Caliban is a childlike and in many ways childish native of the enchanted island where Prospero lives with his daughter, Miranda. The offspring of the witch Sycorax, Caliban was formerly treated generously by Prospero, who arrived on Caliban’s island twelve years earlier, teaching him to speak Prospero’s own language and even giving Caliban wine to drink. However, when Caliban proved himself irresponsible and a threat to Miranda, Prospero confined Caliban to one part of the island.
As a character, Caliban deserves our sympathy. And yet, although he is not a villain, he is not an altogether sympathetic character either. He readily confesses to trying to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter (in II.2), although given the fact that he expresses no contrition over this, ‘confesses’ is not quite the word. Indeed, he wishes he had been able to carry out the deed, so he could people the whole ‘isle with Calibans’ (what a thought!).
According to Caliban himself, also in II.2, Prospero originally showed Caliban some kindness, even giving him some wine (presumably this is what the ‘Water with berries in’t’ refers to). Prospero says he only confined Caliban to a ‘hard rock’ on the island after Caliban’s attempt to have his way with Miranda.
Nevertheless, Caliban is a character who has not been dealt a good hand in life. His mother, Sycorax, is dead, and the god she worshipped, Setebos, is no match for Prospero’s magic. This is one reason why Caliban allows himself to suffer being Prospero’s slave: there is no chance of escape. Caliban resents Prospero for confining him to one part of the island, but he also resents him for the kindnesses the magician showed him: Prospero taking the time to teach Caliban his language, for instance, has only succeeded in giving Caliban the means to curse his miserable lot using new words. It hasn’t actually improved his lot.
Yet when Stephano appears, with wine, Caliban foolishly believes that Stephano could seriously usurp Prospero and take control of the island. He’s clearly naïve and silly for thinking this: if Setebos is no match for Prospero’s magic, one hardly thinks a drunken butler would present much of a threat. Nevertheless, in recent decades many critics have analysed Caliban’s character in light of postcolonialism, seeing Prospero as the white oppressor using his more powerful position (his books and his magic) to subjugate the native Caliban and proclaim himself ruler of the island.
Such an analysis of Caliban’s character, whereby he becomes the oppressed native and Prospero is the heavy-handed European coloniser, does map well onto Shakespeare’s text in some ways, although it’s worth bearing in mind that he is not just a colonised native, and such a reading runs the risk of limiting what Shakespeare is doing with the character of Caliban in the play. For, as Harold Bloom has pointed out in Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, Caliban is also a case of failed adoption: Prospero has tried to take ‘this thing of darkness’ under his wing and treat him as his adopted son, educating him and including him as part of his ‘family’. Such an analysis is borne out by the numerous indications that Caliban is innocent, childlike, and naïve – with his naivety being most clearly demonstrated by his all-too-ready attachment to Stephano as his new master.