Would You Forgive Caliban?

Bardfilm and I are currently having a heated debate about sympathy for Caliban.  He basically commits one sin (attempts to, at least), and for that he is cast out from his adopted family and turned into their slave, treated like something less than human.

His sin, for those unfamiliar with the story, is that Prospero walked on him trying to “violate the honor” of his daughter Miranda.  Rape her, to put it bluntly.

Wait wait wait, don’t get out your pitchforks yet, it’s more complicated than that.

Caliban was born on the island, far away from any civilization, with only his mother Sycorax as his guardian. It is unclear how old he was when she died, but from that point on he lived alone on the island for something like the next twelve years (we know that Ariel was trapped in the tree that long).  So he’s likely a young teenager when Prospero arrives with three year old Miranda in tow.

While recounting the story, Caliban tells us that he wanted to “people the isle with Calibans.” So presumably he understood what he was trying to do, and that Miranda had to be old enough to do it with. That suggests that maybe ten years or so have gone by, making Miranda maybe twelve or thirteen, but making Caliban closer to twenty.

We can also assume that this was a single incident. Miranda clearly wasn’t a willing participant, so it’s not like she had any urges of her own that she was exploring behind her father’s back.

So then we arrive at the critical moment. What do you think of Caliban’s state of mind at that point? What was his capacity for understanding right from wrong? He certainly understood the general idea behind sex and the purpose of it, probably from having seen animals on the island. Do you think that Prospero ever sat down to tell him about the birds and the bees?  I don’t. I expect that the thought never occurred to Prospero until he literally walked in on them. Why would he? He taught Caliban language so that Caliban could tell him about the island, not to better Caliban’s existence.

The other important part of the story, not to be too graphic about it, is that we don’t really know what he walked in on. Was Caliban chasing her around the cave with a lusty look? Or did he have her on the ground and half out of her clothes? Prospero is the very definition of an overprotective father, so it’s easy to imagine Caliban doing little more than giving her the eye and Prospero seeing that as over the line.

Whatever happened, it was enough to cast him out as a slave. I suppose it could be worse, I suppose Prospero could have just killed him outright. But then who would bring them their firewood?

The play is about forgiveness. Prospero brings his enemies to his island to forgive them. Do you think he forgives Caliban?  Would you?

8 thoughts on “Would You Forgive Caliban?

  1. "He taught Caliban language so that Caliban could tell him about the island, not to better Caliban's existence."

    –That's highly debatable.

    Pro. Thou most lying slaue,
    Whom stripes may moue, not kindnes: I haue vs'd thee
    (Filth as thou art) with humane care, and lodg'd thee
    In mine owne Cell, till thou didst seeke to violate
    The honor of my childe.

    Earlier, Caliban admits to Prospero's initial kindness toward him:

    Which thou tak'st from me: when thou cam'st first
    Thou stroakst me, & made much of me: wouldst giue me
    Water with berries in't: and teach me how
    To name the bigger Light, and how the lesse
    That burne by day, and night: and then I lou'd thee
    And shew'd thee all the qualities o'th' Isle,

    Caliban is, and continues to be, unrepentant:

    Cal. Oh ho, oh ho, would't had bene done: [the rape]
    Thou didst preuent me, I had peopel'd else
    This Isle with Calibans.

    Why he is unrepentant may have to do with Prospero's continuous punishment and rejection for his heinous attempt, or maybe Caliban's nature simply precludes salvation, or it may be a combination of both. But again, we don't know how long the punishment has been going on.

    Also worth noting is that in the Folio, Miranda has the speech about how *she* took pains to teach Caliban how to speak. Modern editors assign the speech to Prospero. One wonders why, since the only extant original copy of the play is
    Folio 1. Though other things change,it remains the same throughout each printing of the Folio copies 1-4. As far as time line and Miranda's age is concerned, we don't know, nor does Shakespeare tell us, when this all occurred. Yes, Caliban says Prospero taught him to speak, but there is no reason to assume that Miranda would not, at some point, have continued lessons in communication, civility & etc. Caliban had free reign, lived in their quarters alongside them, and was, for all intents and purposes, apparently treated as one of the family.

    One can easily see one of the many teaching sessions turning into something more with Caliban mistaking kindness and affection for something else. Being the "brutish" half-animal thing he is, he is also not in the best control of his urges, one would suppose.

    In the end, I think Prospero does, even if offhandedly, forgive Caliban. He pardons him yet again for an attempt at an even greater crime (murder, punishable by death, not just pinches and cramps) and leaves him, finally, in possession of the island Caliban refers to as his own.

  2. Correction–Duh–before someone else does it 🙂

    Caliban had "free rein" not "free reign"–although he did (sort of) have the latter of his domain before Prospero arrived.

  3. You take in a child, treat him as one of your own. As far as we can tell, they went on as a happy family for years. And the one day he does something stupid (arguably, as all teenage boys do). Does it all just evaporate with a snap of the fingers like that? You go from being a family member to being a slave?

    I'm with the interpretation that Caliban is unrepentant out of bitterness. After all, he knows that no amount of pleading is going to get him back in Prospero's good graces, and he resents Prospero's power over him, so why not taunt him a bit with it? It's all he has.

    Bardfilm and I were trying to do the math, and the best we can figure is that the incident happened "a few years" before the events of the play. Recent enough that it's still a very painful memory, but long enough that the "new order" seems to have settled in, and Caliban is resigned to his new position on his island. It wouldn't make as much sense to discover that Caliban's only been their slave for a week and a half.

  4. But Caliban is a far cry from your ordinary teenage boy. (I restrained from the exclamation point)

    And Caliban went from being resigned to obeying (with the help of Prospero and Miranda) the always unreliable human part of his nature –with a snap of the fingers, as you put it–to the other side. He's an animalistic time bomb itching to explode.

    The raw power inherent in his jumbled, tortured makeup is, I think, frightening to Prospero, especially in light of what he now knows Caliban is capable of doing. Now, he MUST keep that power contained. And one tragic fact feeds on the other, perpetuating the conflict between them. To that point:

    I agree that Caliban somehow knows he won't be forgiven by Prospero, so he's unrepentant out of bitterness. But I think there's more to it. His plot to murder Prospero and also consign Miranda to Stephano in the bargain is proof enough that his darker side is the controlling one.

    Prospero must think this even before discovering the murder plot and, ultimately. we see he's right to think it. It's only at the very end that Caliban vows to "…be wise hereafter,/And seek for Grace." Anyone having observed his behavior knows that even now that vow may not be trusted.

    It's all very sad for this poor creature. We want to like Caliban. We hope he is somehow able to overcome his darker nature. But it doesn't happen in the play.

  5. There have been some wonderful quotes and information on the Folios, but I am going to reduce all my thoughts to the last two words of this discussion on forgiveness:

    Would you?

    If I were Prospero, and witnessed this invasion on Miranda, I would struggle with forgiveness after my initial outrage and anger were cooled down.

    I don't think I would keep him a slave with pinches and cramps, sounds a bit too much for me. I do, however, think I would keep Caliban far away from Miranda and I; a kind of seclusion, so to speak.

    Over time, however, I would hope to begin the process of forgiving Caliban, while being very cautious when I would invite him back to live in community with Miranda and I.

    Forgiveness, although never easy, is a cardinal virtue.

    To borrow from another Shakespeare play, Hamlet told Gertrude it would be easier, day after day, to leave and then stay away from Claudius. His advice to Gertrude was "Assume a virtue if you have it not."

    Perhaps if I were to take this approach and assume my forgiveness of Caliban day by day, it would eventually be heartfelt. In today's terms, this is often referred to as "Fake it 'till you make it."

    So my hope and my answer is that with time and practice, yes, I would forgive Caliban.

  6. @ Anonymous:

    Now that I've gotten past whether or not we damn Prospero, said implication being heavily embedded in the initial post, I realize I didn't answer the final question.

    In reality I would hope to be able to.
    I like the scenario you have suggested
    BUT, in relation to the world of the play, which, after all, is a play, and can be interpreted and played in so many different ways,that reality is so detached from our own in terms of actual mitigating circumstances, I would have to say "I don't know".

  7. It’s natural that Caliban would know about sex and procreation without a ‘birds & bees’ talk from Prospero. There may not have been any other humans, but there would have been plenty of openly-copulating beasts about. Goats for example.

    I prefer readings of the play that emphasize the theme of revenge and forgiveness. After all, Prospero breaks his staff and throws his books of magic into the sea. That is, he may give up (or at least softens) his controlling, absolutist aspect and realize that his slave might behave like a cultured european if he is educated & treated like one.

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