The Character of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest
Caliban is one of the most interesting of Shakespeare’s characters. For centuries, scholars have puzzled over the meaning and importance of this central character. Who or what is this creature? Is he a man or a beast (Peterson, p.2)? Most of the people who have debated this question take the question itself at face value. Caliban is either a man or a beast. The other characters in the play dismiss him as a "poisonous slave," "savage," and "hag-seed" (Act 1, Scene 2), but that does not mean that the reader must do so as well. Let us take a closer look at Caliban the individual and evaluate the question of his humanity. In the end, I think we will see that Caliban is just as human as the other characters in the play.
The first charge against Caliban is his shape. Prospero beckons him come by shouting, "What ho! Slave, Caliban!/ Thou earth, thou, speak!...Come thou tortoise!" Prospero does not even deign to place him among humankind; instead he is called "earth" as if he is part of the very ground-- the dirt that Prospero rules. Later, Trinculo calls him "A strange fish" and Stephano refers to him as a "monster of the isle with four legs." (2,2) Indeed, Caliban is never spoken of without some dehumanizing adjective added to the address. I would, however like to challenge the notion of his ugliness. During Shakespeare's day, there was a very narrow, very specific concept of beauty. For example, a woman was usually considered most beautiful if she was very fair. This showed that she was not exposed to the sun through any type of common labor and thus signified her gentility. To most of Elizabethan England, this concept of beauty was the only concept of beauty. As a modern audience, this is something we must remember when reading and interpreting the text. It is quite plausible that the only flaw in Caliban's appearance is lies in the fact that he is different from the European ideal and, therefore, ugly.
Prospero, ruler of the island, maintains his power through the written word. His books are his validation. Caliban, on the other hand, did not even know how to speak Prospero's language until Miranda taught him. This is seen as a major flaw. However, by the time we meet Caliban, the eloquence with which he speaks is undeniable. ...