Monstrous, Strange, Human. The Development of Caliban

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Monster, Stranger, Human?

Shakespeare’s Sources: Where did the inspiration come from?

18th century – The Monster

19th century – The Stranger

20th century – The Human Being

21st century – What’s up for Caliban?


Monster, Stranger, Human?

What have Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and Caliban, the savage from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in common? First, they share a variety of guessed ontological background. Second, they represent different interpretations of what it means to be human. The interpretation of the character of Caliban, as it was in the 17th century, differs a lot from nowadays reception. The change of this ambiguous character during the past 400 years is the product of different historical, political and socio-cultural contexts. As Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik stresses, he has a “life of his own, as a cultural icon imbued with a peculiar significance of a character that embodies bestial humanity on the one hand and human monstrosity on the other.”(Kowalcze-Pawlik 54). One of the most uncommon factors that make Caliban appear special in comparison to other plays is Shakespeare’s description of him. As a savage, as he is often called throughout the play and also named in the play’s role list (Arden Shakespeare 140), Caliban is characterized as “[…] barbarous, uneducated, uncivilized” (Shakespeare’s Caliban 8). Right from the first page he is introduced as “a deformed slave” (Shakespeare’s Caliban 140), whereby the word deformed is very open to speculation and the reader’s fantasy. Especially the reception of Caliban’s outer appearance differs a lot from one interpretation to another and will be discussed later in more detail. At this point, it must be mentioned, that Caliban was often portrayed as not only deformed but partly human, partly animal. In later centuries, the focus shifted from alienness to a kind of Neanderthal, then to a completely misunderstood person. This work will give a comparison of the Caliban from the 17th century and his presentation during 400 years until forms of interpretation in the 21st century and show where differences and similarities lay.

Shakespeare’s Sources: Where did the inspiration come from?

The character of Caliban was created in 1611, as part of the Shakespearean drama The Tempest. The play was first performed at court on 1st November 1611 and repeated in winter 1612-1613 on the occasion of the engagement and marriage of Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V. (Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor 132). Not only was this time period characterized by new developments and investigations; also the discovery of the New World had a mentionable impact on the play`s structure, since those explorations had been very present to the author. Shakespeare had contacts to different investors of the Virginia Company of London, which was commissioned to colonize parts of North America (see Shakespeare’s Caliban). Additionally, the descriptions of Antonio Pigafetta of Magellan’s expedition from 1519 to 1522 (firstly translated by Richard Eden in 1555 into English language) might have given first inspiration and insight to what might have appeared as exotic human beings to Western citizens (Arden Shakespeare 40). Therefore, it is very probable that Shakespeare knew authentic descriptions and material about happenings in the New World. It can be said that his inspiration came, among others, from Strachey’s account of a shipwreck on Bermuda in True Reportory (1610) and Metamorphoses of Ovid (Shakespeare’s Caliban 24). Also Discovery of the Bermudas written by Silvester Jourdain, in 1610, and Montaigne’s essay on cannibals (1603) can be seen as probable sources (Shakespeares Caliban 24) that inspired him. The latter hints to the fact that Shakespeare was aware of cannibalism – which would explain the acoustic relation between the words caliban and cannibal – and, through the reception of those reports, he might have learned how native people looked like and maybe even how they used to behave. It has to be pointed out, of course, that these reports always were subjective and written by Europeans, so it is very possible that descriptions of real events and people have been mixed with superstition and the personal world view of the person who wrote the document. In sum, the roots of The Tempest and Caliban can be seen as a mixture of a lot of different cultural, historical and socio-political sources that influenced the play and that are combined with the talent of Shakespeare.

18th century – The Monster

Since there was no technological possibility to record any performance of a play before 1890 (Kilby 1002), the outer appearance of Caliban in the 18th century is open to speculation. The only hints that are given come from observations by contemporary witnesses, such as Samuel Pepys. Between November 1667 and February 1668, he visited the Restoration play The Tempest: Or, The Enchanted Island by John Dryden and William Davenant, which was a renewal of the Shakespearean version and served as a comedy. Here, the character of Trinculo (in the play Duke Trinculo) got more text and a more expanded role, so that the other seamen and Caliban were said to be reduced to one scene, filled with music, dance and cheerfulness (Shakespeare`s Caliban 173-174). Although Pepys visited this adaptation nine times, he only referred once to Caliban in his diary. He briefly mentions that he saw ‘[…] the seamen and the monster […]’ (McAfee 75). The reference of ‘the monster’ might mean that the figure of Caliban was in some way physically deformed. In spring of 1756, David Garrick, manager of the Theatre Royal, presented an adaptation of The Tempest, which reduced the smaller roles even more by emphasizing the main characters like Prospero, and combined it with elements of The Enchanted Island. In this version, which lasted only a year, Trinculo calls Caliban a tortoise, so he might have had the look of an Amphibia (Shakespeare’s Caliban 176).

Another medium to get an image of Prospero’s slave in 18th century was the painting. Though Caliban was not dominating the canvas in the mid-eighteenth century (Shakespeare’s Caliban 218.), he has been painted very often, especially in the 18th and 19th century. Various artists interpreted him (Shakespeare’s Caliban 215), which, as he is a character that is described by his author in a rather free and ambiguous way,' invited to use own imagination. Caliban’s first appearance on a painting is dated around 1736 (Shakespeare’s Caliban 216), when William Hogarth depicted all main characters in one scene. Caliban stands on the right side; his feet have webs and scales that reach up to his knees. Additionally, there are fins implied on his shoulders. The rather amphibious look for Caliban has been chosen by a range of artists for example by Thomas Henry Nicholson (Shakespeare’s Caliban 240) or Wilhelm von Kaulbach (Shakespeare’s Caliban 241). Other interpretations show him as a mixture, that is part human, part reptile, toad or dog.

Not only that those images underline the reports of contemporary witnesses, it also leads to the assumption that Caliban’s look might have been borrowed from the world view of the ancient world, because here, a relation between Minotaur, chimera, satyr and Caliban can be drawn easily. All these characters plus Shakespeare’s creature are man and animal at the same time. It is understandable that one might assume the look and appearance of Caliban was directly linked to the discovery and exploration of the New World.

19th century – The Stranger

There are various theories about the character’s origin. Along with different viewpoints – Caliban might represent the paganization of Christianity or is a combination of three stereotypical ideas as a mixture of an African slave, a monster and the dispossessed Indian or, a less known possibility, he embodies Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and minister of Elizabeth I. as the counterpart to the king and his queen – one of the most popular theories is related to his name. There is no doubt that a certain phonetic similarity between calib and carib is given, which hints to a relationship with native Caribbean people. As such, Caliban would represent a member of the New World. In comparison to this, a second source of the name points to an anagram. If the letters n and l in Caliban change places, the word canibal is formed. With respect to the knowledge, Shakespeare had about the people in the New World; it is possible he gave his character a little hidden description. Associations that are linked to a cannibal are in general images of a rude, brutal and, in a way, dehumanized creature that fit the interpretations of him on stage as they were discussed so far, too well to be ignored or happened by accident (see Shakespeare’s Caliban). Though he surely was depicted and interpreted as an unhuman monster in 18th century, he was too unimportant to the whole play and production to be recognized frequently by eye-witnesses. In some productions, he even used to be off the whole play (see Kowalcze-Pawlik).

At the beginning of the 19th century, he returned again as a monster and he remained being interpreted as some kind of cruel and rude create until 1838. By then, William Charles Macready, who played Caliban before, revived the Shakespearean version. He played Caliban in earlier productions, though he refused to go with the presentation of his character. Macready’s version was distinguished by a Caliban; the audience was able to feel sorry for (Shakespeare’s Caliban 180). Reviewer John Foster described the first scene, Caliban was involved as follows:

“His first discovery in the hole where he is “styed” was singularly picturesque, nor less so was his manner of grabbing out of it to fly on Prospero, whose wand in a moment flung the danger of his fury down, and left him merely dancing mad with impotent rage.” (Foster 70-71)

Due to the very positive reception of contemporary critics, a range of productions, imitating Macready’s, followed. This time span, from 1838 until 1847, when George Bennett played Caliban with an even more humanized touch, can be seen as a turning point in the interpretation and presentation of Caliban. The costumes often still included fangs, webs and fur, but his manner became more human. He transformed into a kind of a man-beast (Shakespeare’s Caliban 181).

From the middle of the 19th century on, The Tempest has been performed not only in Great Britain but in America, too, for example in spring 1854 and 1857. Here, Caliban appeared to be an animal-like creature with a more and more human-like performance (Shakespeare’s Caliban 182 -183). By the end of the century, Caliban became the missing link in evolution theory due to upcoming Darwinism and the zeitgeist as its consequence. In fact, F. R. Benson studied the movements of monkeys in a nearby zoo to prepare for the role of Caliban, which shows that, in the 1890’s; the character was no longer perceived as a monster, but as a pre- form of human being (Shakespeare’s Caliban 185).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Monstrous, Strange, Human. The Development of Caliban
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Postkoloniale Literatur/Kultur
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Caliban, The Tempest, Der Sturm, Shakespeare, Englische Literatur
Quote paper
Susann Doerschel (Author), 2017, Monstrous, Strange, Human. The Development of Caliban, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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