Ariel vs. Caliban in Cesaire’s ‘A Tempest’: The Complexity of the Colonized

Aimé Césaire’s 1969 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest strives to provoke postcolonial sentiment in its audience by demoting the shipwreck plot and instead focusing primarily on the unjust relationships between the sorcerer Prospero and his slaves Ariel and Caliban. It is immediately made clear that Prospero plays the role of the tyrannical colonizer in Césaire’s allegory and that the slaves represent his colonized victims, but still the question might be asked: why two victims? If colonizer versus colonized is such an intense dichotomy, why complicate things with a third party? While it is true that excluding Ariel from Prospero’s and Caliban’s rivalry may have put a finer point on the tension, Césaire keeps him around as not to oversimplify the role of the colonized. The differences he draws between Ariel’s and Caliban’s physical, emotional, and behavioral dispositions attest to the diversity within a colonized people, and moreover to the fact that there is not just one way to exist as a victim.

The first mention of Ariel can be found in the character notes, where he is prefaced as “a mulatto slave,” rendering him literally in the middle of Prospero and Caliban on the racial spectrum. It is not surprising then that his attitude follows suit as he develops into a sort of mediator between the two, attempting to soften the edges of both Prospero’s despotism and Caliban’s spite. One might wonder, if he is equally as enslaved as Caliban, why he does not just side entirely with him. This question is addressed in a dialogue between the two in which Ariel points out that, although they both want freedom, they have “different methods” of obtaining it. Ariel’s method is perhaps the more idealistic one as it attempts not only to change his own slave status but also to change Prospero’s innermost conscience through a policy of “no violence [and] no submission either.” He goes about executing this method by informing Prospero when he believes his deeds to be cruel and frequently reminding him that he has made a promise of freedom, to which Prospero often responds with vitriol, calling him names like “ingrate” and ordering him to “stuff it.” The pacifistic Ariel is left to endure Prospero’s verbal abuse with no real rebuttal, leaving a rather frustrated audience to wonder if this “no violence” policy is all that effective. Prospero does indeed grant him his freedom but only after causing immeasurable damage to his dignity and to any sense of self he may have had. He even muses that he hopes Ariel “will not be bored,” suggesting that the former slave has little to do independently of him.

Was Ariel’s expedited freedom worth the loss of dignity and selfhood? His physically darker and politically more radical counterpart would likely claim that it was not. Caliban dismisses Ariel’s methods as “Uncle Tom patience,” suggesting that they are too sympathetic toward the oppressor. He instead prefers the much more direct method of demanding his “Freedom Now!” and quite vehemently attacking Prospero’s character in nearly every interaction they share. Unlike Ariel, Caliban aggressively rebuts any verbal abuse (which in fact turns physical with Caliban), consistently refusing to concede his principles for the sake of diplomacy or for his master’s approval. But also unlike Ariel, he is forced to endure a great many years of slavery as a result of his refusal. It is worth noting, though, that during these years, Caliban does manage to successfully maintain some of his colonized culture; his dialogue is scattered with Swahili words such as “uhuru” and allusions to African gods like Shango. The appearance of Eshu among the Roman gods is also implied to be Caliban’s doing and may very well be his way of forcefully integrating African culture into classical European culture–giving them a taste of their own medicine, so to speak.

After many years of never accepting the subordinate position, Caliban does indeed gain freedom at the end of the play, and he does so with dignity. But time is a high price to pay, and the physical abuse he suffered is no small thing either. In examining the tradeoffs that Ariel and Caliban make regarding values like passificism, activism, dignity, culture, and freedom, it becomes clear that each victim experiences and responds to injustice in his own way. Césaire does not expressly shame Ariel for his relatively nuanced approach to victimhood, nor does he criticize Caliban for his more aggressive one. And despite their differences, each man ultimately addresses the other as “brother” and wishes him courage and luck, effectively illustrating that mutual respect remains possible among diverse victims.