Monthly Archives: September 2012

Caliban: On the Edge of Humanity

By Dr. Helen Young

When Trinculo first encounters Caliban in in Act II, scene 2 of The Tempest he says “what have we here? A man or a fish?” Caliban is “legg’d like a man, and his fins like arms,” and Trinculo wishes he could take him to England as a freak-show commenting, “any strange beast there makes a man.” (Shakespeare, II, 2, 25-33).  The Tempest is one of the earliest texts which expresses English colonialist discourses and attitudes to the New World. In it, Caliban, who represents the indigenous peoples of the New World, is ever on the edges of humanity, never wholly human or wholly animal. As the early nineteenth-century image above shows, he occupied this problematic space for centuries. Since the mid-twentieth century postcolonial approaches have seen him reconsidered and reconstructed in adaptations including  Aimé Cesaire’s Une Tempête and Marina Warner’s Indigo. Such readings challenge the dehumanization of native peoples whose lands were subjected to Western colonisation. The gaze towards new lands and the future in The Tempest, however,is through the lens of the medieval past.

Shakespeare’s Caliban was influenced by a long European tradition of ‘wild men,’ dating back through the Middle Ages to the fauns and satyrs of classical times. The wild man, or wodewose in Middle English, was a familiar figure in masquerades and masques (, as well as the literature, of the medieval and early modern periods. Hayden White (1972) and Timothy Husband (1980) have both argued that the wild man operated as a contrast to civilised, socialised humanity; Caliban, who has known no humans save his mother until the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, and lacking the restraint imposed by society, is part of this tradition. His attempted rape of Miranda echoes violent sexual episodes associated with wodewoses in medieval texts such as the Middle English prose Alexander (see Yamamoto 156) and the Northern Homily Cycle. The lack of impulse control was associated with animal irrationality.

Yet medieval wild men occupied a literal and metaphorical wilderness on the borders of humanity, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes a monster (Young 48). The possession of a rational soul was the key to humanity according to medieval thought, which largely drew on St Augustine’s City of God for the topic. Yamamoto has pointed out that Mandeville’s Travels contains an episode where a wild man demonstrates he has a soul by showing knowledge of, and contrition for, sin (155), and a book of fables printed by William Caxton in 1483 contains a similar episode (Young 42-44).

Sayers has argued that the English wodewose moved from beast to human over time, and that this increase in its humanity may have resulted from growing amounts of contact between Europeans and the peoples of Africa and the Americas. Such a timeline is oversimplified (Young), but Caliban is far more human than his predecessors either on stage or the page. He may have had to learn language from Prospero because his mother was mute, but he has a voice, and for all his rage and cursing he loves his home and speaks some of the most beautiful and haunting lines of the play in its praise (Shakespeare, III, 2 148-156). Constructed in The Tempest as part human and part animal, Caliban shares the liminal space occupied by medieval wodewoses, leaving his significance open to interpretation in later centuries. In the monstrously human figure of Caliban lie the seeds of a major figure of postcolonial resistance with his roots firmly in the medieval past.


Dr. Helen Young is a postdoctoral fellow in the English Department at the University of Sydney. She currently holds an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.


Image: Selous, H.C. “Ariel, Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo,” The Tempest. c. 1830. From Shakespeare in Performance.

Husband, Timothy. The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.

Sayers, William. “Middle English wodewose ‘wilderness being’: a Hybrid Etymology?” ANQ 17:3 (2004): 12–19.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.

White, Hayden. “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea,” in The Wildman Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, ed. Edward Dudley and Maximilian E Novak. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972, 3–38.

Yamamoto, Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Middle English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Young, Helen. “Wodewoses: the (In)Humanity of Medieval Wild Men.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Special Issue (2009): 37-49.

The Lasting Legacy of the Black (M)Other

By Dr. Andrea Powell Wolfe

Early Modern European travel narratives consistently depict the female African as animalistic in childbirth and infant rearing.  In a widely circulated 1602 narrative, Pieter de Marees claims that the women of Sierra Leone gave birth in mixed company and, instead of “lying in” as European women did, cleaned themselves and continued working after childbirth (Morgan 184).  With imagery that influenced the representation of black women for centuries afterward, De Marees continues, “When [the child] is two or three months old, the mother ties the childe with a peece of cloth at her backe. . . .  When the child crieth to sucke, the mother casteth one of her dugs backeward over her shoulder, and so the child suckes it as it hangs” (Morgan 184).  The use of the term “dugs” here (used during this time to mean an animal’s teats), as well as De Marees’s depiction of the mother’s purported nonchalance in nursing her child, contribute to African woman’s characterization as bestial.  Her animalistic nature is carried forth in the behavior of her children, who are described as “lying downe in their house, like Dogges, [and] rooting in the ground like Hogges” (Morgan 184).  As Jennifer Morgan points out, in that it came to represent the quintessential otherness of Africans, the trope of the animalistic black mother in travel literature “marked the boundaries of English civility even as she naturalized the subjugation of Africans and their descendants in the Americas” (192). 

We must look no further than the rhetoric surrounding America’s self-proclaimed “Mom-in-Chief” to find continued linkages between black women and animalism.  In 2009, GOP activist Rusty DePass insinuated a familial link between First Lady Michelle Obama and a primate, commenting on Facebook in response to a post on a missing gorilla, “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s ancestors—probably harmless” (“Rusty DePass”).

As recently as January 2012, Mike O’Neal admitted to forwarding an email that compared Obama to the Grinch (Rothschild).  Besides the subject line “Twins separated at birth?” and an image of Obama alongside the Grinch, the message also included the text, “I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing Mrs. YoMama a wonderful, long Hawaii Christmas vacation—at our expense, of course” (Rothschild).  Implied here is not only Obama’s animalism—in that she is like a hairy, cave-dwelling Seuss character—but also her deviance in using “our” money to travel.  The racially-coded term “YoMama,” used in mainstream culture as a marker of black, urban rhetoric, defines African Americans as the others in the text of this email.  White readers are constructed as the intended audience, the real Americans whose hard-earned dollars are being used to fund Obama’s trip.  As “Mrs. YoMama,” Obama is portrayed as a black matriarch, the archetypal emasculating mother-figure made the butt of the joke in the endless flow of “your mama” stories exchanged in African American culture.  Since she is also the First Lady, though, this “Mama” is figured as threatening, not necessarily to black men but, instead, to white men atop the political power structure of the nation (many of whom, thanks to O’Neal, received the email).  Obama’s characterization as yet another in a long line of animalistic black mothers is supposed to be funny.  What the joke reveals, however, is sobering: that today white men draw on the trope of the bestial black mother to contain the social and political threat of blackness (perhaps felt all too keenly throughout President Obama’s first term) and continue to justify the oppression of black individuals on the basis of the black mother’s otherness.


Andrea Powell Wolfe teaches literature and humanities at Ball State University.  Her current book project considers the literary positioning of black motherhood within the nation.


Image: de Bry, Theodor.  Woman Breastfeeding over Her Shoulder.  Title page from Verum et Historicam Descriptionem Avriferi Regni Guineaa. Small Voyages.  Vol. 6.  Ed. de Bry.  Frankfurt: Frankfurt am Main, 1604.  Web. 25 June 2012.

Morgan, Jennifer.  “’Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.”  The William and Mary Quarterly 54.1 (1997): 167-92.

Rothschild, Scott.  “Speaker O’Neal Apologizes for Forwarding Email that Calls Michelle Obama ‘Mrs. YoMama.’” Lawrence Journal World.  5 Jan. 2012.  Web.  20 June 2012.

“Rusty Depass, South Carolina GOP Activist, Says Escaped Gorilla Was Ancestor Of Michelle Obama (VIDEO).”  15 July 2009.  The Huffington Post.  Web.  25 June 2012.

Living Animals and Dead Humans

By Allen Shotwell

In the sixteenth century life and death, health and disease, animals and humans mixed together in a number of interesting ways. In the pursuit of understanding human anatomy primarily in the service of medicine, anatomists dissected human cadavers and vivisected live animals, but their understanding of the differences between the two was complex and changing. Anatomical questions arising from mixing animals and humans were not always recognized as such, and even when one of the most famous anatomical texts of all time, noted the potential pitfalls of mixing animals and humans, the practice continued.

One of the major claims of Andreas Vesalius in his 1543 De humani corporis fabrica was that Galen, the Greek physician whose work was the primary source of anatomical knowledge for centuries, had never dissected humans, but only animals and had made a number of erroneous claims as a consequence. Although he was not immune from similar mistakes, Vesalius emphasized his own superiority in words and images, sometimes contrasting animal and human body parts in the same picture (Vesalius iv).

But animals still served an important role for Vesalius and other sixteenth-century anatomists. Time and again Vesalius described substituting an animal for a human body because it improved the visibility of one part or another (Vesalius 261). Animals were especially useful for vivisection since cutting open a living human was an obvious impracticability.

Early in the sixteenth-century, vivisection offered a chance to explore what properties of the body changed with death. In 1521, Berengario da Carpi investigated the fluids surrounding the heart and in the ventricles of the brain, dispelling the idea that in the living body they were actually gases by observing the still-beating heart in an animal (Shotwell 2012). Unlike Vesalius, when Berengario uncovered a discrepancy in Galen by observing the human umbilical cord was different than the umbilical cord of a dog, he attributed the problem to the differences in the development of the fetuses rather than the difference between animals and humans (Berengario 260r).

Vesalius employed vivisection to observe the pulse of the heart and the arteries, investigating a problem first described by Galen who also studied it through vivisection. Although in this case Vesalius agreed with Galen’s findings, other anatomists in the sixteenth-century, like Realdo Colombo, came to the opposite conclusion using the same procedures. Vesalius used a pig, Colombo a dog. Colombo ridiculed Vesalius for confusing the fetal anatomy of dogs with that of humans (Shotwell 2012).

All of these anatomists were focused on human bodies. They saw anatomy as primarily a medical subject, useful for diagnosis and treatment. Their various forays into animal dissection and vivisection were not designed for what we would now call comparative anatomy, a systematic attempt at understanding the differences among the bodies of all animals, humans included. Humans and their health was their goal.

By the late sixteenth-century, some anatomists did turn to studying a wide variety of animal bodies for comparative purposes, most notably Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente, but animal dissection and vivisection for the purposes of understanding how the human body worked continued throughout the seventeenth century and beyond.


Allen Shotwell is a professor in Liberal Arts at Ivy Tech Community and a PhD candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University.


Images: (1) A human skull balanced on the jaw bone of a dog from Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica.  (2)The Ventricles of the Brain from Berengario da Carpi’s Isagogae Breves.  National Library of Medicine. “Historical Anatomies on the Web”. Web. 7 June 2012.

Berengario da Carpi, Jacopo. Commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super anatomia Mundini una cum textu eiusdem in pristinum et verum nitorem redacto. Bologna, 1521.

Shotwell, R. Allen. “The Revival of Vivisection in the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Biology 45(3), 2012

Vesalius, Andreas. De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel, 1543

The Future of “Performing Humanity”

As the site’s original contributions come to an end, Performing Humanity is proud to announce its plans to continue running through AY 2012-2013.  Image

Liceti, De monstrorum natura, caussis, et differentiis libri duo (1616)

Dr. Nesler will continue serving as Managing Editor, collaborating with a group of talented volunteers who will act as Social Media Promoters. In the coming weeks, the site will undergo some changes — including staff profiles, submission policies, and instructions for sending book review copies.  Be on the lookout!  We are excited to be sharing your work and continuing with these explorations!

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