By Bill Walthall

As I re-read The Tempest, I’m fascinated by Caliban. It’s such a bizarre character, one that it seems Shakespeare himself doesn’t know how to present. Not human. And yet poetical (when he isn’t planning murder, usurp, or rape). Over the course of the next few days, let’s take a look at a couple of his speeches and see what we find in characterization.

When we first meet Caliban, Prospero and Miranda wake him. For what? I’m not quite sure. All I do know is that insults are hurled at Caliban, and he shows reluctance to show himself to Prospero. When he does show up, he curses them, to which Prospero promises punishments that evening.

And Caliban responds.

I must eat my dinner.
This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you,
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.
  • I.ii.333-44

Now the words of the speech are pretty straightforward. He recounts how the island is his, passed on to him by his mother, Sycorax. Prospero stole the island, however, even after treating Caliban nicely at first, petting him, giving him water flavored by fruits, and teaching him about the stars. Caliban reciprocated, showing the magician “all the qualities o’ th’ isle.” And he curses himself for doing so, and then curses Prospero as well, reminding him that Caliban is his only subject, whom Prospero has confined in a cave.

Yeah, so the words are great, but what’s interesting to me–you knew this was coming–is in the scansion.

The first partial line completes, without a rhythmical break, Prospero’s line. What to make of this perfect antilabe? Is there an equation being drawn here? I might say that it is to show their differences: Caliban’s line ends with the feminine added syllable (the trailing –ner in dinner). Feminine endings can spotlight a mind too full of ideas (Hamlet), or mind/emotion/soul diseased (as it can throw off the rhythm of the next line). Like I said, I would say that it’s to show their differences, but I really can’t: Prospero’s partial line, too, ends with the feminine unstressed syllable. So I’m back to more of a comparison rather than contrast.

Another bit of scansion-y interest is that of the fifteen lines, only three are perfectly iambic pentameter, and two of them are separated by a single line:


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

To name the bigger light and how the less,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / / ~

That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,

Again, this gives us a parallel between Prospero (who taught Caliban the names of the stars) and Caliban (who showed Prospero all the good things the island had to offer). The only other perfectly iambic line comes near the end:


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

For I am all the subjects that you have,

And in it, Caliban discusses his rule, or rather Prospero’s rule over him.

Now, there are a couple of lines that are iambic, but with the extra, unstressed syllable at the end (the feminine ending)–the first and penultimate full lines of the speech:


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother,

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me

In both these lines, he touches upon his ownership of the island. One would could argue that this explains his too-many-thoughts in his head.

In the rest of the speech (save for one line), we get a trochee here, a spondee there; only two lines have both. One comes near the center of the speech:


/ ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Cursed be I that did so! All the charms

And the self-cursing (and the beginning cursing Prospero) completely fit this off-rhythm heart-palpitating outburst.

But, it’s the other line that I think really tears up Caliban from the inside:


/ ~ / ~ / || / ~ / /

Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,

This is the line where the actual accusation of usurpation takes place. Nine syllables, so we can expect a caesura…and it comes where we would expect it, at the punctuation between sentences. The second sentence kicks off with the palpitating trochee/spondee combo. He’s upset, I get that. But it’s what comes before that period that interests me. Five syllables, alternating stressed and non-stressed. We could call it catalectic trochaic trimeter (three trochee feet, with the last foot losing its unstressed second syllable) or we could call it acephalous iambic trimeter (three iambic feet, but the first foot has lost its head–its initial unstressed syllable). Regardless, it’s weird. Almost otherworldly… you know like the witches in Macbeth.

So is Shakespeare using the bizarre rhythm here to equate Caliban with something supernatural (or subhuman)? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a hiccup in the meter with no meaning. Maybe.

But let me float this idea.

The meter that’s there is messed up…because the whole idea of usurpation is messed up. Usurpation is taking what is not earned. And that is what had happened to Prospero back in Milan, and this is what has happened to Caliban on this island. And so his heart-felt upset in the second half of the line (post-caesura) is earned; Caliban has earned this anger, just as Prospero has earned his anger…and his desire for revenge which drives our titular Tempest.

Prospero and Caliban.

The post The Tempest speech study: Caliban, part one appeared first on The Bill / Shakespeare Project.

Read more here:: https://thebillshakespeareproject.com/2017/12/tempest-speech-study-caliban-part-one/

Upcoming Events

There are no upcoming events at this time.