As he did in many of his plays, Shakespeare uses The Tempest to ask questions about how well society and nature intersect. Most of the characters in this play exist in a civilized world, although certainly not all of them are civilized. Caliban, though, is referred to several times as a "natural man." What then does it mean in Elizabethan society to be a natural man, to exist as a natural man, as Caliban exists?
Caliban serves to illustrate ideas about the social hierarchy of the Renaissance world, which formulated a socially rigid — and very political — hierarchy of God, king, man, woman, beast. This order was based on the patriarchal tradition and the teachings of religious leaders, which postulate a hierarchical order for mankind based on physiological and physical characteristics. Other means of defining a place within this order were emotional stability and the ability to reason. Based on these definitions, beasts were lower in the evolutionary scale than all humans. According to this rather rigid social hierarchy, Caliban belongs at the bottom of the Elizabethan social hierarchy, having little perceived social worth. And yet, for many critics and students, he dominates The Tempest.
Prospero is really the center of the play, since the other characters relate to one another through him and because he manipulates everyone and everything that happens. The play ends with Prospero's victory over his enemies; he has the most lines, and he speaks the epilogue. Although he has far fewer lines than several other characters, Caliban, at only 100 lines, is often the focus of student interest, as well as that of many critics, often with an importance far greater than his actual presence in the play. Much of this interest reflects the social position of critics, scholars, and students. Whether Caliban is a monster, whether he is a victim of colonialism, or whether he represents some other disadvantaged element of society depends almost entirely on the social and cultural constructs and interests of the reader or audience. An important part of Caliban's appeal is his ambiguity of character.
The audience first learns of Caliban from Prospero's description to Ariel, in which the child of the witch, Sycorax, is described as "A freckled whelp, hag-born — not honoured with / A human shape" (I.2, 285-286). The audience learns more about Caliban's physical description from Trinculo and Stefano, who describe Caliban as less than human. Trinculo asks if the form before him is "a man or a fish?" (II.2, 24), and Stefano describes Caliban as a "moon-calf" (II.2, 104), a deformed creature. But it is not his appearance that makes Caliban monstrous in Prospero's eyes, nor was Caliban treated as a slave — at least not initially. Caliban, himself, relates that Prospero treated him well, teaching him about God when the two first met (I.2, 337-338). But it was Caliban's attack on Miranda that resulted in his enslavement and the change in Caliban's social position. Caliban sees the attempted rape of Miranda as a natural behavior. Had he not been stopped, Caliban would have "peopled else / This isle with Calibans" (I.2, 353-354). Reproductive urges are a natural function of animals, but humans modify their desires with reason and through social constraints. Without reason to modify his impulses, Caliban's behavior aligns him with the animals. Yet, at the same time, he is clearly more than a beast.
Critics make much of Caliban's name as an anagram for cannibal. However that does not mean that Shakespeare defines this character as someone who would eat people, as modern readers may assume. Instead, the Elizabethan meaning of cannibal is better described as someone who is a savage — uncultivated, uncivilized, untamed. Caliban is more closely defined as an innocent — more like a child who is innocent of the world and its code of behavior.
Many stage productions of The Tempest have depicted Caliban in varied ways — from the noble North American Indian, to African, to South American Indian or Mexican. But Shakespeare describes this creature as an innocent — perhaps half man and half fish. Trinculo and Stefano's descriptions are untrustworthy, since the first is frightened by the storm, and the second is drunk. What is clear is that Caliban's behavior suggests many questions about what is natural and what is unnatural. Is the attempted rape of Miranda or the plot to murder Prospero a natural behavior? These acts represent Caliban's attempts to survive, but this is not acceptable behavior among civilized men. These are the actions of wild, untutored animals. Caliban demonstrates no sense of morality nor any ability to understand or appreciate the needs of anyone other than himself. In Caliban's self-centeredness, he is little more than an animal. He wants to indulge his desires, without control. This is what being free means to Caliban, whose cry for freedom (II.2, 177-178) clarifies many of his actions.
Caliban's Relationship with Prospero
In Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry (1580), the author argues that poets have a responsibility to make learning more palatable through their art. Shakespeare fulfills Sidney's requirement by using his plays to explore complex ideas and issues, and thus, he makes learning more palatable for the audience. Prospero does the same thing when he uses his art to make Caliban's learning more palatable. Caliban is never harmed through Prospero's magic, and Prospero prevents Caliban from injuring anyone else. But Caliban does learn, through the use of Prospero's magic, that Trinculo and Stefano are not gods, nor are they honorable men who can be trusted. Trinculo and Stefano are really the dregs of society, useless opportunists, who think only of pleasure and greed. The ending of the play does not suggest their redemption. But the ending does suggest Caliban's. He is finally able to see Trinculo and Stefano for what they are, and he is able to reconcile with Prospero.
Rather than view the relationship between Prospero and Caliban as that of master and victim, consider instead that Prospero uses force to control Caliban not because he wants to dominate or enslave this natural man but because this is the traditional means to subdue a beast. Caliban's behavior is more closely aligned to the beast than to man, and thus, he must be controlled in a similar manner. By the play's conclusion, Prospero must forgive his enemies; this is, after all, a romantic comedy. But if Prospero is to fulfill Sidney's mandate, Caliban must also learn from his master how to be more human. His final speech (V.1, 298-301) indicates he has learned some valuable lessons.
Caliban is not the noble savage that is so often used to describe the victims of social injustice; instead he is the child of the witch Sycorax and the devil. So what is Shakespeare suggesting by making Caliban's parentage a byproduct of black magic and evil? The Tempest suggests that nature is more complex than it seems at first glance. The conclusion works to illustrate the best that human nature has to offer, through resolution and promise. Harmony and order are restored in a world where chaos has reigned — the natural world that Caliban covets. This natural world will be restored, but if the ending of the play is meant to suggest a restoration of order and a return to civilization, what then does the natural world represent?
Maybe this natural world is the world that a child of nature (like Caliban) needs, since he finds harmony there. But the natural world, with its own disorder, is not for everyone. Caliban's world is neither the ideal world nor the antithesis of the civilized world. It is only a different existence, one that Caliban is content to occupy. Perhaps Caliban continues to fascinate the audience and the reader because he is the Other, and there is no easy way to define him or to explain his purpose. Human nature is often brutal, sometimes evil, and perhaps we are meant to understand Caliban as being no better or worse than anyone who is wholly human.
Shakespeare was seemingly unconcerned about Caliban's humanity, or perhaps he just did not want to make understanding of humanity so easy for his audience. Either way, Caliban's meaning will no doubt continue to challenge the reader's preconceived ideas about what is monstrous, what is natural, and what is civilized in the world.