Shakespeare’s Villains: Condemning Caliban

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This is the second in a series of blogs looking at Shakespeare’s villains each week there will be a post on Finding Shakespeare as well as Blogging Shakespeare and an Online exhibition on Flickr

On the face of it what Caliban tries to do to Miranda is wrong, no one would contest that, and yet as readers, viewers and play goers we are often ready to forgive him, why is that?

With so much in the news recently about rape laws and how people accused of sexual assault may try to justify their actions it is timely that Caliban is included this week in our series on Shakespeare’s Villains.

Of course in The Tempest it is not clear what Caliban actually did to Miranda. Prospero accuses him thus “Thou dids’t seek to violate the honour of my child” to which he replies “O ho! I would it had been done; thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans” . From this we can deduce that Caliban attempted to have sexual relations with Miranda – from his point of view an act of procreation and from Prospero’s a violation of honour. Sadly Miranda never mentions the incident and so her own opinion on how ‘vile’ the encounter was is hard to assertain although it is certain she is not overly fond of Caliban as she calls him a “villain”.

Caliban’s actions are those we would generally condemn,  and yet many readers (men and women) long to forgive him so let’s look at some of the arguments they use to do so?

  1. Prospero is an unreliable narrator who has his own agenda in accusing Caliban. This argument usually presents Prospero as a racist whose opinion of Caliban mating with his daughter has more to do with a bigoted fear of miscegenation  than his perception of the act as one of assault. In this scenario Miranda is usually presented as rather more accepting of Caliban’s advances. Although, on the face of it, the text suggests she is not enamored of Caliban I have seen productions that successfully present them as friends (See Cheek by Jowl for a recent example)
  2. That Caliban does not know what he is doing. This point usually focuses on Caliban’s isolation from western cultural norms. If he did not know that sexual assault was wrong then he cannot be fairly condemned for committing it. To be fair Caliban has had very limited exposure to anyone of very sound judgement.  In his life he has known his Mother Sycorax (who was apparently a rather earthy witch whose morals hardly seem impeachable) Ariel (who may be seen more as spirit than human and may have little concern for the niceties of human sexual mores) and Prospero and Miranda who may or may not have attempted to teach him about the birds and the bees and why it is good manners to gain consent. In this interpretation Miranda may also be portrayed as innocent about such things, her father having never found the time for that particular discussion.
  3. Caliban is not human and cannot be judged on human terms. In the text it is not clear exactly how human Caliban is. We may see him as racially different or actually a different species. If we see him as powerful and almost human the sexual assault is frightening in the extreme. However if we see him more as an overgrown puppy dog then the assault becomes almost a laughing matter  – something akin to your pet dog attempting to procreate with a stranger’s leg at a bus stop – embarrassing for sure but by no means a crime. Have a look at this slide show and see if these Caliban’s seem more or less frightening

What do you think? Does Caliban deserve our understanding and forgiveness or should be considered one of Shakespeare’s Villains?

Check out Finding Shakespeare on Thursday 16 June 2011 for their take on Caliban.


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Susanna

    Interesting post – I’m always interested in debating Caliban’s status as villain – part of my thesis was about the debate surrounding his humanity. Personally, I believe that his mother probably taught him much before she died. I think he knew violating Miranda was wrong – she would have struggled, protested in some way, and I don’t think you need to be taught that if someone struggles then it’s not okay to continue. Caliban is a villain, but I think Colette has it right – he is a soft villain.

  • Colette

    Interesting question. Don’t forget that along with the incident from Act I that you describe, Caliban also attempts to “sell” Miranda to Stephano later in the play, using her as a temptation so that Stephano will kill Prospero. I think Caliban is a mixed character. He is part victim and elicits some sympathy for his plight. He’s also ignorant, thinking that liquor is spiritual and that the possession of it makes Stephano God-like. He cries for freedom and then enslaves himself to the next person he meets: a drunken butler. He is embittered, certainly, but he does make choices that are hard to defend. The thought of murdering Prospero gives him joy – he has no sense of conscience about it. I would call him a soft villain. He’s an antagonist, but we are allowed to see his perspectives too, and some of his finer points. He seems resolved with Prospero at the end, “seeking grace” as though he has seen the difference between the master he rejected and the one he took as a replacement. I always wonder what happens to him at the end, when everyone sails back to Naples/Milan. I can’t seem him thriving in Renaissance Italy (or Jacobean England) yet he is also used to some companionship now. Would he be happy having the island to himself, being the king of it, as he wanted at the beginning of the play? Or would he be lonely? Compelling character.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Liz, I like your post. I’m interested that people feel the desire to excuse Caliban for the reasons you give. I’ve always felt that his advances are unwelcome, bordering on rape (how interesting this is in view of Ken Clark’s unfortunate statement that some rapes are worse than others). Even if Caliban is human he’s usually portrayed as physically threatening. The image of a Caliban, with a metal collar, dragging a chain around the stage, which the RSC staged about 10 years ago, stays with me. The reason you could excuse this Caliban was because he had been brutally treated by his “master”.

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