Shakespeare became the Bard of Avon, the English national poet, in the roughly two hundred years following his death in 1616. During this period, his plays were constantly staged in theaters throughout the British Isles and their colonies—but often in forms that we would be hard pressed to recognize as “Shakespearean.”
The Tempest is a particularly interesting case in point. Shakespeare’s play was adapted by William Davenant and John Dryden in 1667 into a Restoration sex comedy by doubling the lovers Ferdinand and Miranda with younger and randier counterparts—Miranda’s sister Dorinda and her love-interest Hippolyta. Like Miranda, both of these characters are sexual innocents who have never seen a person of the opposite gender, but, unlike Miranda, they react with over-the-top, libidinal fervor when they do. In addition, Davenant and Dryden gave Caliban a sister, Sycorax, who enthusiastically services the mariners to whom her brother pimps her.
This version was, in turn, made into The Enchanted Island, a spectacular musical extravaganza that held the stage well into the nineteenth century, with over 180 performances in just the first half of the eighteenth century. As late as 1806, the actress, playwright, and editor Elizabeth Inchbald preferred this “operatic” version of the play to Shakespeare’s. She found the latter interesting for its “variety,” but without the spectacular music and scenery of the opera, she found Shakespeare’s lovers rather boring, lacking the human interest of fin de siècle melodramatic romances.
Still, theater makers kept coming back to Shakespeare’s magical island. In 1755, after a particularly rough year with theater-damaging audience riots, bad press, and dropping revenues, actor, playwright, and theater manager David Garrick staged The Tempest as a three-act opera at Drury Lane Theatre, set to the music of William Smith, a student of Handel and a popular composer for the theater.
The first night saw a decent audience, but ticket sales dropped so precipitously that Garrick closed the production after four nights. While a very young Miss Young, one of the manager’s favorite child actors, got good reviews as Ariel, audiences found little else to like. Garrick’s opera stripped away much of both Shakespeare’s script and the Restoration sex comedy to leave a rather insipid love story set to music. Caliban, especially, is reduced to an anemic version of both the Shakespearean and Restoration characters. He warbles away as a side-kick to the mariners who, in turn, are more Jolly Jack Tars than the subversive and rebellious plebeian force they are in Shakespeare, and, even more so, in Davenant and Dryden.
Garrick was probably trying to solve a problem that worried many readers of Shakespeare’s play in the eighteenth century: what is Caliban? While Shakespeare’s mariners see his potential as a freak to display for money in London, audiences and readers have often been less certain what to do with him—or how to classify him.
One reading saw him as a country clown, similar to plebeian comic types found in many other plays, including those by Shakespeare. Others, like John Dryden, saw him as completely original, a monster without precedent. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Caliban was compared to Peter the Wild Boy, a feral adolescent who was brought to the court of George I in 1726 and became something of a celebrity across Europe.
The question of Caliban’s identity increasingly became a matter of scientific classification as Enlightenment interest in Linnaean science grew over the second half of the eighteenth century. Was he human? And if so, what kind of human was he? In 1797, an actor named Francis Waldron wrote one of the strangest Shakespeare adaptations of the century: The Virgin Queen, a sequel to Shakespeare’s story that imagines what happens after the Europeans leave the enchanted island. While this version was never performed, it signals a radical shift towards how audiences would come to think about Caliban as a racialized, colonial subject of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. First of all, Sycorax, restored to her maternal position, is still a supernatural force as a witchy ghost. Both she and her son are explicitly identified as African and the action of the play is geographically tied to the west coast of the continent, linking the relationship between European and African characters to the backdrop of the British slave trade. Ariel is given a militaristic spin, and leads an (implicitly British) army of spirits to defeat the evil forces of the African supernaturals.
Also in the 1790s, Henry Fuseli showed a painting based on The Tempest at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery that depicts Miranda and Prospero in contrast to a swarthy, heavily muscled, nude Caliban. The painting has been lost, but the Folger owns copies of the print that was based on the painting.
While the modern reading of Caliban as an indigenous, colonial subject to European models of empire was yet to emerge fully, Waldron’s script and Fuseli’s painting both suggest that Britons had begun to settle on a category for understanding Shakespeare’s “original”. Race was beginning the long process of becoming the definitive characteristic of what is NOT British. The pale, clothed bodies of Miranda and Prospero glow luminously against the naked, dark-skinned body of Caliban, forecasting the modern opposition between black and white bodies that divides us—and subjugates people of African descent—even as we view this image from the Folger on Capitol Hill today.