In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the character precisely opposed to the airy sprite Ariel is Caliban. The one is a Mayblossom suspended in the azure; the other is half man and half brute, condensed and gross in feeling, he has the dawnings of understanding without reason or the moral sense, he shows the approach of the brutes to the mental powers of man. He is malicious and cowardly and false; yet different from Shakespeare's merely vulgar knaves. He is rude but not vulgar; he always speaks in verse. He has a vocabulary of his own.
Caliban is one of the dramatist's masterpieces. He has attracted attention from the first thinkers of every age. He is wild, deformed, irregular, neither man nor brute, the essence of grossness without vulgarity. He comes from the dark soil, of the earth earthy--the isle with its haunting noises he hears with delight: "sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not; sometimes a thousand twanging instruments will hum about mine ears and sometimes voices." Here is a savage with a child's simplicity. What a curious mixture of devil and man and beast! Evil he desires for its piquancy. He thinks gross injustice has been done him and believes himself a slave.
The idea of murder gives him delight, for he imagines that it would make a great noise and commotion. He is laughably horrible, a specimen to be examined more than a creature to be execrated; at times he shows great prudence, and again he roars with hate. Yet Shakespeare grants him some instincts of goodness, we meet him when full grown and a victim of heredity. Miranda taught him, and Prospero stroked him when young. He is a land-fish, a dullard, service to him is slavery; his fins are like arms, some have thought him the missing link between man and brute.
He seems the understanding in prison; awaiting the light. He represents the grosser passions and appetites.
He is the natural man, uneducated and untrained, the creature in the rough, the material for evolution, allied to the ape, and ages will be required to lift him to his proper height. Prospero sends pains on him, and cramps, and side-stitches. He has memory, for he recalls how he was taught to name the bigger light, and how the less; he knew all the springs and brine-pits of the mystic isle. Language was taught him but he uses it only to curse. He is amazed at the shapes he sees; for every trifle they are set on him; they chatter at him and bite him; adders wound him as he treads.
When Stephano sings, "The master, the swabber, the boatswain and I, the gunner and his mate, loved Mall, Meg, and Marian and Margery, but none of us cared for Kate; for she had a tongue with a tang, would cry to a sailor 'go hang!' then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!" (Is this Kipling's model?) Caliban feels himself tormented and cries aloud. He thinks Trinculo his god, and will kiss his foot. He will fish for him and get him berries and wood enough. Man to him is wondrous. He knows too the jay's nest and the clustering filberts.
He is wise enough to know that Prospero's power depends on his books and staff; without them "he's but a sot as I am; burn all his books." This is Shakespeare's tribute to the immeasurable superiority of the thinking man, for he represents this product of soil as separated in his own opinion from the mighty magician only by his intellectual treasures. Is it not significant? We learn that Caliban's mother was a witch; she could control the moon, make flows and ebbs, and deal in her command without her power. A flash of intelligence irradiates his mind at the last and he says, "I'll be wise hereafter and seek for grace." Thus he departs.
As Ariel represents the ethereal and spiritual, and Caliban the earthly and material, so Shakespeare, by the enormous gap between them, would signify by what slow and persistent and patient stages all educational forces must proceed. Perhaps our Teutonic ancestors were Calibans, drinking blood from their enemies' skulls, and beating tomtoms as they advanced half-clad into battle. Each idiot is a Caliban, and every son of Adam in whom development is arrested. They who live close to the earth, who "eat and drink for tomorrow they die," are akin to this island monster. May we not go farther and say that he to whom the visible earth bounds all, who is anchored more firmly to the ground by each drill that cuts the rock, or each spade that uncovers the mine, who magnifies only terrestrial forces, who ignores, or denies, the existence of anything beyond the reach of theorems or tubes, to whom "a primrose by the river's brim, a yellow primrose is to him, and it is nothing more", is a Caliban, not indeed in a hideous and repulsive form, but in soul, in aspiration, in mental equipment, in the loss of the finer and ultimate energies of life?
Wherever a city is so intent on present good and present pleasure that it omits and loses the uplift of art and letters and music, and the refinements that chasten and elevate and subdue, there is a civic Caliban, breathing smoke and cinders and the oppressive air of feverish gain, wallowing in the mire of sordid ambition, and content to sell its divine birthright for a mess of pottage, Philistinism not Hellenism, willing to obliterate the landscape, or pare away the waterfall or denude the forest, "for the jingle of the guinea heals the hurt that honor feels."