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Throughout the play, Caliban is clearly shown not to be a regular human. He is referred to as many things during the text and yet never a man. Trinculo believes him to be a fish from the smell, while Stephano addresses him as “[his] monster”. Both of these comparisons convey a sense of unpleasantness about the impression Caliban creates on Shakespeare’s other characters. Miranda states that she has never seen a man but for her father before Ferdinand; this shows us that Caliban does not appear human to the other characters of the book.
And, son of Sycorax (a witch), Caliban surely takes some form of the supernatural, similar in many ways to Ariel. But while Ariel comes across as a spirit of the air, graceful and obliging, Caliban is portrayed by Shakespeare as a being of the earth with an unmoving association with evil magic and the devil-“got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam-. So while Ariel is seen as an embodiment of the positive super-natural our first impressions of Caliban are largely distinctly negative.
A name is the first thing we can judge a character in text by without meeting them and Caliban’s bears an unerring similarity to the term “cannibal” immediately letting us (subconsciously) believe him to be unnatural and sick. Despite the similarity between Prospero’s treatment of Caliban and Sycorax’s of Ariel, Shakespeare’s use of decisive and accusatory (towards Caliban and his mother) language, readers are steered towards the side of the fatherly figure of Prospero over the crooked witch that was Caliban’s mother.
When we hear of his attempt to “violate [Miranda’s] honour”, Caliban shows little if any remorse instead remarking that “would’t had been done… I had people else this isle with Calibans”. This behaviour certainly brings Caliban across as cold and immoral as well as somewhat misogynistic, traits which further stretch our disgust of the character. And yet, there is less to blame him for here than at first appears. Caliban has never seen another woman, but for his mother and he has a natural urge to make love to her.
What is more, he has no reason to believe this is unacceptable with no parent to bring him up, and furthermore no cause for understanding the seriousness of the situation when he shows his lack of emotion. It cannot be argued that Caliban does not show signs of evil, but many of these are not without provocation. When he tells Stephano that Miranda “shall be thy bed” and asks him to “with a log batter his skull”, he is simply bitter for the years of enforced hardship he endured under Prospero’s power.
Enslaved for over 10 years, Caliban has reason to demand the audience’s sympathy and yet, while not such a cruel character on closer inspection, Shakespeare seems determined to put forward a character with a cruel exterior to his audience. Despite being told by Prospero that “old cramps and aches” were to be wished upon him, actions such as blasphemously worshipping Stephano as God and “[swearing] on that bottle” like it is the bible would have caused further hatred towards Caliban from what would have been an almost entirely Christian audience. His naivety is another source of potential sympathy.
After Prospero exploited him with “water with berries in it” (possibly wine) he seizes control over the island after Caliban (out of kindness) shows him the “fertile spots”. When Stephano then appears, to wake Caliban after the storm, the liquor he receives not only convinces the “monster” that this man has come from the moon, but also promises to do the same things for Stephano that he so regretted doing for his past master. This ignorance not only draws our anger through his inability to tell right from wrong, but also our sympathy from his innocence and trusting.
Despite this naivety, however, Caliban, in speech comes across as one of the play’s most articulate and varied characters. During a heated argument with Miranda after Caliban expresses his frustration and anger at Prospero/Miranda’s betrayal of him, Miranda says she “took pains to make thee speak” amongst other things while Caliban replies “you taught me… and my profit is I know how to curse. The red plague rid thee for learning me your language”. Here Caliban not only tells Miranda his only benefit of learning her teaching is that he can now curse her, but also uses “learning” where only “teaching” would allow the sentence to make sense.
This subtle and clever trick shows his disrespect for Miranda and the language she “adores” by being grammatically incorrect (we know he has knowledge of the verb “taught” from the previous sentence). His soliloquy, meanwhile, shows another side not only to his speech but also his personality. “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not” says Caliban about the island that Shakespeare tells us means so much to him.
Not only here are we showed a more thoughtful side to the “misshaped knave” in considering and calming Stephano’s fear, but we are brought to the attention of Shakespeare’s alliteration of the “s” sound that could be seen to create a calming sensual mood on the island. We realise at this point how much the island means to Caliban and our allegiance begins to turn slightly away from Prospero for his harsh treatment of the innocent sensitive Caliban. However as an audience one can cannot forgive fully the man that attempted to rape a child, a crime, seen as cruel and sickly, so similar to the impression we have of him at the start of the play.