Caliban: On the Edge of Humanity

By Dr. Helen Young

When Trinculo first encounters Caliban in in Act II, scene 2 of The Tempest he says “what have we here? A man or a fish?” Caliban is “legg’d like a man, and his fins like arms,” and Trinculo wishes he could take him to England as a freak-show commenting, “any strange beast there makes a man.” (Shakespeare, II, 2, 25-33).  The Tempest is one of the earliest texts which expresses English colonialist discourses and attitudes to the New World. In it, Caliban, who represents the indigenous peoples of the New World, is ever on the edges of humanity, never wholly human or wholly animal. As the early nineteenth-century image above shows, he occupied this problematic space for centuries. Since the mid-twentieth century postcolonial approaches have seen him reconsidered and reconstructed in adaptations including  Aimé Cesaire’s Une Tempête and Marina Warner’s Indigo. Such readings challenge the dehumanization of native peoples whose lands were subjected to Western colonisation. The gaze towards new lands and the future in The Tempest, however,is through the lens of the medieval past.

Shakespeare’s Caliban was influenced by a long European tradition of ‘wild men,’ dating back through the Middle Ages to the fauns and satyrs of classical times. The wild man, or wodewose in Middle English, was a familiar figure in masquerades and masques (, as well as the literature, of the medieval and early modern periods. Hayden White (1972) and Timothy Husband (1980) have both argued that the wild man operated as a contrast to civilised, socialised humanity; Caliban, who has known no humans save his mother until the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, and lacking the restraint imposed by society, is part of this tradition. His attempted rape of Miranda echoes violent sexual episodes associated with wodewoses in medieval texts such as the Middle English prose Alexander (see Yamamoto 156) and the Northern Homily Cycle. The lack of impulse control was associated with animal irrationality.

Yet medieval wild men occupied a literal and metaphorical wilderness on the borders of humanity, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes a monster (Young 48). The possession of a rational soul was the key to humanity according to medieval thought, which largely drew on St Augustine’s City of God for the topic. Yamamoto has pointed out that Mandeville’s Travels contains an episode where a wild man demonstrates he has a soul by showing knowledge of, and contrition for, sin (155), and a book of fables printed by William Caxton in 1483 contains a similar episode (Young 42-44).

Sayers has argued that the English wodewose moved from beast to human over time, and that this increase in its humanity may have resulted from growing amounts of contact between Europeans and the peoples of Africa and the Americas. Such a timeline is oversimplified (Young), but Caliban is far more human than his predecessors either on stage or the page. He may have had to learn language from Prospero because his mother was mute, but he has a voice, and for all his rage and cursing he loves his home and speaks some of the most beautiful and haunting lines of the play in its praise (Shakespeare, III, 2 148-156). Constructed in The Tempest as part human and part animal, Caliban shares the liminal space occupied by medieval wodewoses, leaving his significance open to interpretation in later centuries. In the monstrously human figure of Caliban lie the seeds of a major figure of postcolonial resistance with his roots firmly in the medieval past.


Dr. Helen Young is a postdoctoral fellow in the English Department at the University of Sydney. She currently holds an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.


Image: Selous, H.C. “Ariel, Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo,” The Tempest. c. 1830. From Shakespeare in Performance.

Husband, Timothy. The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.

Sayers, William. “Middle English wodewose ‘wilderness being’: a Hybrid Etymology?” ANQ 17:3 (2004): 12–19.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.

White, Hayden. “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea,” in The Wildman Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, ed. Edward Dudley and Maximilian E Novak. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972, 3–38.

Yamamoto, Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Middle English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Young, Helen. “Wodewoses: the (In)Humanity of Medieval Wild Men.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Special Issue (2009): 37-49.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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