On the face of it what Caliban tries to do to Miranda is wrong, no one would contest that, and yet as readers, viewers and play goers we are often ready to forgive him, why is that?
With so much in the news recently about rape laws and how people accused of sexual assault may try to justify their actions it is timely that Caliban is included this week in our series on Shakespeare’s Villains.
Of course in The Tempest it is not clear what Caliban actually did to Miranda. Prospero accuses him thus “Thou dids’t seek to violate the honour of my child” to which he replies “O ho! I would it had been done; thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans” . From this we can deduce that Caliban attempted to have sexual relations with Miranda – from his point of view an act of procreation and from Prospero’s a violation of honour. Sadly Miranda never mentions the incident and so her own opinion on how ‘vile’ the encounter was is hard to assertain although it is certain she is not overly fond of Caliban as she calls him a “villain”.
Caliban’s actions are those we would generally condemn, and yet many readers (men and women) long to forgive him so let’s look at some of the arguments they use to do so?
- Prospero is an unreliable narrator who has his own agenda in accusing Caliban. This argument usually presents Prospero as a racist whose opinion of Caliban mating with his daughter has more to do with a bigoted fear of miscegenation than his perception of the act as one of assault. In this scenario Miranda is usually presented as rather more accepting of Caliban’s advances. Although, on the face of it, the text suggests she is not enamored of Caliban I have seen productions that successfully present them as friends (See Cheek by Jowl for a recent example)
- That Caliban does not know what he is doing. This point usually focuses on Caliban’s isolation from western cultural norms. If he did not know that sexual assault was wrong then he cannot be fairly condemned for committing it. To be fair Caliban has had very limited exposure to anyone of very sound judgement. In his life he has known his Mother Sycorax (who was apparently a rather earthy witch whose morals hardly seem impeachable) Ariel (who may be seen more as spirit than human and may have little concern for the niceties of human sexual mores) and Prospero and Miranda who may or may not have attempted to teach him about the birds and the bees and why it is good manners to gain consent. In this interpretation Miranda may also be portrayed as innocent about such things, her father having never found the time for that particular discussion.
- Caliban is not human and cannot be judged on human terms. In the text it is not clear exactly how human Caliban is. We may see him as racially different or actually a different species. If we see him as powerful and almost human the sexual assault is frightening in the extreme. However if we see him more as an overgrown puppy dog then the assault becomes almost a laughing matter – something akin to your pet dog attempting to procreate with a stranger’s leg at a bus stop – embarrassing for sure but by no means a crime. Have a look at this slide show and see if these Caliban’s seem more or less frightening
What do you think? Does Caliban deserve our understanding and forgiveness or should be considered one of Shakespeare’s Villains?
Check out Finding Shakespeare on Thursday 16 June 2011 for their take on Caliban.