Caliban's two faces in Shakespeare's play "The Tempest"

Academic Paper, 2016

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7

N. Felicissimus (Author)


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Caliban the beast

3 Caliban the noble savage

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“A savage and deformed slave.”

Shakespeare uses exactly these words to describe 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 as the victim of an imperial tyrant - personified by Prospero - who arouses the spectator’s pity?

Among Shakespeare’s stage characters, Caliban has been interpreted in many different ways. He has been represented in theatre and in literary criticism as a fish, a tortoise, an American Indian, and an African slave. He is said to be one of the most abstract and wildest characters in Shakespeare’s plays. (Wilson 2014 3; Sokolova 1992 7)

In this paper Caliban will be considered as both a beast and a noble savage, a figure which cannot be one without the other. Firstly, his role as a beast will be taken into account followed by a closer analysis of him being a so-called noble savage. Thereby each chapter will start with a short cultural background as well as the most important scholarly positions which will be complemented afterwards by close reading of relevant text passages in The Tempest. In chapter two Montaigne’s essay “Of cannibals” will be the main reference, however, other scholars will be mentioned, as well, as either a support or an opposite standpoint.

2 Caliban the beast

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. (Lindley und Gibbons 2013 16) 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 with its debut in 1667. This version was called The Tempest or The Enchanted Isle, included less than a third of Shakespeare’s original folio text and changed the plot and the cast of characters considerably. However, the majority of the English theatre audiences believed that the Davenant-Dryden rewriting was identical to Shakespeare’s original until William Macready started to stage the original folio text in 1838, about 150 years later. (Keenan 67-72) The most striking adaption by the duo was the newly introduced character Hippolito, a foster-son of Prospero. He is depicted as wild but willing to be educated and therefore rather likeable. According to Vaughan Hippolito is “an uncivilized but handsome young man, [who] represented for Restoration audiences humanity in a state of nature. (Vaughan und Vaughan 1996 91) Interestingly, Hippolito meets most of the requirements of a noble savage -the term will be closer analysed in chapter two - whereas Caliban is presented as a stubborn, uneducable beast. In the dramatis personae Caliban appears as “the monster of the isle”. (Dryden und Davenant 1969) Apparently, Caliban is altered to stress the contrast between an ignorant, monstrous savage and the educable, noble one. This image of Caliban was predominant for almost 200 years, but what about the original Shakespeare text?

First of all Caliban is introduced as the son of the Algerian witch Sycorax and the devil itself and can, therefore, be considered as a creature that genuinely inherited the evil. As Vaughan and Vaughan express it “wild men were thought to be products of unnatural union” (see Vaughan und Vaughan 1996 70) Moreover, Hunt interprets the whole character as a “sad case“ (Hunt 1990 109) and Knapp understands Caliban as a “beastly creature” and a “thing of darkness“ (Knapp 1994 225; 229). In the play, Caliban is mostly described by pejorative adjectives such as shallow, weak, credulous, most perfidious, drunken, puppy-headed, scurvy, abominable, ridiculous, howling, and ignorant or lost. These adjectives are usually linked with the word “monster” which appears about forty times in the whole play to refer to Caliban.

Some passages within the play support this negative view of him. For instance, Caliban urges Stephano to kill Prospero in order to take revenge for the cruelties Prospero did to him. As a countermove he promises Stephano to become the new master of the island and Miranda’s husband:

Caliban: I say, by sorcery he got this isle. From me he got it. If thy [Stephano’s] greatness will Revenge it on him [Prospero] - for I know thou dar’st, But this thing dare not -[…] Thou shall be lord of it, and I’ll serve thee. (3.2.50-55)

Unscrupulously does Caliban provide Stephano with the perfect plan to murder Prospero and inherit his power:

Caliban: Yea, yea, my lord, I’ll yield him thee asleep, Where thou mayst knock a nail into his head. (3.2.58-59)

By mentioning Miranda’s beauty and promising that she would become Stephano’s wife and give birth to his children, Caliban finally succeeds and convinces Stephano to commit the murder.

In the beginning, Caliban seems to be driven by his licentious passion when he once tried to rape Miranda but was stopped by Prospero:

Prospero: Thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child

Caliban: O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done; Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else This isle with Calibans. (1.2.348-52)

This passage is very often cited to prove Caliban’s monstrosity and should show that he is an evil, animal-like beast following only his sexual drive. Furthermore, Caliban lacks any sort of bad conscience concerning the attempted rape but rather would try to do it again.

His behaviour appears even more brutish since Miranda once taught him how to speak and tried to civilise him step by step. However, according to Miranda and Prospero, his devilish nature can never be overcome by education:

Miranda: Thy vile race; Though thou didst learn, had that in’t with good natures Could not abide to be with (1.2.361-63)

Throughout the play the question whether or not Caliban is a human being at all arises frequently. Stephano refers to him as a “mooncalf” indicating that Caliban is not very bright but rather primitive while Trinculo wonders whether he is actually a fish: “What have we here - a man or a fish? […] he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fishlike smell”. (2.2.24-26) Obviously, the fish metaphor serves as a vivid image for Caliban’s unkempt appearance. However, Browning states that Caliban is indeed an amphibian that lives on the margins of humanity being half human and half fish but that has human character traits such as selfishness. (see Vaughan und Vaughan 1996 109) Especially Prospero provides Caliban with several epithets, which have all in common that they are negative and cruel, e.g. “a freckled whelp, hag-born not honoured with a human shape”. (1.2.283f) Although Prospero denies Caliban’s human shape, he seems to possess at least some of it.

3 Caliban the noble savage

Despite all these negative traits Caliban undoubtedly shows throughout the play there are some scholars who perceive him as a so-called “noble savage”. This term was first mentioned in the play The Conquest of Granada (1672) by Dryden, the same who adapted The Tempest as mentioned in the chapter before. (Ellingson 2001 54) The OED defines the term as following: “A representative of primitive mankind as idealized in Romantic literature, symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilization”. And Michel de Montaigne coined this image in his essay Of Cannibals which was translated into English and published in London in 1603. Shakespeare probably knew this essay since The Tempest was performed ten years afterwards. This makes Montaigne an important source and base for a holistic interpretation of Caliban. In his work he describes the experiences made by his servant who had been spending over a decade among Brazilian natives.

In short, the author criticises the decadent, arrogant and wrong view of most Europeans who consider every race and people outside the old world as primitive, stupid and barbarous. On the contrary, these peoples live in perfect harmony with nature and make no differences based on birth or property according to Montaigne’s observation. There are many reasons why this text can be applied to the role of Caliban.


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Caliban's two faces in Shakespeare's play "The Tempest"
University of Würzburg
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The Tempest, Shakespeare, Caliban, savage
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N. Felicissimus (Author), 2016, Caliban's two faces in Shakespeare's play "The Tempest", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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