Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Shakespeare’s Caliban

Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Shakespeare’s Caliban

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Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Shakespeare’s Caliban

“Caliban...takes shape beneath the arc of wonder that moves throughout the play between “creatures” and “mankind,” between animate beings in general and their realization in the form of humanity. Is he man or fish? creature or person?" (Lupton, 3).

“Although in The Tempest the word creature appears nowhere in conjunction with Caliban himself, his character is everywhere hedged in and held up by the politic-theological category of the creaturely" (Lupton, 3).

"A freckled whelp, hag-born " (1.2.285).

"Legged like a man, and his fins like arms! " (2.2.31-32).

"I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed monster" (2.2.146-147).

"A howling monster, a drunken monster" (2.2.179).

"This is as strange thing as e’er I looked on" (5.1.292-293).

"He is as disproportioned in his manners /As in his shape" (5.1.294-295).

He is a poetic paradigm. When performed properly, he can take an audience from tears of laughter to tears of sorrow within a few paragraphs. Caliban is an actor’s dream, a scholar’s vision. Sighted as being both the missing link, but also portrayed in adaptations as more human than Prospero, Caliban is commentary, character and caricature. However, there is a question that plagues authors, directors, actors, and stressed out, indignant English professors: What is Caliban?

Many books, articles, updates, adaptations, and arguments tackle this question. Together we will confront these demons, I will lead you down a path, present arguments, ideas, my own bias, but in the end leave you to answer the daunting question of Shakespeare’s man-monster:

Four pictures taken from different productions and different collections of The Tempest illustrate how diverse Caliban is. Each one has a unique view of who or, more precisely, what Caliban is. They progress in an order, from pure beast, through something less to someone almost resembling a man. The pictures lead us on a progression from something entirely bestial to something else entirely.

The first image demonstrates the best description of Caliban, a creature that slightly resembles a man and slightly does not. Throughout Shakespeare's text, no character refers to Caliban as a man. The other characters describe him as the indescribable. As Alonso says, "This is a strange thing as e'er I / looked on (5.1.292-293)."

One of the most common terms used in The Tempest to acknowledge Caliban is moon-calf. The Oxford English Dictionary defines moon-calf as "A misshapen birth, a monstrosity.

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" Obviously there is something unusual about the guy's appearance. Names like man-fish, moon-calf, villain, and slave, abhorred, and on at least one occasion compared to the smell of a cadaver describe Caliban.

His actions also are malicious. He becomes Prospero's slave for attempting to rape Miranda (1.2.350-351). He plots along with the clown Trinculo and the drunk Stephano to overthrow Prospero and take the island as his own (3.2.84-90).

No doubt about it, he is as cruel and stinky as a politician (also not to be confused with an actual human being).

There are some problems with this idea, however; that is Caliban being a creature, unfeeling and beast-like. The most blatant and most intriguing problem is his language.

"You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse (1.2.566-567)."

This line is one of most people's favorites Caliban. The line is a near anarchical cry, one that gouges at education and its results. It does however post quite a quipping conundrum...if Caliban is a beast then, why can he talk?

"Surprised to learn that Caliban, the "monster of the isle" in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), can speak, Stephano asks, "Where the devil should he learn our language?" (2.2.66-68). In addition to extending the network of intertexts among Heylyn, Herbert and Lok, the drunken butler's question invokes the trope of barbarism whose venerable classical roots had pervaded English and European intellectual, humanist traditions" (Smith, 253).

Even more importantly, why does it prove Caliban to be a hypocrite? I call Caliban a hypocrite because, no speaker in The Tempest tells of such beauty as the "beast," Caliban.

There are two large speeches by Caliban in Act 3 Scene 2 that describe true beauty:

"And that most deeply to consider is

The beauty of his daughter. He himself

Calls her a nonpareil. I never saw a woman

But only Sycorax my dam and she,

But she as far surpasseth Sycorax

As great'st does least" (3.2.94-98).

"Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices

That if I then had waked after long sleep

Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again" (3.2.130-138).

Caliban sees something in Miranda, and something in the island that no one else in the play can put into words. His cursing tongue paints a mosaic in the minds of the audience that brings tears to people's eyes. With these two speeches, Caliban sums up what drove some of history's greatest painters to go insane. He describes beauty.

Taken in context of the play you can see how revealing these lines are. The rest of 3.2 is in prose, these lines are poetry. Shakespeare wrote these speeches to stand out, my contention is that these lines show that Caliban truly appreciates the island and its offerings. He sees beauty and does what hew people can, he describes it. His words are incredible. He speaks straight from the heart and gives, in this passage, honesty that you do not see hardly anywhere.

Truly, Caliban has the soul of an artist. He speaks like an actor, paints visions like a painter, and sees music around him as a musician only can.

"The common epistemology of all these different signs is one reason why the list of signifying sounds Caliban names in his speech cuts so wide a swath through the sonic universe. Noises, sounds, sweet airs, twangling instruments, and voices (singing? speaking?): the list cannot be domesticated within the category "music," at least not in the narrow, exclusionary currency of its modern western usage" (Tomlinson, 239).

I am not trying to fool you, Caliban is an un-educated cur. If he saw a musical instrument, he would more than likely begin to curse about its magic. However, he uses language in a way unbefitting his situation, which brings us to our next topic.

There is nothing like a parent, some one who cares about you. There is also nothing like adopting a spirit and a frightening, domineering monster. Such is the life of Prospero. We are talking about a man who, after all, took in a "beast" who tried to rape his daughter. Prospero only enslaved Caliban because of his actions. However, the unusual relationships between Caliban, Miranda and Prospero can help us clarify what Caliban is, in relationships to the people around him and people at large.

"Both Prospero and Miranda's treatment of Caliban recalls Heylyn's supposedly providential history of the intervention of Europeans in African affairs; that is, until their "coming ... thither" Caliban was and continues to be no more than a barbarous brute who must 'want that use of Reason which is peculiar unto Man' " (Smith, 253).

"Prospero's books, which Caliban recognizes as the ultimate source of the magus's power, are situated along the continuum of language, literacy skills, and study that becomes identified with Europeans. In assuring themselves of Caliban's innate barbarism and of his cultural heritage as a Barbarian, Prospero and Miranda set out to provide language training as a crucial disciplinary measure in what is, after all, a colonial culture in epitome and, thereby, confirm the important racial nexus of geography and language in the early modern period that is fully implied in the negative descriptor "barbarous" as it relates to Africa" (Smith, 254).


Caliban represents everyone that Europeans enslaved as they colonized the world. Since the natives are non-Protestant, non-Judeo people, they are barbarians, pure and simple. When Shakespeare wrote The Tempest settlers began moving out from the British Empire to colonize the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia. The problems Caliban represents are similar problems that Colonists had with local peoples. More than anything, Caliban is a person, he is a native person who can represent years of the embarrassment, torture and enslavement of thousands of people around the world.

As time progressed, Caliban began to represent more than just colonized man, he began to represent repressed men throughout time.

"But the isolation of Caliban from the play in which he has a minor part gave him a trajectory not unlike other European epiphenomenal characters, from Faust to Frankenstein (who is, it must always be emphasized, the chemist and not the monster). Lie and D'haen emphasize that their contributors study Caliban-ism, that is, Caliban as free radical, not as part of his original molecule. The best of the essays in this volume situate ideas of what 'Calibans' represented in the social, scientific, psychological discussions of a variety of European and neo-European arguments, from nineteenth-century Latin American debates over the future of history to the romantic socialism of inter-war Germany" (Morse, 176-177).

"Caliban (shouting): Citizens, attention! Give us a little silence. Place your interests in our hands. Investigations are going to be made by properly nominated commissions and satisfaction will be given to all. Coming from your ranks, we are of you and for you. The sole aim and occupation of the government shall be the welfare of its people. But, citizens, order is necessary. Put down your arms, return to your houses, and crown your victory by moderation and a respect for propriety. Long live Milan! " (Renan, 3.2).

Time passed and Caliban upgraded. He went from the oppressed from abroad to the oppressed from next door. Caliban became an easily transferable image. He transforms from the symbol of the slave world to the symbol of freedom to the slave laborer through Ernest Renan's Caliban. The relationship between Prospero and Caliban became symbolic of the relationship between the aristocracy and the grunt factory workers during the Industrial Revolution. Before anyone coined the term Marxism, Caliban was symbolic of this new idea. The idea that these people, who do all of this grunt labor, deserve treatment as people. That everyone needs a voice. He became in Caliban the leader of a nation because he inspired people to acknowledge their humanity and the rights they deserve by having this humanity.

That is not the extent of the relationship within this family.

"Caliban’s loneliness is a further sign of his imprisonment, of his exile from the island on the island..." (Lupton, 13)

"After all, Caliban’s turn to Miranda is not unlike Adam’s desire for a mate" (Lupton,18).

"So, too, Caliban, unique in his ability to apprehend the island’s beauties, is not only at one with the island, a part of Creation, but also, like Adam, alone on the island, apart from Creation" (Lupton, 18).

"Caliban’s urge toward Miranda links him to Adam’s blessing and identifies him with Adam’s sin. In both cases the turn toward woman is a move not only toward fuller humanity but also toward humanity defined as creatureliness (ibid), as marked by material urges and base passions" (Lupton, 19).

A man punished for transgressing against the laws of his near all-powerful father figure because of the kind of relationship he wants with the one person who is around him. A single, solitary man resides in paradise his entire life, and wants nothing more than to have someone. Because of the relationship he wanted, he no longer lives in paradise but lives with constantly torment by the power of his father-figure, constantly reminding him of his sin (2.2.3-14). (Doesn't sound familiar at Pepperdine at all, does it?)

Caliban is not only a representative of suppressed man. He is an everyman. The relationship that he desires to have with Miranda is similar to the relationship that all man want with a woman at some point in their lives. Caliban is lonely, he wants someone to be with him and to help him create a family. He is humanity.

"Trevor Griffiths, studying historical performances of The Tempest, reports shifts in the physical appearance of Caliban. Before the l9th century, when adapters of The Tempest held anti-democratic sentiments, Caliban was a comic wildman; in 1770 Caliban is "a monstrous ape" (Griffiths 161). When in 1838, slavery was abolished in England, performance of Caliban reflected the belief then that to bring the advantages of civilization to the "rude and uncultivated" was a moral obligation" (Potter, 75).

This excerpt is from an article describing another adaptation of The Tempest called Caliban by the Yellow Sands. The part of this article that we need to examine, though, is the section above. It tells about Caliban's transformations throughout the years, how the character updated to better fit the times. By reflecting on these passages, you can see how Caliban has had a rather bumpy journey throughout history. However, through the bumpy journey we find out what exactly Caliban is.

Is Caliban a beast? No, he is too human for that. He has a caring soul, the ability to learn, desires, wants, and needs that no mere monster could harbor. Although he does not look it, he seems to harbor an idea of beauty that is truer than any other in the play is.

Is he a man? How could he be? He's part fish for goodness sakes! He smells like a dead man and plots to overthrow the father of the woman he loves so she can be with someone else (3.2.99-100).

Well, that is a little harsh, but there is some truth to that statement. Caliban does not understand everything to his life yet. He has some idea of what he wants, has been taught many lessons, and is trying to come to grips with who he is and how he fits into the niche he's found himself in. He rebels against his father. He also sees beauty and can relate in ways that he does not even realize that he is using yet. He thinks he is in love but does not quite understand what love is. He is in love with the island around him but does not realize it and does not see he is describing it. In different adaptations, you watch him grow up to represent everything about a son growing out of a father's shadow.

Caliban represents humanity and humanity's self discovery. As humanity changes and alters, Caliban has always found his place. By representing for us what, at that point in time, we need to learn about and what is most important to us. Caliban is a symbol, different from most any other in drama, because his rebellious nature fits into our lives and his ability to learn and to come to grips with his place in these situations. The reason why Caliban is always represented as a beast is because we as an audience have an easier time understanding Caliban's growth from creature to kin then we do as from man to man. Caliban has to represent everyone, someone we can identify with easily. By making him into something that should not fit that finds the way it does, Caliban becomes what people need to see. Humanity is an abstract thought and can only be represent by another abstract thought. Hence, he does not look human but appears as something abstract, i.e. a monster.

I identify Caliban with Big Bird from Sesame Street. Big Bird is childhood, eternally curious, eternally learning. Big Bird represents every child in every home who turns on the television. Caliban is a character that everyone identifies with by the ending of The Tempest because his journey is our journey. His obstacles represent our obstacles, and his easy solutions and clouded judgment are familiar to everyone. Caliban is a character, but as a character adapts into too many roles to be confined to a mere monster or a mere man.

Of course, you could continue to look at Caliban and see a raving beast that has, in at least one production, wiped his butt with Trinculo's hat, but not everyone can identify with that can they?

Works cited:

Lupton, Julia-Reinhard. "Creature Caliban." Shakespeare Quarterly 51.1 (2000): 1-23

"Moon-calf." Oxford English Dictionary. On-Line. Internet. 24 March. 2001. Available WWW:

Morse, Ruth. "Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character." Journal of European Studies 28.109

(1998): 176-178

Potter, Vilma Raskin. "Percy MacKaye's Caliban for a Democracy." Journal of American Culture 19.4

(1996): 71-79

Renan, Ernest. Caliban. Trans. Eleanor Grant Vickery. New York, NY: The Shakespeare Press, 1896.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Smith, Ian. "When we were capital, or lessons in language: Finding Caliban's roots." Shakespeare Studies

28 (2000): 252-256

Tomlinson, Gary. "The matter of sounds." Shakespeare Studies 28(2000):236-239
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