The Role of Caliban in 'The Tempest'

Man or Monster?

Actor on stage at the Tempest directed by Dominic Dromgoole.

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"The Tempest"—written in 1610 and generally considered to be William Shakespeare's final play—includes elements of both tragedy and comedy. The story takes place on a remote island, where Prospero—the rightful Duke of Milan—schemes to return home from exile with his daughter through manipulation and illusion.

Caliban, the bastard son of the witch Sycorax and the devil, is an original inhabitant of the island. He is a base and earthy slave who both mirrors and contrasts several of the other characters in the play. Caliban believes that Prospero stole the island from him, which defines some of his behavior throughout the play.

Caliban: Man or Monster?

At first, Caliban appears to be a bad person as well as a poor judge of character. Prospero has conquered him, so out of revenge, Caliban plots to murder Prospero. He accepts Stefano as a god and entrusts his two drunken and scheming collaborators with his murderous plot.

In some ways, though, Caliban is also innocent and childlike—almost like someone who doesn't know any better. Because he is the island's only original inhabitant, he doesn't even know how to speak until Prospero and Miranda arrive. He is driven solely by his emotional and physical needs, and he doesn't understand the people around him or the events that take place. Caliban doesn't fully think through the consequences of his actions—perhaps because he lacks the ability.

Other characters often refer to Caliban as a "monster." As the audience, though, our response to him is not as definitive. On one hand, his grotesque appearance and misguided decision-making may cause us to side with the other characters. Caliban does make a number of regretful decisions, after all. For example, he puts his trust in Stefano and makes a fool of himself with drink. He is also rather savage in devising his plot to kill Prospero (though no more savage than Prospero is in setting the hounds upon him).

On the other hand, however, our sympathies are brought out by Caliban's passion for the island and desire to be loved. His knowledge of the land demonstrates his native status. As such, it's fair to say that he has been unfairly enslaved by Prospero, and that makes us view him with more compassion.

One has to respect Caliban’s proud refusal to serve Prospero as well, perhaps a sign of the various power plays in "The Tempest."

Ultimately, Caliban is not as simple as most of the characters would have you believe. He is a complex and sensitive being whose naivete often leads him to foolishness.

A Point of Contrast

In many ways, Caliban's character serves as both a mirror and contrast to other characters in the play. In his sheer brutality, he reflects the darker side of Prospero, and his desire to rule the island mirrors Antonio's ambition (which led to his overthrow of Prospero). Caliban's plot to murder Prospero also mirrors Antonio and Sebastian's plot to kill Alonso.

Like Ferdinand, Caliban finds Miranda beautiful and desirable. But here is where he becomes a point of contrast. Ferdinand's traditional approach to courtship is very different from Caliban's attempt to rape Miranda in order to "people the isle with Calibans." By contrasting the base and lowly Caliban with the nobles, Shakespeare forces the audience to think critically about how each uses manipulation and violence to achieve their goals.