“It’s not easy being green.”
Caliban is a monster. While we have no idea of what he looked like in the original production by Shakespeare’s company, the footnote on page 17 of the Signet text suggests that his mother was a hook-like deformed creature—a cross between a female cow and a raven, and Prospero says he was “got by the devil himself.” In I, i Prospero calls him a “tortoise,” and Miranda refers to him as “a villain…I do not love to look on.” No matter the nature of his literal appearance, in Shakespeare’s world to be ugly is to be morally corrupt. Although Shakespeare understood that people who were “other,” were, after all, still human beings, (Shylock, Othello, Aaron the Moor, Richard III), black was not beautiful in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, and if indeed Caliban is tortoise-like, “it’s not easy being green.” Racial difference is a deformity, and the inner person reflects the individual’s outer appearance. Ariel is air; Caliban is “earth.”
At the same time that he is reviled, he is also given a sympathetic back story. The island was once his; he was “king,” and when Prospero first came, he petted Caliban, taught him human speech and basic astronomy (“how/To name the big light, and how the less,/That burn by day and night”) and even let him live in Prospero’s own cell. In return, Caliban loved him and introduced him to the beauties and pitfalls of his new environment, but his inner brutish nature prevailed, and he attempted to rape Miranda, who was then, presumably, a child. Caliban is a would-be serial rapist pedophile. His “vile race… had that in’t which good natures/Could not abide to be with.”
Prospero, however, did not kill Caliban. Instead he enslaved him, and he admits to Miranda: “We cannot miss [do without] him. He does make our fire/Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices/That profit us.” Caliban is the economic engine that drives the island. His “offices” allow Prospero the leisure to pursue the studies of magic that, in return, keep Caliban in dreadful captivity. Caliban is limited in movement (“Here you sty me/In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me/The rest o’ the island”); he is best by “cramps,” “aches,” “side-stitches,” “stripes,” and pinches “more stinging/Than bees that made ‘em.” The brutality with which his slavery is enforced matches the brutality of his nature and of his behavior, but he is, nevertheless, a chattel slave, and modern-day readers cannot help but wonder if Shakespeare was aware of the brutality of the slave trade that flourished in Islamic countries in the early seventeenth century and that Europe would spread to the New World within the next twenty years.
Before Prospero taught him “language,” Caliban was only capable of animal sounds, and while he contends that his only “profit… IS, I know how to curse,” he actually curses in iambic pentameter and, late in the play, delivers one of its most beautiful passages (“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”). He also discovers in the course of the play that he can communicate with men other than his master, namely Stephano and Trinculo, who introduce him to wine and whom he first assumes are spirits come to injure him and subsequently gods. In his limited experience with human beings, he is like Miranda, but whereas she is attracted to a noble form and mind in Ferdinand, Caliban is attracted to the play’s figures of comic relief, a jester and a drunken butler, essentially lower-class working people, close in their earthiness to himself. They ply him with alcohol, and he offers to show the mysteries of the island, just as he did Prospero. In fact, he wishes to substitute his worship of them for his obedience to his old master. Prospero has kept Caliban as a slave; Stephano and Trinculo offer him the possibility of freedom. He does not, of course, understand that they are using him just as Prospero did, because he is beset by a slave mentality. He acknowledges Prospero as his master and immediately assumes that his relationship to Stephano and Trinculo must be the same, that he must kiss their feet.
It turns out, however, that he is also using them—to murder Prospero. The plot, of course, fails, and the audience last sees the revolting triumvirate drenched in “horse piss,” with Caliban renouncing his confederates and returning to his menial role. He is both a product of nature and nurture. His physical appearance and his genetic inheritance from Sycorax, his mother, and the devil, his father, lead him inexorably into lust, rape, drunkenness, and attempted murder. At the same time, however, he has been systematically reduced to servility by the white Europeans he meets, and when he attempts to assert his freedom—to be his own man—he is beaten back by magical forces beyond his control. From a twenty-first century point of view, he is a victim both of his own “otherness” and of the “otherness” that has been foisted upon him and fostered within him by a dominant culture.
In a life like Caliban’s, there are only two positives. The first is the sensitivity he shows to the natural world around him, “the thousand twangling instruments” that “hum about [his] ears” and allow him to dream of “riches/ready to drop upon” him. The second, as Robert Langbaum points out in his introduction to the Signet edition, is that at the end of the play, Prospero announces that he is going to leave the island, which means that, once again, Caliban will be its king. The audience, of course, does not see this and may not think of the story behind the play as soon as the plot ends. The possibility, however, is there. Caliban is one of Shakespeare’s beloved villains—Richard III, Macbeth, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Edmond in King Lear, and Don John in Much Ado about Nothing. While he must be thwarted at the end of the play and cannot be forgiven, he is blessed with a level of poetic sensitivity that transcends his nature.
Read the winning essays from previous years »
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This year’s essay subject is Of Mice and Men.
Select one of the following five topics:
For all these questions, use quotations from the text to support your interpretation.
- Given George and Lennie’s complex relationship, explain what keeps them together. What does each offer the other?
- Will George continue to dream of having a home of his own and “living off the fat of the land” after Lennie’s death? Was this dream ever realistic, with or without Lennie?
- Explain the factors that lead to George killing Lennie. Did George have any other choice? Defend your point of view.
- Describe Slim’s role in the community of the ranch. What sets him apart from the others? At the end of the novel, why does he alone understand what George has done?
- Contrast the relationship of Curly and his wife to that of George and Lennie. Why do both relationships end so tragically?
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The title for the 3rd Annual Penguin Classics Essay Contest will be The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Essay topics will be posted on our website after July 2018.