The Tempest: Prospero’s assessment of Caliban in Act IV.ii.188-193

PROSPERO:         A devil, a born devil, on whose nature

                                Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains

                                Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;

                                And, as with age his body uglier grows,

                                So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,

                                Even to roaring.

How far do you agree with Prospero’s assessment of Caliban?

Although Prospero’s assessment of Caliban may appear quite harsh at first – particularly to modern audience – , his assertions are accurate and portray Caliban’s progression from a servant to a slave to a ‘born devil’ through the play.

Shakespeare implies that the nature overcomes nurture and so the humanity and education that Prospero offered to Caliban was fruitless, as Caliban’s nature surmounted the nurture. Prospero calls Caliban a ‘devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick’, mirroring Miranda in act 1, describing Caliban a ‘slave / Which any print of goodness will not take’. Shakespeare’s use of enjambment in ‘nature/Nurture’ shows the closeness of the two notions, perhaps highlighting that Prospero really believed that he could civilize Caliban – shown through him offering Caliban education.

Prospero argues that his attempts to treat Caliban well and educate him have been wasted. Caliban himself admitted that Prospero taught him how to ‘name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night’. His education is also portrayed through the way he speaks: he is not one of Shakespeare’s lowly characters as they would have spoken in prose, and Caliban speaks in blank verse. This shows that Prospero did tutor him – something that he chose to do in order to thank Caliban for showing him the island. Although a modern audience might see this as taking away Caliban’s choice to retain his culture, a Jacobean audience would perhaps see Prospero as benevolent, as at the time, there was a sense of cultural superiority amongst Europeans, and many indigenous people were treated cruelly or even enslaved. Therefore Prospero educating Caliban might have appeared as an act of kindness rather than duty. After swearing to another master under the influence of alcohol, Caliban illustrates how Prospero’s ‘pains humanely taken’ have been ‘quite lost’ through reverting to prose.

Shakespeare suggests that the evil inside Caliban’s mind ‘cankers’ with age – similarly to his mother Sycorax, as pointed out by Prospero in act 1.ii.: ‘The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy / Was grown into a hoop’. A witch was a woman with magical powers ‘whose outward appearance mirrored her inner malevolence’. Through this parallel of Caliban to his, Shakespeare insinuates that Caliban’s outward appearance is also a representation of his evil nature. We can see his malignant intentions have been becoming more apparent as the play progressed. In the first act, Caliban ‘showed [Prosper] all the qualities o’th’isle’, but towards the latter act he wanted to ‘batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake’. The evolution from the soft and respectful language Caliban uses in act 1, to the harsh and violent verbs – ‘cut’, ‘batter’ – that he uses in act III.ii. support Prospero’s accusation that Caliban’s mind has begun to ‘canker’ and his evil nature is more prominent than ever. ‘Canker’ implies a disease which is most commonly found in animals, implying that with age, Caliban is becoming more animal-like.




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