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You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse.
~ Caliban showing his spite for Prospero and his efforts.

Caliban is the main antagonist of the 1611 Shakespeare play The Tempest. He is the son of Sycorax and the devil, and lived on the island before the story's main character, Prospero, came with his daughter and claimed the land for them. An embittered slave, Caliban hatches halfway through the play a plot to murder his master.

Backstory

Caliban was born by the cruel witch Sycorax, when she was in charge of the island. Growing up, the misshapen child worshipped his mother, and by extension, the demon god Setebos which she worshipped. When she passed away, Caliban was left to his own devices until the exiled duke of Milan, Prospero, turned up and claimed the land. 

Initially, Prospero took Caliban under his wing, and taught him civilized customs, morals and language, and Caliban showed him the island and its beauty. However, one day Caliban felt a wanton lust for Prospero's daughter, Miranda, and attempted to force himself on her. Prospero stopped him and was understandably outraged and disgusted, and so he relegated Caliban to a servant, whom he would torment with hexes and spirits should he not carry his weight.

Personality

Caliban is equal parts savage and barbaric and pitiful and tragic. He feels deeply wronged by Prospero taking his island, and while he at first seemed to appreciate all the new knowledge offered to him, he ultimately grows to resent it, and everything it stands for. He's shown to nurse an undying passion for the unspoiled nature of the isle, a passion as potent and unceasing as his hatred for Prospero.

Despite being cunning and scheming, he is constantly under the sway of others; even when he manipulates Stephano into desiring to drive a nail into Prospero's head, he still places himself below him, wishing to quite literally kiss his feet.

History

Caliban is first seen working, telling Prospero in a miffed tone that they have enough wood within when he is asked for it. This caused his master to sharpen his tone, and Caliban divulges his disgust for his predicament. He believes the island belongs to him, and wishes that his deceased mother's evil magic and woe befall Prospero. He reprimands the ex-duke for essentially betraying him in reducing him to a mere slave after his initial kindness, but Prospero reminds him of his attempted rape of Miranda. Caliban replies smugly that he wishes he had succeeded, so that he could populate the island with tiny Calibans. When Prospero threatens him further, he backs down, returning dutifully to his work.

Later in the play, Caliban meets the boisterous, drunken butler Stephano and Trinculo, an equally imprudent jester, both from the same ship sunken by the titular tempest. Put off by his appearance, but happy to be alive, the two friends offer Caliban something to drink. He is amazed by the liquor, and gets really rather intoxicated, now proclaiming that Stephano is his new master. Stephano is flattered, Trinculo more disgusted (Caliban is more than a little offensive to the jester, showing a bit of favoritism). 

Eventually, Caliban seizes the opportunity, and talks Stephano and Trinculo into going with him to slay Prospero in his sleep, promising that they will be the new masters of the island, and he their slave, while also nastily adding that Miranda will "become their bed". He leads the way to Prospero's home, but when the two drunkards see the sorcerer's breathtaking wardrobe, they become distracted and delay the murder plot, much to Caliban's frustration. Ultimately, Prospero and Ariel send two hellish dogs after the three, chasing them off until they get to the center of action, where everyone who wronged Prospero is gathered in one room.

Prospero chastises Caliban severely, but does not kill him or anything of the like. Surrendering, Caliban admits he was an idiot to worship two buffoons, and he falls back into servitude, knowing that he might get Prospero's pardon. 

Trivia

  • The name "Caliban" is a twisted version of the word "cannibal".
    • This ties into the theory that Caliban represents colonial injustice to the natives.
  • Caliban may be the very last main antagonist belonging to an original play fully written by Shakespeare.
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