Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of Caliban in The Tempest. How far do you accept that he is a “thing of darkness”?
Shakespeare very cleverly creates the character Caliban for The Tempest. Caliban is a very important part of the play. Caliban is a deformed creature, half man and half fish. Shakespeare portrays Caliban in a good way as well as a bad way. Two sides of him are shown, so the audience can decide whether they want to sympathise with him more or despise him more. Shakespeare at times makes Caliban seen as a creature with no feelings and at other times he’s shown to have very strong emotions. “What some may see as natural, healthy and good for the planet, others may see as rather smelly and uncivilised! Likewise, some generations of critics see Caliban as representing freedom, whilst others see him as merely savage and uncouth” Caliban a creature of his times by Joanna Williams, the English review.
Throughout the ages views towards Caliban have changed a lot, some audiences have sympathised with him whilst others have resented him. These views have all depended on the era and it’s views at the time. In the Enlightenment years (about 100 years after The Tempest was written) Caliban was seen as a beast but in the Romantic period (around the time of the French Revolution) Caliban was seen as a curiosity but also as natural and as a marvel. Coleridge wrote that “The character of Caliban is wonderfully conceived: he is a sort of creature of the earth…Caliban is a noble being: a man in the sense of imagination”. In the Victorian times Caliban was seen as a slave but in the Post-colonial era he was seen as a victim. The psychoanalytical interpretation is neutral and looks at both sides of Caliban.
The first time Caliban is mentioned is in Act 1 Scene 2 “We’ll visit Caliban, my slave…Tis a villain, sir, I do not love to look on”, Prospero and Miranda say before the audience has met Caliban.
Caliban’s mother was a witch and his father a devil but does that make him evil? He couldn’t help who his biological parents were and children are known to be sweet for their innocence, so it could be argued that he was born just as innocent. Then again being the son of a devil and a witch, he could have inherited evil, “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself”. Caliban’s main speech in this scene is “I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first thou strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me water with berries in’t, and teach me how to name the bigger light and how the less that burn by day and night. And then I loved thee and showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle: the fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile. Cursed be I that did so! All the charms of Sycorax – toads, beetles, bats – light on you, for I am all the subjects that you have, which first was mine own king; and here you sty me in this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me the rest o’th’ island”, this speech is really powerful as it shows Caliban to have emotions “and then I loved thee” but then he “cursed…first was mine own king” then is ironic because before Prospero came along Caliban was just an animal, he didn’t know about kingdom. Prospero taught him everything he knows and he’s now using it against Prospero. Prospero accuses Caliban of trying to rape Miranda “thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child” and Caliban’s reaction is anger “thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans”. He accuses Prospero of stopping lots of little Calibans coming into the World. He didn’t consider Prospero’s efforts of trying to educate him before he tried to rape Miranda. The audience could sympathise with Caliban as he’s lonely and needs affection, he’s abused by his looks (targeted abuse on beastliness). As for his actions we could argue that his animal instinct won over the human instinct therefore he can’t be blamed.
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Caliban opens Act 2 Scene 2 with his soliloquy. “All the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him by inchmeal a disease! His spirits hear me, and yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch, fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’th’ mire, nor lead me, like a firebrand in the dark, out of my way unless he bid ‘em. 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. Lo now, lo, here comes a spirit of his, and to torment me for bringing wood in slowly. I’ll fall flat; perchance he will not mind me.”
The language of this soliloquy is very powerful, it’s full of spite and hatred, Caliban isn’t grateful for life. He hasn’t ever seen happiness according to this soliloquy. T he structure is well organised in this verse, Shakespeare uses verse for either the main characters or the key scenes. Semantic fields are used, and the word choices are well thought out. Shakespeare uses descriptive details and a perfect choice of diction. The words Shakespeare uses are full of strong emotion; Shakespeare chose these words very carefully. Imagery is used. Alliteration is used such as “hiss”. Vivid verbs are used to express the action; physical pain is described as well. It’s very articulate and persuasive. It’s also interesting and elaborating. In the soliloquy Caliban wants Prospero to be inflicted with pain “All the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him by inchmeal a disease!” and Caliban is shown to be desperate “His spirits hear me, and yet I needs must curse”, he knows that he will be punished if he speaks against Caliban yet he still carries on. Caliban seems to be losing self-control, “me into madness”. Caliban makes Prospero sound petty by using animals such as “hedgehogs” to torture Caliban with because it looks like he uses every tiny little creature to hurt Caliban with. It sounds like he’s exaggerating at some parts of this soliloquy “to torment me for bringing wood in slowly” and its only Caliban’s view therefore it could be biased. Caliban wants the audience on his side and he talks to them directly making it more personal. The soliloquy makes the reader feel sorry for Caliban even though he’s constantly cursing and exaggerating, the extent of his punishments are really harsh and he has no freedom.
Power is one of the main themes of this play. Most of the characters seem to want power. In Act 3 Scene 2 Shakespeare presents Caliban in four different ways. He shown as servile and respective, he shows this by begging Stephano and asking “Let me lick thy shoe” and he’s only respectful because Stephano has been nice to him “valiant master…I thank my noble lord…if thy greatness will”. Caliban is lonely. Caliban is also shown as trusting because he has barely known Stephano and already trusts him enough to say that he will tell him all the secrets of the island. He trusts Stephano enough to tell him his story “I say, by sorcery he got this isle”. This shows that he has a social desire to communicate with people. He’s pathetic to trust so quickly but he only trusts quickly because of loneliness. Shakespeare also shows him as vindictive. Caliban hates Prospero for the way he has treated him, he resents Prospero and wants to get his own back because Prospero has hurt him even though Caliban has treated Prospero like a God. “Revenge it on him…when Prospero is destroyed”. Caliban sounds desperate when he says “wilt thou destroy him then?” Caliban’s resentment is shown when Shakespeare uses alliteration and assonance, “thou mayst knock a nail into his head” this also sounds violent and physical imagery is used. “Beat him enough; after a little time, I’ll beat him too” this sentence has alliteration as well. “Ay, lord, she will become thy bed, I warrant, and bring thee forth brae brood” this is not a very nice remark. Caliban is shown as sensitive and poetic as well and when it comes to his Island he talks about it ever so passionately because he loves it but he also hates the fact that he doesn’t rule it. “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 sometimes voices, that if I then had waked after 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 sleep again.” He talks about Sycorax his mother in a sensitive tone. “Be not afeard” this is an onomatopoeia. “I cried to dream again” this is sensitive. This whole speech shows Caliban’s poetic side and tells of his dreams. He says that he’s learnt language to curse but when he describes Miranda he is so poetic and persuasive with the extent of her beauty and he even uses a French word. “The beauty of his daughter; he himself calls her a nonpareil. I never saw a woman but only Sycorax, my dam, and she; but she as far surpasseth Sycorax as great’st does least”. By the end of the scene the audience probably has less sympathy for Caliban because he’s planning to murder Prospero but they will despise him less as they know that he’s lonely, desperate, stupid to trust others so easily, he’s been brought up as a slave and he has got a sensitive side.
In Act 4 Scene 1 Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are near Prospero’s home. “Prithee, my king, be quiet. Seest thou here; this is the mouth o’th’ cell. No noise, and enter. Do that good mischief which may make this island thine own forever, and I, thy Caliban, for aye thy foot-licker” this little speech shows that Caliban has got everything worked out but some garments catch Stephano and Trinculo’s eyes “my king…thou king…be quiet”. Caliban is very angry at this stage, Stephano and Trinculo aren’t concentrating on the job in hand, he’s serious about getting Prospero killed but they aren’t. Caliban gets really agitated and calls Stephano a fool “The dropsy drown this fool! What do you mean to dote thus on such luggage? Let’t alone and do the murder first. If he awake, from toe to crown he’ll fill our skin with pinches, make us strange stuff.” Caliban is scared of Prospero torturing him again.
“Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass was I to take this drunkard for a god, and worship this dull fool!” Caliban here tries to get Prospero’s forgiveness; he realises that he’s made a mistake. When you talk about grace it’s at a religious level usually but Caliban is asking for forgiveness using a religious word.
Caliban is described sometimes as a “tortoise” and at other times as a “fish” he is abused a lot because of his looks but the reader doesn’t know what he really looks like because he’s described in a lot of different ways. Shakespeare lets the reader’s mind imagine was Caliban looks like.
After having explored Shakespeare’s presentation of Caliban in The Tempest. I accept that Caliban has got a dark side but he’s also got a good side, although it isn’t shown as often, he’s a sensitive being.