A Mere Piece of Furniture

Dinah Birch

  • Albertine by Jacqueline Rose
    Chatto, 205 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6976 1

There are good reasons, and a few bad ones, for lifting minor characters out of famous texts and putting them centre-stage. One bad reason might be that refiguring a large reputation quietly amplifies your own. Shakespeare’s cultural authority has made him a tempting source, but writers who provide Shakespeare’s marginal presences with another chance to speak also aim to make amends, to offer restitution to those who didn’t get a fair deal on their first appearance. Browning’s monologue ‘Caliban upon Setebos’ is a pioneering work here. Written long before Caliban came to be seen as the play’s most worthy character, this extraordinary poem endows Prospero’s beastly slave with a measure of aspiration and much charm. Browning uses his Caliban to address the questions that were bothering his contemporaries – uncertain boundaries between animal and human, theories of religious belief, uses and abuses of power. Prospero, ‘careless and lofty, lord now of the isle’, gets short shrift. ‘Caliban’ is a poem that performs thought. It has no story to tell, and shows negligible interest in the plot of The Tempest. What we are given instead is a long examination of Caliban’s last utterance: ‘I’ll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.’ Browning turns Caliban into a muddy embodiment of spiritual optimism. The vindictive deity Setebos, barely mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, is seen to be reaching for calm – the transcendent Quiet that Caliban himself secretly contemplates.

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