the proverb, “Ill-spon weft, iwis, ay commys foull owte” [“An ill-spun woof, to be sure, always comes out badly”]. Sinful parents like Mak and Gill, he implies, are likely to produce deformed offspring, or monsters.
In the early modern period, monsters or monstrous births, the term for children born with visually arresting congenital defects, were often viewed as warnings from God or wonders, punishments for human sin and revelations of divine will. This moment, when the shepherds look in the cradle, see a fur-covered creature with a long snout and two horns, and believe they are seeing a deformed child, may be the first depiction of a monstrous birth on the English stage. Such a reading might strike a modern audience as extreme: who, after all, could possibly confuse a baby with a horned ram? In the early modern period, however, the border between the human and the animal world was regarded as being, at times, a fluid and unstable one, with monstrous birth representing the wondrous locus of intersection, the place where the distinction between man and beast begins to dissolve.
If the swaddled ram in The Second Shepherds’ Play is the first depiction of monstrous birth in early English drama, the most famous, I will argue, is Shakespeare’s monster in The Tempest, Caliban. This paper proposes an interpretation of Caliban’s monstrosity that has been largely overlooked: Caliban as a monstrous birth. An obsession with birth, with the maternal power of procreation, and with monsters permeates Shakespeare’s late romance, The Tempest. The word “monster” recurs over forty times in the play, more frequently than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, and almost entirely in reference to Caliban. But critics have viewed Caliban as every kind of “monster” except a monstrous birth, even though an early modern audience’s primary association with the word would have been with the monstrous births depicted so vividly in the popular literature of the period. In literature for the masses, including broadside ballads, pamphlets, and popular compilations, as well as in medical treatises, monstrous birth is presented as a disturbingly volatile phenomenon, with the monster perceived as a liminal being that marks and unsettles the boundary between what is human and what is not. These startling images provide an essential context for understanding the character of Caliban and the role of monstrosity in The Tempest.
*The question of Caliban’s appearance and identity has been the subject of much critical debate. Critics have wondered, for instance, if he is some kind of exotic animal, a new species found only on Prospero’s island. He is, after all, described as puppy-headed and is also called a tortoise, a cat, and, most often, a fish. Early modern travelers to distant places frequently returned with tales of exotic creatures, and many critics identify Caliban as a monster of this type. John Draper, for example, points to the sighting of a South-American man-fish reported in Jean de Léry’s 1578 Histoire d’un Voyage en la Terre du Brazil. The creature, Draper states, displayed “cinq doits, comme celle d’vn homme” [five fingers like that of a man]. Jeffrey Kahan suggests that Shakespeare’s source for Caliban was a different strange fish seen in Poland in 1531, a fish that, according to Ambroise Paré, resembles a bishop “having his miter and pontifical ornaments" (Fig. 1).
Despite the profusion of animal epithets, Caliban is assumed to be human by Prospero. He clearly states that before Caliban’s birth, the island was “not honored with / A human shape” (1.2.285-86). Miranda appears to agree: in calling Ferdinand “the third man that e’er I saw” (1.2.449), she implies that Prospero and Caliban were the first and second. Nineteenth-century commentators, such as Horace Howard Furness, resolved the human/animal inconsistencies in Caliban’s portrayal by classifying him as “a sort of intermediate nature between man and brute.” Daniel Wilson, going one step further, argues that Caliban represents a kind of evolutionary missing link, a “pre-Darwinian realization of the intermediate link between brute and man." Charles Buchel’s famous 1904 illustrations of the actor Beerbohm Tree as Caliban clearly belong to this era (Fig. 2).
Caliban becomes fully human in the post-colonial readings that dominate late twentieth century criticism, where the play is read as an exploration of the relationship between colonized and colonizer, with Caliban representing the New World “savage.” The interpretation of Caliban as the racialized other has been especially influential in modern performances, from David Suchet’s portrayal of Caliban with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 as “a mixture of different types of native” (173), (Fig. 3), to Djimon Hounsou’s African Caliban in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version. (Fig. 4). In such interpretations, Caliban’s “monstrosity” lies in the eye of the beholder.
Prospero, however, insists on Caliban’s very real physical deformity as much as he insists on his human classification. He refers to Caliban as, “This misshapen knave” (5.1.271), and, a few lines later, in response to Alonso’s comment “This is a strange thing as e’er I looked on,” replies, “He is as disproportioned in his manners / As in his shape” (5.1.293-95). In the First Folio, Caliban is clearly identified in the Names of the Actors as “a saluage and deformed slaue.” While critics have thoroughly explored “savage” and “slave,” we have not, I suggest, taken “deformed” seriously enough.
” We see this fascination in scholarly, scientific works, the most famous being Ambroise Paré’s Des Monstres (1573); in compilations of prodigies intended for the general reader, such as Stephen Batman’s The Doome Warning All Men to the Judgemente (1581); and in the pamphlets, broadsides, and ballads catering to wider audiences. While interest in monsters was widespread across all social classes, as Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston observe, “The appeal of monsters . . . was first and foremost popular, and their spiritual home during the Reformation period was the broadside ballad.”
Park and Daston observe that scholars have tended to shy away from the study of monstrous birth ballads because they are regarded “as a phenomenon at the best trivial and at the worst tasteless.” More recently, however, this popular genre has attracted increased critical attention. The most thorough and comprehensive study to date can be found in Julie Crawford’s Marvelous Protestantism, which examines accounts of monstrous births from the 1560s through the 1660s within the context of the “struggle for the direction of English Protestantism.” Although Crawford dismisses Caliban, suggesting that he is a different kind of monster than the monstrous births about which she is writing (188n5), I argue here that Caliban is precisely that kind of monster.
I have identified 26 monstrous birth ballads and broadsides appearing in England before 1611, the date of the first recorded performance of The Tempest. Of these, 11 appear to be extant. There are also 4 surviving monster pamphlets dating from this period. Although most of the pre-1611 ballads that survive date from the 1560s, the Stationers’ Registers show that there was a steady stream of monstrous birth ballads throughout the 1570s and 1580s, when Paré’s monster treatise and Batman’s compilation of prodigies were published. The 1590s seem to have been a skeptical decade, but the popular obsession with monstrous births returned full force in the first decade of the seventeenth century, especially between the years 1606-09 when five monstrous birth ballads and pamphlets appeared.
The monstrous birth ballad is an arresting visual document. Woodcut illustrations on broadside ballads were common in the period, but in many monstrous birth ballads, these startling and disturbing images tend to dominate the page, in some cases filling almost half of the broadsheet. In the 1565 ballad, “The true fourme and shape of a monsterous Chyld Whiche was borne in Stony Stratforde,” for example, an oversized woodcut showing paired front and back illustrations of conjoined twins looms menacingly over the text (Fig. 6).
The intended effect of such woodcuts and their accompanying text is not so much horror as wonder. Indeed, the language of wonder pervades the monstrous birth ballad. As William Elderton, author of “The true fourme and shape of a monsterous Chyld,” explains, “we that lyve to see this wonder” must remember that “The gase [gaze] is geven, to make this mervaile great.” Another broadside about conjoined twins from 1565, “The true discription of two monsterous Chyldren Borne at Herne in Kent,” (Fig. 7), similarly presents the image “for us to gase and wonder at.” The word “monster” derives from the Latin “monstrare” meaning “to show,” especially, these ballads stress, in the sense of revealing divine will. The author of the ballad about the monstrous child born in Kent reminds us of this, explaining that the conjoined twins “ar lessons & scholynges for us all (as the word monster shewith).”
As these examples suggest, the most common type of monstrous birth depicted in the prodigy literature is the conjoined twin. There are four extant conjoined twin ballads printed before 1611. Paré’s Des Monstres presents eleven illustrations of conjoined twins in his chapter, “An Example of Too Great a Quantity of Seed." Batman also prints several images of conjoined twins in his Doome Warning, including a striking illustration of twins born in 1552 in Middleton (Fig. 8),
—an event that was also recorded in a monstrous birth ballad from 1552, “Conjoined twins born in Middleton Stoney” (Fig. 9).Batman’s text describes “a maruellous straunge Monster” born in Middleton, a child “whiche had two perfecte bodies from the Nauill vpwarde, and were so ioyned togither at the Nauill, that when they were layde in length, the one heade and bodye was Eastward, and the other weaste” (358). Stephano may have had such images in mind when, on seeing Caliban and Trinculo hiding under Caliban’s cloak, he exclaims, “Four legs and two voices—a most delicate monster!” Stephano elaborates, “His forward voice now is to speak well of his friend; his backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract” (2.2.90-93).
After conjoined twins, the second most common type of monstrous birth is the “fashion monster,” a peculiar phenomenon in which the deformity, usually in the form of ruffs of skin, is interpreted as a divine message warning us against the excesses of prideful fashion. A good example is a ballad from 1566, “The true Discripcion of a Childe with Ruffes,” which describes a child with “ruffes comming ouer the shoulders and couering some part of the armes . . . like as many womens gownes be” (Fig. 10). The ballad makes the monster’s message clear:
And thou, O England, whose womankinde
In ruffes doo walke to oft,
Parswade them stil to bere in minde
This childe with ruffes so soft.
Bizarre as the fashion monster is to the modern imagination, an even stranger phenomenon is the fashion monster animal. One might assume that only a human monstrous birth would have the capacity to convey a divine warning about the fashion excesses of human beings, but fashion monsters in the shape of various farmyard animals appeared with equal frequency. Batman describes one such monster, a calf born in England in 1561 that “hadde a coller of skinne growing aboute his necke, like to a double ruffe, whiche to the beholders seemed straunge and wonderful. Yet not so Monsterous as the double Ruffes that at that time were worne and vsed.” Fashion monsters continued to be popular well into the late seventeenth century.
One of the most interesting of these is a late seventeenth-century ballad, “The Somersetshire Wonder,” where the paired woodcuts effectively make the ballad’s point by depicting the strong resemblance between a monstrous calf born with what appears to be a headdress and the fashionable hairstyle of a well-dressed lady (Fig. 14).
The ease with which the fashion monster animal can take a human shape is not really surprising, as slippages between the human and animal worlds are common throughout the literature of monstrous birth. Just as the fashion monster calf or foal can assume human characteristics—topknots, headdresses, ruffs—human monstrous births often seem to acquire animal markings, such as fur and horns. In the illustration of “a strange child hairy” born to a woman in France around 1570, for example, it would be difficult to determine from the illustration alone whether the monster was human or a monkey-like creature (Fig. 15).
Paré relates the story of a woman giving birth to a monster in 1578, “the face being well-proportioned in all its parts,” except for the “five horns approximating those of a ram” on the child’s forehead. In the literature of monstrous birth, the ram’s horns that the shepherds see on what they think is Mak and Gill’s child were apparently not that uncommon. Another horned monstrous birth is described in William Jones’s pamphlet from 1617, A wonder woorth the reading, where the woodcut depicts a headless child with two horns (Fig. 16).
Most revealing are the animal-human hybrids that recur in the literature of wonder. We find, for example, several instances of animals giving birth to offspring that seem half-human. Paré tells of a marvel from the year 1254 of “a mare who foaled a colt which had the well-formed head of a man, while the rest of him was a horse” (Fig. 17).
Batman prints a woodcut illustrating a monstrous birth in the 1550s of a cow who gave birth to a calf, “his head like a man, a black beard, two mens eares, indifferent well heared, likewise a mans brest with dugges” (Fig. 18).
We can find equally startling examples of humans giving birth to children who turn out to be half-animal. Paré includes an entire chapter on monsters resulting from “the mixture or mingling of seed,” and gives several examples of such human-animal chimeras, including a child “conceived and engendered of a woman and of a dog, having, from the navel up, upper parts similar in form and shape to the mother,” but below the navel clearly “similar in form and shape to the animal, that was the father" (Fig. 19). In the most extreme stories, women give birth to offspring that are fully and entirely animal. Batman includes the story of a woman from Augsburg who “brought forth three Monsters, the third being “a pigge whole in all parts.” Several pages later, he describes a woman who gives birth to “a cocke with three legges which ran very swift.” Paré writes about two Italian ladies:
each one of them delivered a monstrous birth within the same month; that of the clothes merchant’s wife was small, resembling a tailless rat, the other of the gentlewoman’s was fat, like a cat; they were black in color, and upon leaving their wombs these monsters climbed up to the space between the wall and the bed and attached themselves firmly to the bedpost.At the end of a monstrous birth pamphlet from 1615, Gods handy-worke in wonders, the author includes a story about a disorderly, drunken husband who beats his pregnant wife, telling those who try to restrain him, “she may beare the Deuill of hell.” The wife then gives birth to a “wonderfull Monster”—a creature covered with black hair, with peacock-like feet, a mouth like that of a stork or crane, claws like a fowl, and a tail like an ox—that, as soon as it is delivered, runs and hides under the bed (Fig. 20).
The story is clearly an old one, since Batman also includes a version with a very similar accompanying woodcut, placing the event in the early 1560s (Fig. 21).
As this body of literature vividly demonstrates, when it comes to monstrous birth, the categories of human and animal are not securely fixed, but instead are presented as being remarkably fluid. Thus, it is not surprising to find Prospero using words like “litter” and “freckled whelp,” language more appropriate for describing the birth of an animal, in the passage where he makes the point that Caliban is human: