The Colonial Monster

Caliban is the original inhabitant of the island where Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” takes place. As the original inhabitant, it is Caliban who becomes the colonized when Prospero and his daughter Miranda show up on the island. Without magic, Caliban has no choice but to submit to the magical might of Prospero.

This series of events has long been held as an analog of the colonization of the Western Hemisphere performed by the European powers. Instead of magic, the Europeans brought guns and diseases that would wipe out many Native American peoples. In the Caribbean especially, many people identify with Caliban because of his story within “The Tempest” and how his island, much like their own, had been stolen from them by some outside power.

Due to the high status of art we can really see and dig in to how Europeans viewed the people of the lands they colonized. By depicting Caliban as subhuman they could argue for the justification of colonization as bringing civilization to a primitive people. Over time, however, that justification has come to be more widely and more strongly criticized. That critical view has also been reflected in the artwork and performances of Caliban in Europe and the Americas.


William Hogarth – Shakespeare’s The Tempest – 1730

William Hogarth - Shakespeare's The Tempest - 1730

This first depiction of Caliban shows him doing a chore that is popularly used for depictions of him: carrying a bundle of wood. This Caliban also has a very monstrous body. His feet are webbed, his legs below the knees appear to be scaly, his arms appear to be long for his torso size, his skin looks stretchy, there’s some kind of growth on his forehead, and if we could see his fingernails they would probably actually be claws. The lack of clothing also shows his low, slave status in Prospero’s island society.

William Bell Scott – Ariel and Caliban – 1865

William Bell Scott - Ariel and Caliban - 1865

In Scott’s painting we see a human version of Caliban chasing after Ariel with either Stephano or Trinculo ahead of him. They’re chasing after the alcohol that Ariel has stolen from them. Caliban is wearing what appears to be finely made clothes showing that he is a slave of a well-to-do family, which is what Propero’s family is. The only abnormal feature of Caliban here is his height.

Sir John Gilbert – Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban – c 1870

Sir John Gilbert - Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban - c 1870

In this first image of Caliban with Stephano and Trinculo we see the two outsiders with alcohol. Caliban here looks mostly human with the exception of his clawed hands and feet and his sharp teeth. The typical chore of Caliban, hauling wood, lays abandoned in the background with a dancing Caliban taking up the majority of the image. Caliban is actually being treated decently in this image of him although that could be due to Stephano and Trinculo’s drunken state.

Edwin Austin Abbey – Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo – 1891

Edwin Austin Abbey - Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo - 1891

In Abbey’s sketch we see a fur covered Caliban on his knees before Stephano and Trinculo with Ariel in the background. With this Caliban on his knees we clearly see that his has been made into a subject to be ruled by humans. As something less than human it justifies his subjugation. We can also see Caliban holding a bottle of alcohol showing that alcohol is being used as a method to control him.

Frank Benson as Caliban – 1895

Frank Benson as Caliban - 1895

In his earlier performance of Caliban, Frank Benson was okay with playing a blackface Caliban. Blackface in Shakespeare had a strong precedence through Othello. He looks rather human but is made sub-human through the eating of the raw fish and the general lack of clothing. This particular image also depicts this Caliban as though he has been caught in the act of stealing. There was a clear message about black folk that was said through this image that would, justly, cause great outrage today.