Discuss Caliban’s character in a comparative framework, with reference to the statement above.
The character Caliban has experienced development and changes since
it was staged for the first time in the Shakespearean time. Here,
Caliban is analysed from historical and political points of view.
According to Hulme (1986), the English had already made voyages to
America since 1170, and in 1600, England’s footing in America was
established. Some researches said that The Tempest is written
by Shakespeare with the exploration of the New World in mind. He had
read a lot of travel writings by explorers, and this had influenced him.
In The Tempest, the character Caliban has experienced
several changes and developments since the first time it was staged
during the Shakespearean time. The character is interpreted differently
in different eras. When the play was staged early in 17th
century, Caliban was seen as an opposite of Prospero. Prospero is a
perfect and good man, intelligent and of self-discipline, and uses his
mind. Caliban, on the other hand, is seen as a savage and inhuman, as
his name is associated to the word “cannibal”, being a salvage and
evil. This is actually based on the exploration writings which stated
that the natives in America, which looked very different physically from
the English, were savages, inhuman, perfidious (Hulme, 1986). His
physical features also make him seen as an “earthy monster”. We can see
this in Act II, scene 2, lines 23-4 when Trinculo first set eyes on
Caliban, “What have we here? A man or a fish?” and in Act I scene 2 line
359, when Prospero was angry with Caliban, “A thing most brutish”. In
short, nothing about Caliban is good, and he is all evil, as Dryden
“he has all the discontent and malice of a witch,
and of a devil, besides a convenient proportion
of the deadly sins; gluttony, sloth, and lust, are manifest;
the dejectedness of a slave is likewise given to him,
and the ignorance of one bred up in a desert island.
His person is monstrous, [as] he is the product of unnatural lust;
and his language is as hobgoblin as his person….” (cited in Orgel, 1987)
In 19th century, during the Victorian era, the play was
interpreted from the colonial point of view. Prospero is the coloniser
and Caliban as the colonised. Caliban is seen as uncivilised and
uneducated, while Prospero is the one who makes the island prosperous –
the civilised and educated. Caliban’s resistance to Prospero’s moral
teachings makes him look even more uncivilised.
Later, during the early 20th century, the play was
interpreted in terms of class division. Here, Prospero is the seen as
the ruling class and Caliban as the working class. Caliban is also said
to a natural servant because he is the servant of Prospero, and his
willingness to be the servant of Stephano.
However, in the late 20th century, the play is interpreted
in the post-colonial point of view. Prospero is the coloniser and
Caliban as the colonised. As Orgel (1987) stated, the play is staged
with Caliban being more malign, and at the same time more human, comic
and tragic. Prospero is seen as the usurper of the island from Caliban,
and thus, this makes him somehow evil. According to Ng (1996b),
Prospero is not perfect as he was seen before, because he fails to
educate Caliban. The island is rightfully his by inheritance from his
mother, Sycorax, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/Which thou
tak’st from me” (I,ii,333-4). Being the colonised, we can also see
Caliban’s plight for freedom. For example, he is willing to be
Stephano’s servant just to escape from Prospero, as he says, “Thou shalt
be lord of it, and I’ll serve thee” (III,ii,55).
Caliban is also seen as innocent. He is innocent in a way because he
does not learn from his mistakes and sufferings, when he welcomes
Prospero and treats him kindly, but later, Prospero treats him cruelly
after his attempt to rape Miranda. However, according to Orgel (1987),
the American natives practiced freelove, even with their own families.
Thus, Caliban’s act of attempt to rape Miranda is not seen as being
lustful to him. That is why he does not repent his action, and does not
see why he should.
Caliban’s character is also seen as tragic because, not only the
island is taken from him, but also he is verbally abused, tortured and
punished by Prospero, as he says,
“… Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount
Their picks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do his me into madness.” (II,ii,11-14)
Other than that, he also is also punished by Prospero, by giving him
cramps at night, and having little creatures bite him. The late 20th century Caliban is seen to be more sensitive to music, and is poetic. For instance, we can see this when he said,
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.” (III,ii,128-133)
In a political point of view, traditionally, Caliban is seen as the
colonised, savage, evil, slave, and uncivilised. He is the naturally
ruled, while Prospero is the natural ruler. Being the colonised, his
character is marginalised, while Prospero’s character is centralised.
He is seen as perfect and a good man. Caliban’s act of looking upon
Stephano as god and willingness to be his servant (II,ii,135) labels him
as a natural servant. He is evil and a savage because of his attempt
to rape Miranda and murder Prospero, and his deformed physical makes him
inhuman and a monster.
However, in the modern interpretation of his character, Caliban is
put in the centre of the play. Orgel (1987) states that it is Caliban
who legitimates Prospero’s authority, as he says, “For I am all the
subjects that you have,” (I,ii,343). This is important because a ruler
is a ruler because of the ruled, such as a master and a servant. The
usurper, in this case Prospero, depends on the usurped, as he says to
Miranda, “We cannot miss him” (I,ii,313). Besides that, according to Ng
(1996a), Caliban is a product of Prospero’s failure to understand
Caliban’s limitations and accept them, and his failure to teach him what
he can learn (appealing to his senses). Prospero teaches Caliban like
Miranda, that he forgets their differences. Other than that, we can
also see other weaknesses of Prospero, such as his verbal abuse, torture
and punishment towards Caliban, and threats to imprison Ariel, making
Prospero not a perfect man after all.
Beside that, Caliban voice is also given attention. From his use of
beautiful language, we can see him as poetic and affectionate towards
nature, not all evil and savage. For example,
“Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after a 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.” (III,ii,130-6)
Caliban also defends himself and his rightful island from Prospero,
when he says, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,”(I,ii,333). In
short, Caliban is put in the centre of the play.
To conclude, we can see that the character Caliban has experienced
many development and changes (from traditional and modern
interpretation) since it was staged for the first time in the
Hulme, P. 1986. Propero and Caliban. In Hulme, P. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Caribbean, 1492-1797. London: Methuen
Orgel,S. 1987. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tempest. Oxford: Oxford university press.
Ng, E.C. 1996a. The Tempest – Prospero vs. Caliban.
Ng, E.C. 1996b. The Tempest – Prospero as a Ruler.
Shantini Pillai. 1998. Mass lecture: The Tempest.