Caliban The Tempest Essay Ideas


You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I.ii.366–368)

This speech, delivered by Caliban to Prospero and Miranda, makes clear in a very concise form the vexed relationship between the colonized and the colonizer that lies at the heart of this play. The son of a witch, perhaps half-man and half-monster, his name a near-anagram of “cannibal,” Caliban is an archetypal “savage” figure in a play that is much concerned with colonization and the controlling of wild environments. Caliban and Prospero have different narratives to explain their current relationship. Caliban sees Prospero as purely oppressive while Prospero claims that he has cared for and educated Caliban, or did until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Prospero’s narrative is one in which Caliban remains ungrateful for the help and civilization he has received from the Milanese Duke. Language, for Prospero and Miranda, is a means to knowing oneself, and Caliban has in their view shown nothing but scorn for this precious gift. Self-knowledge for Caliban, however, is not empowering. It is only a constant reminder of how he is different from Miranda and Prospero and how they have changed him from what he was. Caliban’s only hope for an identity separate from those who have invaded his home is to use what they have given him against them.


There be some sports are painful, and their labour
Delight in them sets off. Some kinds of baseness
Are nobly undergone, and most poor matters
Point to rich ends. This my mean task
Would be as heavy to me as odious, but
The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead
And makes my labours pleasures. (III.i.1-7)

Ferdinand speaks these words to Miranda, as he expresses his willingness to perform the task Prospero has set him to, for her sake. The Tempest is very much about compromise and balance. Prospero must spend twelve years on an island in order to regain his dukedom; Alonso must seem to lose his son in order to be forgiven for his treachery; Ariel must serve Prospero in order to be set free; and Ferdinand must suffer Prospero’s feigned wrath in order to reap true joy from his love for Miranda. This latter compromise is the subject of this passage from Act III, scene i, and we see the desire for balance expressed in the structure of Ferdinand’s speech. This desire is built upon a series of antitheses—related but opposing ideas: “sports . . . painful” is followed by “labour . . . delights”; “baseness” can be undergone “nobly”; “poor matters” lead to “rich ends”; Miranda “quickens” (makes alive) what is “dead” in Ferdinand. Perhaps more than any other character in the play, Ferdinand is resigned to allow fate to take its course, always believing that the good will balance the bad in the end. His waiting for Miranda mirrors Prospero’s waiting for reconciliation with his enemies, and it is probably Ferdinand’s balanced outlook that makes him such a sympathetic character, even though we actually see or hear very little of him on-stage.


[I weep] at mine unworthiness, that dare not offer
What I desire to give, and much less take
What I shall die to want. But this is trifling,
And all the more it seeks to hide itself
The bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning,
And prompt me, plain and holy innocence.
I am your wife, if you will marry me.
If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow
You may deny me, but I’ll be your servant
Whether you will or no (III.i.77–86)

Miranda delivers this speech to Ferdinand in Act III, scene i, declaring her undying love for him. Remarkably, she does not merely propose marriage, she practically insists upon it. This is one of two times in the play that Miranda seems to break out of the predictable character she has developed under the influence of her father’s magic. The first time is in Act I, scene ii, when she scolds Caliban for his ingratitude to her after all the time she has spent teaching him to speak. In the speech quoted above, as in Act I, scene ii, Miranda seems to come to a point at which she can no longer hold inside what she thinks. It is not that her desires get the better of her; rather, she realizes the necessity of expressing her desires. The naïve girl who can barely hold still long enough to hear her father’s long story in Act I, scene ii, and who is charmed asleep and awake as though she were a puppet, is replaced by a stronger, more mature individual at this moment. This speech, in which Miranda declares her sexual independence, using a metaphor that suggests both an erection and pregnancy (the “bigger bulk” trying to hide itself), seems to transform Miranda all at once from a girl into a woman.

At the same time, the last three lines somewhat undercut the power of this speech: Miranda seems, to a certain extent, a slave to her desires. Her pledge to follow Ferdinand, no matter what the cost to herself or what he desires, is echoed in the most degrading way possible by Caliban as he abases himself before the liquor-bearing Stephano. Ultimately, we know that Ferdinand and Miranda are right for one another from the fact that Ferdinand does not abuse the enormous trust Miranda puts in him.


Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again (III.ii.130–138).

This speech is Caliban’s explanation to Stephano and Trinculo of mysterious music that they hear by magic. Though he claims that the chief virtue of his newly learned language is that it allows him to curse, Caliban here shows himself capable of using speech in a most sensitive and beautiful fashion. This speech is generally considered to be one of the most poetic in the play, and it is remarkable that Shakespeare chose to put it in the mouth of the drunken man-monster. Just when Caliban seems to have debased himself completely and to have become a purely ridiculous figure, Shakespeare gives him this speech and reminds the audience that Caliban has something within himself that Prospero, Stephano, Trinculo, and the audience itself generally cannot, or refuse to, see. It is unclear whether the “noises” Caliban discusses are the noises of the island itself or noises, like the music of the invisible Ariel, that are a result of Prospero’s magic. Caliban himself does not seem to know where these noises come from. Thus his speech conveys the wondrous beauty of the island and the depth of his attachment to it, as well as a certain amount of respect and love for Prospero’s magic, and for the possibility that he creates the “[s]ounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i.148–158)

Prospero speaks these lines just after he remembers the plot against his life and sends the wedding masque away in order to deal with that plot. The sadness in the tone of the speech seems to be related to Prospero’s surprising forgetfulness at this crucial moment in the play: he is so swept up in his own visions, in the power of his own magic, that for a moment he forgets the business of real life. From this point on, Prospero talks repeatedly of the “end” of his “labours” (IV.i.260), and of breaking his staff and drowning his magic book (V.i.54–57). One of Prospero’s goals in bringing his former enemies to the island seems to be to extricate himself from a position of near absolute power, where the concerns of real life have not affected him. He looks forward to returning to Milan, where “every third thought shall be my grave” (V.i.315). In addition, it is with a sense of relief that he announces in the epilogue that he has given up his magic powers. Prospero’s speech in Act IV, scene i emphasizes both the beauty of the world he has created for himself and the sadness of the fact that this world is in many ways meaningless because it is a kind of dream completely removed from anything substantial.

His mention of the “great globe,” which to an audience in 1611 would certainly suggest the Globe Theatre, calls attention to Prospero’s theatricality—to the way in which he controls events like a director or a playwright. The word “rack,” which literally means “a wisp of smoke” is probably a pun on the “wrack,” or shipwreck, with which the play began. These puns conflate the theatre and Prospero’s island. When Prospero gives up his magic, the play will end, and the audience, like Prospero, will return to real life. No trace of the magical island will be left behind, not even of the shipwreck, for even the shipwreck was only an illusion.

Act I, Scene 1
1. With disrespect for the king, the Boatswain says, “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” Explicate this passage in the light of the king’s authority at sea. To whose authority did the king succumb? Did the Boatswain have power over the king? Cite examples from the play to support your answer.

2. Gonzalo keeps a sense of humor in spite of the chaos of the storm. Write an essay explaining his joke concerning the Boatswain. Why did he think the Boatswain was the kind of fellow who was born to be hanged? Why would that keep him from drowning? What effect would the Boatswain’s fate have on the other passengers and crew? Draw your examples from the play to support your ideas.

Act I, Scene 2, lines 1-188
1. A primitive island and a civilized Milan are the two opposing worlds of the play. Compare these two worlds in view of the theme of illusion versus reality. In what way is the island an illusory world? In what way is Milan the world of reality? Do the leaders of Milan harbor any illusions? Give examples from the play to support your opinion.

2. The people of Shakespeare’s day believed that the natural order was based on the hierarchy of all beings. In what way does this idea apply to the usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom? What was the result when Antonio became the new Duke of Milan? How did his actions affect the natural harmony of Milan? How did it affect the mutual trust between the two brothers? Cite examples from the play to explain your answer.

Act I, Scene 2, lines 189-320
1. Prospero’s magic is set in contrast to that of the “foul witch Sycorax” in this scene. Compare and contrast the magic of Prospero to the magic of Sycorax. In what way could Prospero’s use of the supernatural be labelled “white magic”? Was Sycorax practicing “black magic”? How do they compare? How are they different? Cite examples from the play to support your answer.

2. Ariel frightened the passengers as he “flam’d amazement” during the storm at sea. Explicate this term in the light of Ariel’s powers as a spirit. In what way does he appear as the element of fire on the topmast of the ship? As the element of air? As the element of water? Would this have been a believable phenomenon in Shakespeare’s day? To support your explanation, use examples from the play.

Act I, Scene 2, lines 321-374
1. Caliban’s brutish nature is set in opposition to the civilized nature of Prospero and Miranda in this scene. Contrast the two natures in relation to the idea of a corrupted society. Does Caliban seem less corrupt because he is a natural man? How has learning a language affected him? Do Prospero and Miranda seem more corrupt because they are civilized? Cite examples from the play to support your answer.

2. Caliban is described as “a savage and deformed slave” in the “Names of the Actors.” Write an essay explaining the idea of savagery and deformity. Give a definition of a savage as it relates to the sixteenth century and explain how Caliban fits that definition. In what way was Caliban deformed? Why was he subhuman? Would his portrayal have been credible to Shakespeare’s audience? Give examples from the play to support your answer.

Act I, Scene 2, lines 375-504
1. Ariel informs Ferdinand that his father “suffers a sea-change” at the bottom of the sea. Explicate this passage in the light of Alonso’s crimes while he was still in Milan. How does the “sea-change” symbolize what will happen to him on the island? How will the “sea-change” affect Prospero? How will it affect the world of Milan? Cite examples from the play to support your essay.

2. Ariel invites his invisible attendant spirits to the dance. Write an essay explaining how the dance symbolizes the relationship of Ferdinand and Miranda. How will the young couple imitate the dance in their daily lives? How will their lives affect the kingdom of Milan? To support your view, give examples from the play.

Act II, Scene 1, lines 1-184
1. Gonzalo’s ideal commonwealth is patterned after that of Montaigne. Compare and contrast the two societies. In what way is Montaigne’s natural society ideal? How does Gonzalo’s commonwealth measure up to that ideal? What is the irony of Gonzalo’s so-called primeval society? Are there any elements of European civilization in either of the two societies? Cite examples from the play to support your argument.

2. Sebastian and Antonio demonstrate relentless cruelty to Alonso who is grieving for his son. Write an essay analyzing their hope of receiving forgiveness and reconciliation by the end of the play. Do Sebastian and Antonio feel guilty for anything they have done in the past? Does Antonio feel guilty about his usurpation of Prospero’s dukedom? Do either of them feel guilty about their cruelty to Alonso in this scene? To support your argument, give examples from the play.

Act II, Scene 1, lines 185-328
1. Antonio is often thought of as a villain in The Tempest. Write an essay explaining his role as the villain. Is Antonio completely evil? What is his attitude toward his conscience? In what way is he different from Sebastian? Explain his attitude toward power in the play. How far will he go to gain power and position? Cite examples from the play to support your ideas.

2. There are numerous references to sleep in this scene. Write an essay in which you enumerate the sleep images and explicate their meanings. What is Alonso’s feeling about sleep and how is it symbolic of his healing process? Explain the meaning of the sleep images used by Antonio and Sebastian. What does Sebastian mean when he says that Antonio speaks a “sleepy language”? Why does Sebastian let his “fortune sleep”? Use examples from the play to support your explanation.

Act II, Scene II
1. Most critics feel Caliban is superior to Stephano and Trinculo in the play. Write an essay comparing Caliban to Stephano and Trinculo. Compare the language of the three characters. Why does Caliban speak in verse? Why do Trinculo and Stephano speak in prose? Does Shakespeare consider Caliban superior? To support your argument, choose...

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