The Tempest presents few problems for readers because plot developments are constantly anticipated by the main protagonists.
Yet underpinning the cheerful spirits and comic nature of the play there lies a dark and disturbing plot, specifically the half-hidden story of Caliban’s mother Sycorax whose presence haunts the action from the outset. Although now pleasantly enchanting the island was once a terrifying place where ‘abhorred’ deeds were carried out, that former savage existence is never far away in the story of The Tempest. In fact the island’s dark power is always greater than that of Prospero’s enemies, who never understand that their every move is controlled by an outside force. The historic inspiration of The Tempest allegedly lies with interest in the ‘New World’. With Spain already colonising the Americas, England’s own imperial ambition was sufficiently stirred. In the 1580s Sir Walter Raleigh had attempted to found an English colony at Virginia. Further excitement was fuelled by a 1610 account of sailors shipwrecked on the ‘enchanted’ island of Bermuda. The Tempest evokes the mystery of this new period of exploration.
It is clear that Shakespeare’s objectives included more than simply entertainment value; he weaves in messages about love, treachery, enslavement, freedom, and mercy. When performed the character of Caliban is open to much interpretation. In the post colonial era for instance, it has become fashionable to present Caliban not as a vile monster but as a victim of oppression. More timelessly, Caliban can be portrayed as someone who is trapped by ‘original sin’ inherited from his witch mother but who can nonetheless be saved when Prospero chooses forgiveness over revenge.The atmosphere created by Shakespeare’s language and his use of dramatic timing suggest a deeper significance to the character of Caliban who represents more than just a slave to Prospero.
Frank Kermode noted that Shakespeare has a tendency to make groups of characters who embody certain ideas and concepts. In application to Caliban we can focus on the significance of his relationship with Stephano and Trinculo. It presents a wryly comic allegory of political and social institutions as they are in deliberate contrast to Gonzalo’s vision of how they ought to be:GONZALO: I’th’commonwealth I would by contrariesExecute all things.
For no kind of trafficWould I admit; no name of magistrate;Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,And use of service, none; contract, succession,Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, noneNo use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;No occupation, all men idle, all;And women too, but innocent and pure;No Sovereignty -Frank Kermode also claimed that ‘Caliban is the natural man against whom the cultivated man is measured’ He suggests that Caliban occupies a quite distinct position in the play, and that, thematically, he has significance in his role in the development of a certain set of contrasts which are expressed both explicitly and implicitly. However, it is misleading to assume that the sole basic contrast in which Caliban is involved in is simply that he represents gross untutored nature, and that in varying degrees ranging from serene simplicity to sophisticated decadence all the rest of the characters represent tutored nature. We cannot make this assumption as we know that Caliban was taught language and in fact he has enough intelligence to conclude that his only profit from learning their language is that he knows how to curse them.
Furthermore the audience observe that Caliban is incredibly articulated and speaks in sonnet where other characters, namely Trinculo, do not.From this angle we can see that Caliban isn’t a gross and bestial thing, devoid of both reason and feeling. Indeed, the first contrast that is revealed to us is that between what has been made of him by his master Prospero’s tutelage and his own nostalgic memories of the truly natural state he was in when he was first discovered and subjected not to education but to simple kindness:CALIBAN: This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st firstThough strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give meWater with berries in’t, and teach me howTo name the bigger light, and how the less,That burn by day and night. And then I loved theeIt can be argued that Prospero and Miranda together had ‘denaturalized’ Caliban in attempting to educate him. The only reward they seem to have had for kindness and education is, first, an attempt to dishonour Miranda, and second, Caliban’s undying hatred towards them.
Caliban may be said to represent an aspect of the natural. His natural state has in a way been rudely forced by Prospero; he has been taken out of his proper natural environment. Caliban is no less sensitive to the realities of nature but he comes from the wrong ‘seed’, and the sophistications of civilisation do not have any effect upon him except to make him grieve and to increase his hatred for his masters.Caliban can be compared and contrasted with Miranda. They have much in common.
Both have been tutored by Prospero, both have a sensitivity to their spirit and, because of their isolation they both stand in awe of most new situations. Perhaps most important is that they both have a certain innocence about the nature of men. Miranda’s exclamation about this ‘brave new world’ is echoed in Caliban’s ‘These be fine things, an if they be not sprites’. Miranda declares her love for Ferdinand quite frankly, similarly to Caliban’s open-hearted invitation to Stephano and Trinculo offering to be their slave in the same way that he offered to be Prospero’s slave when Prospero first arrived.It could be said that Miranda and Caliban are Prospero’s children; Miranda through nature and nurture and Caliban through nurture alone.
She is destined to retain a natural freshness, simplicity, grace of mind and spirit – all her breeding and her education have made her someone who tends to always express herself and be expressible in spiritual terms. Caliban, on the other hand, is doomed to be impervious to the influence of nurture and education. His breeding, the ‘seed’ from which he comes, is resistant to the beneficial effects of the education by which Prospero hopes to rescue him from his ‘beastly’ condition. Caliban is unhappy, grieves, is angry, for his ‘nurture’ has succeeded only in putting him in a kind of half-state of being.It has been argued that Shakespeare believed with all his mind and heart in an ultimate distinction between ‘good seed’ and ‘bad seed’. No amount of nurture, of education, of tutelage was, for him, able to alter a predestined course of development from source to conclusion.
True, from time to time certainly in his early plays, the ‘bad’ makes a final conversion but the most remarkable characteristic of such conversations is their convenience to the plot-lineCaliban is central to the complex scheme of the play: He is the representative and manifestation of a wild and largely untamed nature. He is the all-natural man, a standard against which civilized man can be measured and in the cases of Antonio and Sebastian, found wanting. The corruption of civilized men is worse than his natural bestiality. He is ugly because he is the product of evil natural magic and yet he holds nobility to a modern audience as we sympathise with his situation and can identify his intelligence through his vocabulary and his eloquence.