Summary: the Line Between Monster and Man in The Tempest by Shakespeare

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Yet Shakespeare implicitly asks if Caliban is as different from his human neighbors as he seems. The character Antonio is not only human but also a powerful duke and yet he shares many of Caliban’s nastiest tendencies. Like Caliban, he commits a form of rape (by violating and stealing Prospero’s sovereignty), and like Caliban, he conspires for yet more unearned power in the course of the play. Caliban’s attempts to incite treason within Stephano and Trinculo mirror Antonio’s attempts to put Sebastian on Alonso’s throne. Indeed, Antonio shows himself to be more monstrous than a monster, for unlike Caliban, he cannot excuse his behavior with drunkenness or genetics. (His mother was not a witch, but the same woman who gave birth to the generally moral duke, Prospero.) In fact, Shakespeare suggests that in some ways Caliban is more sympathetic than his human counterpart: Caliban gives a beautiful speech on the natural wonders of the island, whereas Antonio can only stupidly curse its “barrenness.” Though human, Antonio repeatedly acts like a beast.

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By including the vile yet human character Antonio in his drama, Shakespeare reinforces the idea that people can behave just as monstrously as Caliban. This idea recurs throughout the comments characters make about their fellow humans. One would think these characters were talking about Caliban, not their own brothers and sisters. Trinculo, for example, remarks on the human tendency to ignore poverty and suffering in favor of paying money to laugh at circus freaks. Young, innocent Miranda observes that villains such as her uncle are nevertheless products of human relationships. When she sees the shipwrecked men for the first time and exclaims “O brave new world!” her father can only cynically imply that the world’s newness will soon wear off, exposing a vast network of schemers and thieves. He tells Antonio that his behavior is unnatural, but he means that his behavior should be unnatural. On Shakespeare’s troubled island, the wish to murder and steal is all too human.

By setting up a false contrast between Caliban and the human characters, Shakespeare makes The Tempest’s pessimism all the more devastating. At first, we are led to believe that there is nothing human about Caliban: the facts of his breeding, behavior, and personal history set him apart from the more temperate, human characters we meet. But through a sustained comparison between Caliban and Antonio, Shakespeare shows that Caliban’s brutish instincts lurk in some human beings. In fact, humans can commit acts of treason and assault even if they do not have Caliban’s many motives and grievances. In The Tempest, Shakespeare erases the line between monster and man. The identity of Caliban remains ambiguous in this play. Sometime he is addressed as monster and in some places, he is called man. In the play when Miranda first sees Ferdinand she says that he is the third man she has ever seen. On that basis, we can say that the two other men must be her father and Caliban. Here she regards Caliban as a man. Prospero refers to him as a born devil, a thing most brutish, a vile race, which significantly rejects him being a man and takes him as a monster. The views of Miranda and Prospero contradict in terms of Caliban’s identity. They think that if they provide him with the western education along with the language, he can be uplifted and his status can be improved. But at the same time, they seem to see him inherently devil and monster to whom no education can reform. Caliban himself says he was generous to Prospero but when he starts dehumanizing him and oppressing him, he starts disliking him. It is vague to generalize that Caliban is born brutish or he is made brutish by the oppression of Prospero.

Added to that, The Tempest is interpreted as a play about colonialism primarily because Prospero comes to Sycorax’s island, subdues her, rules the land and imposes his own culture on the people of the land. Pushing the native to the side, he places himself at the helm of affairs. He displaces Caliban’s mother and treats her as a beast. He has full control over everything on the island. He makes Caliban work as his servant and calls him a thing of darkness. Caliban is being dehumanized or treated as subhuman. This shows the colonizer’s attitude of looking down on the colonized people. Caliban is seen as a despicable entity. The whites looked down on the people of other color. Some are born to dominate while others are born to be dominated. Caliban is treated as inferior. The colonizer used words like light, knowledge and wisdom to refer himself while he used terms like darkness, ignorance and elemental to describe the colonized. This binary opposition shows how Prospero as a colonizer creates essences about the colonized people. Prospero sees himself as a ruler carrying out the project of civilization mission. The way light dispels darkness and knowledge dispels ignorance Prospero as a colonizer educates and civilizes Caliban but without much success. The civilizing mission is always accompanied by the politics of domination over the colonized. These elements confirm the theme of colonialism in The Tempest.

The Tempest ends with a general sense of resolution and hope. After four acts in which Prospero uses magic to split up, disorient, and psychologically torture his enemies, in the final act he lures everyone to the same spot on the island and forgives Alonso and Antonio for their betrayal twelve years prior. The main event that heals the wounds of the past is the union between Miranda and Ferdinand. Alonso, who thought his son had died in the shipwreck, feels completely renewed when he sees that Ferdinand has, in fact, survived. Ferdinand’s engagement to Miranda establishes a bond of kinship between Alonso and Prospero, further bridging that rift that separates them. Miranda and Ferdinand’s union suggests the possibility for a new future, devoid of the kind of conflict that has driven the play. Miranda articulates this possibility for a new future when she expresses a sense of wonder at the “brave new world” that has opened up for her. With the major conflict between Prospero and Alonso resolved, Prospero breaks his staff and gives up magic in preparation for his return to Milan.

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