The Character of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest

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The Character of Caliban in The Tempest

'This thing of darkness, I must acknowledge mine' It is impossible to understand The Tempest without first understanding the character of Caliban. Despite numerous novels and poems praising the virtuous, the pure and the good, everyone has within them a darker side of depravity and evil thoughts. This makes us human. What distinguishes between good and bad people, though, is the way in which this 'alter ego' manifests itself to both the rest of mankind and to oneself.

Ostensibly, The Tempest is a play based around Prospero: his power to punish verses his power to forgive. Many scholars believe that this is an almost autobiographical work, written towards the end of Shakespeare's literary career. This idea is reinforced throughout the play, especially towards the end and in the epilogue:

' ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer.'


'I'll break my staff,

Bury it in certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I'll drown my book'

(i.e. his tools that work the magic)

Therefore, our understanding of Caliban's position in the play is of great import. Critics debate on whether his presence is necessary to show Prospero's darker side, and to illustrate his imperfections (Caliban is the only character to whom Prospero is deliberately, and often unnecessarily antagonistic) or whether he is rather Prospero's ugliness personified into one character.

Either way, his presence and basic character must be understood if we are to understand that of Prospero. Therefore the question of whether Caliban's wickedness is pure evil or mischief is necessary in the ultimate judgement of the play.

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...only human, capable of anger, hatred, and punishing those who are guilty, in his eyes.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Davidson, Frank. "The Tempest: An Interpretation." In The Tempest: A Casebook. Ed. D.J. Palmer. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1968. 225.

Kermode, Frank. Introduction. The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958. xlii.

Palmer, D. J. (Editor) The Tempest - A Selection of Critical Essays London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1977.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et. al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

Solomon, Andrew. "A Reading of the Tempest." In Shakespeare's Late Plays. Ed. Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod. Athens: Ohio UP, 1974. 232.

John Wilders' lecture on The Tempest given at Oxford University - Worcester College - August 4th, 1999.
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