365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

266. What does Caliban represent?

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William Shakespeare’s romantic play “The Tempest” is a story of fantasy, magic, love at first sight, revenge, and otherworldly creatures. With a wide and varied cast of characters, it is easy to say that each represents a certain thing or ideal. For instance, Prospero, the aged and powerful magician, could represent a godlike character, while his daughter, Miranda, could be said to be the embodiment of innocence. There are other characters, however, who are a little harder to classify. What could Ariel, the sprite-like servant of Prospero who is often seen performing lesser feats of magic, be said to represent? Some say Ariel is supposed to be a minion of a god, sort of like how Hermes is the messenger. And of course, there is perhaps the most enigmatic and dangerous of the characters of “The Tempest”, Caliban.

Generally considered the villain of the play, however much a victim of circumstances he may admittedly be, Caliban is unquestionably hated by the human characters. He is often portrayed as either a disfigured human or, more frequently, as some sort of creature hybrid, usually part fish or mermaid. His indistinct species alone makes it difficult to classify him, particularly to a modern audience who may be familiar with the fact that science has progressed so much that Arizona recently made it illegal to cross-breed animals and humans!

Caliban is accused of attempting to rape Miranda – which he admits to and claims he would have populated the island with several of his young if he had been successful – so it is clear from the start that we are not to be on his side. Miranda curses him, angry that though she treated him kindly, even teaching him language, he has committed such offenses against her. But Caliban is much more than a simple villain, if the play is read a certain way.

Consider that “The Tempest” may be considered an allegory for colonization. A native population (Caliban) is introduced to a more “civilized” group of settlers (Prospero and Miranda). Though at first it may seem like relations may be positive, if somewhat strained by natural circumstances, it quickly turns bitter and controlling. Does this sound at all familiar? It is similar to just about any story of colonization (especially the English coming to America).

Caliban’s identification as something not entirely human, or at the very least “subhuman”, can be played one of two ways: either to make him a representation of a savage race that ought to be controlled by those who are civilized, thus making it easy for the audience to hate him, or as a character whose life and ideals are simply different, thus making him an innocent in the situation and turning the audience against Prospero’s reign.

Whatever the take on the actual interpretation or performance in regards to Caliban’s villainy, it is clear that Caliban must be the incarnation of “native” – in whatever form that may be – against Prospero’s “civilization”.


Written by Caroline Mincks

June 24, 2010 at 8:24 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,

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