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Shakespeare's Characters: Caliban (The Tempest)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 16. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

The character of Caliban is generally thought (and justly so) to be one of the author's masterpieces. It is not indeed pleasant to see this character on the stage, any more than it is to see the god Pan personated there. But in itself it is one of the wildest and most abstracted of all Shakespeare's characters, whose deformity, whether of body or mind, is redeemed by the power and truth of the imagination displayed in it. It is the essence of grossness, but there is not a particle of vulgarity in it. Shakespeare has described the brutal mind of Caliban in contact with the pure and original forms of nature; the character grows out of the soil where it is rooted, uncontrolled, uncouth, and wild, uncramped by any of the meannesses of custom. It is "of the earth, earthy." It seems almost to have been dug out of the ground, with a soul instinctively superadded to it answering to its wants and origin. Vulgarity is not natural coarseness, but conventional coarseness, learned from others, contrary to, or without an entire conformity of natural power and disposition; as fashion is the commonplace affectation of what is elegant and refined without any feeling of the essence of it. Schlegel, the admirable German critic of Shakespeare, observes that Caliban is a poetical character, and "always speaks in blank verse."
Hazlitt: Characters of Shakespeare's Plays.


Opposed to him [Prospero] and at the extreme limit of the contrast, stands Caliban, the climax of wickedness and brutality, the very personification of the evil Will. He is only momentarily tamed by outward constraint and inward powerlessness; his will remains evil, and in him we have a proof of the irrefutable truth that evil, even though, by its own acts, it invariably annihilates itself and serves the purposes of what is good, still evil as Will cannot become converted either by any affliction or punishment, or by the clearest conviction of its helplessness. This seems to me to be the meaning, the poetical, because ethical, significance of this most strange of all the creatures ever formed by the poetical imagination — a creature in whom devil, animal and man, are equally blended, and who, in spite of his wholly fantastic abnormity, rises up before us with the vividness of actual reality.

Caliban is no mere creation of a passing poetic fancy, no chance addition to the substance of the drama; for although he may have originated in Shakespeare's imagination from the fantastic and wondrous reports about the wild inhabitants (the cannibals) of the newly discovered continents, and although grotesquely formed and humorously exaggerated — so as to suit the fantastico-comic colouring of the whole — still he is a necessary member in the artistic organism of the piece. And as Prospero's mind is evidently one of more than ordinary endowments, and, like every historical leader of men, represents the higher idea of what is general, so Caliban, his organic opposite, is likewise no mere individual, but also the representative of what is general, the personified idea of human wickedness; in him, in his defiance and arrogance and his blind, coarse sensuality, the demonical meets the brutal.
Ulrici: Shakespeare's Dramatic Art.


Caliban has become a by-word as the strange creation of a poetical imagination. A mixture of gnome and savage, half daemon, half brute, in his behaviour we perceive at once the traces of his native disposition, and the influence of Prospero's education. The latter could only unfold his understanding, without, in the slightest degree, taming his rooted malignity: it is as if the use of reason and human speech were communicated to an awkward ape. In inclination Caliban is malicious, cowardly, false, and base; and yet he is essentially different from the vulgar knaves of a civilized world, as portrayed occasionally by Shakespeare. He is rude, but not vulgar; he never falls into the prosaic and low familiarity of his drunken associates, for he is, in his way, a poetical being; he always speaks in verse. He has picked up everything dissonant and thorny in language to compose out of it a vocabulary of his own; and of the whole variety of nature, the hateful, repulsive, and pettily deformed have alone been impressed on his imagination. The magical world of spirits, which the staff of Prospero has assembled on the island, casts merely a faint reflection into his mind, as a ray of light which falls into a dark cave, incapable of communicating to it either heat or illumination, serves merely to set in motion the poisonous vapours. The delineation of this monster is throughout inconceivably consistent and profound, and, notwithstanding its hatefulness, by no means hurtful to our feelings, as the honour of human nature is left untouched.
Schlegel: Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature.


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