The class system in The Tempest is quite evident – Shakespeare clearly shows the audience the lower status of Caliban along with a few other characters. Caliban, however, is the low of the low. Even in the midst of the jester Trinculo and his friend Stefano, Caliban does not stand a chance of gaining freedom or power, despite his newfound role as their servant. He has merely gone from being one person’s servant to serving for someone else.
When Trinculo first stumbles upon Caliban, he thinks him a fish, but goes so far as to say that he is “not-of-the-newest poor-john,” which the footnote tells us is a poor person’s staple (2.2.25-26). So now, not only is he an animal, but he is one of the lowest grades of fish to eat. Similarly, Stefano’s first lines when he notices Caliban and his four legs refer to a devil putting “tricks upon’s with savages and men of Ind” (2.2.56). He is thought to be a product of the devil, immediately relinquished to an unwelcome and repulsive status, and is deemed a monster. The very same treatment of Caliban we saw earlier with Prospero and Miranda, and so, Caliban is assuming the same role with the lower class people.
Despite Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban sharing the same language, Stefano sees Caliban’s dialogue as that of a lower position too, even though the great Prospero taught him how to speak. Stefano says that he “does not talk after the wisest” and some drink will make him “remove his fit” (2.2.70-72). His language is sub-par even to them, and they speak of selling him to be a servant. Therefore, his societal position has not shifted in the least bit even when Caliban enters the realm of lower class people.
But what of Caliban’s “freedom” through language? Stefano sings in Act 3 that “thought is free” when Caliban asks him to sing a song (3.2.118) and perhaps this is the only connection Caliban has to freedom. Act 1 quickly told us that Caliban was taught to speak by Prospero and Miranda, that he was illiterate prior to their arrival and that he doesn’t like the knowledge (“the red plague rid you / for learning me your language! 1.2.367-368). However, he was quickly enslaved by Prospero for attempting to rape Miranda (or so the audience is told), and regularly curses Prospero. (According to Caliban, his “profit on’t / is [he] knows how to curse” [1.2.367].)
Despite the negative connections Caliban has drawn to his ability to speak, his language also allowed him to choose to serve Stefano. Caliban “swears upon that bottle to be thy true subject, for / the liquor is not earthly” (2.2.116-117). The verbal agreement is the first decision he has made on his own behalf, whether or not it will actually rid him of his servitude to Prospero is another story, but it is the closest he has felt to freedom. Language also allowed him to tell Stefano and Trinculo how to overpower Prospero, that they must “possess his books, for without them / he’s but a sot as I am” (3.2.87-88). Prior to Prospero coming on the island, he didn’t have a way to communicate via language, and perhaps he has gained some way to express himself, which surely can be called a type of freedom, one that he didn’t have when Sycorax ruled the island. Even though he is in servitude, he has claimed some self-respect and has been able to speak his mind, to communicate his wishes and maybe even serve someone that he chose to serve. It isn’t much freedom, but it is a way for him to fulfill the role of the lower class while exercising the human characteristic of speech. Perhaps he has moved up the social ladder from monster to human, even though he is still a slave.