Caliban - his representation in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and three film versions

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003
26 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of contents

0. Introductory remarks

1. General information about the play

2. Short summary of “The Tempest“

3. Caliban: the character in Shakespeare’s play
3.1. General facts about Caliban
3.2. Caliban seen by other characters
3.3. Caliban the slave and servant

4. Film versions of “The Tempest”
4.1. John Gorrie’s “The Tempest”
4.1.1. General remarks about John Gorrie’s “The Tempest”
4.1.2. John Gorrie’s Caliban
4.2. Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest”
4.2.1. General remarks about Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest”
4.2.2. Derek Jarman’s Caliban
4.3. Jack Bender’s “The Tempest”.
4.3.1. General remarks about Jack Bender’s “The Tempest”
4.3.2. Jack Bender’s Caliban

5. Comparison

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

0. Introductory remarks

This paper on Shakespeare’s Caliban from “The Tempest” aims at examining whether, and if in how far, the description and depiction of this character in the printed version and the film adaptations by John Gorrie, Derek Jarman and Jack Bender differ from each other.

After a short summary of the play “The Tempest”, general information about the play will be given.

In the main part, the description and depiction of the character Caliban, his outward appearance and his character as well as his relation to other characters from the original play, will be of interest. But the focus will lie on Caliban’s representation in different film versions of “The Tempest”, especially on John Gorrie’s adaptation of 1980, Derek Jarman’s of 1979 and Jack Bender’s adaptation of 1999.

Towards the end, the comparison between Caliban in the printed version and Caliban in the film versions examined will be of importance.

1. General information about the play

“The Tempest” probably was written in 1610-1611 and it was first performed on the 1. November 1611 in London during the celebrations of the marriage of King James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to the Elector Palatine. The shortness of the play, the masques, the music and the elaborate scenery are indicators for its having been devised especially for the Court (see Sokolova, 124). “The Tempest” is one of the two plays by Shakespeare whose plot is entirely original (see sparknotes: Context).

As far as content is concerned, the play draws on the accounts of a tempest off the Bermudas that nearly wrecked a fleet of colonial ships. Colonialism is also important in the whole play: Every character is concerned with how he would rule the island if he was the king of it (see sparknotes: Context).

On the one hand, “The Tempest” is said to be Shakespeare’s last completed work, his farewell to and anticipation of his life outside the stage. Critics consider it to be his best comic achievement, a play with a wealth of intelligence and good humour.

On the other hand, Shakespeare has worked on two other plays (“The Two Noble Kinsmen” and “Henry VIII”) after finishing “The Tempest” (see sparknotes: Context), probably with John Fletcher.

“The Tempest” first appeared in print in the 1623 Folio and is even today available in the form of books, videos and DVD.

2. Short summary of “The Tempest“

A storm strikes a ship carrying Alonso, Ferdinand, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, Stephano and Trinculo, who are on their way back to Italy coming from Tunis, Africa. They all fear for their lives and prepare to sink when they realise that the ship has been damaged.

Meanwhile, Miranda and Prospero observe the catastrophe. Miranda demands from her father to do whatever possible to help the endangered people on the ship. Prospero tells her that it was him who conjured up the storm and reveals the story of her past to her, a story she has never heard up to the end and which happened twelve years ago. The story is that Prospero was once the right Duke of Milan until his brother Antonio, with Alonso’s help, usurped his position. But Prospero was at least able to flee with his daughter and with the books that are his source of his magic and power. They finally reached the island in the Mediterranean Sea they are still living on with their two servants, Ariel, an airy spirit, and Caliban, a savage creature.

And now Prospero has raised the tempest which sent his enemies to him in order to make things right with them again. When they arrive on the island, the shipwrecked are separated into three groups due to the tempest but encounter each other by chance in the course of the play. When Ferdinand meets Miranda, the two of them fall in love and soon get married.

Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban plan to kill Prospero, take his daughter and set Stephano up as king of the island. At the same time at another place, Antonio and Sebastian plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo. Ariel, however, prevents both murders from being committed through his music and brings the men before Prospero who finally forgives Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian and releases Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano. Prospero himself is restored to his dukedom.

After that, the shipwrecked group and Prospero and his daughter decide to return to Italy. Prospero gives Ariel a final task – to make sure the sea is calm for their trip - and sets him free. Only Caliban stays on the island.

3. Caliban: The character in Shakespeare’s play

3.1. General facts about Caliban

Among Shakespeare’s stage characters, Caliban has been interpreted in many diffeent ways. He has been represented in the theatre and in literary criticism as a fish, a tortoise, an American Indian, and an African slave (

Caliban is not the most important character in the play but a very essential one though. This becomes obvious already when looking at Spevack’s analysis about which percentage of the words in the play covered by each character. In here it was found out that Caliban speaks more – even if only slightly more – words than all the other characters except for Prospero who speaks around 29% of the spoken words. Although he has a scant 177 lines of text ‘only’ (as compared to Prospero’s 653 verses), and although he appears in only five of the nine scenes, Caliban is central to the plot of the play (see Solokova, 7). One can state that already the structuring of the text and the way of dividing the amount of dialogue show the importance that is attributed to Caliban.

He is said to be one of the most abstract and wildest characters of Shakespeare (

Originally, Caliban is the name that comes from older travel literature from the Westindian aborigines, the “caribans” or “cannibals” ( Neis, 91). The name Caliban can also be considered a translation or an anagram – a word the letters of which can be rearranged into another word or phrase - of the word ‘cannibal’ (see Cheyfitz, 41). The word cannibal appeared for the first time in Columbus’s journals in 1492. There, it meant a human who eats another human’s flesh (see Cheyfitz, 42). However, it is unclear where the word comes from as Columbus did not have any empirical evidence for it (42). Cheyfitz considers Caliban to be derived from the European imagination of someone who is close to nature and savagery, that is to say a wild man (61). The French essayist Michel de Montaigne, in contrast to this viewpoint, sees Caliban as a figure itself. In his essay “Of Cannibals” he points out that there is nothing that is barbarous and/ or savage by nature but that “men call that barbarisme [sic], which is not common to them” and which is not in use in their own country (see “Of Cannibals”: All the people only have the ideas, opinions and customs of the place they live in with “the perfect religion, [...] the perfect government, [...] the most exact and accomplished usage of all things” (see “Of Cannibals”: They regard their ideas as the only true ones. But those who are different from the imagined ideal can also be savages. To explain this point, Montaigne applies the example of fruits: “[...] we say fruit [sic] are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order” (see “Of Cannibals”:

Consequently, in Montaigne’s opinion, savage is what humanity considers to be that way but actually not the thing itself. As he points out, “ the term barbarians is utterly subjective and therefore often used inapropriately“. A tribe or a person practicing forms of cannibalism are for sure no barbarians in their own culture, their way of life and their way of thinking (see: “Of Cannibals”: He himself produces the “noble savage”. The cannibals he thinks of do not speak primitively or utter things with a quiet voice. It is rather that Montaigne dramatises them and they have a good kind of eloquence (see Cheyfitz, 144).

As far as Caliban’s origin is concerned, it is said in the play that Caliban is the son of an Algerian witch who worked her magic on the island after she had been exiled from Algeria. Therefore, her son is born to be a slave and an evil creature. He can neither give a kind answer (I, ii, 310) nor can he be civilised in any way (see Sokolova, 133). The name of his mother, Sycorax, comes from Greek and means ‘go hang’ or ‘go to hell’, the last being the progenitor of the malformed “cannibal” (see Sokolova, 132). The devil is said to be his father (see Vaughan and Vaughan, 15). The combination of his parents already makes the interpretation possible that devil-like traits can be assigned to Caliban. He is half a devil that is a born devil.

3.2 . Caliban seen by other characters

Caliban is an ambiguous and enigmatic character. One cannot know for sure what he really looks like or whether he is rather animal-like or human. Nevertheless, some of the characters’ statements help the reader get a better understanding of his outward appearance and his character.

Generally speaking, Hunt considers the whole character with its behaviour and being as a “sad case“ (a, 109). Knapp even sees Caliban as a beastly creature (225) and a “thing of darkness“ (229). In the play, Caliban is mostly described by pejorative adjectives such as shallow, weak, credulous, most perfidious and drunken, puppy-headed, scurvy, abominable, ridiculous, howling, ignorant and lost. These adjectives are usually linked with the word ‘monster’ which appears about forty times in the whole play to refer to Caliban. In contrast to that, the only positive adjective at all used to describe Caliban is when Caliban is said to be “brave”. But it is meant in a sarcastic way then (see Vaughan and Vaughan, 14) so that it can be stated that – all in all - Caliban is regarded as a negative being, a savage. Concluding the meaning of the word savage from the content of the play, one can say that Caliban is regarded as culturally inferior, wild, barbarous, uneducated, undomesticated and uncivilised (see Vaughan and Vaughan, 8).

As far as Caliban’s outward appearance is concerned, he is referred to as a creature “legg’d like a man! And his fins like arms” by the jester Trinculo (II, ii, 32). Caliban describes himself as a creature with “long nails to dug pignuts” (II, ii, 162). But he has a human form (see Vaughan and Vaughan, 10). Caliban is established as the only human-shaped creature on the island until Prospero and Miranda arrived.


Then was this island –

Save for the son that she did litter here,

A freckled whelp hag-born – not honour’d with

A human shape. (I, 2, 281-283)

When Miranda shouts: „This is the third man that e’er I saw, the first that e’er I sigh’d for“ (I, ii, 445-447) when seeing Ferdinand for the first time, all doubts about Caliban’s form are supposed to be removed. If she says that Ferdinand is the third man, her father and Caliban have to be the other two as these are the only ones she remembers to have ever seen in her life. However, at a later point in time, she tells Ferdinand that she has only seen two men, her father and him (III, i, 50-52) and thus excludes Caliban again so that the doubts about his form come up again. But him being human and male is underlined again by the fact that he tried to abuse and violate Miranda (I, ii, 349-350).


Excerpt out of 26 pages


Caliban - his representation in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and three film versions
University of Potsdam  (Anglistics)
Hauptseminar für Literaturwissenschaft: “The Tempest – Shakespeare’s play and its film versions“
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
543 KB
Caliban, Shakespeare, Tempest, Hauptseminar, Literaturwissenschaft, Shakespeare’s
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Julia Hansens (Author), 2003, Caliban - his representation in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and three film versions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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