Explore Shakespeare's Presentation of Caliban; a product of nature or nurture?

In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest ” the character of Caliban is portrayed in a puzzling and thought-provoking manner. He is a complex character as at times he displays savage like qualities and at others he displays an appreciation for nature and expresses his love for his habitat using poetic devices. Through Caliban Shakespeare explores the themes of nature and nurture. The question raised is, whether Caliban is the product of inheritance and is innately savage or whether his characteristics are a result of his social environment and the cruelty channelled towards him by the islands newer inhabitants.

Within this essay I will be exploring the two opinions, the first one being that Caliban was born bad because of his parents also being bad, and the second being whether he appears bad because he does not fit into the mould of a civilised being which was created by his islands new arrivals.

The name Caliban is an anagram of “cannibal” which was often spelt with one “n” in William Shakespeare’s day, or it may derive from “Cariban” since Shakespeare would have been familiar with stories regarding savage “Carib Indians”.

Either way the name’s origin would immediately provide the audience of the time with the expectation of baseness. Caliban was born as the son of “the foul witch Sycorax”. The first description of Caliban shows him as animalistic and misshapen: “save for the son that she did litter here, a freckled whelp, hag-born- not honoured with a human shape”. Every character in the play calls him by derogatory names.

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He is called a “tortoise”, “monster”, “filth”, “poisonous snake”. All of these names relate to creatures and make the audience view him as an animalistic being. This endorses the view that Caliban is a product of nature. He is also called “moon-calf” which in contrast to the character of Stephano who called him self “the man on the moon” places him lower on a social scale. In the list of characters he is described as, a ” savage and deformed slave”. During Shakespeare’s time a person’s deformity or disabilities were unjustly seen as signs, judgements for that person’s parents wrong doing. Thus the audience would have immediately understood that there was some evil wrong doing in Caliban’s background.

When Prospero first discovered Caliban, he was unable to be understood. He did not speak any European language. Again the Shakespearian audience who believed native languages to be inferior would have immediately seen this as savagery. Prospero and Miranda attempted to civilise Caliban by teaching him English and being kind to him.

“When thou cam’st first

Thou stroks’t me, and made much of me; wouldst give me

Water with berries in’t, and teach me how

To name the bigger light , and how the less

That burn by day and night”

Caliban responds by loving them and showing them his island,

“and then I lov’d thee,

And show’d thee all the qualities o’th’isle,

The fresh springs, brine -pits, barren place and fertile.”

Despite this budding friendship Caliban’s primitive and unrestrained lack of self control leads to an attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter.

Prospero confronts him with his attempted rape:

“I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child”

However the “villain” Caliban shows absolutely no remorse for his actions :

“Would’t had been done. Thou didst prevent me- I had peopled else the isle with Calibans”

Even the civilised language that is taught to Caliban is used by him to curse:”You taught me language, and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse” This emphasises Caliban’s anger towards Prospero as Caliban seems to practice the idea that anything inflicted upon him by Prospero must be bad. Caliban’s cursing is a display of rebellion against Prospero.

” As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed

With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A southe -west blow on ye,

And blister you all o’er”

The fact that the characters in the play attempted to make Caliban more civilised shows that they do not understand cultures which are not similar in practice to their own. Their immediate attempts to change Caliban’s nature shows that they lack cultural understanding. Their manipulation of Caliban shows that they cannot comprehend the nature of human’s which were not raised in the same way as them. After their initial friendship has been broken bt the attempted rape,Miranda and Prospero revert to the belief that Caliban’s cruel savage nature cannot be improved by kindness or civilising influences. Miranda says,

“Abhorred slave, Which any print of goodness wilt not take”.

I feel that the attempt to change Caliban, would have been accepted during Elizabethan times as the correct thing to do, much like the European settlers in America, as they thought that their way of life was completely correct and could not comprehend the fact that people can survive with different approaches to life. Prospero repeats Miranda’s thoughts when he says,

“A Devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick”

This quote shows us a lot about Prospero’s beliefs about the way in which human characteristics are gained. It shows that he follows John Locke’s view that someone can be a “born devil”. Even Caliban himself at the end of the play acknowledges his own stupidity when he says

” I’ll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace”.

John Locke, an English philosopher, held the view that characteristics are innate in his ” Book Of Innate Notions”. This theory backs up the view that Caliban inherits his bad characteristics from his evil mother Sycorax.

Caliban is definitely portrayed as innately corrupt through his actions, uch as when he rapes Miranda. Prospero’s vivid description of Caliban’s mother as a crooked witch underlines their belief in his vile inheritance,

“The foul with Sycorax, who with age and envy

Was grown into a hoop”

Prospero uses this belief in evil inheritance to somehow justify his cruel treatment and enslavement of Caliban,

Hag-seed hence!

Fetch us in fuel;and be quick, thou’rt best,

To answer other business. Shrug’st thou , malice?

If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly

What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps.

Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar.

That brass shall tremble at thy din”

The opposite theory of John Locke’s innate notions theory is the Tabula Rasa theory which follows the view that nurture is the key factor in shaping a human’s characteristics. The theory entails the view that when a human being is born their mind is completely blank of anything and there are no innate ideas, it means that the social environment and social interactions shape the character and depending on the treatment they receive they become a good natured or bad natured individual. William Shakespeare probably did not have any idea of these theories as they were recorded after his death, however I think he created Caliban to explore people’s opinions and beliefs about what shapes the characteristics, and if so he was extremely successful as Caliban receives many different reactions when people watch the play.

The Tempest is one of the four last plays written by Shakespeare. It is, at one level, a fairy tale with magical occurrences, and a happy ending. It involves human beings, spirits, a handsome prince and princess and the triumph of good over evil. It is set on an “isle” apart from normal society and all the action takes place within four hours. It examines the contrast between supposed uncivilised and civilised beings and the results of colonialism. In spite of all the disorder portrayed it ends on a note of triumph. The older generation have found reconciliation and the younger have found love. Even Caliban is seeking ” grace.” The title, “The Tempest” could refer to the physical storm that occurs in the play and which cuts the characters and action off from the normal world. However it could also refer to the turbulent passions of the characters. In particular Caliban undergoes an amazing storm of emotions throughout the play from the poetic love of his island to hatred at enslavement to acceptance and peacefulness at the end. The form and structure of the play allows Shakespeare to concentrate on exploring the above themes. Caliban is a representation of the conflict between nature and nurture between the power of civilisation and instinct. Shakespeare vividly portrays through Caliban and the other characters interactions with him the conflict that was going on in Elizabethan society regarding colonisation. He can be seen as a representation of the noble savage. Wordsworth and Colderidge wrote about similar themes in their poetry. Coleridge wrote that ” Caliban is wonderfully conceived: he is a sort of creature of the earth- Caliban is a noble being : a man in the sense of the imagination”.

Despite having had to learn a new language from Miraanda and Prospero , Caliban’s poetic speeches are equal to theirs. His description of his torments is so vivid that it disturbs us and fills us with pity,

For every trifle are they set upon me,

Sometimes like apes, that mow and chatter at me

And after bite me;then like hedgehogs, which

Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount

Their pricks at my foot fall ; sometime am I

All wound up with adders, who with cloven tongues

Do hiss me into madness

His poetic descriptions of the island show the depth of his feeling for his home.

Be not afeared 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 sometimes voices

That if I had waked after long sleep

Will make me sleep again

As with Caliban representing instinct, the other main characters in the play could be interpreted to represent different attributes of humanity. Miranda could be love. Ariel could be spirit and prospero power. Shakespeare in this way dealt with the themes of human weaknesses and destiny. How ever I feel that Caliban is also vividly portrayed as a believable character.

Certainly Caliban receives ill treatment from every other character in the play, Prospero treats Caliban kindly at first and Caliban returns his kindness with affection in language “And then I loved thee And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’isle” This shows that Caliban is sharing his love of nature, hoping that Prospero will have the same view and this similar attribute would bring them closer together. Perhaps Calibans attempted rape of Miranda was a result of a flaw in his understanding of right and wrong as he had not been informed that the act of rape was a negative experience to inflict upon someone. Prospero turned Caliban into a slave by day and tormented him with spirits by night , Caliban himself says this cruel treatment, “Do hiss me into madness”. Even the minor characters in the play such as Stephano and Trinculo ill-treat Caliban. They give him alcohol to “tame him”. They become convinced that they can conquer the island. They take advantage of Caliban’s impressionable nature as they plan to use him to help them in their feeble plan. In this scene Caliban appears to show admiration for Stephano and Trinculo. He shows himself to be as impressionable as a child. Caliban displays his view of himself is that of a servant. He promises to be servile to Stephano “I’ll kiss thy foot; I’ll swear myself thy subject”.

However he also shows that he is not just a savage when he describes the island using musical imagery to Stephano and Trinculo. He describes the island in an extremely poetic manner. Calibans character is so complex that he does not fit easily or precisely into either of the above theories. Despite Miranda’s assertion that he had no language and his own statement that he uses language only to curse he speaks in verse unlike the other minor characters and when describing the island his language is vivid and poetical;

“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 sometimes voices”

Stephano’s reply that “this will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing” shows the difference between the two.

Savage Caliban can appreciate beautiful music whilst civilised Stephano thinks only in terms of material value.

During the incident where they find Prospero’s clothes Caliban recognizes these garments as “trash” while again Trinculo is taken in by their apparent richness. Caliban has a better set of values than Stephano and Trinculo. They are distracted from their plan by the greed for Prospero’s rich Garments. Caliban’s motive for murder is less ignoble than that of Antonio and Sebastian. They plan to kill Alonso to gain his power and wealth. Caliban’s motive is that he wants the return of “his island”.

Miranda does not “love to look on” Caliban yet she says she does define him as a man when she says she has seen only two men before Ferdinand meaning Caliban and Prospero are considered men by her. Even Prospero initially sees value in Caliban when he tries to educate him.

Caliban clearly learns a lot during the play, a new language and his finishing words , ” I’ll be wise hereafter,/And seek for grace” display his understanding of a need for improvement.

At the end of the play, Prospero declares

” this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine “.

This can be interpreted in two ways, one simply that he is declaring the fact that Caliban is his slave or that Prospero is acknowledging that his cruelty has led to Caliban’s savage servile and corrupt character.

Perhaps the complexity of Caliban’s character and the depiction of him as either innately corrupt or corrupted by society portrays the conflicting attitude towards colonisation which were prevalent at the time Shakespeare was writing. Most people in England believed that uncivilised people, natives were below their civilised selves. They saw it as a duty to civilise these savage natives however some were beginning to question this assumption and there is evidence in the play that Shakespeare believed that the corruption in so-called civilised society was more abhorrent that any natural behaviour. Caliban can be seen as representing nature and freedom which has been corrupted as a result of enslavement this mirrors the effects of colonisation. On the other hand he can be seen as merely savage and uncouth.

Joanna Williams in her article , “Caliban” states that “One final view of natural man is a psychological interpretation that sees Calibans base instincts as a side of Prospero’s personality”. This would mean that when Prospero declares “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine” he is referring to the dark side of his own personality. In this way Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban can be interpreted to represent the dark side of human nature. Therefore whether baseness is inherited or develops is not really the issue at hand. Perhaps Shakespeare wishes us to recognise a little of Caliban in our selves, not completely corrupt, showing some fine qualities but being very human in responding to both good and bad in his environment. In conclusion Caliban is a thought provoking character who depicts the nature of humanity being influenced by both nature and nurture.

Finally I would say that throughout the play the character of Caliban gives us confusing signals to his nature. At times such as when he is extremely impressionable around Stephano and Trinculo he shows himself to be a product of nurture but at other times such as when he attempts to rape Miranda he proves that his base instincts will conquer all others. I

would conclude that it is open to interpretation whether he is a product of nature or nurture as he displays qualities which link to both theories, I also think an audiences opinion of Caliban’s nature depends on the way in which the director of the play chooses to present him. The character provokes an extremely varied set of reactions. I feel that modern audiences would react differently from the Shakespeare’s contemporaries to the character of Caliban, Post colonisation and post holocaust audiences would be well aware

of the dangers of prejudice. It is now impossible not to sympathise with the enslaved Caliban although Shakespeare’s audiences would not perhaps have

shared this sympathy. It is a tribute to Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist that the play allowed the Elizabethan audiences to consider such an important theme, which is still relevant in today’s world.

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Explore Shakespeare's Presentation of Caliban; a product of nature or nurture?. (2018, Nov 30). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/paper-on-explore-shakespeares-presentation-of-caliban-a-product-of-nature-or-nurture/

Explore Shakespeare's Presentation of Caliban; a product of nature or nurture?
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