In Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest,” an underlying theme of barbarism versus civilization appears. Shakespeare creates characters that exemplify symbols of nature or nurture. The symbolism of the characters is derived from their actions. These actions show Shakespeare’s view of the uncivilized and the civilized, as well as help the reader develop his own opinion of each side. In this whimsical play, Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, after being supplanted of his dukedom by his brother, arrives on an island.
He frees a spirit named Ariel from a spell and in turn makes the spirit his slave. He also enslaves a native monster named Caliban. These two slaves, Caliban and Ariel, symbolize the theme of nature versus nurture. Caliban is regarded as the representation of the wild; the side that is usually looked down upon. Although from his repulsive behavior, Caliban can be viewed as a detestable beast of nature, it can be reasonably inferred that Shakespeare’s intent was to make Caliban a sympathetic character. During the first encounter, Caliban comes across very bestial and immoral.
While approaching Caliban’s cave, Prospero derogatorily says, “[he] never/Yields us kind answer,” meaning Caliban never answers respectfully. When Prospero reaches the cave, he calls to Caliban. Caliban abruptly responds, “There’s wood enough within. ” His short, snappy reply and his odious tone, reveal the bitterness he feels from leading a servile life. Caliban’s rudeness makes him seem like an unworthy and despicable slave. Also, Caliban displays an extreme anger toward Prospero. When Caliban is asked to come forth he speaks corruptly, “As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed/With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen/Drop on you both!
And blister you all o’er! ” Caliban’s attitude and disrespect is unfitting for a servant. However, his actions are justified. Until Prospero arrived on the island, Caliban was his own king. The island was left to him by his mother, Sycorax. Nevertheless, Prospero took charge of the isle and eventually enslaved Caliban. “Thou strok’st meI loved thee” is part of a quote that illustrates Caliban’s relationship with Prospero before he was his slave. Prospero comforted Caliban and gave him water and berries; he taught him how to speak, as well.
During this time Caliban loved Prospero and showed him the features of the island, “The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile” Caliban regrets helping Prospero as he says towards the end of his speech, “Cursed be I that did so! ” Caliban feels this way due to his imprisonment. However, Caliban was enslaved because he raped Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Rape appeals to the reader as a good cause for enslavement, but Shakespeare shows that Caliban deserves sympathy, instead of disgust. Caliban committed an illicit act that deserved punishment.
However, he had not been nurtured by society and, therefore, did not know any better. It is his basic nature to do as he feels. He does not know the difference between right and wrong. The reader tends to feel sympathetic towards Caliban because he is punished and oppressed for conduct he could not control. Prospero says, “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick” which explains why even though Prospero taught Caliban the ways of civilized life, he still acted upon his natural instincts. Caliban still displays his natural behavior by being blunt and so-called detestable as a slave.
Though, once the reader understands Shakespeare’s intent, it can be inferred that Caliban is merely a sympathetic character who has lost his soul. He is helpless among the lives of the civilized, because civilized life is one he will never undertake. Caliban is a man of nature, but he should not be considered less honorable than someone from civilization. Shakespeare portrays Caliban as a very ugly and crude looking beast, which is how people of nature are pictured by citizens of society. Caliban’s appearance exemplifies the degenerate animal nature within him. However, Caliban has, what no man of society has, purity and innocence.
Caliban acts not to please others but to make himself happy. He has an intuitive understanding of the natural world that brings out a sensitivity higher than that of the civilized. Shakespeare gives Caliban some of the finest poetry in the play, “Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. /Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments” showing that nature can be as eloquent as society. Caliban might be portrayed as evil, but he is not as callous as Antonio, Prospero’s brother. Antonio is from the civilized world, yet he produces corruption and deformity far worse than that of Caliban’s nature.
In essence, Caliban behaves detestable in the eyes of a civilized society. Nevertheless, his acts are justified by his background and the environment in which he grew up. Caliban is created around the idea of nature and Shakespeare wanted the reader to see that Caliban(nature) was not as bad as he appeared. Shakespeare also wanted the reader to attain an understanding for individuals who were raised in an uncivilized atmosphere. With this understanding, Shakespeare inflicted a feeling of sympathy for those less fortunate. Shakespeare shows that our perception of others is not always the true picture.