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Colonialisation in the Tempest Part 3

Updated on January 16, 2015


However, Caliban is perhaps the strongest symbol of Post colonialism. Caliban’s parentage complicates further the effort to identify his nature and portray his appearance. Prospero mentions that his mother, Sycorax, is a witch while his father is a devil. This lineage invokes the image of Caliban as a creature that is half human and half-devil. In sum, analysis of textual descriptions can paint an ambiguous image of Caliban.

And Caliban has generated such varied stage manifestations is understandable given the ambiguities in Shakespeare’s text itself. In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero addresses Caliban for the first time as a tortoise: “Come, thou tortoise” (I.ii.379). Prospero also calls Caliban a “mis-shapen knave” (V.i.268). On several occasions, the play refers to Caliban’s appearance and his fish-like features. Trinculo initially identifies him as a fish-like monster who is “legged like a man; and his fins like arms” (II.ii.25-35), although he finally concludes that Caliban must be an islander who has been deformed by a thunderbolt. Stephano’s impression of Caliban is also animal-like:

“This is some monster of the isle with four legs,

who hath got, as I take it, an ague”


Caliban, a native of the island, regards himself as the rightful owner of the place. He bluntly states: "This Island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me." He is forced against his will to serve Prospero and Miranda. Initially, Prospero extends to Caliban his European hospitality, teaches him language, and, in return, is shown all the natural resources of the island by Caliban. But Caliban refuses to live by Prospero's rules, tries to rape Miranda.

This perceived threat highlight the image of the native as a rapist. Faced with this accusation Caliban appears to admit his guilt, remarking:

O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!

Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else

This isle with Calibans


This acknowledgment justifies his confinement for the sake of his own education, and if the play is read with colonialism as its background, the same justification can be made for subjugating any colonized peoples. This scene thus reveals that the figure of Caliban is created out of a paradigm that potentially justifies colonialism.

Any ways, Caliban is rightly humiliated and punished at the end of the play when he gets dunked in horse-urine. He even recognizes that his rebellion was a sin against the law of god and nature and the great chain of being:

“I’ll be wise hereafter

And seek for grace.

What a thrice-double ass

Was I to take this drunkard for a god,

And worship this dull fool!”(Shakespeare, p.167)

The vagueness of Shakespeare’s description of Caliban’s deformities has invited various interpretations of what Caliban must look like. Various production documentations describe his many stage portrayals. A report from 1667 mentions that Caliban was represented as a monster, while a production in 1874 presented Caliban as half man and half beast; another document mentions that in a 1895 production Caliban was staged as “half monkey, half coco-nut” (Vaughan and Vaughan 172-185). Presumably, most of Caliban’s stage representations from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century were animal-like, as suggested by Malone:

“The dress worn by this character, which doubtless was originally prescribed b the poet himself, and has been continued, I believe, since his time, is a large bearskin, or the skin of some other animal; and he is usually represented with long shaggy hair.” (qtd. in Vaughan and Vaughn 391)

The stage interpretation of Caliban as half human and half animal may have something to do with the travel books of the period that described the New World inhabitants and their strange customs and dress. Such stagings of Caliban already evidenced seeds of colonialism, because the description of the Other as sub-human assumed that the native inhabitants needed England tutelage for their betterment as human beings.

The half-animal Caliban shows that Shakespeare and subsequent performers viewed the inhabitants of the New World through a European, ethnocentric lens.

Racial differences

The Tempest is a classic example of Shakespeare’s dichotomized notions of right and wrong within the context of racial inherencies, a social commentary of the colonialism of the New World. An important theme in the play is the racial differentiation between Caliban and the other antagonists, primarily, Prospero, who comes to the island and enslaves Caliban to enforce his own rule.

This relationship, as portrayed through the play, is a reflection of the historical social and racial tensions that existed between the colonizers of New Europe and the Native Americans and is illustrated through the language employed by Shakespeare and the interactions that take place between the characters.

The Tempest sets a template to describe the hierarchy of society and the subsequent construction of racial differences, which continue to be evident in modern society, ultimately reinforcing the Shakespearean outline for social construct exemplified by The Tempest.

Both the linguistic meanings inherent in his very name and the subsequent characterization serve as the most immediate and obvious strategy employed in the dehumanization of Caliban. The name Caliban itself is worthy of attention because it draws parallels to the word cannibal, implying barbaric, inhumane, and savage behavior.

Shakespeare continues with this negative portrayal of Caliban through the physical depiction as given by Prospero: “A freckled whelp, hag-born -not honored with A human shape.” (24) This initial description of Caliban creates an image in the mind of the reader of an animal like creature that is inferior and unworthy.

Racial difference is of three stapes here in The Tempest Prospero is the rank one who comes two the island invades and rules. Ariel is rank two and Caliban is rank three. Both of them are enslaved by the rank one Prospero.

Racial difference is clear enough even between the two colonized creatures Ariel and Caliban. The description of these two characters is far different. One is made of air and another is deformed. We see that Prospero deals Ariel and Caliban differently. He performs the artistic and magical works with the help of Ariel and for all the hard laboure, filthy and brutal work he uses Caliban.

The dehumanization of Caliban is further propagated by the questioning of his morality which is brought into reference by his attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Prospero initially served as a caring teacher until Caliban defied him:

“I have used


Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate

The honour of my child. (I.ii.76)

Before that, we see Prospero educates Caliban which is another tool of colonization.


Language and religion were always the effective tools of colonization. Here in the play The Tempest also we see when Prospero invades the Island of Caliban he never tries to learn his language or culture. Rather Prospero teaches Caliban his own language, tries to educate Caliban with his own culture. Caliban justly says that,

“You taught me language and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!”s


We see Caliban understands well that the moment he has learnt Prospero’s language, his misfortune began. Prospero teaches Caliban, his language to make Caliban to obey his order.

We see Prospero uses different sets of language for different persons. The language he uses to Miranda and the language he uses to Caliban are totally different. He uses dominating language to Ariel and Caliban.

As all the colonizers use language, religion and culture as their deceptive tools of colonization, Prospero does the same. He teaches Caliban his own the language and culture and even the norms and values. He uses rough and filthy language to Caliban and some deceptive and black mailing language to Ariel and make both of them obey his orders.


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