Unpacking Caliban

William Shakespeare did not write his characters as inherently “good” or “evil.” Rather, they would come in various shades of gray. Shakespeare understood the human condition, that every person has flaws and virtues of their own, and that’s what makes interesting characters. However, there are some notable exceptions to this: some Shakespearean characters aren’t fully “human,” and aren’t limited by this property. Most notably, the Three Witches of Macbeth are inexplicably evil: they are disproportionately vengeful, cruel, and mischievous. They knowingly drove the title character of Macbeth to madness and a kingdom to ruin for no clear benefit for themselves other than amusement.  This begs the question in the wake of The Tempest: could the witch Sycorax, and, by extension, her son Caliban be regarded similarly to the witches of Macbeth? Should Caliban be sympathized as a victim of prejudice, or is he truly as monstrous as the others describe him? After reading Jenna and Don’s posts regarding this topic, I’ve come up with a few points that should be noted:

  • Sycorax was not a native of the island, being an exile of Algiers, so it’s difficult to safely parallel Prospero’s arrival with contemporary views of colonial interactions with native peoples.
  • Despite having already died by the time of Prospero’s arrival, Sycorax was proven to be wicked and abusive on account of her magical imprisonment of the true island natives, Ariel and the other spirits. If any comparison to colonialism could be made, it should be this instance.
  • Caliban’s true paternal lineage is ambiguous, but Prospero claimed that he’s the result of a communion between Sycorax and a devil. If this were true, then it would further explain Caliban’s cruel nature.

The abuse towards Caliban didn’t begin from the start. Allegedly, when Prospero and Miranda arrived on the island, Caliban acted as a tour to them, showing them all the qualities of the island.  Although Prospero had “claimed” the island, he still treated Caliban with care and hospitality, even allowing him to share the same shelter (“I have used thee […] with humane care, and lodged thee in mine own cell”). Miranda had also taken pity on Caliban, and decided to tutor him and teach him language. Despite all the care granted to him, Caliban still made the choice to enact violence in the attempted rape of Miranda. Because there were no laws present on the island, Prospero had to improvise a punishment for him in the form of servitude. Caliban’s crime was an act of treachery, which, in Shakespeare’s time especially, is considered one of the worst forms of sin. Even when mentioning it in hindsight, Caliban does not seem to hold any remorse for his actions. Only after this point can it be presumed that the belittling from the other inhabitants begun. Caliban isn’t hated, abused, and enslaved because he’s ugly, foreign, or dark-skinned. He’s hated because he’s a criminal and a traitor, and makes no acknowledgement of his wrongdoing nor does he attempt at redemption. Can care be the antidote of violence if violence was enacted after care was all that was given?

With this in mind, I believe that Caliban transcends the moral complexities of Shakespeare’s human characters, and begins to approach the realm of evil that exists only in non-human entities. The insults given from the other characters to Caliban are indeed cruel, often unnecessary, but they are reflections of their moral grayness in their anger towards him. Caliban, on the other hand, has no values and no redeeming qualities. He saw no problem with the action that led to his enslavement, and in the years of reflection since, still sees no problem. People are allowed to make mistakes, as long as those mistakes are recognized retrospectively. The failure of realizing right from wrong, especially given significant time to think about it, is what defines someone as evil in my mind.

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