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When looking at Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” one can find an underlying themes
of civilization verses barbarism. The characters that are created represent symbols of
nature, and their actions build their symbolism. Through the actions we get a view of
Shakespeare’s ideas on civilization and the uncivilized, as well of letting the reader form
their own opinions.
Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, after being removed 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
represent the theme of nature verses nature. Caliban is considered the illustration of the
wild, a beast of nature.
During the first meeting, Caliban comes across as very savage and immoral.
Prospero, when approaching Caliban’s lair, says disdainfully, “...[he] never/Yields us kind
answer,” meaning Caliban never responds with respect. Once Prospero reaches the cave
he calls out and Caliban harshly retorts, “There’s wood enough within.” This short reply
reveals the bitterness he feels from leading his life as a slave. This attitude makes Caliban
appear to be an valueless servant. There is also an extreme anger on the part of Caliban
towards Prospero. When he is requested to come forward, Caliban answers, “As wicked
dew e’er my mother brushed/With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen/Drop on you
both!...And blister you all o’er!” Although his actions may be justified they are still
considered improper for a servant.
Previous to Prospero’s arrival on the island, Caliban was his own ruler. His
mother, Sycorax, left the island to him. Regardless, Prospero took charge of the island
and imprisoned Caliban. “...Thou strok’st me...I loved thee...” is a portion of a quote that
portrays the relationship Caliban felt towards Prospero prior to be enslaved. Prospero
was his teacher, he taught Caliban to speak and in return Caliban showed him the island,
“The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile...” Rightfully so Caliban regrets
helping Prospero, near the end of his speech he says, “Cursed be I that did so!” Caliban’s
imprisonment his why he feels this way. However, the attempted rape of Prospero’s
daughter, Miranda, is the direct cause of the enslavement. This crime appeals to the
reader as a good cause for punishment, but Shakespeare also illustrates that Caliban
deserves sympathy, instead of disgust.
Caliban committed a crime that deserved punishment, but he was not raised in
society so therefore did not know what he did wrong. The only way of life he knew was
to follow and do what he feels. Caliban does not know right from wrong based on
society’s standards. Due this aspect there is a degree of sympathy towards Caliban
because he is oppressed due to conduct he could not control. Prospero comments, “A
devil, a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick...” which explains why
despite the teachings of Prospero, Caliban reacted on his instincts. Caliban is helpless
among the civilized because is a way of life he could never fully understand. Even though
Caliban is a man of a nature he should not be considered less honorable than any character
Citizens of society picture nature as ugly and unrefined, so this is how Shakespeare
portrays Caliban, as a hideous beast. His appearance is meant to illustrate the immoral
animal nature within him. Despite this immorality, Caliban posses purity and innocence,
something that no man of society can claim he has. Caliban does not act to please others,
rather his own pleasure is top priority. Shakespeare gives Caliban some fine poetry,
“...Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not./Sometimes a thousand twangling
instruments...” With this quote Caliban states that nature can be equally as charismatic as
society. Caliban portrayed as evil, but he is not as soulless as Antonio, Prospero’s
brother. Antonio is from the civilized world, yet he produces corruption and ugliness far
worse than that of Caliban’s nature.
Basically, Caliban behaves disgustingly in the eyes of civilized society.
Nevertheless, his background and environment which he grew up in accounts for these
actions and justifies them. Shakespeare uses the character of Caliban to represent nature
and to show readers that nature is not as bad as it appears to be at face value. Through
Caliban readers can gain an understanding of those individuals who were not raised in the
same atmospheres we were. With this awareness, a feeling of great sympathy is inflicted
on the readers for those who are less fortunate. Shakespeare show that our perception of
others is not always an accurate picture.
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