"Poor credulous monster."
These are just a few descriptions of Caliban, one of the most debated figures in all of Shakespeare. Is this cursing, would-be rapist and wannabe killer nothing but a monster? Or, is this belligerent, iambic pentameter-speaking slave worthy of our sympathy? Is Caliban a response to Montaigne's vision of the "noble savage"? Is he symbolic of the victims of colonial expansion?
Critical interpretations of Caliban are wildly different and have changed dramatically over the years. In fact, scholars get pretty fired up about how this character should be interpreted. Before we get carried away, let's start with what we do know.
Caliban is the island's only native. As Prospero tells us, he is the product of the witch Sycorax's hook-up with the devil and Caliban was "littered" (a word usually used to describe animals being born, like kittens) on the island after Sycorax was booted out of her home in Algiers (1.2). So, Caliban's life didn't exactly get off to a good start. So, was he born bad, or did something happen in his life to turn him into a "thing most brutish" (1.2)?
We know that after Prospero and Miranda washed up on shore, Caliban seems to have had a pretty decent relationship with the old magician. To Prospero Caliban says:
When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me and madest much of me, wouldst
Water with berries in 't, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And show'd thee all the qualities o' th' isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and
In other words, Caliban showed Prospero how to survive on the island and Prospero took Caliban under his wing and taught him to speak. (Apparently, Caliban had no language before this.) For a while, things were hunky dory. Or, as hunky dory as things can possibly be on a remote island. We even learn that Prospero treated Caliban "with human care" and let him stay at his pad.
So, what changed? Why does Prospero enslave Caliban, punish him with debilitating stomach cramps, and hurl the kinds of insults that would have most of us running to the bathroom to cry? Caliban, we learn, tried to rape Miranda in an attempt to "people" the isle with a bunch of little Calibans (1.2). That's pretty inexcusable, so it's clear we're supposed to be repulsed by Caliban's monstrous behavior and it's easy to see why Prospero treats him like dirt.
Yet, at the same time, Caliban is also a figure who can be read as a victim of Prospero's tyranny. When Caliban declares, "This island's mine, by Sycorax, my mother" (1.2.396), we're reminded that Prospero basically took over the island and made Caliban his slave. Caliban's also feisty and challenges Prospero's authority, which we can't help but admire, especially when Caliban points out that learning Prospero's language gave him the ability to "curse" his tormenter.
Regardless of how repulsive Caliban may be, he's also the character who delivers some of the most beautiful and stunning speeches in the play. Did you check out the scene where Caliban describes the beauty and wonders of the island? Here's a sample:
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 sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; (3.2.148-153)
This is pretty great poetry, don't you think?
A lot of literary critics say that Caliban's name is an anagram or at least a play on the word can[n]ibal, a term derived from "carib" (as in the Caribbean), which became a European term used to describe flesh-eaters. If this is the case, then Caliban's name associates him with the kinds of "savage" man-eaters that Europeans were reading about in travel literature when Shakespeare wrote the play.
It's also possible that Caliban's name may be a play on the Romany word "Cauliban," which means "black" or something associated with blackness. This makes some sense, especially given that Caliban is associated with darkness throughout the play. Prospero calls his slave "thou earth" (1.2) and says of him, "This thing of darkness I / acknowledge mine" (5.1.330-331). By the way, literary critic Kim F. Hall points out that Caliban's association with "darkness and dirt" is the opposite of Miranda's association with purity and light.
For a lot of critics, Caliban is symbolic of what happened to victims of European colonization in the centuries after Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. We think Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan do the best job of summing up this argument:
Caliban stands for countless victims of European imperialism and colonization. Like Caliban (so the argument goes), colonized peoples were disinherited, exploited, and subjugated. Like him, they learned a conqueror's language and perhaps that conqueror's values. Like him, they endured enslavement and contempt by European usurpers and eventually rebelled. Like him, they were torn between their indigenous culture and the culture superimposed on it by their conquerors. (Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History, 145)
This interpretation of Caliban can be pretty powerful and socially relevant, especially in film and stage productions where Caliban is portrayed as a colonized, New World subject. Yet, it's also important to remember, as Vaughan and Vaughan point out, that this "interpretation of Caliban is symbolic for what he represents to the observer, not for what Shakespeare may have had in mind."
Regardless of whether or not we read Caliban as a victim of colonial injustice, he's most definitely a slave and, in some ways, the play suggests he was born to be one. Miranda (or Prospero, depending on which edition of the play you're reading) says as much when she points out that she helped teach Caliban language:
[...] I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile
Though thou didst learn, had that in 't which good
Could not abide to be with. Therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison. (1.2.324-436)
In other words, Miranda suggests that Caliban's "vile race" and lack of language makes him deserving of his status as a slave. (This, of course, is exactly what European imperialists said about the people they colonized.) What's interesting is that even Caliban seems like he lives to serve. When he conspires with Stefano and Trinculo to kill Prospero, he promises to serve Stefano:
I'll show thee every fertile inch o' th' island,
And I will kiss thy foot. I prithee, be my god. (2.2.154-155)
What's up with that?