Throughout history, the interaction between civilized people and native islanders has caused confusion and turmoil for cultures.  In The Tempest, William Shakespeare portrays the character Caliban as a savage, horrid beast and as the slave of the Westerner, Prospero.  Through Prospero’s ownership, Shakespeare views Caliban as a lesser being. 

Prospero symbolizes the Western power dominating an island and its inhabitants; while Caliban represents the islander who is forcefully controlled by the Westerner.  On the surface, Shakespeare’s interpretation of Caliban seems racist and stereotypical but underneath, Caliban represents the falsified image of the Caribbean people.

Caliban’s relation to Prospero embodies symbolism and irony.  The Ironic relationship between Prospero and Caliban is that Prospero, who has supreme control of the island, knows less about the island itself than Caliban. 

Originally, Caliban was owned by another authoritative figure, Sycorax, but Prospero freed him from Sycorax’s control and enslaved Caliban for his own uses.  With the ability to manipulate the weather, induce sleep and instantly create pain, Prospero has an almost godlike ego that the colonizers at the time felt as well.  The symbolism in this play lies in Prospero’s control of the island. 

The overpowering attitude that Prospero exhibits, symbolizes the white man’s conquest over other cultures.  The concept of one man is more powerful than another stands as a contributing factor for the immoral relationship between Prospero and Caliban.  Caliban represents the indigenous islander who cannot escape the brutality of his master.  Often in the play, Caliban makes remarks against Prospero’s exploitation of the island.

“All the charms
Of 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 me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island” (Shakespeare 1.2).
In the beginning of the play, before Caliban even enters, Prospero talks about Caliban in a very patronizing tone:
“Dull thing, I say so; he, that Caliban, whom now I keep in service” (2.1).
Prospero’s attitude toward Caliban seems condescending and rude:
“Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known: but thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confin’d into this rock, who hadst
Deserv’d more than a prison” (2.1).

Not only does Prospero abuse his power against the native Caliban but also against his own daughter, Miranda, and the indigenous spirit Ariel.  One unusual side of Caliban Shakespeare uses to highlight the primal side of Caliban is the sexual tension between Miranda and Caliban.  To tempt Caliban, Prospero brings around Miranda and keeps her at a distance so Caliban cannot touch her. 

This temptation that Prospero creates between the three characters shows the lack of respect Prospero gives to his daughter and Caliban.  Prospero’s other servant Ariel, a beautiful spirit of the island, has the ability to sing, enchant and play with air, hence the name Ariel.  The distinction between Caliban and Ariel involves the overall appearance and duties that they serve.  Caliban’s appearance seems coarse and barbaric while Ariel appears shiny, glittery, and gaudy. 

The aesthetics of Ariel express the important resources that the Western conquerors came to find, such as gold and natural resources for their Empire.  On the opposite spectrum, Caliban represents what the conquerors actually found.  In the eyes of the Westerner, the attraction of the Caribbean is not the people who inhabit the island but the beautiful landscape and the tranquil atmosphere. 

If the conquerors came to the island with interests in the Caribs’ culture, possibly Caliban wouldn’t have depicted the way he was.

Despite their differences, Ariel and Caliban exist as slaves on the island to serve Prospero’s attempt at a society.  In order to keep both Ariel and Caliban from not escaping, Prospero punishes both characters, but in separate ways.  Magically given pains by Prospero, Caliban has trouble moving about. The severity of his pains entitles Caliban to curse and fret throughout the play.

“For every trifle are they set upon me:
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,
And after bite me; then like hedge-hogs which
Lie tumbling in my bare-foot way, and mount
Their pricks at my foot-fall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness” (2.2).

The author emphasizes that Caliban envisions the way Western civilization pictured people of the Caribbean at the time.  People of the West inaccurately imagined the Caribbean people as monsters and deformed beasts.  Shakespeare’s image of Caliban as a beastly, savage was done intentionally. 

In Christopher Columbus’ Diario de Navegacion he writes, “He learned also that far from the place there were men with one eye and others with dogs’ muzzles, who ate human beings” (Retamar 6).  The creative depiction by Columbus; reflects how Shakespeare wanted the reader to see Caliban.

Through the duration of the play there lies a running theme of nature versus art (art being man’s advancement of technology) and how the two conflicts in a changing society.  Nature, represented by Caliban is always in conflict with Art, the Westerners. 

The Art is presented in this play involves Prospero’s creations with magic and the arrival of the new ships.  For many of the indigenous people, witnessing a vessel land on a beach was breathtaking and haunting.  In ways, Caliban loathes what Prospero has done to the island but he always has a level of respect for what Prospero has created.

“No, pray thee.—
[Aside] I must obey. His art is of such power,
It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,
And make a vassal of him” (1.2).

Caliban exemplifies Nature by pertaining to earthly deeds such as gathering wood. Also, Caliban actually lives on the island so he relates much closer to nature than the Westerners.  The collision of these two symbols creates problems like slavery and warfare.  At the time of Colonization the mix of these two ways of life resulted in many of the problems the Caribbean and other nations face today

When the Western nations first interacted with the native islanders they were referred to as cannibals.  “Cannibal-has been perpetuated in the eyes of Europeans above all as a defamation” (Retamar 6).  In Rosario Ferre’s poem “Coming Up the Archipelago”, the writer states “The words Carib and cannibal have the same root: anyone from the archipelago knows that.  Speaking in tongues is one of our skills. We love to suck the bone to get to the marrow and imbibe the strength” (12). 

Although the Europeans use the word in a derogatory manner, cannibal, to the Caribbean people means a person who soaks in culture all around them.  Since the Caribs have witnessed so many different people; westerners, Arabs, Africans and various other islanders, it seems there are no other options but to cannibalize all the different cultures around them.  Caliban’s ability to learn, speak and reason from Prospero is Shakespeare’s example of cultural cannibalism.  Caliban reinforces the idea of grasping onto whatever outsiders impose onto the Caribs.

In the play, Caliban is often labeled an animal or something less of a human.  Shakespeare creates a complex analysis of the western’s perception of the Caribs through these offensive terms.  To the westerner, the only distinction between an animal and Caliban is that the islander can speak an accepted language.  In this context, Shakespeare feels in order to be accepted in society, one must subscribe to the language and customs of that regime.

Despite that Ariel lives as a servant of Prospero, Ariel is looked upon differently and Shakespeare deliberately does this to make a claim about the westerners’ greedy intentions.  Caliban is viewed as a beast that serves only for laborious uses; such as: picking up firewood or collecting food.  While Ariel represents the true treasure of the Caribbean isles.

The complexity of colonization has created an almost withdrawal to the oppressed people of the islands.  Fernandez Retamar, a well-respected Cuban writer, claims: “For it is the colonizer who brings us together, who reveals the profound similarities existing above and beyond our secondary differences.  The colonizer’s version explains to us that owing to the Caribs’ irremediable bestiality, there was no alternative to their extermination” (Retamar, 7).

This primal ownership can be seen with Caliban when he was first owned by Sycorax and followed by Prospero’s possession.  After meeting Stephano and Trinculo, Caliban again tries to become their possession.

William Shakespeare never traveled to the Caribbean Island’s so his visualization of what Caliban should be, appears to be based on the assumptions and literary documents of his time.  Influences like Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” written in 1603 may have given Shakespeare ideas for Caliban.  “Because if in Montaigne-in this case, as an unquestionable literary source for Shakespeare” (Retamar 8). Considered to be the most respected playwright, Shakespeare purposely displays Caliban in an important way.  “What has happened in simply that in depicting Caliban, Shakespeare, an implacable realist, here takes the other option of the emerging bourgeois world” (8). 

On the outside, the physical appearance given by Shakespeare seems to present itself as stereotypical of the images represented by other authors of his time.  The part animal, part human aspect of Caliban represents the way people envision how an islander appears physically, but what Shakespeare does by having Caliban speak is transforming a creature of horrible appearance into a real person with thoughts and human emotions.

In a way, William Shakespeare to me seems almost like a soothsayer of the problems the Caribbean people faced and currently are troubled with at this present time.  The brutal depiction and social status of Caliban are all warning signs of how slavery and condescension are problematic.  At the end of the play, Caliban rises above his master and defies him.  This plotline challenges the reader’s expectations and as a result, makes the slave the conqueror. 

This unusual but most important plotline conveys how Shakespeare saw Caliban as something more than a creature.  One of the primary motives in writing is to persuade the reader into believing whatever the author intends.  Shakespeare intended for the reader to see a Carib in a new light by the end of the play.  Not as some savage animal but as a character who had true emotions just like the reader would.

In addition, the closing scene may have been a future warning for revolution and destruction against the colonizers of the world.  In many ways, Caliban appears horrid and ugly but internally Caliban represents a beautiful person who has emotions and character just like all people in the Caribbean, and no matter how the Europeans at the time depicted the Caribs; they are people of true beauty.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment