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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in