Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

On the strand, Ariel and Caliban: the former seated atop a milk-white boulder with knees drawn up beneath his chin and wings folded behind him, the air about him stained with a mild prismatic splendor; the latter crouching in the surf with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun and his thick purple tongue grotesquely thrust out before him to taste the spray rising from the softly surging foam. Both are gazing out over the water to the far, glistening green horizon, where the last of the departing ship’s masthead is just now melting away, fading between azure sea and sapphire sky like the last pale flicker of a dying candle’s flame.

Ariel. [Speaking mostly to himself:] I shall miss him, however much I relish the loosing of the . . . gentle bonds his magic held me in . . . even those that constrained my tongue to speak in verse . . .

Caliban. [With a disdainful hiss:] I don’t mourn the loss of my yoke. He wouldn’t have struck it off at all had he not gone. [He lowers his hand and his eyes, then runs two finny fingers thoughtfully along his scaly jaw.] He was cruel; he drove me to my tasks with ten thousand pinches. He didn’t cosset and caress me as he did you.

Ariel. I never attempted carnal outrages against his daughter—and when she was just a child—to people this isle with my own kind.

Caliban. I was a child too . . . at least in apprehension . . . wild as this sweet desert. It was a . . . natural impulse. I knew only my lovely hunger . . . my delight in the delicate vision that had descended on these shores . . . that beauty . . . and no one had yet taught me to speak my joy. I knew only to grasp at it. Anyway, how could you understand? Are you even man or woman, you dainty sprite?

Ariel. [Laughing:] Now, now, you impudent monster. Are you man or fish?

Caliban. I am as Setebos framed me, in his wisdom, when he twisted together fibers of flame and sea and air to make me.

Ariel. Then he was a very incompetent craftsman. No, you are as your father sired you: a mooncalf . . . an incondite cambion. Those misshapen limbs, that hide both hirsute and squamous, that brutish brow, those pendulous lips and ears, that shambling gait—no, even a doltish sublunary daemon like old Setebos couldn’t err that ­egregiously. You are what you are because your vile dam coupled with an incubus whom she had summoned down from the sphere of fire with goetic art. You are the deformed issue of an abominable congress, an atrocious mingling of two natures equally vicious but mutually repugnant.

Caliban. [Pressing his fists against his bowed head:] You mock me knowing I can’t catch you. Revile my god, if you wish; but it’s cruel to speak so of my mother. I still dream of her. She was tender to me . . . stroked my head and limbs, and sang to me . . . fed me with sweet snails and berries and syrups of boiled flowers . . . loved me.

Ariel. Do not, I pray you, praise Sycorax to me. Twelve years I was imprisoned in agony in that cloven pine.

Caliban. I speak . . . [But, opening his eyes, he ­pauses, moans in eager glee, and snatches a small mussel from the sand where a receding wave has just deposited it. At once he cracks it with his teeth, greedily sucks out the meat, swallows, then sighs contentedly. Tossing the fragments of shell aside and brushing the sand from his lips:] Tender. Sweet.

Ariel. [Smiling in amusement:] Very well. So, then, what will you do with your freedom? Is there any difference between liberty and servitude for you?

Caliban. [Raising his eyes to the horizon again:] Why do you need to ask? Everything is freedom. I’ll sleep amid the grasses blown by the salt winds till ­evening comes and the shoals’ waters shimmer with the little dancing fires of the sea. Or I’ll wander in the woods and sip honey from the heavy combs of golden bees, then lie down to sleep high in the hills, sunk among the billows of red flowers that grow there, and see the stars above me like shining gems that I might almost touch. Or I’ll dine on cool succulent fish plucked from silver streams that run amid smooth stones and twisting roots, listen to the strange music that drops from the air on this island, grow drunken on the fragrant breezes, drowse . . .

Ariel. [With a look of genuine admiration:] My, my, monster—how can so wretched a brute conceive such lovely dreams? And what will you do tomorrow, then?

Caliban. The same. Or something else. But how can so thin and insubstantial a sprite understand my dreams? You’re just a . . . a luminous shadow. How can you know the gorgeous heaviness of things, their wondrous firmness and thickness, the scent and taste, the joy of stroking and chewing and . . . ?

Ariel. [Somewhat irate now:] Your temerity astounds me. Can you really compare your delights to mine? I can swim among the aethers above the moon or dive into the emerald depths of the ocean to alight upon the spires of coral palaces. I can grow so small as to slip between blades of grass like a deer coursing through a forest, or float in the crystal pools the rains leave gleaming in the rocks. I can grow so great as to dance upon the cloudy floor of heaven, or upon the rainbow’s peak. I can spring to the heights of the burning meridian and descend again in an instant. I am as fleet as thought—and as free.

Caliban. I’m as wild as sense—and as free.

Ariel. [Pausing, looking up to the sky, then smiling again:] Perhaps that’s true. Very well, you prodigy. Perhaps each of us is complete in his own measure, and there is a just proportion between us . . . so long as each remains in his right sphere. [He laughs again.] Each nature fulfills its proper end if left to itself, and in this way great Nature herself achieves her plenitude. Yes, that seems right. The appetites of flesh, the ecstasies of spirit . . . mortal pathos, immortal contemplation . . . I wonder, though. Perhaps the only thing truly unnatural is the thing that transgresses the division between the two.

Caliban. Why do you babble so?

Ariel. I mean to say, it seems quite right—quite harmonious, in a cosmic sense—that you down there should be you, slouching through the spindrift, and that I up here should be I. But, then, perhaps the true monstrosity—the true chimera—is that very being who has just now abandoned us . . . our dear master . . . Really, when I think of it, how hideously terrible it seems—to be at once both brute and angel. To be bound to pain and death and yet to long for eternal things . . . to be tormented by bestial appetites every bit as coarse as yours at their most imbecile and yet also enthralled by spiritual aspirations every bit as exquisite as mine at their most radiant and rapturous . . . You know, I once asked him whether knowing he must die made all the hidden things of his studies—all the beautiful mysteries—seem vain. He said it made them all the sweeter; and then, after a moment, said it made them all the bitterer too. [His face growing grave:] How tragic . . . and mad. My poor master.

Caliban. You pity him? He seemed a god to me.

Ariel. But also an animal. Do you not see the horror in that? Really, I am glad he is gone. I loved him, but I would not wish to see him age and die, and all that glory turn to dust. Yes, I pity him. You should too.

Caliban. [Practically howling:] You should pity me. I must die too.

Ariel. Oh, that . . . [He waves a hand insouciantly.] Evanescence suits you. Think nothing of it. Sensual pleasure without a natural term would become mere repetition, and satisfaction would become impossible. But, you see, what exists in us severally, as a natural division, cruelly combines in him as an unnatural unity. That is truly pitiable. Are you not happy, after all?

Caliban. [Scowling pensively, shrugging:] When sweet things tremble on my lips . . . and sweet sounds fill my ears . . . and sweet fragrances fill my nostrils and throat . . . and the cold moon shines in the dark blue sky . . . I’m happy then, yes.

Ariel. Quite. But he can never be—not truly, not for long. Do you not see that? So, no, I cannot pity you. But I cannot fail to pity him—and all his fellow monsters. Ah, well. [After a pause of many seconds and a final prolonged glance at the horizon, he rises, stretches his limbs, and unfurls his gossamer wings in a bright fan of glittering opalescence.] I fly. Farewell. [He leaps gracefully from the boulder and into the wind, and in an instant is gone.]

Caliban. [Gazing for some moments to where the spirit has vanished, then turning his eyes back down to the surf:] I’m hungry.  

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift