This element of distrust towards Caliban is mirrored in the attitudes of other characters in the play. To Miranda he is nothing more than an ‘Abhorred slave’7, incapable of absorbing virtue, of being moulded to her design. Stephano and Trincolo treat him as an ‘ignorant monster’8 an oddity fit only for the purposes of exhibiting, a freak and as such a fitting gift for an emperor.
Throughout these discourses Caliban responds to his adversaries with a mixture of aggression and subjugation, his language being by turns abusive and acquiescent. He is given some of the most beautiful poetry in the play and at times his words possess a simple lyricism, the beauty of which seems to be at odds with his savage persona. We hear him telling Stephano that:
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;9
The use of blank verse here is indicative of language in elevated from, and raises questions concerning the nature of Caliban and of Shakespeare’s sympathies towards him. The beauty and simplicity of these lines become just a part of the enigma of Caliban, lacking sophistication, but possessing a degree of sensitivity that is denied him in the eyes of his enemies, who are intent only on emphasisng his moral depravity. In the words of Montaigne ‘there is nothing in that nation, that is barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarisme which is not common to them’10. This enigma is a part of the sense of illusion that pervades the play: all is not as it seems and we can take nothing for granted.
The use of language in play becomes an integral part of the colonialist discourse. The name Caliban has generally been accepted as being an anagram of the word canibal. The word did not enter the English language until the mid sixteenth century when it became associated with the reputedly human flesh-eating natives of the New World. To the European mind of that time the words savage and cannibal became synonymous and the association of these two words with the word slave and the concept of slavery, became the justification for the prevailing attitudes of the time towards the subject of slaves in general.
The language of slavery and subjugation became the language of colonialism, and the means whereby Europeans were able to emphasize the moral depravity of the indigenous people, thereby providing themselves with a suitable excuse for the colonization of the inferior other; the colonialist discourse was born.
In the play Prospero asserts his superiority through a verbal discourse which reflects the dehumanized thinking of an imperialist power. The language revolves around the binary oppositions of conquest and servitude, slavery and freedom, civilized and savage, nature and nurture. This is reflected in the relationships with his ‘subjects’ on the island; while all are subjugated to his power, it is Caliban as the savage and deformed slave who represents the subjugated, the colonized, while Ferdinand and Ariel serve out their terms of bondage for a period of what proves to be spiritual and moral testing for redemption.
Ariel claims his freedom as his right, having, in his eyes, served out his term, but Prospero reminds him that this freedom can only be achieved through further servitude, that he has already been freed from a more stringent and stultifying form of imprisonment under the auspices of Sycorax.
Ferdinand sees his bondage, his ‘wooden slavery’ 11, as an occupation fit for a prince, only too willing to serve out his term in order to claim his rights to Miranda. He pledges himself to her ‘with a heart as willing/Ass bondage e’er of freedom’. 12
This freedom is a luxury that is not afforded Caliban who remains the ‘lying slave’ 13 until such time as Prospero chooses to leave the island; his is an unwilling slavery. He merely moves from being the ‘beast’ 14, the ‘Hag-seed’ 15, the property of Prospero, to the ‘foot-licker’ 16 of Stephano, one master exchanged for another in his subjugation. This reflects a degree of dependency on the part of Caliban, a trait that is often manifested on the part of the colonized, and becomes an integral part of the relationship that exists between the colonizer and the colonial other.
The leaving of the island becomes part of the element of erosion of the colonialist discourse, raising questions concerning responsibility on the part of the colonizer towards the inferior other. In the play this is a question which is never resolved; the problem of Caliban’s future is not addressed; both he and the reader are left in limbo regarding this particular issue.
By adopting the European language Caliban has further subjugated himself, has lost any true identity that he must once have owned, but the exercise has back-fired on his adversaries, they are now at the mercy of his verbal abuse, ‘You taught me language, and my profit on’t | Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you | For learning me your language’17. The old world has become contaminated by the new, the colonizer becoming morally implicated through the actions of colonizing.
It is the language of Caliban that invests the island with reality. In contrast to the speeches of Prospero and Miranda his words express a unique understanding of the natural world which is manifested in his descriptions of his beloved isle, in which he talks of fishing, wood-gathering, berry-picking, of the sound of storms and the music of the wind, of ‘The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile’18; a realism all his own.
The idealism we see reflected in the words of Miranda, ‘O brave new world | That hath such people in’t’ 19. The idealism is counterbalanced in Prospero’s rejoinder ‘’Tis new to thee’20. These lines represent differing perceptions of the same situation, the paradox of human experience.
The naivete of Miranda’s words is further explored in the speech of Gonzalo in which he sets out his ideas of the’ideal commonwealth, a classless society with rule vested in the community, in which he would ‘by contraries | Execute all things, for no kind of traffic | Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known…’21 In fact he renounces everything that a European would normally consider to be of paramount importance in the establishing of a colony, claiming that ‘nature should bring faith | Of its own kind all foison, all abundance’22.
In this passage Shakespeare has borrowed heavily from Montaigne’s essay on ‘Of the Caniballes’, and it is interesting to note that while Montaigne idealized the life and habits of his cannibals, Shakespeare did not. The passage is heavy with irony and maybe satirical comment on Montaigne’s view that a society natural and uncorrupted would of necessity be a happy one. The idealism of Gonzalo is counterpoint to the cynicism of Antonio and Sebastian who reject his dream as laughable.
This utopian society represents the paradox to the island constitution of Prospero in which authoritarian rule is imposed in order to achieve regeneration through the re-establishing of order. The marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda exists in order to restore the status-quo, to restore to the imperialist mind the ideal of all that is pure and uncorrupt, unsullied by any association with the inferior other, an association which we see represented in the marriage of Claribel to a native of North Africa.
Throughout the discourse Shakespeare is at pains to point up the moral vacuity of Antonio and Sebastian who became the paradigm of civilized but corrupt man. Caliban becomes the example of nature without nurture, whose function is to illuminate the contrast between base, primitive nature and so-called civilized nurture. This raises the question as to how much base can civilized but corrupt man be than the bestiality of the savage, an issue that Montaigne addresses in his essay.
The play throws up many questions concerning the ethics and morality of colonialism, of power and authority, that belong to the past and the present, to the legacy of history and the nature of mankind.
If we embrace the colonialist discourse as existing as an integral part of the play, then we cannot out of hand dismiss Caliban as being purely primitive and savage. He becomes on the one hand the symbol of the darker side of mankind, on the other, while remaining unredeemed, of the potential for hope and redemption; he acknowledges his mistake, he will ‘seek for grace’23.
This seeking for grace becomes just a part of the mystification of the colonialist discourse, in that it is Caliban as base, natural man who will ask for redemption. In so doing it could be argued that the necessary sense of threat that he has posed to Prospero as the disruptive other is to some extent removed; the action of seeking for grace negates that sense of threat that is needed to uphold the validity of the colonialist discourse, which is as a result undermined; new levels of meaning are thus introduced.
At the same time the introduction of the word ‘grace’ becomes a justification of colonialism, the necessary tool in the redemptive process that, it could be argued, redeems not only those involved in the process of regeneration, but the play itself, lifting it from the purely magical and secular to the level of the divine. The word now becomes the focus around which the whole play has been enacted, throwing into confusion any preconceived ideas that we may have had concerning the issues raised.
At the end of the play we witness Prospero coming to self-knowledge, embracing and taking responsibility for those darker parts of himself which he recognises in Caliban; ‘This thing of darkness | I acknowledge mine’24. Nature and nurture come together briefly in acknowledgment of sins, but ‘The play’s ‘ending’ in renunciation and restoration is only the final ambivalence, being at once the apotheosis, mystification and potential erosion of the colonialist discourse’25.
If we accept that nature and nurture join in acknowledgement, that self and the other come together as one, then the question that we are left with in the final analysis is, ‘Who is the original sinner?’
Dallimore Jonathan et al ed. Political Shakespeare 2nd ed.
(Manchester University Press. Manchester 1994)
Greenblatt Stephen. et al ed. The Norton Shakespeare
(Norton Publications. New York 1997)
Lodge David ed. Modern Criticism and Theory.
(Addison Wesley Longman Limited. Harlow 1988)
Palmer DJ ed. Shakespeare’s Later Comedies
(Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth 1971)
Scolmicov Hanna et al. ed. Reading Plays. Interpretation and Reception
(Cambridge University Press. Cambridge 1991)
Selden Piaman ed. The Theory of Criticism
(Longman Group UK Ltd. Essex 1988)
Spencer Theodore. Shakespeare and the nature of man.
(The Macmillan Company. United States of America 1951)
Tillyard EMW. Shakespeare’s Last Plays.
(Chatto and Windus Ltd. London WC2 1968)
Vaughan Alden T et al. ed. The Tempest.
(Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. Walton-on-Thames 1999)
Vickers Brian. Appropriating Shakespeare.
(Biddles Ltd. Guildford and King’s Lynn 1996)
- Said Edward ‘Crisis (in orientalism)’ in Modern Criticism and Theory ed. David Lodge
(Addison Wesley Longamn Ltd. Harlow 1988)
- Brown Paul ‘This thing of darkness | acknowledge mine. The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism’ in Political Shakespeare ed. Jonathon Dollimore and Alan Sinfield.
(Manchester University Press. Manchester 1994) & P 58
- Vaughan Virginia Mason et al. ed. The Tempest
The Arden Shakespeare (Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. Walton-on-Thames 1999) I.2.334
- The Tempest I.2.337
- The Tempest IV.1.189
- The Tempest IV.1.189
- The Tempest I.2.353
- The Tempest III.2.24
- The Tempest II.2.135
- Montaigne’s Essays. Course Module Handbook P219
- The Tempest III.1.49
- The Tempest II.1.89
- The Tempest I.2.345
- The Tempest IV.1.140
- The Tempest I.2.366
- The Tempest IV.1.219
- The Tempest I.2.363
- The Tempest I2.339
- The Tempest V.1.192
- The Tempest V.1.193
- The Tempest II.1.148
- The Tempest II.1.163
- The Tempest V.1.296
- The Tempest V.1.275
- Brown P68