Caliban – deserving of sympathy?

When reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, there is one prominent question that is studied and debated amongst audiences: Is Caliban essentially a character to loathe or feel sympathy for?

Numerous times throughout the text, Caliban is referred to as a “monster” as well as several other heinous names. But the description that truly forms our opinions about him comes from Prospero. In act 1 scene 2, he is talking to Ariel and describes Caliban as “A freckled whelp, hag-born — not honoured with / A human shape” (285-286). This short but powerful description leads the audience to believe that he is very physically animalistic. We later receive more information about Caliban’s outer appearance from Trinculo and Stefano which, like Prospero’s labeling of him, make him seem more animal-like rather than human. Trinculo states in act 2 scene 2 that he wonders if Caliban is “a man or a fish?” (24) and Stefano later calls him a “moon-calf” (104). Aside from his appearance, however, Prospero sees him as monstrous mainly because of his attempted rape of his daughter Miranda, which in Caliban’s defense, he thought to be a normal, natural thing to do. Still, this is the big factor that contributes to why readers, like Prospero, believe that Caliban is the root of evil. His act of assault further supports his barbarism because it is opposite from humans who tend to have more reason and better intentions than animals.

In my opinion, Caliban deserves to be on the island because it is natural and that’s what he needs since he is basically the son of nature. I feel he is worthy of sympathy but not entirely. He is such an equivocal character that it’s hard to completely take sides on him being either deserving or undeserving of sympathy. On multiple occasions, we are given a picture of his deformed, grotesque features and see his how he makes bad choices yet because of his desire to take back the island (which is rightfully his), he does invoke sympathy upon us. He will probably forever be a popular character amongst audiences because of the fact that he is so different and it is hard to pinpoint or define exactly what he is or what purpose he serves.

Order from Chaos in The Tempest

There is a human need to create chaos out of order it had been that way since the beginning of civilization. There must be a hierarchy of order to impose rules of the chaotic nature of life. Shakespeare gives us an interesting take on this idea in The Tempest. Unlike other plays we have read that have been set in Italy, Denmark and England in The Tempest the setting is an ambiguous island floating through seas. This ambiguousness puts the audience on edge immediately because it gives them no roots; the audience is essentially just as shipwrecked as the players. Not only is this islands location ambiguous but its nature is as well; magic and sorcery rule the island not order. In many of the plays we have read strange and magical events take place in the forest; like in Much Ado About Nothing or Hamlet but here strangeness encompasses the whole Island. Despite the strangeness a human presence on the island still strives to create order.

First there is the exiled King of the Island who “by sorcery he got this isle” (3.2.50) who used his powers to implant himself in a foreign space to be able to rule over spirits, monsters and his daughter. He created a hierarchy in a country which before only had laws of nature. From his roots in patriarchal order he is concerned with Miranda’s chasteness so has to preserve his legacy. After some constraint Prospero allows Miranda and Ferdinand to be married but warns; “Take my daughter. But/ If thou dost break her virgin-knot before/ all sanctimonious ceremonies may/ with full and holy rite be ministered/…sour-eyed disdain, and discord, shall bestrew/ the union of your bed with weeds so loathly” (4.1.14-21). He also is concerned with education on this island, a social concern, by going to great lengths to educate his slave Caliban.

Second the shipwrecked Italians are almost immediately concerned with the social order. Alonso is concerned not out of love for his lost children but at the fact that he has been disinherited even though he is stranded on an island. “Would I had never/ married my daughter there! For, coming thence, / my son is lost; and, in my rate, she too…/ O thou mine heir/ Of Naples and of Milan, what strange fish/ Hath made his meal on thee” (2.1. 108-113). Antonio and Sebastian see this shipwreck as an opportunity to usurp Alonzo and gain power for themselves. After mystical sleep has knocked out a number of their comrades Antonio says to Sebastian; “My strong imagination sees a crown/ Dropping upon thy head” (2.1.203-204).  Within about one hundred lines Antonio convinces Sebastian that it is mighty easy to kill a King especially on a strange island and they draw their swords only to be interrupted by Ariel. Stefano and Trinculo separated from their masters enjoy their freedom with drink and song but quickly enslave Caliban asserting their power. Trinculo and Stefano come across the monster Caliban and immediately see him as property or as less than human. Trinculo says, “Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there but would give a piece of silver,” (2.2.26-27). And Stefano “If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat’s leather,” (2.2.65-67). Shakespeare shows that even on strange islands if humans are present there will be a social order adopted. Caliban is not as dumb or monstrous as he looks he merely wants freedom and is only able to attain it through gaining a drunk master over a tyrannical one. Note that Stefano and Trinculo are distracted by Prospero’s fake treasures not Caliban. Shakespeare demonstrates the human need to create order out of chaos in The Tempest by creating a number of different examples of power gripping on a strange and ambiguous island.


I was very intrigued by the idea of some directors making the choice to cast Prospero, originally a male character, as Propsera, a female role. While watching the film version with a female Prospero, I did not feel that it was proper way to treat the role. Like I mentioned in class, Shakespeare did not write Prospero as a mother to figure to Miranda because the mother-daugther relationship was not one of note during Shakespeare’s time. Like I noted in my last blog, the mother-son and father-daughter relationships are the prominent ones in Shakespeare’s works. As we saw in Hamlet, with the relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet, one that was defined by patriarchal undertones and a borderline Oedipal tendencies, was representative of that of Shakespeare’s time. The father-daughter relationship, like that between Polonious and Ophelia and Prospero and Miranda, which is defined by a property bias, where the daughter is owned by her father, was also very prevalent within in Shakespeare’s time. The mother-daughter relationship and father-son relationships were not a societal issue, and Shakespeare did not put as much emphasis on those familial relationships. Therefore, I think it is a mistake and does not does the play justice to make Prospero a female. An intrigal part of the father-daughter relationship is choosing a husband  for their daughter, i.e. Fernando for Miranda. Normally, like in the written play, Prospero gives Fernando the fifth degree just like a father would in the time, to make sure that he is getting his moneys worth in the exchange. Having this exchange, is typical, believable and on par with what the audience would be expecting. While watching the film version with a female Prospero, the scene between Fernando, Miranda, and Prospera was not true to what Shakespeare’s society would be. It did not make sense and I feel Prospera came off less motherly and more monstrous. The mother-daughter relationship was less forceful and more of a bond of womanhood. In that scene I feel it is important for the patriarchal tendencies to come through Prospero’s speech to Fernando, as is goes along with the post-colonial aspects of the play. If a mother-daughter relationship is present, the same kind of understanding of the play is not had, and I feel Shakespeare’s message about the privilege of the white, middle class man does not come across as boldly.

Caliban’s turn

Because of his lack of European descent, Caliban as always had the short end of the stick. Once Sycorax died, Caliban thought the island would be his, although Prospero took it away without Caliban fully realizing what he was doing. Once Caliban became involved with Stefano and Trinculo and some alcohol, he began to feel like he might be able to get his island back with his plan.

“Having first seized his books; or with a log batter his skull, or paunch him with a steak, or cut his weasand with thy knife” (3.2.84-86).

Caliban may have succeeded if it wasn’t for two events. The first being that Ariel overheard the conversation where Caliban told his plan and then the fact that Stefano and Trinculo ruined the plan by falling for the trap that Ariel had set up, despite Caliban’s protest.

Trinculo: O King Stefano, O Peer! O Worthy Stefano, look what a wardrobe here is for thee!

Caliban: Let it alone, thou fool, it is but trash.

This play being a Romance, a subgenre of comedy, Caliban is the only one who doesn’t get his happy ending or its not even alluded to. Once Ariel brings Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano, Caliban only scolds himself for being silly.

“Ay, that I will; and 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!”(5.1.298-301).

And that’s the last we really see of Caliban. His spirit is completely downtrodden, never to try again to reclaim his land because he feels so overpowered by the power of Prospero. Even though it would be easier for him to try again since Prospero gave up his magic.

The Tempest Reimagined: Why Adapting Shakespeare is so Important


Who is Prospero? Is he a mostly noble man whose unchecked obsession with knowledge (or magic) leads others to take advantage of him? Or, is he an ambitious colonist, looking to impose his will on others? The answer to this question depends largely on one’s cultural perspective. As a twenty-first century American reader, it is difficult for me not to read Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a post-colonial lens. Prospero’s treatment of Caliban and Ariel echoes the treatment of indigenous populations in the “New World” colonies, particularly in the way Prospero attempts to cut Caliban off from the culture of his mother in order to inculcate a more European sensibility. Yet, my somewhat unfavorable interpretation of Prospero is invariably linked to my awareness of the impact that European imperialism has had on world. It is interpretation, then, born out of my own sense of history. However, history, like literature, is subject that is rich in different perspectives, all of which are meaningful to creating a sense of global history. I would argue that the continued popularity of Shakespeare’s play, including The Tempest, is due in part to their ability to communicate these different historical and cultural perspectives, i.e. their adaptability. An particularly intriguing example of the versatility of Shakespeare’s work comes from a 2011 production of The Tempest performed by the Korean Mokwha Repertory Company who blended aspects of Korean history into the Shakespearean narrative to form a story that is at once the same and intriguingly different.

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable changes to the play are the changes to Prospero and the other inhabitants of the island. In addition to integrating Korean costumes and music, the company’s director Tae-Suk Oh also blends in aspects of the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (a collection of stories that recount the early history of Korea and parts of neighboring China), transforming Prospero, Duke of Milan, into Zilzi, King of Garak. Like his Italian counterpart, Zilzi became obsessed with learning magic (although in this case it is Taoist magic), leaving the rule of his kingdom to his younger brother Soji. Zilzi is subsequently forced out of the kingdom by Soji and a king from a neighboring land. Ariel and Caliban have also transformed, taking on roles familiar with Korean audiences. Ariel is Zewoong, a mischievous shaman who protects against evil spirits. Meanwhile, Caliban becomes Ssangdua, a two-headed creature whose conflicted identity is reflected by the frequent arguments between its heads. Both Zewoong and Ssangdua are far cheekier than their Italian counterparts, creating a sense that Zilzi’s rule is, perhaps not embraced, but at least accepted. Furthermore, Zilzi is far more willing to show his flaws then Prospero, whose veneer of absolute authority protects him from taking responsibility for both the loss of his duchy and the rebellious behavior of his servants.

Although the rest of the narrative unfolds in much the same way as Shakespeare’s script, these changes encourage us to interpret the movement of the play slightly differently. Rather than an imperialist who would like nothing more than to recreate the European hierarchy he has lost, Zilzi is a man struggling with what it means to be a ruler. For most of the production this difference is subtle, and Zilzi orders/threatens Zewoong and Ssangdua just as much Prospero does Ariel and Caliban. However, at the conclusion of the production Zilzi takes responsibility both for the loss of his kingdom and for the treatment of his servants. He tells his former rivals, “I am the guilty party,” pointing to how his obsession with magic blinded him from his real responsibilities. This level of self-awareness is never quite reached in the original script (indeed, Prospero continues to maintain that he is “the wronged Duke of Milan” [5.1.109] while simultaneously forgiving his enemies),leaving Prospero’s accountability ambiguous. To further contrast the two figures, Zilzi then chooses to liberate not just Zewoong (the Ariel counterpart), but Ssangdua (Caliban) as well, magically separating the two heads so that they can each pursue their own fate. This move seems particularly significant, given the presently uneasy union between North Korea and South Korea. By freeing the two halves of Ssangdua, Zilzi offers them the chance to form a more compassionate union, suggesting that a good ruler does not hold together a nation by force alone.

It is important to note that while this production frequently revises and adapts Shakespeare’s original text, it by no means changes the play’s core questions: namely, how do we act when we are removed from society, how do we respond to betrayal, and how can we overcome our baser instincts and become better people. Perhaps even more importantly, is the reminder that the process of adaptation is not merely grafting new or different element on to something that already exists. Adaptation is about finding what was always there and showcasing it in way that everyone can appreciate it. Like all good directors, Tae-Suk Oh has asked us to see Shakespeare’s story slightly differently, to make ourselves aware of alternative perspectives.

For those interested in watching Tae-Suk Oh’s The Tempest, I have provided a link here


Prospero & Picasso: Art & Illusion

Reading through Shakespeare’s final play, “The Tempest”, I get an over-whelming feeling as if this play were particularly cathartic for the play-wright. Prospero is effectively the “Director” of the events in the Tempest–he did in fact cause the Tempest, and brought all-these starry-eyed, confused people into his magical world. Why? Basically some unfinished business: He had been betrayed and forsaken, usurped of his rightful place as Duke. Prospero’s endgame is then to return home to Milan, become who he was “meant to be”. He does this by wrecking all the nobles from his past on this island, scaring them to death with mysteries and illusions, feigned misfortunes (Alonso & Ferdinand believing each other dead), and a rigamarole of pranks. Prospero even puts aside aspirations of revenge against his brother, Antonio, revenge we would understand given the circumstances. However, Prospero’s plan is much more clever, and ultimately peaceful than that. By subjecting the ship-wrecked party to the barrage of mirage, the company must fight to maintain sanity by trying to make sense of their seemingly hopeless and wild situation–how humbling, then, to find out that all of these frightening horrors were created by an old acquaintance most would’ve liked to forget.

Prospero’s art of illusion is a way of guiding all of the characters on the island to their fortune and destiny. Characters like Antonio & Sebastian who used the power of illusion to usurp Prospero & Alonso are equally undone in their schemes by the illusions of Prospero. Alonso, a man morning the loss of his heir, is then made to recover what he lost, having seen the experience of “losing what is yours”. Of course good ol’ Gonzalo we know is virtuous in himself, who’s take of the illusions is simply, “Whether this be or no, I’ll not say”.

This play goes to lengths to show us how Theater and illusion can be used to show the truth that lies in every person–their choices, their perspectives which create illusions of identity, aspirations to be someone, something. At the end of the play, Prospero begs his audience to release him from the spell of being Prospero, the old weary mage on an island, ready to return to the role he was meant to play, his “real role”.
Pablo Picasso famously said “Art is the lie which enables us to realize the truth.”

Stephano: The Power-Hungry Drunk Butler

So far, there are two characters who have really caught my attention: Stephano and Trinculo. I like these two because they are like the “clowns” of the play. Within each play we have read so far, there has been some form of jester. I think Shakepeare includes these characters for a few different reasons, to lighten the mood of a dark setting and to inform the audience of things other characters may not be aware of. Most times these clowns are a lot smarter than other characters assume them to be; but that is not the case in this play. Stephano and Trinculo are essentially servants of Alsono. Separated from their master on the island, thinking he is dead, they turn their new found freedom into power, or so they think.

I find Stephano very comical with his self-proclaimed title of Lord of the island. The only thing that makes him think he is worthy of this title is because Caliban choses to worship him, “I’ll kiss thy foot. I’ll swear myself thy subject” (2.2.144). There is no other events that would grant him as the king of the island. He makes up this idea that he can rule, assuming that his King and the rest of the company have drowned. In a way he reminds me of Malvolio from Twelfth Night. He is no more than a servant, but goes around acting as if he is noble and higher up than the other servants (Trinculo).

Another aspect of this character that caught me off guard is his loyalty to his fellows. It seems as if Stephano and Trinculo are friends before Stephano assumes power, as they were both servants to Alonso. Trinculo follows Stephano as any friend would do, looking out for each other. Stephano starts to let the power get to his head, by asserting trust into Caliban. Trinculo, who is still thinking clearly, is not fooled by power or by Caliban and tries to persuade Stephano away from doing something that will hurt them. He states:

“Thou liest, most ignorant monster! I am in case to

jostle a constable. Why, thou debauched fish, thou, was there

ever man a coward that hath drank so much sack as today?

Wilt thou tell a monstrous lie, being but half a fish and half a

Monster” (3.2.23-7).

After Trinculo speaks this against Caliban, Stephano sides with Caliban choosing him over Trinculo. He threatens Trinculo to the gallows if he does not stop speaking nonsense. Stephano is no longer loyal to his friends, acting as if he has power of Trinculo and treating him as if he is below Caliban. Caliban has clouded Stephano’s judgement and is probably leading them straight into death’s door. It is going to be humorous to read what happens when Stephano realizes his King isn’t dead and that he never had any power after all.