Well, of course he is. He’s not the bad guy, the Real Villain. One of the problems with The Tempest is that it’s hard to tell who the real Bad Guy is. Since the really bad stuff happened in the past, and Prospero is bound on vengeance, it could be Prospero, who is also the Good Guy. We watch Sebastian, Antonio, who usurped Prospero’s dukedom (helped by Prospero’s negligence), plot regicide before our eyes. He’s a good candidate for Real Villain. Caliban, however, is just a whining slave who schemes to have Prospero murdered. Maybe he’s only a mini-villain.
Shakespeare always did great villains, villains you could understand. This is what makes a villain really good—when you can understand their point of view, their feelings. If you identify, it is more dramatic when they do the very bad thing, because you say to yourself, “I’d never do that, no matter how bad things got!” Shakespeare helped us understand how years of humiliation would drive Shylock to make such a cruel bargain. He made us understand Richard III, Claudius, who poisoned his own brother, Iago, and Mr and Mrs MacBeth.
Caliban is a problem though. Part of the problem is mine. I still bring that twenty-first century mindset to the play, and it’s difficult for me to take Prospero’s side when I know the first thing he did, after landing on the island, was enslave the natives, Ariel and Caliban. Caliban is the twisted monster-slave. The story goes that his mother, Sycorax, was a witch and his father a demon. Caliban’s mother magically imprisoned Ariel in a pine tree. Prospero freed Ariel, and made a bargain with the air spirit. Caliban he simply enslaved.
Right away I’m thinking, “Sure, a strong woman, so she must have been a witch, must have slept with a demon. That’s what they always say.” In fact, Sycorax was exactly like Prospero, (a fact he never mentions, but Shakespeare makes sure we notice) controlling the magical island by the force of her will. In an early scene between Caliban and Prospero, Caliban whimpers that the island should be his, through his mother. The problem is, he’s right.
Why is Caliban a bad guy? Well, he’s ugly. He whines. More seriously, at some point in the not-too-distant past he tried to force himself on Prospero’s virginal daughter Miranda, who prior to that had befriended him and tried to teach him to read. Clearly, this was not-okay behavior, but a modern viewer might consider that Caliban was in his adolescence, and there were no other females on the island. Something tells me that Prospero and Caliban never had The Talk.
So, attempting to violate a marriageable virgin–that’s pretty bad. We’ll gloss over the fact that the only reason Miranda doesn’t get caught in some equally embarrassing hormone-driven scandal is because Daddy shipwrecks a prince for her to hook up with. To be fair, Miranda is not a manipulative Daddy’s Girl, like Bianca in Taming of the Shrew—she is genuinely sheltered and naïve.
Prospero verbally abuses Caliban and physically tortures him, onstage. All the rest of Prospero’s tortures are psychological. For Caliban alone he reserves physical pain. Caliban is treated, not like a fearsome monster who must be contained, but like a disfavored stepson, and that is no accident.
Caliban finds two shipwreck survivors, Stefano and Trinculo. Stefano has wine, and gives Caliban some. Caliban instantly switches allegiance, groveling before Stefano as if before a god. He offers to show Stefano and Trinculo the secrets of the island, and it’s easy to imagine the orphaned, innocent boy Caliban, making the same offer to Prospero, trying to buy affection.
He suggests that Stefano murder Prospero and become king of the island in his stead.
A villain? Not yet. A dishonorable, pathetic yet sympathetic victim who is making some bad choices, or indulging in a fantasy, but not a villain yet. Not yet.
Then without a moment’s hesitation Caliban also sells Miranda to Stefano as part of the deal, and my villain meter goes “ping!”
Being whiny, deceitful and passive is not villainous. Attempted rape is villainous but perhaps understandable in the circumstances, especially if he had some softer feelings for Miranda. Selling himself into servitude to another, and plotting murder, okay, yes, bad, very bad. But to make Miranda a fellow victim, so off-handedly? Now we see Caliban’s complete selfishness.
This throw-away line probably did not carry much weight in the seventeenth century. Girls were sold or bartered into marriages all the time. It was an arranged marriage that brought the King of Naples and Prospero’s other enemies into his power. The King’s daughter had just been married off to someone thousands of leagues from her home. That’s just the way things went. The shame would be if Caliban’s plot had worked and Miranda, who has a shot at marrying the prince of Naples, ended up stuck with the drunken steward Stefano.
It’s callousness that marks Caliban, not as a victim to be pitied, but a villain to be watched. He may hate Prospero, with good reason, but Miranda was never his enemy. If he had schemed to keep her for himself, that would have been creepy but poignant. Shakespeare calculates this to a nicety. If Caliban had plotted to abduct Miranda, whether out of lust, true affection or even to hurt Prospero, that would elevate him to the status of Real Villain, and would have tilted the dramatic tension in a way the bard didn’t want it to tilt. Caliban is part of the comic-relief subplot. When he sells out Miranda, we see him for what he is, self-centered and venial, a mini-villain.
It’s one line in the play, but I admire Shakespeare for keeping an eye on that simple detail, that one reminder of the core of this character, his selfishness. And I admire Shakespeare also for seeing, and showing the audience, Prospero’s role in helping Caliban become what he is. These are the details that make great villains, villains that hold our attention and create suspense, and make us wonder, long after the play is done, what we would have done if it had been us.