My English A level Coursework. I got an A*. *nods*

It's about a character from a Shakespeare play called Caliban and he's half human. half....something not on if you want. I'm just uber proud cos my teacher is using it to help the people in THE YEAR ABOVE ME!!!

Caliban is portrayed as “A thing most brutish”. What dramatic and critical issues are raised by Shakespeare’s presentation of Caliban?

From the first mention of Caliban, he is presented as “A thing most brutish”, a savage and deformed slave. Caliban (the name being taken from the word “Cannibal”) raises the moral issues of slavery, tolerance and injustice, and actors can choose to play him as anything from a violent animal fuelled by jealousy and a self-preserving cowardice, to a poetic and deep feeling individual, repressed, abused, and led astray by a cruel master. Trevor R. Griffiths1 describes the actor F.R. Benson as “the first consciously to play the part as a sort of missing link” where Benson “took his missing link conception seriously enough to spend many hours watching monkeys and baboons in the zoo in order to get the movements in keeping with his make up”. The presentation of a “missing link” provided by Benson, as well as various other presentations on the stage, assists our understanding of the character of Caliban, as it raises dramatic and critical issues that were relevant then, and still, to a certain extent, relevant today.

Undoubtedly, the character of Caliban raises mixed feelings. Shakespeare clearly intended us to consider sympathising with one who has such lonely regrets. “Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me/ Water with berries in’t” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 33-34) shows a fond nostalgia and the capability of forming attachments with other humans. Perhaps we pity the bastard son of an outcasted witch, whose deformed shape raises one of the main critical issues of the play: is one who is “not honor’d with/ A human shape” therefore not worthy of being treated humanely? Miranda does “not love to look on” him and rejects him, therefore, as unworthy of her love; yet she instinctively feels love for and judges Ferdinand to be good from his appearance. “If the ill spirit have so fair a house,/ Good things will strive to dwell with’t.” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 456-457) Is this an explicit criticism of a shallow society, still relevant today?

Most modern readers sympathise at least partly with the position of one still emotionally a child, who remains isolated amongst those who despise him. Shakespeare evokes this sympathy with such emotional imagery as mentioned before, showing that in the past he was capable of love. With the constant tortures from a powerful master and unseen helpers, and with no hope for a remedial of his situation, his spirit is being slowly broken. With no outlet for his emotions he attempts rape on Miranda, an act already condemnable but even more so by Jacobean and especially Victorian audiences. It is worse that he is not even betrothed to Miranda, and therefore not approved by her father, Prospero. The Victorians would have held justified the rage that this incurred in Prospero as they believed in moral control; and this would have coloured all their criticism of Caliban. The attempted rape means he is consequently spurred by Miranda and Prospero, who uses this instance to introduce a class system on the tiny island. Caliban, like Ariel, is made a slave poignant as he has haunting memories of a better time, and, unlike Ariel, no promise for release. Though today’s audiences are shocked by the constant verbal and physical abuse that one human receives from another, Jacobean audiences would be closely familiar with the idea of master and servant and there were not many who seriously campaigned for the freedom of servant and black slaves.

Shakespeare must have read, or at least heard of, the part of Pigafetta’s account2 of a circumnavigation, where, at one point, they conversed with a tribe who believed in devils. The main devil that these tribes believed in was “Setebos”, and was credited with amazing and fatal powers. When Shakespeare has Caliban say “It (Prospero’s power) would control my dam’s God, Setebos,/ And make a vassal of him,” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 372-374) it represents the submitting power of “heathen” tribes and Christian missionaries, and the arrogant violence inherent on the viewpoints of those Christians. A Christian marriage could not occur between Caliban and Miranda as he is not just below her in class status, but also does not recognise her God, which is why his contrary desire to “people’d else/ This isle with Caliban’s” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 350-351) is so offensive to Prospero.

With this outlook and intolerance towards other people’s way of living Jacobean sympathy would be with Prospero and the expectation that Caliban would be obedient and act in a servant-like manner. Prospero complains of Caliban’s temperament “abhorred slave/ Which any print of goodness will not take/ Being incapable of all ill,” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 351-353) and feels justified in chastising him without ostensibly realising that this very behaviour is making Caliban even more bitter and even more liable to dissent him from his orders.

Colonialism was an important issue in Jacobean England when “The Tempest” was written. Europeans believed that they held ethnic superiority and therefore assumed that they were free to exploit the rich resources of the “New World” and enforce their own religion and language without any consideration for the native language and religion. “The Tempest” raises the question: were they right to do so?. Both Trinculo and Stephano consider selling Caliban, and wonder how much money they could make. Similarly, Sebastian and Antonia comment on Caliban’s market value. “What things are these, my lord Antonio?/ Will money buy ‘em?” (Act 5 Scene 1, lines 263-265) European greed was a driving force of so-called “civilisation”. A major aim of colonisation was to spread the Christian gospel as the natives were seen as “heathen”, worshipping false and savage gods. So, colonisation was, in part, a religious crusade sanctioned by divine right. It is possible to assume that Shakespeare used the idea of divine right for Prospero’s character, presenting him as King, and therefore giving him reason to treat Caliban how he does. Although natives were treated harshly, settlers believed that it was all to save their souls and bring them to the “true” religion. Caliban is described as having a witch for a mother and a devil as a father, and worships the Patagonian god Setebos.

One of the main criticisms of Caliban is his cowardice, yet Shakespeare provides him with an important excuse in his defence: his state of constant, abject fear of punishment. How can a man be all that is good if he has no choice and is forced into what he wishes not to do? His constant apprehensions are illustrated by the way he immediately backs down after Prospero threatens him, “I must obey, his art is of such power,” (Act 1, Scene 2, line 372) and the way he hides in fear of evil torturing spirits who “do hiss me into madness” (Act 2, Scene 2, line 14) for every “trifle” he commits, a splendid way to introduce paranoia and psychosis into a naturally healthy mind. Shakespeare then presents this suffering spirit as a fool who is mistaken as a fish and certainly “smells like a fish” (Act 2, Scene 2, line 26). This ensures that the audience does not sympathise too much with Caliban, yet it is another instant where a character estimates his worth by his appearance alone.

Caliban’s speech does not help this impression, as he does not for a moment think of introducing himself as anything higher than a slave. This status engraved upon him, his first thought upon meeting a new person is to “kneel to him” and “kiss thy foot”. He cowardly changes his alliances to different masters in an instant, hardly proving himself to be capable of loyalty, and this provokes a laughter directed against him. The blame for this behaviour still lies not entirely on Caliban. We see how he acts first out of fear that Stephano and Trinculo are spirits come to torture him, and the blame rest on them as they encourage him to debase himself, “come, kiss,” whilst they abuse him “I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-/ headed monster” which is abuse he is used to. (Act 2, Scene 2, lines 155-156)

Yet there is no excuse for his innate violence. The way he attempts to rape Miranda is inexcusable but he is still unrepentant “would’t had been done!” Though Prospero fed and sheltered him, and at first treated him like a son, Caliban refuses to empathise with his motives and half brings his isolation upon himself. He has obviously brooded over ways to kill Prospero, “batter his skull or paunch him with a stake/ Or cut his wezand with thy knife,” (Act 3, Scene 2, lines 91-92) yet has lacked the courage to do so for himself. He wishes to destroy the things dearest to Prospero, “burn but his books,” yet is not an experienced criminal and he incurs either our pity or our scorn, when his plan fails through mistake and idiocy. We may empathise with his position and occasionally uphold his decision to fight back with word, “I know how to curse. The Red Plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 363-365) Yet a well known moral is: “Treat others how you would wish to be treated”. Caliban’s foul language and bad intentions mean that we cannot fully honour him as a tragic hero; he is seen more often as a cowardly villain.

One of the most contentious points in “The Tempest” criticism is whether Caliban deserves the sympathy he so often receives and whether he deserves to be considered human at all. He seems to possess all the elements of a civilised man, but has a moral nature that is still malignant towards other people, like Prospero and Miranda. Caliban demonstrates that he has desires (lust for Miranda, fear of Prospero, regret), intellect (he can argue his case and construct a plan), and even imagination. Shakespeare has Caliban speak some of the most poetic and self-searching lines in the play. He describes how “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/ Will hum about thine ears” and “then, in dreaming,/ The clouds methought would open and show riches/ Ready to drop upon me that, when I wak’d,/ I cried to dream again.” (Act 3, Scene 2, lines 138-144) These lines show an extreme sensibility and capacity for wonder and higher emotions; and Anthony Burgess3 believes that “even Caliban is touched by the lyrical magic of Shakespeare’s last rich phase”. Surely the fact that Caliban speaks these “rich” lines is revealing?

Caliban is a vessel of contradictions that we hold to be capable of any action or emotion and inspires many discussions about the ethics of slavery and the use of violence. He presented as the lowest of the low, yet he is a mirror for the other characters to see themselves in, as a product of a miniature society contemporary the Jacobean audience. There is no way to make a comprehensive study and draw conclusions about his character, unless we examine all the evidence pertaining to his split personalities, and fully appreciate them.


1 “Caliban On The Stage” (1983) Trevor R. Griffiths. From “The Tempest” Casebook series. Ed, by D.J. Palmer
2 “Voyage To Patagonia” Antonio Pigafetta (1519)
3 “Shakespeare” (1960) Anthony Burgess

Posted on March 28th, 2007 at 05:40am


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