The following quote is from Robert Browning’s monologue “Caliban upon Setebos”, reflecting upon the character Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Himself peeped late, eyed Prosper at his books
Careless and lofty, lord now of the isle:
Vexed, ‘stitched a book of broad leaves, arrow-shaped,
Wrote thereon, he nows what, prodigious words;
Has peeled a wand and called it by a name;
Weareth at the whiles for an enchanter’s robe
The eye skin of a supple ocelot;
And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,
A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,
Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,
And saith she is Miranda and my wife:
Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane
He bigs go wade for fish and straight digorge;
Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,
Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,
And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge
In a hole o’the rock and calls him Caliban;
A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.
Plays thus at being Prosper in a way,
Taketh his mirth with make-believes: so He.
Tolkien’s Gollum was a far better (perhaps accidental) interpretation of Caliban than the inane politically-charged versions of him that littered the last century — though I haven’t a clue if Tolkien meant it that way.
“A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.”
The Tempest is not some diatribe that was written to prove a political point. Shakespeare didn’t do that kind of bullshit, which is one of the (many) reasons his work is still around. Fads fade.
Shakespeare’s characters are nothing if not human, and that’s why Caliban is interesting. Like Gollum, there was some humanity there, but it had long since been overtaken by the courser sides of our animal-natures — which are, after all, an essential part of our natures! (Beware the naturalistic fallacy here: natural is not always good.)
Caliban is half-human, half-aquatic-beast. This hybrid has a ring to it precisely because we are more animal than we are human — we are more fish than we are a collection of those high-minded ideals that we project onto ourselves, but fail to embody.
The response we have to Gollum is not pity or sympathy, but a fear of what he represents: what we ourselves can become. In this way, I think the Gollum character is a great riff on the character of Caliban — and cuts to the bone, exposing the essence.
If there is any lesson in Shakespeare it is never political — it is always personal: Who are you? What are you? Who are you becoming?
Now go lift something heavy,
PS. The irony is that The Tempest, like The Lord of the Rings, is a Comedy — in the Classical sense: it ends in success. And yet here, as in so many other of his plays, Shakespeare is misread by those whose passions for politicizing everything override their ability to enjoy art as human. Shakespeare was a learned-tragedian, but a natural-comedian. If you don’t laugh during much of this play, you’re either reading/watching it wrong, or are sorely lacking in a sense of humor.