The Tempest (1610-1611)

TRINCULO: … [He sees CALIBAN.] “What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fishlike smell; a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish. Were I in England now (as once I was) and had but this fish painted, nota holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver” (Shakespeare 37)

Caliban was the only living human (or at least half-human) on the island when Prospero and Miranda first land there, and the only man besides her father that Miranda ever meets before she marries Ferdinand. Caliban is described throughout the play as “a freckled whelp, hag-born… not honored with a human shape,” “a strange fish” (37), “a monster,” “an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt,” “some monster of the isle with four legs” (38), “man-monster” (46), and “moon-calf.” He is also characterized as an animal, with references to being kept in a sty like a pig (18), and being referred to as a slave throughout.

The reason that the other characters looks down on Caliban doesn’t just lie in his appearance but also in his family. Prospero tells his story: “the foul witch Sycorax…. The blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child and here left by the sailors” (16). Sycorax came from Algiers and was obviously accused of witchcraft, but instead of being killed, the people just sent her away to this uninhabited island since she was pregnant. The editors note that the reference to Sycorax having blue eyes could just be another remark concerning her pregnancy or that it could mean that she was “an unusual figure in Algiers, where dark eyes would be the norm.”

The first person to enslave Caliban in this play is Prospero. Prospero, at least according to the story he tells Miranda, found him, took him in, and taught him English. In turn, Caliban “then loved [him] and showed [him] all the qualities o’ th’ isle, the fresh springs, brine-pits, barren places and fertile” (18). Prospero, as explorers or colonists often do, met Caliban, saw all of his barbarian ways, and tried to teach him otherwise. This lasted only until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Propero’s attempts to teach Caliban had almost completely failed because Caliban just wanted to “people else this isle with Calibans” (19). Though Caliban did learn to speak from Prospero, he still reverted to a more animalistic way of thinking.

Though the characters treat him as a freak, oddly enough the first thought that enters everyone’s mind after they meet Caliban is how can I use him to my own ends. Both Trinculo and Stephano think about selling him some how; Stephano says “If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor” (38). But when Stephano gets Caliban drunk, he realizes (as Prospero did before) that Caliban can be useful in other ways. Caliban calls Stephano his god and offers to show how to live on the island, how to overthrow Prospero, and how to take Miranda. Stephano and Trinculo take advantage of Caliban saying “O brave monster, lead the way!” (41) and Caliban celebrates trading one tyrant for another.
Even if Caliban’s intelligence is inferior to his master’s, Caliban tells the two shipwrecked men that they must “remember first to posses [Prospero’s] books; for without them he’s but a sot” (48). Caliban has served Prospero long enough to know his weakness; we don’t really know if they sorcerer’s strength really lies in his books, but Caliban seems to think this. When the three men finally get to Prospero’s cave, Trinculo and Stephano foolishly begin going through Prospero’s things and stealing clothing instead of looking for the books.

It’s unclear if Prospero know that his slave Caliban had betrayed him and pledged his allegiance to Stephano until the final scene, but Ariel might have told him. Though Prospero is busy maqnipulating everyone else on the island, he does very little to manipulate Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano. Maybe because he thinks Caliban is no threat to him.


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