Categorizing of People in Shakespeare’s Tempest and Dante’s Inferno

Categorizing of People in Shakespeare’s Tempest and Dante’s Inferno

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Categorizing of People in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Dante’s Inferno


Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Dante’s Inferno both exhibit Foucault’s idea of categorization and subjectification using “dividing practices.” (Rabinow 8) Foucault argued that people can rise to power using discourse, “Discourse has the ability to turn human beings into subjects by placing them into certain categories.” (Rabinow 8) These categories are then defined “according to their level of deviance from the acceptable norm.” (Rabinow 8) Some examples of such categories are the homosexual, the insane, the criminal and the uncivilized. (Rabinow 8). By the above method, called “dividing practices,” people can be manipulated by socially categorizing them and then comparing them to norms. In this way human beings are given both a social and a personal identity (Rabinow 8) and this is how superiority among human beings can be established.

In the play, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Prospero took control of Caliban and made him his servant. Prospero was able to do this because he viewed Caliban as an uncivilized being; Caliban was portrayed as a beast. Thus, Prospero was able to assume power over Caliban. It can be seen from Prospero’s speech that he thinks that Caliban is inferior to him when Prosper says, “I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with human care […]” (1.2.348-349). Prospero tries to justify enslaving Caliban, but all he really does is place Caliban into a category of bestial and uncivilized and as a result enslaves him.

Even Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, speaks in a way that categorizes Caliban as an uneducated and uncivilized savage. “I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour […] When thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning […]” (1.2.356-359) Miranda doesn’t stop there; she continues labeling Caliban, “But thy vile race, though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures could not abide to be with; therefore wast though deservedly confined into this rock […]” (1.2.361-364). Exactly this kind of discourse turns Caliban into a subject. If Caliban had not been alone on the island, then Prospero and Miranda would have categorized a whole group of human beings rather than just one.

In addition to the above, Prospero also accused Caliban of trying to rape Miranda. The fact that in the play Caliban doesn’t contest this challenge shows that his character is being categorized as a “black rapist” (Loomba 324). The “black rapist” theme is the thought that black men have a lust for white women and that they are much more likely to rape a white woman.

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Furthermore, it demonstrates that sexual violence is just a part of Caliban’s inferior nature (Loomba 324), as seen from the point of view of Prospero.

Just like The Tempest, The Inferno by Dante Alighieri also demonstrates Foucault’s theme. The Inferno itself is structured based on categorization of people. Those who are placed closer to the center of Hell have sinned worse than those who are in the outer circles. One part of Hell specifically deals with the “Sins of the Lion.” These are the sins of the violent and the bestial. Caliban would have probably ended up in Circle 7, Round 3, where the Violent against God, Nature, and Art reside.

The chief sinner of this place is Capaneus, who is stretched out on the burning sand. Capaneus is a blasphemer. While he was alive he was against God and now, even in Hell, Capaneus still curses God. Capaneus is separated from the rest of the society and placed into Hell only because he is against God. There is an even further categorization that happens here. Capaneus is placed in the part of the Hell represented by The Sins of the Lion. Thus, he is labeled as a beast. Even Virgil spoke of Capaneus with great intensity, “At this my guide spoke with such vehemence as I had not heard from him in all of Hell […]” (p. 130 line 58 -59). It is clear that Dante, both the author and the character, has much contempt for blasphemers. Obviously hatred towards God represents a great level of deviance from the accepted social norm. In this scene, we also see Virgil, who represents human reason. Why does Virgil have more authority than any of the creatures of Hell? It is because Virgil is in a different category, a category that is superior to any of the guardians of Hell.

If The Tempest and The Inferno are compared based on “dividing practices,” (Rabinow 8) then we can see that Caliban and Capaneus are similar in their fate. Both have been categorized as beasts. Caliban was portrayed by Prospero and Miranda as a dirty and crude animal. Capaneus was classified as a beast by being placed into the part of the Hell that deals with the violent and the bestial. Both are also are made subjects against their will and both are punished. The two “beasts” are forced into the situations that they find themselves in. Caliban is kept subjectified with the power of Prospero’s magic whereas Capaneus’s soul is restrained in Hell forever. In Capaneus’ case, he is always being punished for his deviation from the accepted norm, the so-called blaspheming of God, while Caliban is only punished in the instances when he does not obey his master, Prospero.

Caliban and Capaneus are also similar in the fact that they are being described with harsh words. Virgil uses phrases such as “by your insolence” and “only your rage could be fit torment for your sullen pride” (p. 130 lines 60, 62-63) to describe Capaneus. Miranda and Prospero use much more words to categorize Caliban. They use expressions such as “thou most lying slave,” (1.2.347) “abhorred slave,” (1.2.354) “savage,” (1.2.358) and “thy vile race.” (1.2.361)

Before Prospero came to his island, he probably has seen somewhere and/or has heard about people like Caliban. Therefore he is already biased against Caliban, and in his mind, Caliban already belongs to a certain category, even though Caliban himself has no idea about it. Consequently, Prospero is already thinking that he is superior to Caliban when they are first coming into the Prospero-Caliban relationship. Similarly, it was socially acceptable in Dante’s time that it is wrong to be against God, just as it is wrong to be a “beast” like Caliban. Dante has the categorization of people who are against God in his head even before he comes in contact with Capaneus.

As you can see, both Caliban and Capaneus are being categorized and made inferior. With the use of right discourse, the two characters are being labeled as violent and bestial creatures; Caliban because he is uncivilized and because he tried to rape Miranda, and Capaneus because he is against God and because he is placed into the part of Hell that deals with the sins of the lion. Their level of deviance from the norm might vary, but it is clear that Capaneus and Caliban are being categorized and “given a social identity” (Rabinow 8).


Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Signet Classic, 2001.

Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. New York:

Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2000.
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