Teaching Students About Caliban

Caliban, one of William Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters, is a vital figure in the play The Tempest. While he has traditionally been understood as a foil to the more virtuous characters in the play, his actions and motivations are complex and worthy of exploration. To help students engage with this character, teachers should explain the background and context surrounding Caliban’s creation, discuss his psychological motives, and consider his relationship to power and colonialism.

Firstly, it is important to understand the historical context that Shakespeare was writing The Tempest in. The play was written in the early 17th century, a time of growing English colonialism and exploration. It’s no coincidence that The Tempest is set on a remote island, where the plot revolves around the relationship between the European shipwrecked castaways and the island’s native inhabitants. As such, the character of Caliban can be seen as an allegory for the colonized peoples of the world, displaced from their homes and oppressed by the more powerful European nations. This context should be explained to students to better contextualize Caliban’s actions and motivations.

Next, teachers should draw attention to the complexity of Caliban’s character. Often portrayed as a brutish and savage creature, a closer reading reveals that he is a multidimensional character with complex motivations. For example, while he is frequently depicted as trying to gain control of the island from Prospero, the play’s protagonist, a deeper analysis suggests that his motivations stem from his sense of injustice at being wronged by the other characters. Students can, therefore, be encouraged to think about how such a character could be simultaneously villainous and sympathetic.

Finally, teachers should encourage students to consider the role of power dynamics and colonialism in the play. As a colonized character whose own land has been taken from him, Caliban can be seen as a representation of the oppressed, albeit in a figurative form. Through discussions of Caliban’s place in the power structure of the play, teachers can facilitate more general discussions about the colonial history of the world and the continued impact of that history on the lives of both colonizers and colonized alike.

Teaching students about Caliban offers a powerful opportunity to engage with complex themes of power and colonialism. By situating the character within his historical context, examining his psychological motivations, and considering his relationship to power, students can gain an appreciation for the complexity of this character, as well as the issues of colonialism that the play raises. By doing so, students will be better equipped to engage with the history of the colonial world and to consider its continuing impact on contemporary society.

Choose your Reaction!