Significance of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest

Caliban embodies three ideas, first, the supernatural as he is born of the union of a witch and the devil. Hence, he is deformed. In the first and supernatural character, Caliban serves as a foil to the heavenly spirit, Ariel. Ariel is primarily "but air", whereas Caliban, at the very outset, is addressed by Prospero a 'thou earth'? Caliban represents not only the earth, but also the other of two heavier elements, i.e. water, for he is half fish.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

The physical appearance of Caliban is vague; all attempts to sketch this strange being have proved futile. He is able to dig pig-nuts, pluck berries and snare the nimble monkeys, yet Prospero calls him a tortoise. Again, in one of her speeches, Miranda ranks him with a man when she tells Ferdinand that she has in her life seen but two men - her old father Prospero and the deformed Caliban. In another, she excludes him from the category of human beings. Shakespeare must have derived some of the material used for portraying Caliban from contemporary books of travel narrating strange account of island natives in various parts of the world. Caliban symbolizes an extraordinary kind of monstrosity and lack of scruples when he tries to rape Miranda, for which he is banished from Prospero's cell and confined to a rock, and when he conspires against his master Prospero along with the drunken butler Stephano and the jester Trinculo. What gives him supernatural qualities is Caliban's heredity and his bodily deformity as well as the curses he constantly heaps upon Prospero in spite of knowing that he will be severely punished for this. He is an ungrateful and incorrigible wretch.

Caliban in The Tempest is also an embodiment of slavery on the island that Prospero has usurped. Caliban rightly resents this fact because the island should have rightfully been his after the death of his mother, the wicked witch Sycorax. Instead, he is yoked to slavery. As Prospero says, "We'll visit Caliban, my slave - he does make our fire, fetch in our wood and services in offices that profit us." Again, "He is that Caliban, whom now I keep in service." As a slave, Caliban hates Prospero, the hard taskmaster; in fact, he hates "all service". He, therefore, represents slavery and the revolt against slavery in all its forms. Prospero at one time might have 'petted' Caliban and treated him with great affection, but in the final analysis, Caliban is his slave and Prospero himself makes no bones about calling him his slave without feeling embarrassed. Speaking to Stephano, Caliban says that Prospero is a tyrant who inflicts all kinds of punishment upon him. The relationship between Caliban and Prospero is that of a slave and a slave-owner. Caliban's reluctance to carry out Prospera's commands shows a slave rebelling against the authority. Slavery has existed in various forms in several countries from times immemorial. It has since assumed serious dimensions and created several historic and geographic problems. Negroes are still treated as second-class citizens in America. Caliban, therefore, represents the oppressed and the downtrodden class of slaves in an unequal world.

The Tempest, being a play about colonialism, deals with the relation between the colonizer and the colonized. If Prospero represents the colonizer from the civilized world, Caliban is seen as a savage beast thus in need of being civilized. He is a victim of colonial rule and exploitation. At the same time he also represents the force for striking back on the colonizer. Prospero came to the island where Caliban and his mother Sycorax were dwelling and forcefully took it from them. It is a typical colonial practice. He represents the world of civilization. The civilizing mission has it that the colonizers were not there to dominative the natives, but to uplift them by civilizing. It was an attempt to justify colonization. In the eyes of the colonizer the native inhabitants were always barbarians. This stereotype works in the case of Caliban too. He is treated as a beast by Prospero and he learns how to use language. He is a colonized whose existence is the 'other' so much needed to define the 'self of the colonizer. Prospero feels it his duty to teach and civilize the savage. Caliban is pure nature, not corrupted from the influence of civilization, After Caliban is taught to use language he is being molded according to the image of the colonizer but the colonized can never be the equal of the colonizer. He is the darkness that contrasts sharply with Prospero, who represents light of civilization. On the other hand, Caliban also stands for the force that strikes back on the colonizer. After he learns how to use language he says that the advantage of it is that he knows how to curse the colonizer. He uses the weapon given by Prospero to rebuke and curse him for what he has done to him and his mother. His attempt to rape Miranda can also be understood along the same line of interpretation. Thus Caliban represents the colonized who at the same time counters the colonizer with what he has given to the colonized.

The monster, the slave, the colonized - are the three parts played by the deformed Caliban in The Tempest.  He is the embodiment of the supernatural, the social and the political ideas of the day.