Is Caliban human?

Is Caliban human? The question comes through on my logs every now and then so we must have touched on the subject at some point.  I think that perhaps students are looking for help with their homework and just want a yes or no answer and maybe a citation, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Then was this island–
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with
A human shape.

The very first description we have for Caliban is “not honored with a human shape.”  Does that mean not human?

EDIT:  November 1, 2017.  As the commenter rightly points out, that’s a misinterpretation of the passage.  It is the island that would be “without human shape” if it were not for Caliban, i.e. he was alone on the island. 

The word “whelp” would normally apply to animals, but Prospero’s not saying that Caliban is closer to a dog than a person. (When I drive to work each morning and inevitably call someone a jackass I don’t literally mean he’s a donkey. How can you give someone the finger if you have hooves?)

Normally we would say, “Is Caliban human? Of course Caliban is human. He’s got a mind and free will of his own and can communicate. He loves his mother Sycorax and worships her god, Setebos.” By our modern biological standards, it’s a no-brainer.  There’s no creature other than humans that can do any of that.

But this is also a play with magic and fairies, witches and devils. So maybe our modern definitions don’t apply?

Is Caliban human?We’re told that Sycorax is a witch, and that she was banished here. Prospero goes one step more, telling Caliban that he is the offspring of his mother mating with the devil himself.

By modern standards, and by that I mean post Salem witch trials, we could interpret this to mean “Single woman gets pregnant, gets on the wrong side of a conservative society’s rules, and gets kicked out.”  By that logic Caliban is human.  A little wild, maybe, from growing up outside civilization (and civilized medicine), but basically human.  Personally I like this interpretation because it keeps the play universal.  Tell me what Caliban is like as a character because he’s human, and therefore at some level he is like all of us. If he’s not human, I can’t really learn anything from his plight because everything’s different. If he is, I can feel sympathy for him.

Did Shakespeare believe in witches?  It’s not known for certain, but it was certainly typical of the time. Whether the audience believes in witches or not, however, we have to suspend that belief because this play takes place in a universe where magic exists.  Prospero rescued Ariel from a tree, after he was imprisoned there Sycorax. So Sycorax did have powers (like Prospero), and therefore was an actual witch, so is it really that far fetched that she was impregnated by a devil?  And if that is the case in this universe, what exactly does that make Caliban?  Because “appearing human” would probably be closer than “actually human”.  If that’s the case then the play isn’t nearly the same to me.  I have no sympathy for Caliban if he’s just a walking, talking animal.

So, is Caliban human? I prefer to see it that way, but I think that Shakespeare probably didn’t. What does everybody else think?


2 thoughts on “Is Caliban human?

  1. Shame on you! And you call yourself Shakespeare Geek!!

    Why do you perpetuate the myth that Prospero and for that matter, Shakespeare, regarded Caliban as ‘not honoured with a human shape’ when, as the extract you yourself print clearly shows, it was the ISLAND that was not so honoured (i.e. it was uninhabited) EXCEPT for the child Caliban.

    Please correct your mistake, which perpetuates a popular if uneducated misconception of this much maligned character.

    1. You know what? You’re right. I misinterpreted that portion of that passage wrong, and will update the post. I still think the argument is valid. Note that I’m arguing *for* sympathy for him, regardless of his appearance.

      I’m curious why you think “much maligned”? Even if we do give him the benefit of hormonal doubt that his attempted rape of Miranda was because he didn’t know any better, how does that explain his suggesting that Stephano and Trinculo smash Prospero’s head in with a log, and then take Miranda as a prize?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *