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Published in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein remains a revolutionary literary achievement whose iconic monster continues to captive modern readers. William Shakespeare, hundreds of years prior to Shelley, also cast a monster at the center of his fantastical The Tempest. It is Caliban, the illegitimate son of a witch and a devil, whose villainous nature is central to the scheme of the play. Both works explore our fascination with the “otherness” of monstrosity, the deformed and hideous creatures who wreck evil and destruction. In contrast to the “creature monster” are the creators – Dr. Frankenstein and Prospero- who function in an entirely different class of monstrosity. Dr. Frankenstein is a self-declared demi-god, arrogantly daring to create life without divine sanction, and in doing so brings havoc to his once stable world. In comparison, Prospero dominates his remote island, tyrannically employing his power to control the destinies of those around him. An analysis of these two levels of monsters, the “creature monster” and the “creator monster”, requires readers to confront the uncomfortable suggestion that it is Prospero and Dr. Frankenstein who possess truly monstrous qualities rivaling and in some ways surpassing their “creature monsters” in maliciousness.
The character of Prospero is one of the most intriguing and well known creations from the Shakespearean canon. His authority over the natural world and its inhabitants have a particularly captivating effect over audiences, as the character is considered by some to be autobiographical, controlling the destiny of individuals and the environment in the same sense that Shakespeare the playwright does with his actors and audience. Despite the immediate draw that many have towards the power of Prospero, his egotism, selfishness, and unrepentant manipulation reveal a somewhat ruthless character. From the moment that Prospero is introduced he shows a disturbing enjoyment in controlling and exercising power over others. He assumes the role of the unnatural puppeteer, without remorse for the tumult and distress that his actions bring to others. His self image as a creator, a deity, enables Prospero to view the rest of humanity as inferior, vulnerable beings whose autonomy is not worth respecting. Furthermore, his methods of control are often petty and vindictive. Caliban is forced into slavery and threatened with “cramps, side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins shall forth at vast of night that they may work all exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched as thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging that the bees that made ‘em,” (37). Ariel, the faithful servant is also met with disdain and indignation when he reminds Prospero of his promised release from servitude, as Prospero retorts that Ariel is a liar and “malignant thing” (31). He torments Stephano, a butler and Trinculo, a jester, simply for his own amusement (103). Even concerning his own daughter, Miranda, Prospero has no hesitation before using her as a prop to further his selfish scheme. He cultivates a relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand, the prince of Naples, to create a union that will provide security for Prospero’s status once he reclaims his Dukedom. By trampling over the humanity and free will of those around him, he inevitably diminishes his own humanness.
In contrast to Prospero’s power is Caliban, a deformed and abnormal creature, outrightly referred to as a monster by Stephano and Trinculo as they marvel at his unsightly form (33). While his horrible appearance assumes that of the traditional monstrous archetype, Caliban is less a monstrosity and more a representation of the essence of primitive instinct without the constructs of society. Although he is unlikable and grotesque, Caliban operates at the simplistic level of a naive child. His verbal and physical conduct, although atrocious and offensive, are products of his untaught primal compulsions, instead of the result of a desire to harm and incite fear. Unlike Prospero, he does not torture and torment for his own entertainment and pleasure; he merely reacts in an animalistic way to his environment, as he has been barred from education while enslaved on the island. He acts simply in pursuit of his own advantage, taking whatever measures necessary to ensure his survival and personal gain, incapable of considering how heavy the cost of his actions on others may be. Caliban can no sooner be judged as a monster than a young child may be punished for his or her natural immaturity.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides an interesting parallel to Shakespeare’s “creator” and “creature” monsters. Shelley depicts the dangers of unchecked and obsession in the character of Victor Frankenstein, whose devolution while pursuing his passion for science leaves him a manic shell of his former self, and costs him everything he once held dear. He is fascinated with the idea of re-animating a deceased figure, becoming wholly enveloped in this singular quest, remarking, “I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.” (55). The rebirth of Frankenstein’s Creature marks the emergence of not one but two forms of monstrosity- one, the disfigured Creature, and the other, ironically, the creator, Dr. Frankenstein. The unholy desire to create unnatural life drove Victor Frankenstein to confound morality and distance himself so greatly from humanity that he emerges from his experimentations as a monster, detached from mankind by a mind rotten enough to house such a profane an idea. After The Creature is brought to life, Frankenstein, horrified by the reality of his actions, abandons his creation in the hopes that he can escape it. Victor’s attitude is best summarized when he narrates, “I clung to every pretense of delay, and shrank from taking the first step,” (155). His cowardice and shame allow him to turn a blind eye to his conscience. Eventually, mortification and contrition drive Dr. Frankenstein to attempt to seek revenge on The Creature, however, it is of no use. Ultimately, Frankenstein’s quest to obtain god-like power results in a loss of his humanity, turning him from a passionate scientist into a monster himself.
The phrase “Frankenstein’s Monster” often evokes images of an unintelligent, barbaric, ogreish creature with bolts maladroitly screwed into the neck and green skin covering an enormous form. The reality is that Victor Frankenstein’s creation was not the brainless, stolid creature that pop culture often makes him out to be. Although deformed and frightful in his physical appearance, The Creature begins his life seeking companionship and fulfillment through socializing with other people. Moments after his creation, The Creature exhibits a nonaggressive, friendly demeanor towards Dr. Frankenstein, who is immediately horrified by The Creature’s mangled looks and the reality of what he had done (58-60). This initial abandonment by his creator is the first but certainly not last instance of rejection in The Creature’s life. The Creature is left, alone and confused, forced to acclimate to the human world while bearing a subhuman physique. Mentally, The Creature advances remarkably and becomes unrecognizable from the intellectually dull, blundering creature that is often associated with Frankenstein’s monster. He continues to be spurned by humanity, yet does not reciprocate with violence, but instead isolates himself away from the village. In solitude, The Creature observes a nearby family living in poverty in the woods. He experiences very human feelings, such a remorse, sympathy and affection for these people, despite only ever being wounded by mankind, showing surprising resilience against the hatred and violence he faced (116-121). Up until this point, The Creature certainly defies many stereotypes of monstrosity, as he learns English by listening to the family interact, cultivates his mind through complex, intellectually stimulating books, and demonstrates an innocent, peaceable manner. The family in the woods eventually encounter The Creature, react strongly to his frightful appearance, and unintentionally create the final catalyst that initiates his descent into violence. The constant rejection eventually created a weight too large to bear. The inherent gentle nature of The Creature was crushed, and from it emerged a true monstrosity with a murderous desire vile enough to match his disfigured exterior. He believes that the presence of a female companion would ease his loneliness and effectively deaden his desire to kill, however a companion is never bestowed, and The Creature’s violence continues. Although at birth he lacked inherent wickedness, Frankenstein’s Creature was eventually a victim of the perils of isolation, turning his nature into the most captivating and iconic representation of monstrosity in all of literature.
Mary Shelley and William Shakespeare continue to influence the literary landscape with their timeless depictions of monstrosity and corruption. They explore the notion that monstrosity is not limited to the “creature” monsters in the form of Caliban or Frankenstein, but can also flare from the actions of the protagonists, Prospero and Dr. Frankenstein. While Shakespeare’s capricious and unpredictable sorcerer flirts with the idea of a “monstrous creator”, the playwright resolves his island drama peaceably, concluding that Prospero’s morally questionable treatment of the other characters is forgivable because it ultimately brings about peace. Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, captures the modern fear that evil dwells within us all, and if it is nurtured, can destroy the soul.
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