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Updated on December 19, 2009

Shakespeare portrays Caliban as a natural man ‘on whose nature, nurture can never stick.’ This essay will explore the presentation of Caliban’s character and how it contrasts with that of the (so-called) civilised characters.

In this his final play Shakespeare is once again concerned with subversion and disorder. Here the focus is upon which is superior; the civilised nurtured man or the uncivilised ‘natural man’. Those in favour of the cultivated nurtured man present the ‘natural man’ as being primitive, barbaric and unrestrained whereas the cultured man is quality in character, enlightened, dignified and forward-thinking. On the other hand supporters of the natural man portray him as being uncontrived, unaltered, genuine, incorruptible and the civilised man as being distorted, pretentious and with a cunning that allows him to hide his evil actions and habits.

The parallel debates over whether behaviour owes more to genes or environment and whether nurture is superior to nature are as old as the earliest studies of the nature of man. The quotation in question suggests that Caliban is a man of nature indeed one who is sub-natural or unnatural and further that he is one who is not be capable of being civilised, cultured, educated or enlightened. In this respect, nature is seen in a negative way; that is base whereas nurture is positive and superior as it is about moulding people, about cultivating better-quality beings. This essay will examine whether the statement posed it actually true of Caliban, that is whether Caliban is a truly naturalised character or whether nurture affects his character. Further this essay will examine whether ‘nurture’ is perfect and nature imperfect and the relationship between both.

The play investigates the clash between nature and Art. Via a contrast between Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand on the one side and Caliban on the otherhand.

The play introduces in Act 1:2 Caliban as an unruly, dehumanised being, he is rebellious, insubordinate and wicked:

‘Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself

Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!’ (Act1.2)

He compares directly with the elegance, poise and good manners of Prospero.

Whilst the character traits highlighted above make Caliban unique when compared with other characters; it is this uniqueness that is considered to be odious and distasteful especially when measured against Prospero. Prospero is at face value the complete opposite of Caliban. He is a cultivated man, the yardstick against whom others will be measured it is therefore unsurprising that a comparison is made between the two characters.

The heated and highly entertaining exchange between Caliban and Prospero in Act 1:2 refers to the ability to be educated. Prospero has set out to educate his daughter out of fatherly duty; to make her a better person, and so she can become a fine young woman and Caliban perhaps out of pity and/or guilt. Immediately Shakespeare forces a comparison between Miranda and Caliban. Miranda benefits greatly from her education the suggestion is perhaps that this is possible because she is capable of being moulded and styled according her father’s vision, perhaps also because she has a noble nature to begin with. But the very fact that Caliban has gained knowledge and expertise of this foreign language of Prospero means that his interpretation of him as simply savage:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers.
(Act 4.1)

is ill-founded and without any real substance. Education in the formal sense of that which Prospero engaged him was anathema to Caliban and yet rather cleverly he took the teaching and turned it to his own advantage much to Prospero’s disappointment:

You taught me language,

and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse’ (Act 1.2).

Later Miranda and Prospero discuss the issue of Caliban’s education and seem self-righteously pleased at their efforts whilst pouring scorn on Caliban. They seem not to grasp the fact that Caliban shows a shrewdness and intelligence far beyond that of academic bookwork. Most importantly it indicates that far from being too unintelligent to learn in fact he has no desire to change even should this mean that he will be punished. He shows honour and fortitude; a being of great conviction whereas the compliant Ariel is prepared to do everything that Prospero wants as a means of gaining eventual freedom. Caliban also shows himself to be astute in the scene where Stephano and Trinculo are drunk and disorderly. Caliban has better principles than Stephano and Trinculo. They are sidetracked from their plan by their self-indulgence when they see Prospero opulent garment. Only Caliban realises:

‘leave it alone, thou fool; it is but trash (Act 4.1).’

A further contrast is found in the assessment of magic practiced by Prospero and Caliban. In the practice of magic, Prospero's so-called art is the exact opposite of the sorcery of Caliban. Prospero's God-like, scholarly magic attains domination over the natural, literally and metaphorically; this art controls nature in a way which distinguishes it from black magic practices by Caliban and his mother Sycorax which is illustrated in its’ limited effect.

Physical characteristics are also used as a measure of whether nature or nurture is superior. In terms of physical appearance, the cultured man is unquestionably deemed better when one considers references to Caliban who is portrayed as being contemptible and repulsive. His mother’s lack of pedigree is also pointed out as if a determinant of her offspring’s’ worth:

This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
... Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp hag-born--not honour'd with
A human shape
.’( Act 1.2)

The negative connotations of the word ‘hag’ cannot be underestimated and ‘blue ey’d’ of ‘litter’ attributes animal characteristics to Caliban; he is in fact by his very birth likened to an animal. The use of animal terminology is foisted upon Caliban and is just one of the numerous ways Prospero employs to stress Caliban’s alleged lowliness.

Caliban is said to be misshapen as a result of wickedness and sorcery:

with age his body uglier grows’ (Act 4.1).

The interesting thing is that the lives of Prospero and resembles a mirror image. Both Caliban and Prospero have been displaced by people more powerful than themselves, both are in Diaspora. Yet though there is some recognition of this truth, Prospero is quick to dismiss the similarities, and instead focus upon their inherent differences. Indeed Prospero’s reluctance to accept the parallels is perhaps the catalyst behind his constant disparaging references to Caliban’s demeanour and physical characteristics

Caliban seems even more detestable in the presence of Ferdinand and Miranda with their seamless good looks. Miranda is especially remarkable because the celestial value of nobility and her high calibre and virtue enlighten her physical body in a real and tangible way, so much so that both Ferdinand and Alonso think she is a goddess. This serves to emphasise the pre-eminence of the world of nurture when adjudged alongside the world of nature. However the fact is that looks are mostly ascribed rather than achieved; and have more to do with nature than nurture, this fact however is lost on Prospero, Miranda and others.


Power in defense of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression.     Malcolm X quotes
Power in defense of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression. Malcolm X quotes


Ferdinand’s and Caliban’s behaviour towards Miranda are also a point of divergence. The savage Caliban is portrayed as licentious, lustful and without the discipline of restraint; hence he shows no remorse for his attempted rape of Miranda: 

O ho, O ho! Would't had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans
(Act 1.2).


Ferdinand differs rather markedly from Caliban as although he is  bowled over by Miranda’s beauty and appeal agrees to protect Miranda’s virtue when he assures Prospero that his desires are under firm control:

 ‘The white cold virgin snow upon my heart/ Abates the ardour of my liver’( Act 4.1).

The contrast of the lustful rage of Caliban the natural- being is in stark contrast with the honourable self-discipline of the superior cultivated nobleman.


Shakespeare does not leave the cultivated world of art unscathed indeed it is most besmirched by the aggressive aspiration of Antonio. Antonio is part of the aristocracy, seemingly a world abundantly blessed with refinement and nurtured in sophistication. Yet  this ostensibly cultured world is one where Antonio learned to scheme and design a plan to overthrow, to appropriate and commandeer the dukedom of Milan from his blood relative; his brother, Prospero. Surely the propaganda about the world of art did not allow for such a thing. An twelve years later when shipwrecked on the island it is plain that little has changed and there is an unquestionable similarity between Antonio's double-crossing behaviour with that of Caliban's in their conspiracy to murder Alonso and Prosper. Antonio convinces Sebastian to safeguard accession to the throne by killing off all opposition and Caliban convinces Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prosper. The malicious ambition of Antonio sinks him to the level of Caliban, lower still. And whilst Caliban’s bestial behaviour may not be terribly surprising of him the natural man but Antonio’s naked ambition and brutal connivances is probably so much more the terrible given his provenance. Miranda makes the point very ably when she states:

 ‘Good wombs have borne bad sons’ (Act 1.2).

Regardless of the advantage of his origins and learning, Antonio demeans himself falling beneath the standards of Caliban who practically raised himself for want of Sycorax’s mothering and who exists independently in a natural state.


Both Prospero and Caliban are out for revenge, Caliban in his desire to show revenge show emotional passionate journey whereas Prospero wanting the same things is actually much more calculated and contrived. You can almost see Prospero in a biblical New Testament sense with Caliban’s status likened to the devil. There is an indubitable suggestion that Caliban is a lesser being than Prospero; one without ethics and lacking in conscience.


It would seem that no two characters could be further apart than Prospero, the ‘right duke of Milan’, and Caliban, the ‘salvage and deformed slave.’ They represent two different extremes on the social spectrum: that of the natural ruler, and the naturally ruled. Their positions on the social hierarchy are largely due to the fact that Caliban responds almost wholly to passions, feelings of pleasure his senses, while Prospero is ruled more by his intellect and self-discipline his mind. However, the fight that Prospero has against his own natural tendency to ignore the discipline of his intellect, and give in to pleasures such as vanity and self-indulgence, cannot be ignored.


The Tempest is more than entertaining; given a full and proper analysis of the characters, settings, and situations one can see it provides a deeper meaning. Cleverly Shakespeare has portrayed neither nature nor nurture as perfect but as having a complex relationship where one is reproduce in the other. While nature calls forth the respected supremacy of nurture to correct it, nurture can fall too, and even sink below, the level of nature.  More than anything Shakespeare illustrates the fact that we nurture our nature and as such are simultaneously a product of genetics and our environment. Genes are the representative of nurture and get turned on and off by what we are subjected to. Shakespeare through this powerful and thought-provoking play forces the reader to consider the debate and to engage therein but he does not force the taking of sides.


Given the above discussion it is not true that Caliban is a man who cannot be cultivated, to a large extent he is a phenomenal student but one who has the courage of his convictions, one who is prepared to risk torture and abuse rather than to give in to the whims and fancies of his master, and for that Caliban must surely be applauded.


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      This is crazy good. Serious Jantutor this is out of the stratosphere in analysis. My exam is next week now I feel confident

    • JanTutor profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Thompson 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Hi Clemens, thanks for the comment. I hadn't thought about the characters in exactly those terms, but you're spot-on. For me Caliban is the one I most identify with, but the less I say the better!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I found your analysis brilliant for helping me understand how Prospero and Caliban represent twin poles of a human spectrum - a very particular spectrum symbolised by Level 5 of The Tarot. Prospero seems to evoke the Hierophant (Arcanum 5) the learned, intellectual authority and educator, whereas Caliban evokes The Devil (The Hierophant's shadow, Arcanum 15), the coarse, sensual, self-indulgent libertine and victim of temptation but also a reveller in dark creativity and magic. Thank you!

    • JanTutor profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Thompson 

      6 years ago from London, England

      You're all very welcome - I'm pleased that I could be of some help. If you should need additional assistance please do not hesitate to drop me a line.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks a lot! This really helped with my English essay! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you! It really helped

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      hi thnks for the info

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      An excellent essay. Jan you are an awesome writer. Please please write some more.


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