How does Shakespeare portray Caliban in The Tempest and why does this portrayal sometimes contradict common public views of people like Caliban?

Asked on by isabel17

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Once complicating factor is that because this is a play, the portrait of Caliban seen by an audience is very much a matter of the actor's treatment of the role. Also, how the audience will view Caliban depends on the cultural presuppositions of the audience.

Both in the Elizabethan era and now, a key factor in understanding Caliban is colonialism. For the Elizabethans, this would have meant the discovery of lands filled with brutal, bestial savages; Caliban's reaction of getting drunk and trying to rape a European woman reflects how Shakespeare and his contemporaries regarded indigenous peoples. A modern audience is likely to view Caliban more sympathetically, as we no longer consider indigenous peoples "savages" or "brutes" and respect Caliban's claim:

This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me....

...I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king...


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