Is He a Monster? - Caliban in William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

Seminar Paper, 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1. Introduction

2. Caliban and The Tempest on The Stage and in Literary Criticism
2.1 General Remarks
2.2 Caliban as a Monster – Restoration Era and Early Eighteenth Century
2.3 Caliban as a Noble Savage – Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century
2.4 Caliban as a “Vehicle for Philosophical Speculation” – Late Nineteenth Century
2.5 Caliban as Colonial Victim – Twentieth Century
2.6 Stopover after Part One

3. Aspects of Shakespeare’s Caliban
3.1 Caliban as a Monster
3.2 Caliban as Educable Savage
3.3 Caliban’s Appearance
3.4 Caliban as Colonial Victim

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“A salvage and deformed slave.” With these words William Shakespeare describes the figure of Caliban in the dramatis personæ of his play The Tempest. For almost four centuries, literary critics have dealt with trying to answer the question how Shakespeare’s character has to be regarded. Is Caliban to be considered as a monster representing humanity’s bestial side including all its vices, and thereby arousing the audience’s disgust? Or has he rather to be looked at the victim of an imperial tyrant – personified in Prospero – who arouses the spectator’s pity? In which way Shakespeare really intended Caliban to be was, is and will ever be a secret he took to his grave. However, the reception history of the play has proven that Shakespeare’s presentation of the characters – especially Caliban – opened up a large scope for various, often contradicting interpretations of the “slave.” Thus, the following paper analyses the play with regard to the basic question whether or not Caliban is a monster.

It is divided into two parts. The first one concentrates only on how Shakespeare’s drama The Tempest in general and the character of Caliban in particular have been staged and interpreted throughout the last barely four centuries of reception. For this purpose, a small selection of representations of the play on stage and in editions are introduced and discussed, which show the major strands and general tendencies of Caliban’s changing interpretations in the course of time. One of the main changes in Caliban’s interpretation is the difference of reading the character in colonial and in post-colonial eras. After the end of the Second World War and after most of the world’s colonies had been released and gained their independence, Caliban’s role within the play and the interpretation of the whole, changed considerably. Thus, my analysis puts special emphasis on the contrast of colonial and post-colonial reading of the play.

The second part concentrates only on Shakespeare’s Caliban, that is, by a closer look on the bare material Shakespeare left us, an analysis of how Shakespeare intended his character to be. Of course this can and therefore will only be speculative, as Shakespeare obviously never stated his intention during his lifetime. In this part, it is mainly discussed which passages in the play suggest that Shakespeare indeed created a monster or whether the contrary is true that Caliban is rather a victim.

2. Caliban and The Tempest on The Stage and in Literary Criticism

2.1 General Remarks

The way of representing Caliban’s figure on the stage has traditionally heavily influenced the interpretation of the play as a whole as well as Caliban’s as an individual character. When considering Caliban’s role on the stage, one has always to bear in mind that there are no references of the play in performance between 1613 and 1667. The only recorded early stagings of The Tempest took place at court in 1611 for King James and in 1613 to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth. But knowledge of how the characters were presented in these two performances are rather poor. Thus, criticism and interpretation of the play is mainly based on the first rewriting of the drama by William Davenant and John Dryden during the Restoration Era. This version, which was first staged in 1667, included only less than a third of Shakespeare’s original folio text published in 1623. Although it consequently changed the plot and the cast of characters considerably, the Davenant-Dryden version was frequently performed for almost two centuries. As many editions of The Tempest also printed this text, most English theatre audiences as well as readers came finally to believe that the Davenant-Dryden rewriting was identical to Shakespeare’s original. Regardless of how their version differs from Shakespeare’s, which will subsequently be analysed in detail, it becomes obvious how Davenant and Dryden determined the whole reception history of The Tempest. Since only in 1838, that is, after more than one and a half centuries Davenant-Dryden-predominance in theatres and editions, William Macready was the first one to stage the play in the original Shakespeare folio text. Afterwards the Davenant-Dryden version became less and less important and influential, as gradually more and more theatre directors and editors based their versions rather on the original Shakespeare text again.

In the following section, I give a general overview of the stage history of The Tempest by means of some very selected theatre adaptations which still demonstrate the main strand of interpretation at that time. The special emphasis shall of course lie on the interpretation of Caliban.

2.2 Caliban as A Monster - Restoration Era and Early Eighteenth Century

Since it became already obvious that the rewriting by William Davenant and John Dryden was the most important early version of Shakespeare’s play and the same time a precursor for all the adaptations that came afterwards, it is necessary to have a closer look on this version, for a start.

As already pointed out under 2.1, Davenant and Dryden only used less than a third of the text written by Shakespeare and therefore changed the rest completely. They altered even the drama’s title and called it The Tempest or The Enchanted Isle. Their extensive adaptation had of course a considerable impact on the plot itself as well as on the cast of characters. The main action was changed by providing Miranda with a sister called Dorinda. Much more important for this paper’s topic is the adding of a foster-son for Prospero whose name is Hippolito. He is uncivilized like Caliban, had lived in a reef on the island and had never seen a woman. This addition of another uncivilized character heavily affected the interpretation of Caliban, as Hippolito is savage but educable, all in all a young man who arouses the audiences’ sympathies. Vaughan describes Hippolito’s role in the play as follows: He is “an uncivilized but handsome young man, [who] represented for Restoration audiences humanity in a state of nature” (Vaughan 1991: 91). In short, Hippolito reflects the image of the noble savage.

Since the issues of the savage man are almost completely shifted towards Hippolito, Caliban’s role is, generally speaking, heavily reduced. He is staged as the ignorant, uneducable monster representing ignorance combined with the traits of humanity’s bestial side. Moreover, the dramatis personæ of Davenant-Dryden no longer characterizes Caliban as a “salvage and deformed slave.” Together with his added sister Sycorax they are described as the “monsters of the isle.” It seems that Davenant and Dryden altered him to stress the contrast between Caliban and Hippolito, in order to emphasize the difference between an ignorant, monstrous savage and the educable, noble one. Or as Vaughan states it:

In contrast to Shakespeare’s Caliban, who appreciates the island’s natural treasures and its wondrous music, Dryden and Davenant’s monster is insensitive to everything. His speeches are drastically cut. He is primarily a lackey to Stephano and Triculo, whose parts are greatly expanded. Caliban embodies little humanity except its worst vices. (Vaughan 1991: 92)

For the next one and a half centuries the Davenant-Dryden version held both stage and editions. It influenced not only theatre-goers but also critics who probably wrote about Shakespeare’s original but had this adaptation in their mind. Even theatre audiences and readers did accept the portrayal of Caliban as a monster. Together with their experience of slavery in reality and their feeling of superiority towards them, “Caliban’s enslavement [in the drama] was the logical result of his depravity, his rightful station in a natural hierarchy of reason over passion, virtue over vice, civility over savagery” (Vaughan 1991: 105) An assumption that was widespread among theatre-goers and had never been challenged for a long time. However, with the beginning of the romantic period in England, interpretations began to change.


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Is He a Monster? - Caliban in William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'
University of Tubingen  (Englisches Seminar)
Proseminar II Literatur: The World and Shakespeare
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Monster, Caliban, William, Shakespeare, Tempest, Proseminar, Literatur, World, Shakespeare
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Sandra Graf (Author), 2004, Is He a Monster? - Caliban in William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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