The place and person tool, where one looks at the interaction of place, or scene, with character, helps to understand the most important meanings in a Shakespearean play. Can one apply this tool to understand The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final solo play? Let us try and find out.
In The Tempest, we see what the island ultimately means as we investigate the meaning of the characters who reside on the island, and in so doing, we learn more about who these characters are and what significance they have.
This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Caliban in The Tempest
Every time characters speak about Caliban, they comment on how he relates to the island on which he was born. It’s no accident that the first person to describe Caliban, and hence to define him, is Prospero, who is the master stage manager of this entire play.
In the second scene of the play, while talking to Ariel, Prospero reminds him of the “blue-eyed hag”, the witch Sycorax, who had years ago, been marooned on the island. A son was born to her there who is described by Prospero as “a freckled whelp, hag-born, not honoured with / A human shape”.
Then, Prospero tells Miranda that they will visit Caliban. Miranda is not very happy about the visit and tells her father that she doesn’t like to meet him. Here, she is reminded by Prospero that they cannot live without Caliban as he takes care of their chores.
Then, Prospero orders Caliban to come forward by addressing him as “poisonous slave”. Cursing them both, Caliban comes forward grudgingly. Prospero gives this assurance to his slave that during the night he would suffer from “cramps”, “side stitches”, and “stinging”. This exchange tells us a lot about the characters and the place.
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The Odd Relationship in The Tempest
The relationship between Caliban and Prospero is quite peculiar. There is mutual animosity—neither seems to feel kindly toward the other—but there is also mutual dependence. Prospero depends upon Caliban’s labor and Caliban depends upon Prospero’s wisdom and power.
It’s a version of the master/slave dialectic, in which the master is just as dependent upon the slave as is the slave upon the master. It’s also a version of so many human relations—husband/wife, father/son, bother/brother—in which love and hate strive with each other.
The island, it seems, is not just a magical place; it is also a kind of laboratory or test tube in which human relationships are stressed, experimented upon, and pushed to their extremes to see what underlies the way we relate to one another.
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The Colonized and the Colonizer
We then get Caliban’s own description of himself, his past, and his relationship with Prospero and Miranda—and his version is somewhat at odds with that of Prospero. According to Caliban, Prospero treated him kindly when he most needed him, when he was dependent on Caliban to teach him how to survive on the island.
But then Prospero seized the island from Caliban, made Caliban his slave, and now keeps him trapped on the worst parts of the land. Many scholars have interpreted this play as a version of what happened when the European colonizers came to the New World and imposed their rule on the native inhabitants there. Setting the play with this context in the forefront has been the major impulse in staging The Tempest for the last 40 years, leading to some very thoughtful productions.
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Is Caliban Indeed a Victim?
It is clear that Shakespeare has brought in the tension between the master and the slave, the conquered and the conqueror, the civilized, and the savage.
Prospero insists that he was always kind to Caliban and in his own words was even “humane” till the time Caliban made an attempt to rape Miranda. And Caliban not only doesn’t deny it, but gleefully wishes it had been accomplished: “O ho, O ho!” he exclaims, “Would’t had been done; / Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans.”
Well, this alters one’s view about Caliban. Is he indeed a victim as he claims to be? It is hard to believe that it is the same Caliban, the noble colonized figure, a victim of Prospero’s tyranny.
Common Questions about Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest
Miranda is the daughter of Prospero in The Tempest.
Many scholars have interpreted The Tempest as a version of what happened when the European colonizers came to the New World and imposed their rule on the native inhabitants there.
The relationship between Caliban and Prospero is quite peculiar in The Tempest. There is mutual animosity—neither seems to feel kindly toward the other—but there is also mutual dependence. Prospero depends upon Caliban’s labor and Caliban depends upon Prospero’s wisdom and power.