Here Be Monsters

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Some folks may have been part of this conversation on Twitter.  I’d like to expand on some thoughts here, where they feel more permanent.

For my daughter’s “Monsters in British Literature” course they’re just wrapping up The Tempest. One of the questions she was tasked with answering was (paraphrased), “Do you think Caliban is the monster of the story?  If he’s not, who is?”  I know that they read something else in class that basically laid out the “what is a monster” rules, but I can’t find that to reference it at the moment.

But there’s only a few characters in the story, so let’s talk about all the candidates.


On the one hand we’ve got colonizing Prospero.  He shows up on an inhabited island and says, “Mine now.” Promptly enslaves its few inhabitants, possibly even killing one of them.  It’s never really said what happens to Sycorax, is it? I used to think she just kind of died and left Caliban there to fend for himself, but how in the world does Prospero know so much about her if that’s true?  Did he learn it all from Ariel?  Caliban didn’t even know how to talk when he met Prospero, so that’s unlikely.

On the other hand we’ve got forgiving Prospero. He has his enemies in his grasp, and can smite them any time he wants. Instead he opts to forgive and forget – even his treacherous brother Antonio, who we will speak more of shortly.

Personally I don’t find him the monster. Especially when you play the “all in care of thee” card.  He’s a dad protecting his daughter from the world.  What dad doesn’t have a little animal instinct in him on that level?  See a threat, neutralize the threat. Only put down your card if someone else is going to take your place (say, for instance, her getting married).


The “too easy” answer.  Sure he’s this base creature who would hardly be civilized if it wasn’t for Prospero.  Is that so bad?  Caliban was minding his business on his own island when this dude just showed up and took over. Of course he’s got some resentment issues.  He’s got some issues with Prospero, sure – but remember that Prospero is in complete magical control of him, and can basically torment him with pinches and cramps whenever he wants.  How can we fault Caliban for not wanting a little retaliation?

Sure, there’s the Miranda thing. He did try to “people this isle with Calibans”.  Honestly I tend to lump that in with base biological instinct. He’s closer to an animal than a person.  What do animals do?  They eat, they mate, they fight.  That doesn’t make every animal a monster. But what ultimately turned me against Caliban is the way he offers her to Stephano as a prize.  Don’t forget, after you kill her father, she’ll keep your bed nice and warm! That is not the instinctive act of an animal. That is a strategic move, using another human being to negotiate a deal.  Caliban’s got a lot of reasons to hate Prospero, but to take them out on his daughter? That’s a bit much for me.


I only really put him here as a technicality, because in theory his job is to bash Prospero in the head with a log and then take Miranda as his wife. He doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this plan, on either front.  But are we really expected to ever be afraid for Prospero?  Think Stephano an actual threat?  I don’t think so. He’s comic relief.  If I’m not mistaken (though I do not have the text readily available), I think he even shows a certain distaste for the gruesome work at hand, as if he’d rather not go through with it.  Hardly a monster behavior.


I don’t think people explore evil Ariel enough.  Most of the magical work that’s done in the play is done by Ariel.  Prospero’s charms appear mostly of the “prevent you from doing things” variety, have you noticed that? He binds Ariel to his service. He freezes Ferdinand, and binds him to service. Presumably Caliban is also bound to service, or why wouldn’t he flee?  All of the other stuff, the shipwreck, the magical dogs, the voices … that’s all Ariel.

You get hints of dark Ariel.  He’s clearly not too thrilled about having escaped the bondage of his tree, only to land in Prospero’s bondage.  Don’t we think that he would have killed everybody on board if Prospero had let him? With no remorse?

One of the features of a monster, if I recall the book correctly, is that they live away from man by choice, interact only out of necessity or circumstance, and then return to solitude.  That certainly fits Ariel.  Desires his freedom. Minute he gets it? Gone.


It’s easy to forget that Antonio’s even there, if you only pay attention to the marquee characters.  First of all he’s the character that conspired to steal his brother’s kingdom.  As far as he’s concerned, his brother (and his niece) can just go somewhere and die.  Remember that it is Gonzalo that saves them.

When the opportunity presents itself Antonio is quick to attempt a move up the ladder by killing the sleeping king, too. It’s not even like the man is a manipulator who has other people do the dirty work, he’s got it in him to hold a drawn sword over a defenseless victim without hesitation.

Perhaps most importantly, in the final scene where everything is revealed, we learn that Prospero is alive and not only can he look his brother in the eye, but that he forgives him?  Antonio says … nothing. Everybody else wants to hear the story of how everything seems to have turned out so happily. But Antonio? You get the feeling that before the play’s even over, Antonio is already planning when he can get his kingdom back. He probably regrets not killing Prospero in the first place.


Did I miss any contenders?  I don’t think we could really argue that Miranda or Ferdinand or Trinculo are monsters.  Sycorax and Setebos might be two other possibilities, but I mean come on, they’re not even in the story.  You’d be filling in 99% of their back story just to make your case.


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