Comparing Shakespeare's Caliban to the African-American
Caliban, immediately introduced as "poisonous slave," "savage," "hag-seed," is a character often likened to the African- American slave. The ease and matter-of-factness with which Prospero and Miranda dismiss him is painfully obvious even before he enters the scene (Act 1, Scene 3). Through no fault of his own, Caliban is dehumanized by the authority of his day and dismissed by the important members of his society. He looks much different from the others on the island, so he is not seen as a true human being; in fact, his only redemption lies in the fact that he is able to learn the language in order to serve the master.
The predicament in which the black American found himself undoubtedly resounded in painful familiarity to Shakespeare's Caliban, so it is quite understandable that writers would paint a picture of Caliban as the oppressed African- American slave. There are many similarities that African- Americans share with Caliban. One issue that bears remarkable similarities is the issue of identity. For the African- American, "Alienated from the world to which he is born and from the country of which he is a citizen, yet surrounded by the successful values of that world, and country, how can the Negro define himself?" (Penn, p.17) Caliban, while he was not taken from his homeland, his homeland was taken from him and ruled by people very different from him socially and physically. As a result, he was told that his appearance and way of life were unacceptable. Instead, he was forced to conform to a culture of which he could never truly be a part. One would imagine that Caliban's sense of identity was severely jeopardized.
Out of this idea falls another commonality between Caliban and the African- American. They share the sense of cultural split. In his book, Who Speaks for the Negroes? Robert Penn quotes Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk. He sums up this concept beautifully: "It is a particular sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One never feels the two-ness-- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." (Penn, p.19)
The lack of social power seen in Caliban is mirrored in African- American history. With their enslavement, African- Americans were not allowed to progress as were their white counterparts. (Sargent, p.73) Like the black American, Caliban, was forced to do the bidding of his European rulers, and since he was not considered an important human being, he had no social power with which to combat his oppression.
The figure of Caliban and his oppression is similar to that of the African in America, but in treating the subject, we must not fail to mention the...