Rekindle Your Wild Joy and Deep Belonging to the Earth

Caliban, Prospero, and the Animate World April 30, 2013

Two types of relationship with the animate world, as seen in The Tempest‘s characters.

Which do you most resonate with?


In his new article, Prospero – Shakespeare’s Shaman, Robert Tindall proposes the interesting idea that Prospero’s island in The Tempest can be seen as “a metaphor for the realm of the transpersonal unconscious.” And he offers up Caliban and Prospero as, in essence, models for two types of relationship with the animate world.

[Edward] Tylor’s theory of spiritual evolution is dramatically realized in the characters of Caliban and Prospero, who both perceive the cosmos as vital and sentient, yet from different ends of the spectrum. In Caliban’s naïve animistic consciousness, trees, streams, stars, are all alive, filled with music and strange wonder, and his most haunting evocation of that sentience comes in the lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, The clouds methought would open, and show riches Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked, I cried to dream again.

I like Tindall’s descriptions here, but personally feel leery of the idea of spiritual evolution: it smells of musty old linear hierarchical thinking. Caliban’s relationship with the place is much more primal, indeed – but is it lesser? Need these two go together?

The way in which these two characters are often portrayed, like in the images below, subtly gives us the message that it is lesser indeed. And there’s a scary bit of western egoic chutzpah evinced in Tindall’s line,

… Prospero’s magic perfects God’s creation.

caliban and prospero

This pairing of primal connection with lesser, and a more complex relationship involving the will to control with being somehow superior, unconsciously whispers in the collective western psyche. It echoes early European explorers’ views of indigenous peoples they encountered whilst seeking gold and land to colonize. These ancestors were taught by the Church to view our species as caught between the angelic and demonic realms; the latter, of course, being rooted in the earth and the former in the aether.

caliban prospero angel

Moving forward in time, contemporary industrialized western culture as a whole tends to overvalue the cognitive mind, neglecting the gifts of other ways of knowing like kinesthetic, emotional, and spiritual – the very ways that can lead to a deeper relating with one another, with our own bodies and souls, with the numinous, and with the wild planet. Exiled, people both shy away from, and hunger for, these.

Tindall may well agree with this.

Could it be that Caliban, with his indigenous visions and uncanny local knowledge, represents that mythic line, that symbiosis of human and animal that Euro-Americans simultaneously abhor and secretly yearn for? Is not the island itself, stranded half way in a dream, the shamanic realm where powerful magic and discourse with spirits and supernatural beings is possible?

If the island is a metaphor for the realm of the transpersonal unconscious (where Shakespeare, who wrote three of his greatest plays simultaneously, no doubt resided for much of his creative career), Caliban, we suspect, is the genius of the Earth — “You earth, thou” — the impulses arising from the depths, the wild vitality, the Dionysian trickster, which still sparkle in the Bard’s work.

And he offers a beautiful alternative view of how the cognitive mind might be put to more skillful use. Where might the state of this world be right now if the field of natural science had remained separate from the damaging philosophies emerging from the so-called “Enlightenment” – for example, the ideas that nature needs to be controlled and that all physical matter is, in essence, dead? And how can it be made different if based on a radically different view of the world – an animistic one based on respect rather than conquering?

If Caliban is mother nature’s son, Prospero is her shaman. As a Renaissance magician, Prospero has a similar mode of perception as the savage Caliban — he releases spirits imprisoned in oaks, calls forth mutinous winds and, above all, creates visionary worlds that enrapture their beholders — yet his apprehension is aesthetic, not raw or sensual. In Prospero, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into one of the directions that science, as we now know it, was developing in his time (and would have kept developing if not for the interventions of the Inquisition, Galileo, and Descartes).

…Rather than splitting the atom, Prospero catches rides on the movements of the stars.

Two types of relationship with the animate world, as seen in The Tempest‘s characters.

Which do you most resonate with, and why?

Personally, I’d like to work toward a world where our species’ Caliban and Prospero natures can dance together in tandem: the raw and sensual with the aesthetic and visionary.

Now that would make a paradise island.



To read Tindall’s full interesting article published April 18, 2013, go to Psychedelic Press U.K.:


5 Responses to “Caliban, Prospero, and the Animate World”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    So cool to find your article. This is just the what if I’m working with. What if the vehicle of inquiry is empathy rather than objectification? What if the impetus is maintain balance rather than acheive domination? What if the heart of the system is reciprocal exchange rather than command? What if art (animism) and science (inquiry) are not at odds with each other, but are a being of consciousness called artscience. I have written a short story, Old Woman Called Thunder, which is a story (with cave art) about a “culture hero” of a group of modern urban scavenger-gatherer-hunters who have survived keeping alive an unbroken culture founded in this principle of integrated inquiry. They ask. They watch. They listen. They do not take. They do not rape. They don not impose will or demand submission. They respect sovreignty and exchange gifts for the sake of fostering balance. And neither the precision of their inquiry nor the depths of heir spirituality is the lesser for taking this approach. (P.S. the read is free on Scribd and there’s a link at the back to more info on the methods of fire making featured:). Thank you so much for your post. The healing of this wound in western culture is so important.

  2. Hi Tina, so glad you appreciated this little article! I’ve been fascinated by indigenous consciousness in Shakespeare for some years now, and would urge you to check out our recent book, The Shamanic Odyssey, where I offer something about the enrapturing power of song in Shakespeare’s work.

    I wanted to provide one clarification. When I wrote, “Prospero’s magic perfects God’s creation” I was offering the perspective of the magical tradition in Shakespeare’s era, not my own.

    My own is that indigenous consciousness embraces both ends of the spectrum that Shakespeare set to play in his final work, and that the entire idea of the spectrum is, in the end, spurious.

    Yet while I believe the entire premise of hierarchies of evolution within cultures is fundamentally flawed, individually I do perceive in mature shamanic practitioners, such as here where I live in the Peruvian Amazon, a remarkable discriminatory capacity within their animistic, indigenous consciousness, one quite in keeping with Prospero’s capacity.

    Consider — is it really so hubristic to say that when an Ashaninkan shaman heals a brain tumor he is perfecting God’s creation? Maybe it’s not so far off the mark, after all.


  3. […] A version of how Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban looked […]

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