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 William Shakespeare's final play as well as the last of his romances—includes elements of both tragedy and comedy. The story takes place on a remote island, where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, schemes to restore his daughter Miranda to her proper place on the throne using manipulation and illusion. He conjures up a storm—the eponymous tempest—to lure his power-hungry brother Antonio and the conspiring King Alonso to the island.

Caliban is an original inhabitant of the island, 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 play. Caliban believes that Prospero stole the island from him, which would make Prospero a colonial (and perhaps villainous) occupier.

Man or Monster?

Caliban symbolizes his mother's black magic; at first, he 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 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—perhaps because he lacks the ability—the consequences of his actions.

Other characters often refer to Caliban as a "monster." As the audience, though, our response to him is more ambiguous: on the one hand, his grotesque appearance and misguided decision-making may cause us to side with Prospero. On the other, however, our sympathies are manipulated by Caliban's passion for the island and his 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.

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 devising his plot to kill Prospero (though 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.

A Point of Contrast

In many ways, Caliban's character serves as a mirror or contrast to other characters in the play. In his sheer brutality, he reflects the darker side of Prospero's vengeance, and his desire to rule the island mirrors Antonio's ambition (which ultimately leads to the 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. However, 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.