Caliban and Colonialism in The Tempest

by Kathrine Engan

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written around 1611, tells the story of power struggles on an almost deserted island. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, has enslaved the only native of the isle, Caliban, and he plans and eventually manages to regain his dukedom through use of magic. Several of the characters vie for power in parallel plots. The play was written at a time when England was establishing itself as a colonial power along with other European empires such as Spain, Portugal, and France. The Tempest certainly deals with issues of colonialism in a topical way, especially through the character of Caliban, by alluding to physical and social otherness and financial incentives of colonialism. However, the ambiguous geographical setting together with Caliban’s sympathetic traits and his unresolved status at the end of the play invite the audience to question the legitimacy of power rather than endorsing or criticizing colonialism per se.

When King James I ascended to the throne in 1603, after roughly four decades with Queen Elizabeth I as monarch, England was in a period of territorial growth. In addition to having colonized Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the English monarch set up its first American colony in 1585 (“How the Tudor Dynasty Shaped Modern Britain”). The colonies represented access to raw materials and generated income for the crown. Acquiring colonies was also important in order to seem powerful, especially vis-a-vis Spain, and was thus an important part of the British project of nation-building. With the reign of King James I, the national discourse changed from focusing on England to embracing the British. Many texts were published reflecting this new way of seeing the country and situating Britain historically, building continuity with history and myth. Shakespeare, after 1603, engaged in this shift by choosing “Britain” rather than “England” in his texts (Wymer 5). Of course, as Britain had increasing contact with other countries and territories, either by colonizing them or through trade or travel, the English would think of their own (national) identity in terms of what they were not (“The Sixteenth Century” 496). Starting even before Shakespeare’s time, Native Americans and Africans were captured or convinced to come back to England (“Squantum,” Vaughan 50). Some of these foreigners learned English and served as interpreters or valuable sources of information, others were exotic showpieces at court or in public spaces.

The character of Caliban dramatizes otherness and exoticism. Trinculo, upon first seeing Caliban, questions whether he is “a man or a fish?” and later repeatedly calls him “monster” (Shakespeare 2.2.25, 2.2.31). Stephano consistently refers to Caliban as “servant monster,” “man-monster,” and “mooncalf” (3.2.8, 3.2.12, 3.2.23). But even if these characters emphasize Caliban’s monstrosity, I support Vaughan and Vaughan’s reading of Caliban as clearly human (10). Prospero states, when introducing Caliban and setting up his own coming to the island that it “was not honored with a human shape” except “the son that she [Sycorax, Caliban’s mother] did litter here”(1.2.281-83). The First Folio version of the play describes Caliban in the Dramatis Personae as “a saluage and deformed slaue.” However, the deformity is never specified, and staging choices are left to the choices made by each production of the play. 

“The Enchanted Island Before the Cell of Prospero.” Painted by P. Simons and Henry Fuseli, first published in A Collection of Prints from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (1803).

Caliban’s otherness clearly has to do with his behavior as much as with his looks. Prospero declares that despite his own humane treatment of Caliban, Caliban refuses to behave appropriately. One of his complaints is that Caliban, “with humane care,” was allowed to live in the cave with Prospero and Miranda, but subsequently tried to rape her (1.2.346-48). Prospero implies that gratitude would have been a more appropriate response to sharing habitation with him and Miranda. Caliban, on the other hand, laments that learning the language of his oppressors have done him no good, only taught him to “curse” (1.2.363). In contrast to Prospero, who uses magic to dominate other characters, Caliban’s curses are ineffective as a tool. In other words, even if Prospero has made an effort to teach Caliban the ways of the civilized world, Caliban is unwilling to behave according to Prospero’s expectations.

Caliban is written as a sympathetic and composite character. As argued by Deborah Willis, Caliban and his claim to the island is strong enough to (partly) undermine Prospero as a just ruler (279, 284). Caliban explains to the audience how “this island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,” a more convincing claim to the island than Prospero is able to come up with (1.2.331). He further details how Prospero pretended to “ma[ke] much” of him, but then promptly enslaved him and now keeps him confined in a rock when he is not working  (1.2.472, 1.2.481-82). In this earnest and eloquent speech, Caliban appears to have good reasons to complain of his servitude, which again serve to undermine Prospero’s absolute authority. Caliban might be partly savage and crude, but he also speaks in iambic pentameter (like the noble characters of the play), and his side of the story shows Prospero’s abuse and willingness to use magic and power to get his own way. Thus, Caliban’s character works against simple stereotypes of “savage natives” and invites the audience to ponder why, exactly, Prospero might be justified in ruling over him.

The issues brought up by the character of Caliban also emphasize the economic concerns of the colonial enterprise. When Prospero and Miranda first came to the island, we learn, Caliban showed them “all the qualities o’ th’ isle / the fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile” (1.2.337). He, in other words, has knowledge of the raw materials they needed for their survival. In addition, Caliban represents labor for Prospero. While the newcomers to the island refer to Caliban as “monster,” Prospero’s descriptor of choice is “slave.” When Caliban first enters the stage, he is repeatedly called “slave,” “my slave,” “poisonous slave” and “most lying slave,” all in quick succession (1.2.307, 1.2.312, 1.2.319, 1.2.343). Caliban works for Prospero: fetching wood, tending the fire, and other “offices that profit [Prospero and Caliban]” (1.2.307). In this way, Caliban represents both wealth, labor, and survival for Prospero and his daughter.

Other characters also see Caliban in terms of his monetary value. Trinculo speculates that Caliban would “make a man” in England, i.e. make Trinculo rich by attracting people who would be willing to pay to see him (2.2.30-32). Likewise Antonio, Prospero’s brother, states that Caliban is “very marketable” (5.1.266). They are not interested in Caliban’s qualities as a person or his potential autonomy, but view him as an object, something they can make money on. This, of course, mirrors colonial financial concerns.

The geographical location of the island of Prospero’s island is vague. Some scholars have argued that the island is in the Mediterranean (Frey 29) while others hold that the island must be set in the Caribbean or is a metaphor for the Americas (Vaughan and Vaughan 118). Others again claim that the play resonates with English domination over Scotland, Wales, and Ireland or England’s past as a Roman colony (Wymer 3, 5). The non-specificity of the setting — with references to Bermudas, the Argentinian god Setebos, and specific foods that Caliban is able to provide — invites a more abstract and allegorical reading, in line with the magical elements of the play. This in turn has contributed to the longevity of the play: after all, we still deal with colonialism and post-colonialism, and the issues raised by Prospero and Caliban have been specific enough to be useful, yet general enough to be applicable to more modern contexts. We see this for instance in Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: the Psychology of Colonization, where the psychoanalyst uses the characters from The Tempest to illustrate, generalize, and problematize the mindsets and effects of colonialism.

In addition to the relevance gained from this geographical ambiguity, Caliban’s character and thus his colonized condition stays with the audience. Whereas the spirit Ariel, who has been bound to Prospero throughout the play, is released by Prospero at the end of the last act, Caliban’s future is not resolved (5.1.320). Caliban, on the other hand, recognizes that Prospero is now his master (again) and that he will likely be punished (5.1.261) and Prospero, in turn, exclaims that “this thing of darkness I / acknowledge mine” (5.1.275). They are back in the same kind of relationship they had at the beginning of the play, except Caliban now vows to “be wise hereafter, / and seek for grace” because he fears the punishment Prospero can give him (5.1.295). First, this ending is tenuous because obedience grounded in fear often backfires or leads to unwanted consequences. Second, Prospero leaves it up to the readers’ imagination what will happen to Caliban next. Some critics hold that Caliban will get the island and his liberty back when Prospero returns to Milan (Vaughan and Vaughan 9). I agree with Willis’ reading of the end where Caliban’s future is really up in the air: he might be allowed to stay at the island by himself, but it is equally possible that he has to come with Prospero to Milan (286). Either way, Caliban’s presence is ongoing and uneasy, even after the ending of the play.

In conclusion, The Tempest deals with colonialism and power in a nuanced way. While demonstrating how Caliban is viewed by the colonizer, Prospero, and the Old World newcomers to the island, the play also portrays him as a sympathetic and oppressed character. Shakespeare’s combination of  contemporary, topical references to colonialism and natives and the wider, overarching themes of the long-lasting effect of colonialism and legitimacy of power, make this play feel relevant also in the 21st century. After all, just like Caliban stays with us after the curtain goes down, so do issues related to power and (post-)colonialism.

Works Cited

Frey, Charles. “The Tempest and the New World.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1979, 29-41.

“How the Tudor Dynasty Shaped Modern Britain.” iWonder, BBC, Accessed 27 November 2016.

Mannoni, O. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Translated by Pamela Powesland, 2nd edition, Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Editor Robert Langbaum, Signet, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest (First Folio). Editors Brent Whitted and Paul Yachnin. Internet Shakespeare Editions. University of Victoria,;jsessionid=0FE083503051B0BD17058E2D5635FA79. Accessed 28 Nov 2016.

“Squantum — Taken to England.” Squantum Accessed 28 November 2016.

“The Sixteenth Century 1485-1603.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, General Editor Stephen Greenblatt, Eighth edition, Vol.1, Norton, 2006, 485-511.

Vaughan, Alden T. “Trinculo’s Indian: American Natives in Shakespeare’s England.” The Tempest and Its Travels. Editors Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman, U of Penn Press, 2000.

Vaughan, Alden T. and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History. Cambridge UP, 1991.

Willis, Deborah. “Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1989, 277-89.

Wymer, Rowland. “The Tempest and the Origins of Britain.” Critical Survey, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, 3-14.