Caliban in The Tempest
Traditional literary history has assumed that England’s colonization of North America and the Caribbean Islands has had a multifaceted influence on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in particularly within the characterization of Caliban. For such a minor character with a mere 180 lines, his importance as a character becomes obvious through the critical backlash he receives for his various potential representations. Authors like Julia Lupton believe that Caliban was created through language and moral teachings, therefore is not subhuman. Contrarily, authors like Derek Cohen believe Caliban’s character to be slave-like, as he references direct quotes from the original play and examines Caliban and Prospero’s relationship as master and slave. What is the proper and most accepted portrayal of Caliban throughout these critiques? Is he worthy of being viewed on a human level? Through specific excerpts from The Tempest and literary analysts’ perspectives, Caliban will be examined through three lenses: representation through Adam in the Book of Genesis and his creation by Prospero demonstrating his integrity, the master-slave relationship between he and Prospero force readers to view Caliban as subhuman, and his depiction as a New World “Carib” perpetuating the belief that he is a monstrosity to be dominated by colonization.
With so many interpretations of Caliban through cultural, religious and historical analyses, he becomes an exceedingly complex character. Caliban is traditionally represented through the text as a subhuman creature, but it can be argued that Prospero, someone of a higher power and intelligence of language with common manners, created Caliban. Since Prospero came form a highly elevated, social and political standing in Milan, he is informally superior in comparison to Caliban. Although Caliban may have essentially ruled the island with his mother at one point, Prospero oversaw an established and sophisticated city. The creation idea subsequently makes Caliban comparable to Adam from the book of Genesis. In Adam’s case, God is his higher power, who created him and gave him life. Although Prospero did not physically create Caliban, he imbued him with the humanistic qualities that taught Caliban to be more civilized. It could be argued that without Prospero, Caliban would not have come into his self-actualization. The same idea is applied to Adam, because, without God’s moral guidance, Adam would have been lost. Shakespeare literary analysts Julia Lupton further highlights this point:
Although in The Tempest the word creature appears nowhere in conjunction with Caliban himself, his character is everywhere hedged in and held by the politico-theological category of the creaturely. As a solidary Adam on an island to which he is native but not natural, Caliban first stood apart the rest of creation as his ‘own king.’ (Lupton, 2)
It is true that due to Caliban’s monstrous exterior he does not fit into basic human society. However, since he was created, he is not a degenerate compared to Prospero, which is shown through initial lingual teachings that the two experienced together. Although Caliban was taught a new language and etiquette by Prospero, his native existence on the island is also similar to Adam. God created Adam in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was left to name the objects in which God created. This was also something Caliban took on even though he was not commanded by Prospero to do so. When Prospero first came, Caliban taught him, “And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle, The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” (Shakespeare, 1.2. 16). He showed him the landscape and what it could offer. However, this linguistic comparison also separates Adam and Caliban. Since Caliban taught Prospero the island’s features, flora and fauna, he is now lesser than, but independent from his creator, which is something Adam could not establish. Caliban is not completely dependent on Prospero because before he came, he was living off of the land and surviving, despite lacking social normality.
Another similarity that should be noted is both Adam and Caliban’s desire for a mate. In Adam’s case, after he adapted to The Garden of Eden and carried out the tasks that God set before him, Adam finds himself alone in Eden. Apart from creation, this sense of loneliness is a feeling that Caliban also experiences on the island. God thought it would suit Adam to have a helper; through this, Adam started to desire the company of a mate, so God created Eve. Eve was Adam’s companion and the one who would complete him while sharing responsibility over creation. It is then in Genesis, “God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply”’ (Genesis, 1:28). God commanded for a greater humanity. Although not as of a significant outcome, Caliban also desires a mate, so it can be inferred that this is why he tries to rape Miranda. Even though this happens before the storyline of The Tempest is told, Prospero brings it up to Caliban who responds, “Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else, This isle with Calibans” (Shakespeare, 1.2.16). Caliban’s spiteful response reveals that he is realizing his potential humanity, and desires to be fruitful. Although Caliban does not go about his desire in the same was Adam does, the two men’s’ sexual appetite drives them closer to comparison.
Caliban and Prospero’s master-slave relationship prompts readers to consider Caliban as lesser, in comparison to the other characters in the play. Considering textual evidence from The Tempest, Caliban’s representation as a slave is the most literal and rational of the critiques, because he is constantly being labeled as such by Prospero. The reason for Caliban’s enslavement is due to his attempted rape of Miranda, sometime before the storyline began. The attempted rape has been recognized as an effort to get back at Prospero, because before him, Caliban was essentially the king of the island. Caliban’s resentment towards Prospero for usurping his kingdom fuels his animosity to the point where he seeks revenge. After this happens, Prospero begins to despise Caliban, which is represented by the way he speaks to him. Words such as “poisonous”, “mindless”, and “abhorred” precede the word slave in multiple conversations held between Prospero and Caliban (Cohen, 49). This vicious language demeans Caliban and asserts Prospero’s dominance over him as he reluctantly obeys Prospero’s demands, such as fetching wood for the fire. This tumultuous relationship defines Caliban’s mentality towards his relationship with Prospero. The abuse is so grueling that Caliban eventually plans to rebel and kill Prospero. By doing this, it shows yet another side of their master-slave relationship: “Caliban’s anger keeps alive in him the desire to resist, to fight, and to kill Prospero: he refuses to accept his social death by insisting that Prospero has stolen his birthright and by attempting to recover it”(Cohen, 46). His hostility is palpable through the first half of the play, and until its dramatic conclusion.
Ariel is another character who has been criticized for his portrayal as a slave, but he is very different than Caliban, both in the way he is treated by Prospero and by his contrasting mentality towards their relationship. Ariel takes on his relationship with fear and intention to appease Prospero in hopes that he will set him free. This is where the two slaves contradict each other. Ariel acknowledges his freedom as a gift, and as something he must work for in order to achieve, whereas Caliban’s defiance of slavery takes the form of a continual wrath in contradiction of the authority that oppresses him (Cohen, 51-3).
One can also look at the physical signs of Caliban’s slave status, the most detailed explanations in defining the master-slave relationship. Caliban’s physical enslavement is the main motivation for his freedom. Although Caliban is bitter that Prospero took his land, it is not political independence he desires most, but the freedom from Prospero’s torment. In most slave-master cases, the master abuses their slave to assert their dominance and power over them, and this is the same case for Prospero and Caliban. The bodily harms that Prospero has caused Caliban is enough to exemplify how a slave is traditionally treated. More importantly though, it is the psychological torture that seems to impart the greatest weight upon him:
But for every trifle are they set upon me,
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness. (Shakespeare, 2.2.1)
Prospero’s constant grip on Caliban’s mind causes him to feel worthless and powerless, thus forcing him into a state of submission and simultaneously garnering sympathy from the reader. On the other hand, it forces the audience to view Caliban in a bestial way because his belittled and browbeaten demeanor reinforces his already slave-like characteristics.
European misconceptions of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, as well as Caliban’s name phonetically in The Tempest generalized him as a cannibalistic, New World monstrosity. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest when the New World hysteria was climaxing and ideas of imperialism and Social Darwinism were weighing on the minds of the British public (Griffiths, 159). This social understanding has turned Caliban into a colonial icon. Some literary analysts argue that Caliban is an embodiment of the native people of the New World, and characters like Prospero, Miranda and Trinculo characterize the European colonizers, despite the probable setting in the Mediterranean as the travelers were coming from Italy. Firstly, Caliban’s name has been analyzed to be a combination of nicknames given to the people living in the Caribbean. Europeans called these people “Caribs” or “Canibs”, mostly due to xenophobia (intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries) fear mongering a circulation of rumors that the people were cannibalistic savages, also representational of a shorter name for the area in which they inhabited. Both names are incredibly close to Caliban, Cannibal and Caribbean. “According to Professor J.H. Trumbull of Hartford, as cited in OED’l, n, and r interchange dialectally in American languages, whence the variant forms Canibs, Caribs, Calibi,’ whereby ‘Columbus’ first represented the name as he heard it form the Cubans was Canibales” (Fleissner, 296). Although Caliban in The Tempest does not eat anyone or directly represent an actual cannibal, Shakespeare may have been referring to the figurative usage of the word, which in the Old English Dictionary refers to a savage person, not necessarily involved in anthropophagy (Fleissner, 296). Although Shakespeare did not have a murderous monster in mind when he thought up the name for Caliban, it can be inferred that he was influenced by reports coming back from the Western Hemisphere.
Colonization was vital to expanding national dominance, so when explorers found North America and the Caribbean Islands, it turned into scramble for economic adventurism. Almost immediately, the audience is introduced to the idea that the European travelers have imperialistic ambitions. In Act II Scene I, Gonzalo voices his potential interest in the island, “Had I plantation of this isle, my lord…” (Shakespeare, 2.1.37). Gonzalo is stating that if he were king, he would colonize this island and make it a joyous place, filled with prosperity and opportunity, which was not an uncommon promise made by colonizers. This political stance was peaking during the 17th century, while Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, and a vital element of the cultural assimilation of the colonized into that of the colonizers. For instance, one of the main themes of this cultural imposition was teaching the indigenous people the language of the colonizers. This idea is no different from the plot in The Tempest, where Prospero teaches Caliban his language. In the colonizer’s eyes this is something Caliban needed, “his modest life,” is “proof of stupiditya brute who is not checked by any inhibitions of civilization” (Shakespeare, 1.2.18/5.1.84) (Bruner, 241). This characterizes the embodiment of colonization, because in the perspective of Caliban, he is in need of justification from Prospero and Trinculo due to his lack of social development to provide to him with a sense of self-worth. As most do when forced into colonization, Caliban learns Prospero’s language and communicates through that language, inevitably becoming dependent on Prospero.
Considering the cultural and sociopolitical ideals embedded in the character of Caliban, it is understandable how he can be analyzed with such a variety of outcomes. There are literal understandings that can be taken from the primary text and other historical frameworks of The Tempest. However, there are figurative considerations that need to be examined in a more abstract light. Understanding Caliban from a religious standpoint in comparison to Adam from the Book of Genesis, one must consider assumed character aspirations, as well as a figurative creator in Prospero. If the reader considers Caliban to be a slave within the literary context of the play, due to the master-slave relationship that he and Prospero share, then they are taking a more literal approach, to analyze the text in situ. Although this is the most literal of the representations, one must think of the historical and cultural stakes surrounding the play. Due to the New World hype enveloping England at the time, it would be hard to believe that Shakespeare was not influenced by any of the New World madness that was at a the forefront of the news. Everything from the breakdown of Caliban’s name to analyzed dialogues in The Tempest, points to representation of colonization and in particular Caliban as a New World monstrosity. Although it is true that the setting of the play does not make sense for this idea, everything else points to it. Shakespeare depicting Caliban as a rude, externally ugly, ill-tempered savage justifies Prospero’s attempt to civilize him. This type of justification was omnipresent in the 17th century, fully embedded in the ideology of the ethnic cleansing of the colonized mold of the colonizer.
Through out different renditions and examinations in literature, Caliban has been criticized for his potential representation in various critical themes. The Tempest paves the way for numerous critical considerations considering the context in which it was written, as well as all of the worldly discoveries that were being made. Genesis comparisons would match Caliban up with Adam, due to their similar creations and lustful aspirations. However, one could argue that the master-slave associations are made by directly analyzing the excerpts from the text and the relationship held between Prospero and Caliban. Lastly, when taking into consideration the New World influence in propaganda and word of mouth, Caliban can be correlated to an indigenous “Carib.” Regardless of what criticism is right or wrong, The Tempest has sustained literary analysis and cultural justifications.