Monday, 28 September 2015

Discuss Caliban’s character in a comparative framework

“As the age progressed, [Caliban] grew more malign, but also less diabolical, more elementally human, at once more richly comic and more deeply tragic”

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.  In this paper, Caliban will be looked at in the historical, religious and political point of view.


According to Hulme (1986), 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 done by explorers, and thus, this somehow had influenced him in his play.

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 in early 17th century, Caliban was seen as an opposite of Prospero.  Prospero is a perfect and good man, intelligent and self-disciplined.  Caliban, on the other hand, is seen as a savage and inhuman, as his name is associated to the word “cannibal”, being savage and evil.  This is actually based on the exploration writings then 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”, evil and savage.  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 (1679) states,

“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, that is, 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 prosper, the civilised and educated.  Caliban’s resistance to Prospero’s moral teachings makes him looks 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 worthy 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.  We can see this when Caliban says, “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 away because he does not learn from his mistakes and sufferings, when he welcomes Prospero and treated him kindly, but later, Prospero treated 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 to 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 hurt not.
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)


From the religious aspect, the character Caliban is said to be of a sinful lust and unholy union, that is, of a witch (Sycorax) and incubus (the devil).  Traditionally, Caliban is viewed as evil and lustful due to his nature.  This could be seen in his plot to murder Prospero, attempt to rape Miranda, and refusal to accept Prospero’s code of ethics.  As Prospero says, he is of a monstrous nature and will not be able to be good (I,ii,353-61).

However, in a modern view of Caliban, he is not all evil.  According to Ng (1996a), he is “a creature born of passion, the offspring of an unholy pleasure.”  Therefore, he is passionate and responds to his pleasure (his senses), unlike Prospero who is ruled by his intellect (his mind). His original love to Prospero and Miranda, which changes to hatred later, is because of their kindness to him, and this appeals to his pleasure, as he says, “Thou strok’st me, and made much of me….” (I,ii,335).  His attempt to rape Miranda is another example of how Caliban seeks pleasure.  In addition to that, Caliban’s plot to murder Prospero is due to his anger and hatred to Prospero, because he is always tortured punished (displeasure).  Moreover, his willingness to take Stephano as his god is due to the liquor that Stephano gave him.  In short, Caliban is somehow innocent, and acts largely based on his senses (passion and pleasure).


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 failure to accept them, and failure to teach what he can learn (appealing to his senses).  Prospero teaches Caliban like he does Miranda, and 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.

Besides that, Caliban’s 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 Shakespearean time, in terms of historical, religious and political point of view.


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. Faculty of Language Studies, UKM

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