Shakespeare uses The Tempest to ask questions about how well society and nature intersect. Most of the characters in this play exist in a civilized world, although certainly not all of them are civilized. Caliban, though, is referred to several times as a "natural man."Caliban serves to illustrate ideas about the social hierarchy of the Renaissance world, which formulated a socially rigid — and very political — hierarchy of God, king, man, woman, beast. This order was based on the patriarchal tradition and the teachings of religious leaders, which postulate a hierarchical order for mankind based on physiological and physical characteristics. According to this rather rigid social hierarchy, Caliban belongs at the bottom of the Elizabethan social hierarchy, having little perceived social worth. And yet, for many critics and students, he dominates The Tempest. Caliban, at only 100 lines, is often the focus of student interest, as well as that of many critics, often with an importance far greater than his actual presence in the play. Caliban is a monster, whether he is a victim of colonialism, or whether he represents some other disadvantaged element of society depends almost entirely on the social and cultural constructs and interests of the reader or audience. An important part of Caliban's appeal is his ambiguity of character. described as "A freckled whelp, hag-born — not honoured with / A human shape" (I.2, 285-286). The audience learns more about Caliban's physical description from Trinculo and Stefano, who describe Caliban as less than human. Trinculo asks if the form before him is "a man or a fish?" (II.2, 24), and Stefano describes Caliban as a "moon-calf" (II.2, 104), a deformed creature. But it is not his appearance that makes Caliban monstrous in Prospero's eyes, nor was Caliban treated as a slave — at least not initially. Caliban, himself, relates that Prospero treated him well, teaching him about God when the two first met (I.2, 337-338). But it was Caliban's attack on Miranda that resulted in his enslavement and the change in Caliban's social position. Caliban sees the attempted rape of Miranda as a natural behavior. Had he not been stopped, Caliban would have "peopled else / This isle with Calibans" (I.2, 353-354). Reproductive urges are a natural function of animals, but humans modify their desires with reason and through social constraints. Without reason to modify his impulses, Caliban's behavior aligns him with the animals. Yet, at the same time, he is clearly more than a beast. Critics make much of Caliban's name as an anagram for cannibal. Instead, the Elizabethan meaning of cannibal is better described as someone who is a savage — uncultivated, uncivilized, untamed. Caliban is more closely defined as an innocent — more like a child who is innocent of the world and its code of behavior. Caliban demonstrates no sense of morality nor any ability to understand or appreciate the needs of anyone other than himself. In Caliban's self-centeredness, he is little more than an animal. He wants to indulge his desires, without control. This is what being free means to Caliban, whose cry for freedom (II.2, 177-178) clarifies many of his actions. Caliban's Humanity
Caliban is not the noble savage that is so often used to describe the victims of social injustice; instead he is the child of the witch Sycorax and the devil. So Maybe this natural world is the world that a child of nature (like Caliban) needs, since he finds harmony there. But the natural world, with its own disorder, is not for everyone. Human nature is often brutal, sometimes evil, and perhaps we are meant to understand Caliban as being no better or worse than anyone who is wholly human. Shakespeare was seemingly unconcerned about Caliban's humanity, or perhaps he just did not want to make understanding of humanity so easy for his audience.
Caliban is, of course, the "salvage and deformed slave" of Shakespeare's dramatis...
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