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"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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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." 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.
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.
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:
Then was this island—Prospero’s description of Caliban’s birth fits right in with these stories of monstrous births, where the line between human and animal is frequently blurred, with cows, pigs, and horses giving birth to creatures with human features and women delivering monsters that are partly or entirely animals. Shakespeare places Caliban firmly within this tradition. Trinculo’s first description of Caliban—“Legged like a man, and his fins like arms!” (2.2.33-34)—echoes descriptions of monstrous births like the one of a pig born with “two fore feet, like vnto handes, eche hande hauinge thre long fingers and a thumbe."
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp, hag-born—not honored with
A human shape. (1.2.283-86)
Trinculo’s later epithet, “puppy-headed monster” (2.2.152-53), suggests an image that inverts the boy-dog child described by both Paré and Batman. Even Stephano’s reference to Caliban as “cat” (2.2.84), which is most likely an allusion to the proverb, “Good liquor will make a cat speak” (2.2.84n84-5), alludes to the world of monstrous births, where women do deliver actual cats. In addition to Paré’s story about the Italian lady who gives birth to a cat that scurries up the bedpost, we have the recorded case of a servant woman from Leicestershire, Agnes Bowker, who, in 1569 at Market Harborough, “gave birth to a cat."
The modern mind will want to draw a clear distinction between realistic ballads about conjoined twins and tall tales about women giving birth to cats. In the early modern world, however, both types of events would have been classified together under the heading of wonders. For the modern reader, imagining Caliban as a monstrous birth leads us to consider congenital abnormalities and their medical causes. From an early modern perspective, however, monstrous births were not viewed as medical conditions but rather as wonders or prodigies sent by God. In 1558, Elizabethan legislators insisted that attention be paid to “these vncouth signes in the ayre, these frequent monsters, and these straunge, terrible, and hurtfull tempests whearby Gods displeasure might be apparaunt vnto all men.” Even as late as 1620, Francis Bacon, calling for a study of misbirths in his Novum Organon, groups “monsters” not with medical conditions but rather with other unusual natural events: “a compilation, or particular natural history, must be made of all monsters and prodigious births of nature; of every thing, in short, which is new, rare, and unusual in nature.”
The classification of monstrous births with “signs in the ayre” and “terrible and hurtfull tempests” is particularly telling for this study. It can be seen in prodigy compilations like Batman’s Doome Warning, where stories of monstrous births are interspersed with accounts of tempests. Sometimes the two are linked in a single entry, as in this description of the wondrous events that took place in the village of Thuring:
A Cowe broughte forth a Calfe with seauen feete hauing a lumpe of fleshe hanging downe from his side. At the same place there arose a vehement Tempest, which spoiled the corne far abrode, and there was muche lightning. There also fel downe out of the Element a burning bowle, whiche laye vppon the grounde, to the greate feare of all men.
It is thus not coincidental that pre-modern and early modern plays like The Second Shepherds’ Pageant and Shakespeare’s late romance, plays concerned with monstrosity and wonder, open “In stormes and tempest.”
Along with such wonders as tempests, signs in the air, and monstrous births, strange fish are also commonly featured in the wonder literature of the period, which again fits the representation of Caliban. Paré has an entire chapter on “Marine Monsters,” and strange fish were a favorite subject for ballad writers as well. A ballad from 1566 depicts “a rare or rather most monstrous fishe taken on the East cost of Holland,” that appears to be a cuttlefish.
Another broadside from 1568, “A Moste true and marveilous straunge wonder,” marvels at the sighting of a whale.
These ballads and broadsides employ the same vocabulary of wonder—with an emphasis on what is strange, marvelous, monstrous, and wondrous—that we find in the relations of monstrous births.
The descriptions of Caliban throughout The Tempest as a “strange fish,” a “deboshed fish,” “half a fish and half a monster,” and “a plain fish” are very much in keeping with his role as the monstrous birth of the play (2.2.27, 3.2.26, 3.2.29, 5.1.269). Shakespeare makes fun of this genre in The Winter’s Tale, when Autolycus tries to sell the naïve country folk two wonder ballads: one about a monstrous birth, a usurer’s wife “brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a burden” (4.4.262-63), and the other about a strange fish who was transformed from a cold-hearted woman and now sings songs “against the hard hearts of maids” (4.4.277). But then, in his very next play, The Tempest, he returns to explore more seriously the themes of monstrosity and wonder with the pairing of two children now grown, Caliban and Miranda, the one a deformed and fish-like wondrous monster and the other a character whose very name means wonder.
Caliban is not a fish, of course; he is clearly human. He is a human monster, a monstrous birth whose very monstrosity defines him as liminal. The boundary that monstrous birth does not so much mark as begin to erase is that between the human and the animal. In these images and stories, the difference between what is human and what is not can at times seem almost to disappear. Monsters, or monstrous births, reveal a deep anxiety in the early modern period about what it is that distinguishes man from beast, about what it is to be human.
The anxiety about the human and animal divide is something that Shakespeare returns to throughout his career, from Bottom’s comic transformation into an ass, to Cassio’s tragic lament: “Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (Othello 2.3.56-58). To be human is to occupy the uncomfortable space between the bestial and the immortal; we are, as Hamlet says, “crawling between earth and heaven” (Hamlet 3.1.129-30).
The Tempest dramatizes this tension between heaven and earth, between angel and beast, in the characters of Ariel, Prospero’s airy spirit, and the “the beast Caliban” (4.1.140), who Prospero calls “Thou earth” (1.2.317). Both creatures dramatize for Prospero the possibilities, both high and low, within human nature. Caliban dreams of animalistic savagery: battering Prospero’s skull with a log, or cutting his “weasand” with a knife (3.2.91). Ariel, in contrast, urges Prospero towards the higher plane of empathy for his fellow human sufferers: he pleads, “if you now beheld them your affections / Would become tender.” Prospero’s skeptical or at least uncertain response, “Dost thou think so, spirit?” is countered by Ariel’s “Mine would, sir, were I human” (5.1.18-20). At this moment, the climax of the play, Prospero is urged to separate himself from what is bestial in Caliban, to become, as Ariel suggests, more fully “human” by choosing forgiveness over revenge. The triumph of reason over fury is, in The Tempest, presented by Ariel as the triumph over our animal nature. It is an elevation of human nature towards the divine—towards that godliness that so many of the monstrous birth ballads urge us towards as they warn us to reform.
This is not easy for Prospero, as his response, with its emphasis on his enemies’ culpability, demonstrates: “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick, / Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part” (5.1.225-27). Although Prospero chooses “nobler reason” over “fury,” he prefaces that choice with an admission of his own tenacious anger, how he is “struck to th’ quick,” a recognition that anticipates his acceptance of responsibility for Caliban, and all that he represents, at the play’s conclusion: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.278-79).
The play’s ending is an uneasy one. Although Prospero can forgive, he acknowledges that he may never fully transcend what is bestial in his nature. Nor, Shakespeare implies, can he. Caliban, as the play’s monstrous birth, serves as a potent reminder of how easy it is for the margins of the human to be compromised, of how the border between the human and the animal world is, at times, permeable, and of how what makes us distinctively human is neither clearly defined nor secure.
Caliban has had a robust afterlife in contemporary popular culture. Picking up on the descriptor, “savage,” poets and novelists have, in the words of Virginia and Alden Vaughan, turned Caliban into “a major socio-political emblem throughout the world” representing oppressed and dispossessed native peoples everywhere. Picking up on “deformed,” we find science fiction film and television adaptations of Shakespeare’s play, from Forbidden Planet, to the Star Trek episode based on The Tempest, “Requiem for Methuselah,” to, most recently, the film Ex Machina. In this coda, I will briefly examine these adaptations to show how science fiction has picked up on and run with the idea of Caliban as a monstrous birth, an indeterminate being placed at the threshold dividing human from nonhuman or, in the case of science fiction, human from android. As a monster, Caliban and his prototypes serve to probe our continuing anxiety about what it means to be human.
The most famous twentieth-century science fiction adaptation of The Tempest is Fred McLeod Wilcox’s 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, which relocates Prospero’s island to an isolated planet on the outskirts of the universe. Dr. Morbius, sent with a company of others on a scientific mission to the planet twenty years earlier, is our Prospero, and his daughter, Altaira, is our Miranda. Ferdinand’s counterpart, Captain Adams, commander of the United Planet Cruiser, leads an expedition to rescue the survivors of the original mission. We soon learn, however, that Morbius and his daughter are the sole survivors, as all other members of the original crew were destroyed by some kind of “dark, terrible, incomprehensible planetary force.” It turns out that when Morbius subjected himself to a brain boost in order to increase his IQ, he also somehow strengthened and set free his “id,” the destructive forces deep within his unconscious mind. This “monster from the id,” which escapes while Morbius sleeps, is the film’s ostensible Caliban.
Robby the Robot, who makes his film debut in Forbidden Planet, clearly fills the role of Ariel. Robby is the ideal servant, “a housewife’s dream,” capable of producing anything from the perfect cup of coffee
to 60 gallons of “genuine Kansas City bourbon,”
and programmed to exhibit “absolute selfless obedience.” However, this rather neat dichotomy, with Caliban played by the monster from the id and Ariel by the obedient servant-robot, obscures the ways in which Robby also plays a Caliban-like role in the film. Like Caliban, it is Robby who connects with the lower-class, comic characters from the incoming ship, as when the crew’s cook slips away to ask Robby if he can manufacture bourbon; much like Shakespeare’s butler, Stephano, it is the spaceship’s cook who gives Robby his first taste of liquor.
Even more significant, I would argue, is the way in which the film first introduces Robby, an introduction that emphasizes his indeterminacy. Robby is the first inhabitant of the new planet that Captain Adams and his crew encounter after landing, and they are not quite sure what to make of him. The Captain’s question, “This is, uh, no offense, but you are a robot, aren’t you?,” suggests a small but real uncertainty about whether Robby might be human. The Cook is also confused and, in a direct echo of Trinculo’s “What have we here, a man or a fish?” (2.2.24-25), he asks “Is it a male or a female?”
Like Caliban, Robby exists in the margin between what is human and what is not. As in Shakespeare’s play, the moment in the film is a comic one because it is quite obvious that Robby is not human, just as it is apparent to the audience of The Tempest that Caliban is not a fish. And yet, as viewers of Forbidden Planet have observed, Robby possesses a kind of charisma, a “sheer likability” that makes him seem almost human. The film dramatizes this quality most clearly when the cook gives Robby a friendly slap on the back to thank him for the bourbon, forgetting for a moment that he is not just “one of the guys.”
Just as Shakespeare’s monstrous birth, Caliban, becomes a focus for the early modern anxiety about what it is that separates man from beast, the monstrous birth in Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot, becomes a comic focal point for a more modern anxiety about what separates man from machine.
Episode 76 of Star Trek, “Requiem for Methuselah” (1969), offers its own variation on The Tempest via Forbidden Planet. In this version, Captain Kirk is our Ferdinand, and he beams down onto a small planet somewhere on the outskirts of the universe to collect a substance needed to cure the epidemic of “Ragillian fever” threatening the crew of the Enterprise. He soon meets the planet’s only inhabitants, the Prospero-like Flint and his beautiful young ward, Rayna. Naturally, Kirk and Rayna fall in love shortly after Rayna, Miranda-like, declares, “At last I have seen other humans!” The episode then throws in a few plot twists before it concludes, the first of which is that Flint is 6000 years old. Flint’s home is a kind of wonder cabinet containing previously undiscovered works by great artists like Johannes Brahms and Leonardo da Vinci. We soon learn that Flint is Brahms, da Vinci, Solomon, Alexander, and Methuselah. His possession of a 1623 First Folio suggests that he is most likely Shakespeare as well.
This discovery, however, is not the only surprise of the episode. It turns out that Rayna also has a secret, which Kirk discovers when he stumbles into the inner recesses of Flint’s laboratory and uncovers the earlier versions of Rayna: Rayna 16, Rayna 15, Rayna 14. Rayna is a female android, Flint’s attempt to create the perfect woman. Rayna is, in fact, Robby the Robot disguised as Miranda. The moment when Kirk first realizes that the woman he loves is not actually human is a dramatic one, and the camera moves in to capture his reaction.
His expression shows a mixture of horror and wonder: how could he have made such a mistake? Rayna seems so human, and yet she is not. What she is, I would argue, is Star Trek’s version of Caliban, a monstrous birth situated on the margins of the human.
The roles of Caliban and Miranda merge once again in Alex Garland’s 2015 film, Ex Machina. In this rather loose adaptation of The Tempest, a computer programmer, Caleb, is invited to stay at the beautiful and isolated estate of his boss, Nathan, the company’s mysterious and eccentric CEO, a computer genius who invented the world’s premier search engine. In a Prospero-like retreat from the rest of the world, Nathan now devotes his time to experiments with artificial intelligence. He has created a humanoid robot in the form of a beautiful young woman, Ava, and the purpose of Caleb’s visit is to see whether Ava can pass the Turing test: whether Ava can convince Caleb, who knows full well that she is an AI, that she nevertheless possesses human consciousness.
Ex Machina whittles Shakespeare’s play down to four characters: the computer magician, Nathan; the Ferdinand-like Caleb; Ava who, on meeting Caleb, utters the requisite Miranda-like line, “I’ve never met anyone new before, only Nathan,” and the beautiful but mute servant-robot Kyoto who far surpasses Ariel in satisfying her master’s every need and desire.
The blurring of the line between human and other in Ex Machina, as in the earlier episode of Star Trek, elicits from our Ferdinand counterpart a mixture of horror and wonder. The sequence of shots showing Caleb opening closet doors to reveal multiple versions of “Ava” parallels Kirk’s discovery of the Rayna prototypes.
Although Caleb knows from his very first encounter with Ava that she is not human, his response is much like Kirk’s as he watches with astonishment the recorded history of Nathan’s experiments with android creation.
The real horror, however, occurs in the next scene, as we watch Caleb trying to peel away his own skin to see what lies beneath, to see what it is that differentiates him from Nathan’s creations.
In its conclusion, Ex Machina takes Shakespeare’s ending, with its insistent anxiety about our flawed and unstable humanity, and extends it into a recognizable future world. We watch as Ava and Kyoto dispatch Nathan, and as Ava, without a flicker of human compassion, imprisons Caleb, leaving him to perish in the isolation of Nathan’s compound. The film then concludes with a beautiful and chilling montage depicting Ava’s escape. We watch as she leaves the small world that has contained and imprisoned her, and ventures out into the greater world—our world.
This is, indeed, a terrifying “brave new world,” where the line dividing human from other, man from machine, God’s creation from Nathan’s creation, or Eve from Ava, has, at least from the vantage point of the human eye and conscious mind, finally disappeared.