The Portrayal of Caliban as a Sensitive Creature by Shakespeare

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Words: 2129 |

Pages: 4.5|

11 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2129|Pages: 4.5|11 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Caliban is certainly one of the most complex and contradictory characters in Shakespeare's "The Tempest", at different points embodying the poetic, the absurd, the pathetic, and the savagely evil. For this reason, he is also one of the most interesting and fiercely debated of Shakespeare's characters. It is hard to imagine how Shakespeare intended Elizabethan audiences to respond to the character of Caliban. He was doubtless very popular, since he was created during a time of increased exploration, an era during which tales of monsters and strange new worlds began to return to England. However, there is far more to Caliban than his monstrous appearance, and although the play was written primarily for entertainment purposes, Caliban's role surpasses that of the island's "devil creature". Indeed, the question of Caliban's importance is still debated hundreds of years after his inception: is he the savage, inherently evil beast that Prospero considers him, or is there more to Caliban than first impressions would suggest?

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Caliban is certainly not a pleasant or polite character. He has the appearance of a "freckled whelp hag-born, not honoured with a human shape" and "a very ancient and fish like smell." These descriptions encourage the audience's disgust for Caliban's monstrous appearance. There is also cause for thinking that Caliban is rather stupid: Prospero refers to him as "dull thing", and his allegiance to Stephano on the basis of "celestial liquor" is so ill-advised as to be asinine. As the conspirators carry out their ridiculous plot against Prospero, Shakespeare makes the trio into laughable characters, presenting Caliban as a comic character unable to formulate or carry out a plan. However, it is Caliban's insolence and ingratitude that inspire Prospero's and Miranda's dislike. Caliban himself tells us that when they first arrived on the island they "strok'st [him], and made much of [him]...and then [he] loved [them]", but Prospero immediately points out that Caliban then "didst seek to violate the honour of [his] child", and shows no remorse for the fact. Through this exchange, Shakespeare highlights Caliban's apparent ingratitude: in Elizabethan times, a father would have been well within his rights to treat his daughter's attacker far more harshly.

Caliban's abuse of language is also significant in highlighting his abuse of Prospero's kindness. Indeed, he is a "savage" who "wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish", before Prospero "took pains to make [him] speak" and "endowed [his] purposes with words that made them known." However, Caliban has taken language, with its infinite possibilities and advantages, and says that "my only profit on 't is I know how to curse." The fact that Caliban debases such a useful tool which, we imagine, was painstakingly taught to him, again highlights Caliban's lack of appreciation for other people's efforts.

Many people consider Caliban far more than merely unpleasant: there is reason to find him inherently evil. "Caliban's natural propensity is for evil. His instincts are to satisfy appetite and to avoid discomfort, and to do these things he will lie, betray kindness, and cheat and base himself to any extent."1 This idea is certainly held by Prospero, and indeed, Shakespeare does not seem to intend us to form a high opinion of this character. Prospero, whose opinions carry authority with the audience, calls Caliban "the son that [Sycorax] did litter here", suggesting that he is not only ugly, but inhuman. We also learn early on of Caliban's past, and of his mother: "This damned witch Sycorax" with "sorceries terrible to enter human hearing." Caliban's parentage supports the idea that he is inherently evil, as he has deep roots in the black arts, even though he displays no powers of his own. Prospero also refers to Caliban as "Abhorred slave / Which any print of goodness wilt not take / Being capable of all ill!" In Prospero's opinion, Caliban's evil nature cannot be changed by acts of good - he has already tried this, to no effect. Instead, he takes the view that Caliban is a slave "whom stripes may move, not kindness." It seems that the only thing that Caliban will fully respond to is physical punishment, as he has no appreciation of the acts of kindness bestowed upon him by Prospero and Miranda.

There are, however, other sides to Caliban: although rarely shown, they add considerable depth and complexity to his character. There are several moments in the play when Shakespeare evokes the audience's sympathy for him, such as when he meets Trinculo and Stephano. The plot that these three hatch is the "comedy storyline", but Caliban does show some interesting characteristics, such as his servile nature. Although he claims to bitterly resent Prospero's authority over him, instead of becoming his own master, his adoption of a new "brave god" who "bears celestial liquor" can be interpreted as a combination of naivety and servility. Personally, I cannot help but feel a little pity for Caliban as he vows to "kiss [Stephano's] foot; [He'll] swear [himself Stephano's] subject"; Shakespeare does seem to use Caliban's melodramatic worship of Stephano to show audiences a more innocent side to the character. Although it is obvious that this relationship will rapidly deteriorate, Caliban remains devoted to Stephano for some time before realising the error of his ways.

Caliban's plot to kill Prospero, ironically, highlights some of his better qualities. While his allegiance to Stephano is foolish, and their subsequent plan ridiculous, Caliban is nevertheless able to formulate a conceivable plan even under the dulling influence of alcohol. He also displays some skill in persuading Stephano to join in his plot, telling him about Miranda, "a nonpareil" who "will become [his] bed...and bring [him] forth brave brood." These persuasive techniques, while crude, are effective, and Shakespeare allows us to see that Caliban does have some degree of intelligence. This also provides a parallel to Antonio, whose persuasive techniques are revealed in a plot to kill his master. When the plot is being carried out, it is Caliban who has the sense to tell the others to "tread softly", and "speak softly" so as not to jeopardise their plans. He is the only one of the three not to be distracted by Prospero's gaudy clothes, telling the others to "Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash." Here, we see Caliban lead two men, prioritising and giving orders, again suggesting that the character has a measure of intelligence.

Caliban is also the only character to show any real appreciation of the beauty of the island and the natural world. He is certainly the character most in tune with nature; he has lived in it all his life, and it is he who shows Prospero "all the qualities o' th' isle." Indeed, it is Caliban who gives a particularly moving speech about the island:

Be not afeard; 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. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

(Act III Scene ii)

While Prospero is concerned with his magic and Miranda, for all her virtue, makes little comment about the island itself, Caliban makes one of the most moving speeches of the play, one that has become famous for its poetry and vivid eloquence. This speech certainly shows Caliban's appreciation of the magical properties of the island, truly calling into question the popular idea that Caliban is no more than a beast or a monster. While he may not have an understanding of "good" as defined by the society Prospero inhabits, he certainly appreciates the beauty in nature and displays a sensitivity almost unrivalled in the play. References to "twangling instruments", "dreaming" and "the, and show riches" imply Caliban's ability to perceive heavenly images. If Shakespeare did, in fact, include these religious connotations deliberately, he seems to be presenting Caliban as different and uncivilised, rather than evil.

It seems likely that Shakespeare did not intend to portray Caliban as a villainous stock character. To the contrary, he includes subtleties and complexities that deepen and strengthen the character. While the play was written primarily for entertainment purposes, it is undeniable that Shakespeare's own interests and opinions are expressed in his plays. Although he did not intend "The Tempest" to convey an explicit message, several themes and ideas running through the play suggest that Shakespeare used the various characters and situations to raise questions and convey certain beliefs.

On a purely entertainment level, Caliban is of vital importance to the play. The plot with Stephano and Trinculo is a comic storyline providing light relief from the more serious plots of Antonio and Prospero. This offers the audience a change of mood and pace, preventing the play from becoming too "heavy". It also allows the play to cater to a wider range of people, giving it "something for everyone".

It is true that Caliban's character can be taken at face value, as a stock evil character; an easily-identified "bad" character adds colour and variety to the play. However, Caliban also gives audiences some of the most beautiful poetry found in the play: the "isle is full of noises" speech is renowned for its vivid and atmospheric narrative. All of these elements add to the entertainment value of the play and contribute to Caliban's dramatic significance.

To modern audiences, "The Tempest" is an invaluable treatise on the theme of colonisation. Prospero represents the western, "civilised" world, while Caliban is the "savage" who is subjected to the whims of a new society and social hierarchy. Although it is doubtful that Shakespeare actually intended such a debate to arise from this work, I feel that as 20th-century readers we must question whether Prospero's claim to the island is a fair one, and whether Caliban should be punished for breaking the rules which Prospero himself has imposed. The natural, "savage" world that Caliban inhabits is shown, through his "isle is full of noises" speech, to have a unique beauty of its own. However, this beauty is rejected by Prospero, who introduces his own language, culture, and principles to the island. Caliban, forced into servitude, alarmingly recalls the victims of the slave trade during the era of colonisation.

Shakespeare is by no means making a direct statement about the morality of colonisation: this theme only became truly apparent after the process of decolonisation during the 20th-century. However, it appears that Shakespeare does use Caliban to express the idea that the natural world is not necessarily inferior to civilised society. Indeed, a common theme in many of Shakespeare's plays is the notion that city or court life only detracts from the natural order of things. In "The Tempest", it is only through a series of events that the sinners are punished and the rightful Duke returned to power. Similarly, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", it is the events in the forest that solve the problems of the lovers. Shakespeare seems to present audiences with the idea that civilised society is not always desirable, and warns us never to underestimate the value and the power of the natural world.

Caliban is also employed in the theme of forgiveness and redemption: in the final scene, Caliban vows to "be wise hereafter, and seek for grace." Although there is some debate as to the sincerity of this apology, it does suggest that Caliban realises that what he has done is wrong, and has better intentions for the future. It also brings up the idea of mercy. This is the first time that Caliban has not been punished with physical pain by Prospero - he fears that he "will be pinched to death" - and it is only now that he recognises his faults and aspires to correct them. In this scene, Caliban is also contrasted with the other character who plots against Prospero: Antonio. While Caliban makes some attempt to apologze for his misdeeds by accepting his punishment, Antonio says nothing, suggesting that he does not feel any remorse. He finds Prospero's forgiveness almost impossible to accept and, in the end, we are left wondering which man is more of a monster.

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It is clear that Caliban's character is extremely contradictory: he can be poetic or absurd, pathetic or savagely evil. However, it is the combination of these features which make him such a compelling character. While it is impossible to definitely say what makes Caliban so important to "The Tempest", it seems evident that the character, in all his complexity, contributes greatly to the richness and variety of Shakespeare's remarkable world.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Sensitive Beast: Shakespeare’s Presentation of Caliban. (2018, May 04). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from
“The Sensitive Beast: Shakespeare’s Presentation of Caliban.” GradesFixer, 04 May 2018,
The Sensitive Beast: Shakespeare’s Presentation of Caliban. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 May 2024].
The Sensitive Beast: Shakespeare’s Presentation of Caliban [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 04 [cited 2024 May 28]. Available from:
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