Thomas Baddeley 10RS 09/05/2007
How does Shakespeare influence the audience’s response to Caliban?
My essay hopes to draw into focus one of the most complex characters in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, - Caliban. Shakespeare influences the audience’s response to Caliban using in turn, humour and pathos to make the audience relate to the various strands of his character. Caliban can be interpreted in many ways, and only when examining his character as a whole, can we truly understand how Shakespeare wanted us to interpret him. I will now further examine how he accomplishes this.
Our first introduction to Caliban is not in person but instead, he is described by Prospero as “a freckled whelp, hag born – not honoured with / A human shape”; this account of Caliban’s appearance gives the audience good reason to feel negatively about Caliban and also makes them eagerly anticipate his entrance. However, when we do indeed meet Caliban for the first time, this vision of an evil disfigured monster as expected, is replaced in favour with a cheeky insolent being that the audience warms to. Prospero speaks to him in a cruel manner, calling him a “tortoise” and a “poisonous slave”, instead of covering, he ill temperedly answers back “As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed / With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen / Drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye, / And blister you all o’er!” The audience warms to this disrespectful rebuke. Caliban the underdog is threatening the authoritative Prospero with no power to carry out his curses. His bravado and disrespect in the face of such authority first surprises then amuses the audience.
Prospero gives reason for his cruel actions by reminding Caliban of when he “didst seek to violate / The honour of my child.” This shocking revelation of his advances on the prim and pure Miranda, makes the audience think again about Caliban’s true nature until Caliban says “Oh ho, Oh ho! Would’t had been done. / Thou didst prevent me – I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans.” Instantly the suggested terrible action becomes comical at the thought of hundreds of little Calibans running over the isle. Again Caliban wins the day. His lack of contrition, his lewd and bawdy behaviour and insolence in the face of authority would have hugely appealed to the uneducated groundling audience of Shakespeare’s theatre.
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Caliban’s savagery is contrasted with his eloquence when he talks about things he loves, such as music, “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices, / That if I had waked from a long sleep, / Will make me sleep again.” He speaks with eloquence equal to the words of Prospero, a Duke. This makes the audience see him in a civilised light and makes them question Prospero’s treatment. Shakespeare uses poetry to show how much Caliban values the nature and simple things, that the mercenary elements in the audience would not appreciate. Caliban thinks nothing of riches or the glistening apparel that Ariel presents him with, “Let it alone, thou fool, it is but trash.” The audience might perceive this in two ways: They might admire his values of music and dreams. Others might perceive his love of simple things as being bestial and stupid.
Caliban’s loving side is well portrayed in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest. In the film Caliban wonders through Prospero’s home singing tunelessly. Caliban shows his compassionate side in the film when Trinculo is scared of the noises of the island. Caliban strokes him and comforts him. Both events let the audience see Caliban as a sweet natured, slightly pathetic soul and as a result they like him.
As we have already established, Caliban loves the island and that makes the audiences sympathise with him when we learn that his home was taken away from him “In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me / The rest o’th’island.” Prospero is doing to Caliban what his brother Antonio did to him and it turns the audience’s sympathy away from Prospero and towards the misguided Caliban.
Caliban is Prospero’s slave. Slavery in any form is wrong and even in Shakespeare’s time this injustice would be disapproved of. The audience sympathises with Caliban when Prospero describes his dreadful punishment, “For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps / Side stitches that shall pen thy breath up, urchins / Shall, for that vast of night that they may work, / All exercise on thee, thou shalt be pinched / As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging / Than bees that made ‘em.” This torture is atrocious and the ‘monster’ here is Prospero, not Caliban. Furthermore, the sympathy the audience had for Prospero and his great loss is again directed at Caliban.
When Prospero first came to the island he was good to Caliban, “Thou strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me / Water with berries in’t,” Prospero taught Caliban to speak. Caliban confesses “And then I loved thee”. The fact he loved Prospero makes the audience realise how hurtful the betrayal must have been. The audience also see that Caliban is naïve and easily tricked. This is emphasised when Caliban meets Stephano and mistakes him for the “man i’th’moon”; “Hast thou dropped from heaven?” The audience finds humour in this, but a little pity also. Caliban again shows his naivety by saying “I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’th’island. And I will / kiss thy foot – I prithee be my god.” We have seen this before and it appears that Caliban does not learn from his mistakes. Some audience members may enjoy his simple-minded mistakes and like him all the more, but some may see him as foolish halfwit. He continues to be victim to the drunken charade, believing that the butler is a powerful god right until the end of the play when he realises he realises his stupid mistake, “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!” The audience can’t help but find his predicament funny.
Caliban has a deep hatred of Prospero for depriving him of his island. His bungled attempt at murder is treated in a humorous fashion rather than a serious one. “There thou mayst brain him/ Having first seized his books; or with a log batter his skull’’. The scene where Ariel chases the villains away causes the audience to once more roar with laughter. Caliban’s appearances in the play usually incorporate moments of pathos or comedy. The comedic episodes provide light relief in between the other main romantic and supernatural themes. From the moment he appears the audience is on standby for naughty antics and laughter – be it his throwing a temper tantrum, to appear from hiding underneath his cloak, standing up to the rebukes and tortures devised by Prospero with insolent retorts, to plotting murder. The audience whilst disapproving is also anticipating with relish what he might get up to next and is delighted by the scrapes he gets into.
Shakespeare wrote `The Tempest’ in the Jacobean period, in which productions named `masques’ were composed for the enjoyment of royalty. King James I had masques performed which bear similarities and differences to the spectacle conjured up by Prospero in Act IV, Scene I. The main difference is that the masques in King James’ time were preceded by an anti-masque (where the nobility dispelled chaos and rabble’. “The Jacobean masques projected idealised images of the King, the royal / family, and the courtiers, so that all members of the Court were annually / involved in a ritual that celebrated the perfection of their world.” This mirrors the way Prospero idealises himself through his own masque, with the royalty represented by gods and the rabble is represented by Caliban Trinculo and Stephano. In this play the rabble is dispelled at the end rather than the beginning. The audience would have been well acquainted with this dramatic device and would have revelled in the fact that the anti-masque did not work out as normal and that the pompous Prospero was undermined yet again.
Caliban ultimately states that he is going to behave well in the future. He had been left an orphan on the isle when his witch mother Sycorax died and so his later delinquent behaviour could possibly be mitigated by that early hardship. Prospero states that he had lavished kindness and attention upon him when they first met ``I have used thee/Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee/In my own cell, till thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child’’. However, Caliban’s evil nature (probably an inheritance from his mother) had bubbled to the surface and caused him to attack Miranda and later plan the murder. Prospero’s own cruel behaviour did nothing to illustrate the correct way to behave, nor did it deter Caliban from trying to commit further calumnies. This is a classic case of nature versus nurture, and the audience is left to decide whether Caliban is really good but corrupted by his up-bringing, or is basically bad with occasional flashes of gentleness and caring.
Caliban’s character proves so successful with the audience because unlike some of the other characters in the play he shows a complex mixture of both good and evil. It is this interesting contradiction of traits that makes him more believable and accessible to the audience. His physical ugliness combined with his gullibility, hot temper, mischievousness, sense of natural beauty, eloquence and humour make him irresistible and one of Shakespeare’s most appealing and enduring of characters.