By Michael O’Toole
In his essay "On Cannibals," Montaigne continually asserts that what is natural is synonymous with what is good, and that Nature herself ought to be the light by which human action is guided. It is not surprising, then, that he presents a highly idealized characterization of the natives of the New World. He perceives these "cannibals," as he calls them, to be men who live in the way Nature intends them to live, unadorned and unfettered by modern civilization. Montaigne goes so far as to claim to have found in these cannibals the "golden age," spoken of so often by philosophers and poets as merely an unattainable dream. He boldly asserts that in the character of these people, all of "the true, most useful, and natural virtues and properties are alive and vigorous."
The characterization of Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest is significant in relation to Montaigne’s essay, which was one of Shakespeare's main inspirations for the work. In "On Cannibals" and in The Tempest, both Montaigne and Shakespeare explore the relationship between human nature and modern civilization. Montaigne’s idealization of the cannibals contrasts sharply with Shakespeare’s unsympathetic portrayal of the brutish Caliban, whose name thinly veils the influence of Montaigne’s essay. Whereas Montaigne’s cannibals are praised as "wild fruits," produced by nature in her ordinary way and without any artificiality, Shakespeare’s cannibal appears to be as pathetic, crass, and vulgar as any individual can possibly be portrayed. This seems to imply that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban is a direct attack against the form of wistful idealizing of Nature that Montaigne is so fond of. Yet the complexity of The Tempest lies in its essential ambiguity. This ambiguity stems from the juxtaposition of the brutish and pathetic character of Caliban with the sprightly and sympathetic character of Ariel. Both Caliban and Ariel are natives of the island, and hence can be thought of in terms of Montaigne’s cannibals. By analyzing the characterization of these two characters in relation to Prospero, one comes closer to determining how The Tempest as a work of art responds to and challenges Montaigne’s essay. Lying at the root of Shakespeare’s response to Montaigne is a differing conception of human nature and the extent to which modern civilization suppresses it.
Ariel and Caliban can both be viewed as the "colonized subjects" of Prospero, and the differing attitudes of these subjects towards their master is indicative of the differing ways in which human nature responds to modern civilization. Both Ariel and Caliban are individuals undoubtedly oppressed by Prospero, yet each develops a different relationship to their master based on their natural character as well as their prior circumstances. The scenes of The Tempest are structured so as to emphasize the differing characterizations of Ariel and Caliban in their relationship to Prospero. Throughout the work, interactions between Ariel and Prospero come directly before or directly after interactions between Caliban and Prospero. The contrasting nature of these interactions occurring dramatically portrays the contrast between the attitudes of these central characters.
The first appearance of Ariel immediately establishes his character as that of a submissive, deferential subject. His language is that of a slave who binds himself to his master without question: "All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure; be’t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds. To thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality."--(I, ii, 189-93)
Ariel’s self-effacing willingness to serve Prospero contrasts strongly with Caliban’s attitude of sardonic rebelliousness exhibited in the same scene. Whereas Ariel greets Prospero with an affirmation of his...