March 3: Prospero and Caliban

From the first interactions between Caliban and Prospero, we see the seeds of conflict over  who the true ruler of the island is. Does Caliban have the ultimate claim to the island? Or does Prospero, as the more civilized human, have the right – or even the duty –  to take control? Is it ironic that Prospero, who was overthrown by his brother, has robbed Caliban of his inheritance?

7 thoughts on “March 3: Prospero and Caliban

  1. I think that Prospero has the ultimate claim to the island. This isn’t to say that his treatment of Caliban is justified, but Prospero is cleary the more fit to take control over him. Prospero and Miranda have provided Caliban with lodging and taught him to speak to make him less of a savage. Without them, even Caliban’s humanity would be in question, let alone his ability to preside over an entire island. Caliban even recognizes the necessity of obeying Prospero when he states “I must obey. His art is of such power/It would control my dam’s god” (I.ii.448-9). Clearly, Prospero is more intelligent and advanced, meaning that he has effectively (and rightfully) exerted his control over Caliban. Yes, it is very ironic that Prospero, knowing the betrayal of his brother’s usurped, has no sympathy for Caliban and instead decides to completely dominate him. It seems that his distaste for Caliban lies mostly in his intolerance for unintelligence.

    • How do you define civilized or savage? Is it the ability to use a specific language that is only used be a fraction of the so-called civilized world? Is it by knowledge, practice, clothing style, or physical appearance? Why would the island suffer from being presided over by Caliban as opposed to Prospero? Prospero does nothing in particular that makes the island itself flourish; in fact, he causes storms that can lead to destruction. Caliban’s humanity, or his lack thereof, has only been truly defined by Prospero, who is using the physicallity of Caliban to define this, and in whose interest it is to belittle Caliban. Caliban is mocked by the others, it is true, but they are also Prospero’s contemporaries, so it makes sense that they would support his definition of humanity; it is also in their interest to mock him so that they can use him as a servant. The only reason that Caliban submits to Prospero is Prospero’s magical power that he frequently exerts over him; the only reason Caliban follows the other lords is because he is drinking. Prospero’s power and intelligence give him no God-given right to dominate others, even though he has been denied his dukedom. His distaste for someone who is not his intellectual equal, for someone who is different from himself, is not a legitimate reason to take their property. Caliban’s birthright, through his mother, is to live freely in control of the island. The irony of Prospero taking someone else’s inheritance after losing his own, through his brother’s treachery and his own negligence, is not lost.

  2. I think that Caliban has a better claim to the island because he was the first inhabitant. He also taught Prospero how to survive on the island. Caliban says, “And then I loved thee, / And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle” (1.2.401-402). He knows the land very well and has a better connection to the island. Sure, Prospero is more intelligent, but that is not necessarily the quality that the ruler of the island needs. Caliban knows how to survive on the island better than Prospero. It is also very hypocritical of Prospero to take control of Caliban’s land when his focus is getting revenge on Antonio and Alonso for doing exactly that to him.

  3. I believe that the question of who has the true “claim” to the island cannot be easily answered, as it also deals with the question of civility. Is Prospero truly the more civilized individual between himself and Caliban? Yes, he is more intelligent and possesses greater magical prowess than Caliban, but might does not always equal right. In fact, this entire scene reminded me greatly of the colonization of the Americas in the 1600s. The Native Americans, represented by Caliban, had claim to the land long before the colonists, Prospero, ever set foot there. When the colonists first arrived, there was a tentative truce before the two groups, with the colonists teaching the natives the values of “civilized life,” including how to speak their tongue, in return for knowledge on how to survive in the foreign environment. However, after a short period of uneasy peace, conflict broke out, and being far more advanced than the native people, the colonists took the land for themselves and forced the Native Americans to submit to their rule.
    This situation is nearly identical to that proposed to us in the Tempest. The play was written in 1611, so it’s unlikely that this dynamic was created knowingly, but it still stands. Caliban, a virtual savage to the likes of the civilized Prospero, was inevitably subdued by his overpowering might after their conflicting ideologies came to a head. Prospero may be the owner of the island now, but that does not forgive the fact that he stole it from Caliban and forced him into imprisonment. If it is established that doing so is wrong (which Prospero does by condemning how his brother stole his rule from him and forced him into exile, a situation that mirrors the current one completely), then by his own logic Prospero can’t have the true claim to the island. It should rightfully belong to Caliban.

  4. This question is incredibly complex due to the symbolism each character possesses. Prospero’s leadership represents European colonialism whereas Caliban provides a post-colonial perspective. Like many who colonize, Prospero tries to exert his rules over the natives and uses magic to take control, believing the native people need to learn how to be civil. However, Caliban believes he has rights over Prospero because he was there first, saying, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me,” and that he taught him how to survive there (“and then I loved thee, and showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle”). By choosing between Prospero and Caliban you are actually siding with colonialism or post-colonialism. Personally, I side with post-colonial Caliban.

  5. To accurately answer this question, one must divide it into two parts: the first. who has the rights to rule of the island, and the second, who has the duty to rule the island. Caliban is inarguably the rightful ruler of the island in the first scenario because not only had he inhabited the island prior to Prospero and the others, but he’s the only native on the island subsequent to their arrival. In the second scenario, however, one could argue, especially from Prospero’s point of view, that he has a duty to rule the island, given his civility. Before Prospero had arrived, there was no need for civility, not even language. Prospero and Miranda’s arrival prompts the necessity of language, and, apparently a slave, which Caliban explains when he says, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!” (I.ii. 366-8). Caliban would have been unable to rule the island civilly, which became necessary as the shipwrecked crew arrived on the island; Prospero became the “rightful” ruler when he conquered Caliban and made Caliban his slave, although he did so unethically. Furthermore, there is irony in the fact that Prospero’s conquest of Caliban is so similar to Antonio’s conquest of Prospero, although the former was out of necessity whereas the latter was largely political.

  6. The tension between the two characters is obvious in Act I scene ii when Caliban first appears. Caliban reluctantly appears before Prospero when commanded to do so, and when he finally does he curses at him and his daughter too. Prospero calls him a slave and threatens him with “cramps, side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up,” (389-390). However, the true claim to the island should go to Caliban. Caliban was living on the island when Prospero came upon it and interacted with him. Though Prospero “lodged” Caliban “with humane care,” (I.ii. 415), Caliban was the one to introduce Prospero to the island and all of its opportunity. Caliban didn’t ask for help or education, and he does not owe Prospero for giving it to him.

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