Did you know that Shakespeare literally created a monster? In this lesson, we’ll explore the complex character of Caliban and his importance in the plot of ‘The Tempest.’
Who Is Caliban?
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a tale of revenge, romance, and magic. The play’s main character (or protagonist), Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, is stranded on a mysterious island after his brother Antonio betrays him.
After spending years on the island with his daughter Miranda, Prospero uses magic to create a storm that shipwrecks Antonio and his cohorts on the island. Prospero’s story, however, isn’t the only story in The Tempest.In the play’s dramatis personae (the list of characters that appears before the text of the play), the character Caliban is described as ‘a savage and deformed Slave’. The son of a witch named Sycorax and the devil himself, Caliban is certainly a ‘deformed’ and monstrous figure, but as a character, he is much more than a slave.Much like Prospero’s brother Antonio, Caliban is a major antagonist.
An antagonist is a character that works against the protagonist; in other words, an antagonist is the bad guy. Near the play’s conclusion, Prospero delivers the following lines to describe Caliban:He is as disproportion’d in his mannersAs in his shape. (Act Five, Scene 1, lines 290-291)Essentially, Prospero is saying that Caliban is as ugly inside as he is on the outside. Using physical appearance to make judgments about a character’s personality is called physiognomy.
Still, even though Caliban is a monster, physiognomy isn’t enough to capture the complexities of this character.
First of all, Caliban has a pretty valid reason to hate Prospero. Shortly after Caliban first appears onstage, he delivers the following speech, explaining how he was ‘dethroned’ by Prospero:This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,Which thou takest from me.
When thou camest first,Thou strokedst me, and madest much of me; wouldst give meWater with berries in’t; and teach me howTo name the bigger light, and how the less,That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee,And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:Curs’d be I that did so! All the charmsOf 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 meIn this hard rock, whiles you do keep from meThe rest o’ th’ island. (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 331-343)Just to be clear, Prospero wasn’t responsible for Sycorax’s death. She died on her own before Prospero and Miranda arrived, leaving Caliban as the only (semi-) human inhabitant of the island. Nevertheless, Caliban is by no means an innocent victim. Caliban was enslaved by Prospero after he attempted to rape Miranda.Despite his questionable moral character, Caliban has a great deal in common with Prospero.
Caliban and Prospero both feel betrayed by a person they once trusted, and both characters are hungry for payback. Therefore, Caliban is a foil for Prospero. In literature, a foil is a character that points the reader’s attention to a specific part of another character’s personality. In this case, Caliban’s desire for revenge draws the reader’s attention to Prospero’s own vengeful nature.
The plot that unfolds when Caliban seeks revenge, however, is one of the most comical aspects of the play. When Caliban encounters a jester named Trinculo and an alcoholic butler named Stephano (both of whom were on Antonio’s ship), he mistakes the two men for gods, and he vows to serve them if they will help him kill Prospero:I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries;I’ll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough.A plague upon the tyrant that I serve!I’ll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee,Thou wondrous man.
(Act 2, Scene 2, lines 150-154)Sound familiar? What Caliban offers to do for Trinculo and Stephano is almost identical to what he first did for Prospero before becoming his slave! Therefore, in trying to break free from Prospero’s rule, Caliban is setting himself up to be a slave again. This only escalates as Caliban’s ‘rebellion’ continues:Do that good mischief which may make this islandThine own for ever, and I, thy Caliban,For aye thy foot-licker. (Act 4, Scene 1, lines 216-218)The humor of this plot lies in its situational irony. Situational irony occurs when the reader expects a situation to have one result, and the outcome is the exact opposite.
In Caliban’s case, the reader expects that Caliban’s plot to eliminate Prospero would result in Caliban’s freedom, but it only places him under the rule of a new master. Fortunately, the plot is thwarted, and (surprisingly) Caliban is given a second chance.
By the end of the play, Prospero realizes the error of his vengeful ways, and he attempts to make peace. This includes forgiving Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. It is at this point that Caliban’s role as a foil for Prospero comes to an end. Pay close attention to the following lines that Prospero delivers during the final scene:These three have robb’d me; and this demi-devil–For he’s a bastard one–had plotted with themTo take my life. Two of these fellows youMust know and own; this thing of darkness IAcknowledge mine.
(Act 5, Scene 1, lines 272-276)Even though Prospero still denounces Caliban as a ‘demi-devil,’ he shows a degree of mercy in claiming responsibility for Caliban. What’s more, the phrase ‘thing of darkness’ could refer to both Caliban and to the dark side of Prospero’s personality. By acknowledging and owning the darkness in himself, Prospero achieves catharsis (a ‘cleansing’ of difficult emotions).
Caliban also experiences catharsis, and he acknowledges the error of his self-defeating ‘rebellion:’What a thrice-double assWas I, to take this drunkard for a god,And worship this dull fool! (Act 5, Scene 1, lines 295-297)Instead of being punished by Prospero’s magic, Caliban is sent off to prepare for the arrival of Prospero’s guests (Antonio and the other passengers of the ship). Prospero then announces that he will leave the island, presumably ‘giving it back’ to Caliban.
Let’s quickly go over what we’ve learned about Caliban. Caliban is an antagonist who wishes to overthrow Prospero (the protagonist of the play). Because Prospero and Caliban are both driven by revenge, Caliban is a foil, or a character that points the reader’s attention to a specific part of another character’s personality, for Prospero. Caliban rebels by vowing to serve Stephano and Trinculo if they help him kill Prospero, but in doing so he only makes himself a slave again.
In the play’s final moments, Prospero and Caliban experience catharsis, or a purging of difficult emotions that results in an important realization, as both characters recognize the error of their vengeful ways.