Prospero’s put-upon slave is often portrayed as a comic character, however, there is an interesting depth to his story.
In many ways it can be seen to mirror that of Prospero, someone unfairly usurped from a position of power.
Surprisingly for an earthy monster he speaks predominantly in verse rather than the prose associated with lower status characters and delivers some of the most beautiful poetry in the play.
“This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me.”
(Act 1, Scene 2, lines 333-4)
While the play centres around Prospero’s longed-for revenge upon his brother, Antonio, who has usurped him from his position as Duke of Milan, there is an irony to the fact that, having arrived on the island, he himself has displaced Caliban as the lord and master.
“All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!”
(Act 1, Scene 2, lines 340-1)
This is typical of the angry, insulting language that Caliban uses in talking to Prospero. The hard and plosive sounds of “toads, beetles, bats” reflect the strength of his negative feelings towards the magician and the ill-treatment he receives from him.
“You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse.”
(Act 1, Scene 2, 363-4)
Caliban expresses his anger at the notion that he has been taught a ‘civilised’ tongue and he uses it only to throw insults at Prospero and Miranda. The irony is that he is also capable of using glorious, poetic language.
“These be fine things, and if they be not sprites. That’s a brave god and bears celestial liquor. I will kneel to him.”
(Act 2, Scene 2, lines 97-8)
Caliban’s burning desire for revenge is shown by his desperation to align himself with the first humans that he meets. He also briefly slips into prose when he first speaks about them and to them, bringing himself to their linguistic level.
“Hast thou not dropped from heaven?”
(Act 2, Scene 2, line 136)
Caliban’s reaction to Stephano and Trinculo is a comic foil to Miranda’s reactions to seeing first Ferdinand and the rest of Alonso’s party towards the end of the play; “I might call him/ A thing divine” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 418-9).
“I say by sorcery he got this isle;
From me he got it. If thy greatness will
Revenge it on him – for I know thou dar’st.”
(Act 3, Scene 2, lines 44-6)
This is where Caliban’s comic revenge sub-plot begins to develop. Having made allies of Stephano and Trinculo he now convinces them to assist him in taking revenge for his usurpation. Although his plot is a parallel to Prospero’s, the native ‘monster’ is punished for his uprising while the titled Prospero is rewarded for turning the tables on those who did to him what he did to Caliban. As an audience, should we notice this parallel and feel sympathy for the creature that has been enslaved?
“Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not…
...that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
(Act 3, Scene 2, lines 124-132)
This oft-quoted speech reveals that Caliban is capable of beautiful expression. He drops his anger and describes the magical qualities of his beloved island. In place of the harsh plosives of his insults, this speech is filled with soothing sibilance and dreamy long vowel sounds. His child-like yearning to sleep again to enjoy the beauty of his dreams should also encourage sympathy towards Caliban, who could be viewed as a precursor of Mary Shelley’s maligned and misunderstood noble savage.
“I’ll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace.”
(Act 5, Scene 1, lines 292-3)
Caliban leaves the play claiming to have learnt a lesson and become wiser. But what happens to him? Does he go to Milan with Prospero or is he left behind, once again the lord of the island? Which ending does he deserve? How can he be tied into the contextual background of colonisation and slavery? Caliban may be a low, laughable ‘monster’, but is he a product of nature or nurture? A study of his character can certainly enrich any analysis of the play.
Helen Mears is an English teacher who sits on the education committee of the British Shakespeare Association. Follow her on Twitter at @shakesmears.
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