The Tempest and the World around It Some people might think of Shakespeare’s story The Tempest as just that, a story about a man who has his position as Duke of Milan usurped by his less than pleasant brother. However, after a careful analysis of The Tempest, it is not difficult to see how noticeable the mistreatment of Caliban is throughout the story. This analytical essay will use the lens of new historicism to attempt to show that Caliban’s character is depicted as monstrous, and the abuse imposed on him is prevalent in The Tempest because Shakespeare was influenced by the culture that surrounded him when he set about writing the story.
It is important to ask: Why? Why did Shakespeare give this character such a sad and purposeless life? Prospero was redeemed when Miranda married the King of Naples’s son, Ferdinand found his father, and Ariel was set free, but what about Caliban, what about his freedom? Caliban’s story is an unfinished one, we do not know what happens to him at the end of the story. Even though some might say that in a worthy story the writer leaves the ending to the reader’s imagination, it cannot be the only reason that Shakespeare wrote so much abuse in Caliban’s life and then left Caliban’s story unfinished.
The reason for this lies in the Native American and English relationship that took place when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. At the beginning of The Tempest we are immediately aware of Prospero’s distaste for Caliban when he speaks about Caliban using disrespectful words. For example, in one of Prospero’s initial conversations with Ariel, he offhandedly comments that Caliban is “hag born” and “not honored with a human shape”, so right off the bat we know that Prospero has a disdain for Caliban (Shakespeare 24).
Although it is easy for us to overlook this and say that it does not mean anything of significance, it is common knowledge that when there is respect between people, words like that are not used. A parallel from the events surrounding the English can be drawn to The Tempest and the relationship between Miranda, Prospero, and Caliban at the beginning of the story. Caliban was treated like this because at the time that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, living as a community and following the English laws and etiquette was seen as the one and only way to be civilized.
When the English first encountered the Native Americans, they believed that they would teach them to be civilized by integrating them into the English society, they felt like they “had a duty to bring the savage Indians to ‘civil and Christian’ government” (Takaki 191). So the English, like Prospero, did not decide that it would be acceptable to treat other humans like animals overnight, they gradually reached that level of disdain when they decided that it would be an impossible task to civilize the Native Americans. Much like the English, Miranda and Prospero initially treated Caliban with great care and respect.
Prospero allowed Caliban to live with Miranda and himself until Caliban violated his trust. Prospero explains to Caliban that the reason he did not favor him was because “thou didst seek to violate the honor of my child” (Shakespeare 26). After reading this, some people might think that Prospero’s hatred for Caliban is justified. However, it is important to note that instead of banning Caliban from having any interaction with himself or Miranda, he enslaved him, kept him close, and banned him from the rest of the island.
Miranda also tried to teach Caliban to be civilized, much like the English who wanted to teach the Native Americans to be civilized. She reminds him, “I piteed thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or another” (Shakespeare 26). Miranda’s initial treatment of Caliban appears to be modelled after the way the English colonies treated the Native Americans initially. The English soon began to see the Native Americans as savages who were unworthy of owning the land that the English wanted.
They accused them of being uncivilized savages and they made false claims about the Native Americans that were not true in order to classify them as savages. The English manipulated the way Native Americans were perceived because they wanted the land that the Natives had. Similarly, those who came to the island in The Tempest saw Caliban as a savage, Prospero even took control of the land that was once Caliban’s. The English colonists believed that Native Americas were lazy and did not cultivate the land so they were entitled to take it over.
However, this was not the case, they were not lazy. In fact, they cultivated corn, cleared fields, cooked in ceramic pots, and they even had a numbering system to evaluate harvests (Takaki 192). It is reasonable to come to the conclusion that the colonists made the Natives seem like uncivilized monsters as a response to their fear of the “uncivilized” Native American lifestyle. The English were afraid to live like the Natives, they saw their lifestyle as that of an uncivilized savage.
In his essay Monsters and the Moral Imagination, Stephen T. Asma states that “monsters stand as symbols of human vulnerability and crisis” (Asma 62). This is absolutely true and a way to interpret this is that the English of the time felt like they needed to demonize the Natives because they were “uncivilized and the English were afraid of living such a nomadic lifestyle so they portrayed the Native Americans as monsters. The English wanted nothing to do with the uncivilized, they were on a quest to “transform the wilderness into civilization” and the Natives were seen as an obstacle that needed to be removed (Takaki 202).
This portrayal of the Natives being lazy savages facilitated the taking of Native American land which eventually translated into the taking of Caliban’s land in The Tempest. The English people of the 1600’s believed that their lifestyle was the only correct one. They felt entitled to diminish people who did not live like them, and they did so with the Native Americans. They exploited them by taking their land, kidnapping and enslaving their people, and by degrading them. This can somewhat be seen in The Tempest when is noted that Prospero has fancy clothing and books to read, he was trying to hold on to what little civilization he had left.
He too was afraid of becoming uncivilized like the island native, Caliban. Much like Asma’s essay appears to suggest, both the English and Prospero demonized Caliban to set a clear boundary between what they were and what they were not. They felt as though they needed to establish that boundary for fear of unknowingly crossing over to the savage side. An additional parallel from the Native American and English relationship can be linked to The Tempest when it comes to exploitation for money and slavery since the events happening to Caliban were similar to those of the Native Americans of the time.
An example of a similarity is the exploitation of Caliban by Prospero, Trinculo, and Stephano. Prospero essentially had Caliban enslaved, while Trinculo and Stephano sought to do the same. When Trinculo and Stephano each see Caliban for the first time, they think of ways they could financially benefit from him. 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 me a piece of silver” (Shakespeare 45, 46). Here Trinculo is demonstrating how he would profit from Caliban in England by showing him off like some carnival attraction to earn money.
Additionally, Stephanos says “If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor”, and “If I can recover him and keep him tame, I will not take too much for him. He shall pay for that hath him, and that soundly” (Shakespeare 47). Stephanos, like Trinculo, ponders the idea of making a profit by taming Caliban so he too could prosper by selling him to the emperor. Prospero may have felt like Caliban deserved to endure the abuse because of what he tried with Miranda, yet, Trinculo and Stephano did not have a cause aside from their entitlement.
The truth is that The Tempest is heavily influenced by the events that were taking place in the New World. In the 1600’s the English had just begun to colonize the New World. They were coming into contact with Native Americans, a race that they were unfamiliar with. In his essay, The ‘Tempest’ in the Wilderness, Ronald Takaki tells about how in Shakespeare’s time there were reports about “Indians who had been captured and brought to London” (Takaki 187). The kidnapped Natives were then displayed for all to see like some carnival attraction.
The English mimicked those examples and kidnapped Native Americans in the New World so that they too could make a profit with them. The Native Americans were enduring the taking of their lands, and the judgment imposed on them for leading a different lifestyle than that of the English. When writing The Tempest, Shakespeare simply imitated what he was seeing in English culture. He had Stephano and Trinculo consider exploiting him because the Native Americans at the time were being exploited.
Similarly to the Natives, Caliban endured the taking of his island and the dehumanization imposed on him. Akin to the English, Prospero came to Caliban’s island took it from him, enslaved, him and barred him from it. Additionally, like the English, Stephano and Trinculo had the intention to generate a profit by selling Caliban or using him as an attraction. Prospero, Trinculo, and Stephano found it to be an effortless feat to take advantage of Caliban because that is what was going on in the world when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest.
The key idea is that Shakespeare in a sense, duplicated the events that were happening in the New World and transferred them into The Tempest, he purposely wrote Caliban’s character to be taken advantage of. Shakespeare deliberately must have written Caliban’s character as the unintelligent and uncivilized savage not only because it made for an interesting story, but also because it is what Shakespeare was observing in his culture. He was directly influenced by what he saw on a day to day basis. The English people of his time felt as through their lifestyle was the correct one and anyone living differently was a savage.
They enslaved Native Americans, took their land, dehumanized them, and exploited them. An overwhelming amount of characters in The Tempest does exactly that. They manipulate and dehumanize Caliban, they ponder the idea of enslaving him and selling him off to an emperor, or exposing him in order to harvest money, and lastly, they take his land from him because they feel that he does not deserve it. Shakespeare noticed all of these events happening around him so when he wrote The Tempest, he created a character that was exploited and taken advantage just like the Native Americans of the time.
Whether he wrote Caliban’s story like that unknowingly or as a subtle protest to the flagrant abuse of Native Americans, there is no doubt that he was influenced by the events happening at the time. He left as a monster without redeeming him or giving him an improved life because that did not happen to the Native Americans. Society may or may not have taught him to view people with different customs and different ways of living as uncivilized savages, but that is how he wrote Caliban out to be, an uncivilized savage.