Understanding Caliban’s Character in 'The Tempest'

Man or Monster?

UK - William Shakespeare's The Tempest directed by Dominic Dromgoole at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Shakespeare Globe Th
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"The Tempest" includes elements of both tragedy and comedy. It was written around 1610, and it's generally considered Shakespeare's final play as well as the last of his romance plays. The story is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, schemes to restore his daughter Miranda to her proper place using manipulation and illusion. He conjures up a storm—the aptly named tempest—to lure his power-hungry brother Antonio and the conspiring King Alonso to the island.

Caliban is an original inhabitant of the island and is the bastard son of the witch Sycorax and the devil. He is a base and earthy slave who mirrors and contrasts several of the other characters in the plot of the play. Caliban believes that Prospero stole the island from him, rendering Prospero a colonial (and perhaps villainous) occupier.

Caliban in 'The Tempest': Man or Monster?

Caliban symbolizes his mother's black magic and at first 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.

However, in some ways, we can view Caliban as innocent and childlike—or even like an animal that doesn't know any better. Because he is the island's only inhabitant, he didn't even know how to speak before Prospero and Miranda arrived. He reacts only to his emotional and physical needs, doesn't understand people around him or events happening to him. and doesn't fully think through—or doesn't have the ability to think through—the consequences of his actions.

Caliban is often referred to as a “monster” by the other characters, but as an audience, our response to Caliban is more ambiguous: on one hand, his grotesque appearance and misguided decision making make readers side with Prospero. On the other, however, our sympathies are manipulated by his passion for the island and his desire to be loved. His knowledge of the island demonstrates his native status and, as such, we believe him to be unfairly enslaved by Prospero.

However, Caliban does make a number of regretful decisions—for example, he trusts Stefano and makes a fool of himself with drink. He is also rather savage in his plot to kill Prospero but no more savage than Prospero is in setting the hounds upon him.

One has to respect Caliban’s proud refusal to serve Prospero, perhaps a true sign of power in "The Tempest." Caliban is a complex and sensitive character whose naivete leads him to foolishness.

Caliban “Is” 'The Tempest'

In many respects, Caliban’s character reflects multiple aspects of "The Tempest." For example:

  • Caliban reflects aspects of Prospero’s darker side in his vengeance.
  • Caliban’s desire to rule the island reflects Antonio’s ambition, which ultimately led to the overthrow of Prospero.
  • Caliban’s plot to murder Prospero mirrors that of Antonio and Sebastian’s plot to kill Alonso.
  • Caliban could also be compared to Ferdinand in that they both find Miranda beautiful and desirable. However, Ferdinand’s traditional approach is very different to Caliban’s attempt to rape Miranda in order to “people the isle with Calibans.”