The Tempest

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Caliban Character Analysis

Prospero's unwilling slave. As the son of the witch Sycorax, who ruled the island before she died years prior to Prospero's arrival, Caliban believes that he should be master of the island. When Prospero initially came to the island, Caliban showed him friendship, and in return Prospero educated Caliban. But Caliban eventually came to realize that Prospero would never view him as more than an educated savage. Though capable of sensitivity and eloquence, Caliban is furious and bitter and wants nothing more than to rid himself of Prospero. Caliban's name is a near anagram for the world "cannibal," and in many ways he is a symbol of the natives that European explorers encountered. Through Caliban, and his relationship to Prospero, Shakespeare explores the themes of colonization and the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

Caliban Quotes in The Tempest

The The Tempest quotes below are all either spoken by Caliban or refer to Caliban. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of The Tempest published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker), Prospero
Page Number: 1.2.437-438
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has thanked Ariel for creating the storm, although he has failed to set Ariel free per his request. Meanwhile, Prospero's "poisonous slave" Caliban enters, who Prospero treats much more cruelly. The two fight, with Prospero arguing that in the past he treated Caliban with care, only to have Caliban retaliate by attempting to rape Miranda. Caliban resentfully responds that he wished he had been successful in his rape attempt. Caliban grumbles that Prospero taught him language, but the only value of this is that now he knows how to curse. This is a key moment that establishes Prospero's paternalistic attitude to Caliban, a feature that signifies their colonial dynamic.

While Prospero considers it a gift that he has taught Caliban language, Caliban refuses to separate this education from Prospero's overall imprisonment of him. Caliban implies that there is little use to having language fluency if he is not treated as an equal by the people he communicates with. Under these circumstances, the only value in being able to speak is to curse his oppression. This tension is symbolically significant when compared to the "education" that European colonizers imposed on colonized populations throughout the New World.

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Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
Related Characters: Trinculo (speaker), Caliban
Related Symbols: The Tempest
Page Number: 2.2.40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

On a different part of the island, Caliban has delivered a speech about the ways in which Prospero torments him; noticing Alonso's jester Trinculo, he hides under a cloak, believing the jester to be one of Prospero's spirits there to punish him for doing his work too slowly. Trinculo, meanwhile, notices Caliban despite his attempt to hide, and at first speculates about bringing him back to Naples to show him off as an exotic oddity. Then, fearing lightning from a coming storm, Trinculo crawls under the cloak with Caliban, exclaiming that "misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Beyond the literal truth of the fact that Trinculo and Caliban are now lying under a cloak together, Trinculo's words also apply to the way in which the storm has brought an unlikely group of people together on the island and caused unexpected alliances. 

Trinculo is a comic character, and to some extent this scene is a brief humorous distraction from the serious matters of political scheming and assassination plots. On the other hand, Trinculo's treatment of Caliban represents the cruel, ignorant way in which European colonizers interacted with and exploited colonized populations. While Trinculo is comically unintelligent, his perception of Caliban as a "strange" creature is not unrelated to Prospero's opinion that Caliban is savage, ugly, and subhuman.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
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 sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Related Characters: Caliban (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.148-156
Explanation and Analysis:

Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo have been drunkenly singing together. Ariel, who is invisible, has interrupted their singing by making mysterious noises, and Stephano and Trinculo are momentarily disturbed over where the noise is coming from. In response, Caliban reassures them that there is nothing to fear, and delivers a moving, eloquent speech about the sounds and sights of the island.

This is a pivotal moment in terms of the representation of Caliban's character. Whereas up until this point he has been portrayed as brutish, bitter, and foolish, here we witness him speak fondly and poetically about the natural world around him. This shift can be interpreted as a critique of the cruel treatment of colonized populations, although it also seems influenced by the stereotype that indigenous people are more naturally animalistic and closer to nature than Europeans. 

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick...
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Related Symbols: Prospero's Cloak and Books
Page Number: 4.1.211-212
Explanation and Analysis:

Prospero has suddenly interrupted the masque, having remembered Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban's plot against him. He summons Ariel, who reports that he has led the three drunk men on a treacherous walk, and gives further details about their plans to kill Prospero and steal his cloak and books. Prospero is furious, exclaiming that Caliban is a devil "on whose nature / nurture can never stick." His words reflect a prominent debate among colonizers at the time about the nature of indigenous populations. Some argued that "savage" populations could be educated or "nurtured" to think and behave like Europeans––hence the "civilizing" missions that imposed Christianity and Western culture on colonized populations.

Others believed that it was impossible to "civilize" these populations, as Prospero claims in this passage. Like Prospero, many who held this view claimed that non-white people were not human, comparing their "nature" to animals or "devils." Note that both interpretations were deeply racist in that they cast the non-Europeans were seen as inferior to Europeans, although the second was more likely to be used as justification for enslavement and genocide. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
...this thing of darkness, I
Acknowledge mine.
Related Characters: Prospero (speaker), Caliban
Page Number: 5.1.330-331
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that everyone has been brought together, Prospero has reclaimed his dukedom, and Miranda and Ferdinand's love has been announced, Prospero asks Ariel to undo the spell placed on Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Prospero reveals the plan the three drunk men hatched against him, and asks the other characters if they recognize Stephano and Trinculo. He then claims "this thing of darkness" as his own. Assumedly, "thing of darkness" refers to Caliban; there are many times in the play when Caliban is referred to as a nonhuman "it" rather than as a man, and this description is related to his indigenous status and dark skin.

Such an interpretation confirms the impression that Prospero believes Caliban to be his property, and treats him simultaneously as a child, pet, and inanimate possession. Such a dynamic was typical of this era (bear in mind that The Tempest was written only a few decades before the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade). It is possible that these lines actually consist of Prospero taking partial responsibility for the sinister plot against him, though this is somewhat unlikely considering that after this statement Caliban says "I shall be pinch'd to death."

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Caliban Character Timeline in The Tempest

The timeline below shows where the character Caliban appears in The Tempest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 2
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
Prospero awakens Miranda and, calling for his "poisonous slave," (1.2.325) summons, Caliban, the malformed son of Sycorax. Caliban and Prospero immediately start trading curses. Caliban asserts his... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
Miranda angrily scolds Caliban, recalling how she tried to lift him out of savagery by teaching him to speak... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Power Theme Icon
Caliban enters, carrying wood. He delivers a monologue in which he curses Prospero and describes the... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
...for a place to hide. On the ground, he spots a brownish lump with legs (Caliban partially hidden by the cloak) and thinks it is a "strange fish" (2.2.25) that he... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
...very badly. Whether because of Stephano's singing or because Trinculo has crawled under his cloak, Caliban cries out, "Do not torment me! O!" (2.2.51). Stephano hears the noise and notices a... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
Caliban, meanwhile, has never had wine before and gets immediately drunk. He thinks that the owners... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Caliban volunteers to show them around the island and expresses a hope that Stephano might be... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
Power Theme Icon
Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo continue to get drunk. Stephano who now calls himself "Lord of the... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Ariel, invisible, enters just as Caliban begins to describe Prospero's ill treatment of him and to ask Stephano to avenge this... (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Caliban continues to describe his plan to murder Prospero. He suggests several ways of killing Prospero,... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
...tune they want to sing. Ariel supplies it, throwing Stephano and Trinculo into a fright. Caliban reassures them, delivering a lyrical speech about the island's many curious and entrancing sounds. He... (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
Suddenly, Prospero recalls Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo's conspiracy to kill him. He calls an abrupt end to the festivities... (full context)
Colonization Theme Icon
...He describes their plot to steal Prospero's cloak and books before killing him. Prospero curses Caliban, calling him "a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick" (4.1.188–189). (full context)
Power Theme Icon
Magic, Illusion, and Prospero as Playwright Theme Icon
...and Trinculo complain about the smell and the loss of their wine in the swamp. Caliban tries to re-focus them on the murder. He points out Prospero's cave close by and... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
...to find the ship miraculously restored to perfect condition. Next, Prospero asks Ariel to release Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo from their spell and bring them forward in their stolen absurd clothes.... (full context)
Loss and Restoration Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
...and Prospero mock Stephano and Trinculo for their drunken state and foiled ambitions. Prospero orders Caliban to take the two men to his cell and prepare it for the guests, saying,... (full context)