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"Some excellent dumb discourse:" Caliban as native American

Teachers' Rating:
  3 ratings

May 2007
Mosie Kessler-Zacharias, Friends Academy, Locust Valley, New York.

Plays/Scenes Covered

The Tempest, 1.2

What's On for Today and Why

In many ways, The Tempest is one of the earliest pieces of American literature. Shakespeare was influenced by accounts of journeys to the new world, and scholars have long seen Caliban as a stand-in for native Americans.


Today, students will explore some of the colonial implications of The Tempest, analyzing how language and power interrelate in the play and using another American voice, American Sign Language, to consider the different forms of communication available to Caliban before the arrival of Prospero. By translating some of Caliban’s speech into ASL, students will also explore grammar issues and the relationship between thoughts and words.


This lesson will take two class periods.

What You Need

Folger edition of The Tempest
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Internet access, about one computer per four students

What To Do

1. Ask your students the following questions: What are their own early memories of learning their mother tongue? How did they acquire language? Do they remember their first words? Why is a baby’s first word so important?


2. Then, ask students to consider Miranda’s account of teaching Caliban her language. Project this quotation using an overhead or write it on the blackboard:


I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
With words that made them known. (1.2.424–30)


What power structures are wrapped up in Miranda’s account? What is language? Does a language have to be academic? Written? Formal? Shared? Do they think it is likely or feasible, even, that Caliban existed without a language before his enslavement to Prospero? (Push students hard on this question. Have them use the text of the play. Point them toward the fact of Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, the lack of clarity the play provides on whether there were other inhabitants, etc.) If Caliban did have a language, what would it have been like? (Students should gravitate toward ideas of language as mimetic/imitative.)


3. Assign students to groups of four. Encourage them to imagine that Caliban did indeed have a language—a mixture of “gestures,” “sound,” and “dumb discourse” (i.e., sign language)—and someone with whom to speak it. What words might he have needed most? Ask students to brainstorm (“braintempest”) twenty words that Caliban’s island surroundings and lifestyle would have demanded. (They will likely come up with mostly nouns and words having to do with addressing basic needs.)


4. Using this online American Sign Language dictionary, have students find and apply signs to the words they braintempested for Caliban. Then, have them share a few of their words and signs with the larger group. (Much of this step can be done as homework as well.)


5. Once students are comfortable signing, have them translate Caliban’s speech beginning “this island’s mine” at 1.2.396–411 into ASL. Each group should take on a four-line chunk of the speech. Encourage them to seek out synonyms when necessary (e.g., story, parable, and narrative are all the same sign) and to make up a sign for Sycorax using the letter S and a gesture that makes sense with her character.


6. Have students share their translations with the larger group. They should be able to remember the key signs needed to do this. Have one member of each group read their four-line chunk while the other members do the signs.


7. Ask students to compare and contrast the mimetic language of the deaf with Standard English. They will probably point out how detached form and content are in Standard English (e.g., book looks nothing like a book). This discussion will set them up nicely to explore the alignment of sound and sense later in Caliban’s “the isle is full of noises” speech, 3.2.148–56.


8. Reflection: Ask students what they noticed about Caliban’s language through applying signs to it. Encourage them to compare spoken/written English with signed English. They may notice the poetic/mimetic qualities of signed English (e.g., signs for “toads, beetles, and bats” look like those creatures).


9. For further thinking/homework, ask students: What difference does it make, if any, whether Caliban did indeed have a language before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda? Is Miranda right that Caliban’s “vile race, / Though [he] didst learn, had that in 't which good natures / Could not abide to be with”? How is language used to “civilize” people in modern-day society? (This may be a good essay topic.)


10. As an extension, when you get to Caliban’s beautiful and very aural “the isle is full of noises” speech, have students apply signs again in order to explore the visual as well as the aural aspects to Caliban’s poetry.

How Did It Go?
This lesson will have done its job if students are able to see the colonizing assumptions behind Miranda's "gabble" characterization as well as the empowering and marginalizing forces of language in general. If you get into grammar as well in this lesson, that is a plus.

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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1 Comment

Simply amazing... I appreciate it a lot! festa lembrancinha
Sheila August 5, 2014 5:49 PM
  Common Core State Standards

There are no standards associated with this Lesson Plan.

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