Literature

A Short Analysis of Caliban’s ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’ Speech

‘The Isle is Full of Noises’: Caliban’s speech from The Tempest has become one of the most celebrated and studied sections of Shakespeare’s play. The Tempest is, of all Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps the one filled with the most magic and enchantment; only A Midsummer Night’s Dream potentially matches it.

Before we offer a summary and analysis of Caliban’s speech, here’s a reminder of his ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’ speech, which appears in Act 3 Scene 2 of The Tempest.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.

‘The isle is full of noises’: summary

First, a brief paraphrase of Caliban’s words:

‘Don’t be scared. This island is full of noises and sweet music which bring pleasure and harm no one. Sometimes I hear a thousand twanging instruments humming around my ears, and sometimes I hear voices that are so soothing that they send me back to sleep even if I have just woken up.

‘And then, in my dreams, it seemed to me that the clouds parted to reveal treasure ready to fall down from the sky upon me, so that when I woke up, I cried because I wanted to dream again.’

‘The isle is full of noises’: analysis

Now we have an idea of what Caliban is saying in his speech, let’s take a closer look at the language he uses. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is one of the points in The Tempest where Caliban speaks in verse (blank verse, specifically: unrhymed iambic pentameter). This gives his words a dignity and music which many of his other lines of dialogue elsewhere in the play, which are spoken in prose, lack.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.

Caliban, who has spent his life on the island – more than any other character in the play besides Ariel, since Stephano and Trinculo are recent arrivals and Prospero and his daughter Miranda were shipwrecked there – seeks to reassure Stephano that the sounds of the island are nothing to fear.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,

Caliban conveys the variety and multiplicity of the music, with hyperbole (the richness of the sounds makes it seem as though as many as a thousand instruments are being played) and a nice portmanteau word which borders on onomatopoeia (‘twangling’ combines the sounds, and meanings, of both ‘twanging’ and ‘tingling’, conveying the vibrations of the sound waves across the island).

That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.

In his ‘grammar of poetic myth’, The White Goddess, Robert Graves observed that Caliban’s speech here combines an ‘illogical sequence of tenses’ which ‘creates a perfect suspension of time’. We move from the subjunctive (‘if I then had wak’d’) to the future (‘Will make’) to the past (‘methought’) to the subjunctive (‘would open’) to the past (‘I wak’d … I cried’). Such shuttling between different tenses and moods, from subjunctive to indicative and back again, reflects the dreamy and bewitching influence the music has upon Caliban’s own mood.

Caliban’s ‘isle is full of noises’ speech comes in Act 3 Scene 2 of The Tempest. Caliban has just pledged his service to Stephano, who plans to murder Prospero and take Miranda for his wife, so that the two of them can rule over the island as King and Queen. Stephano is rather drunk. Caliban advises him to burn all of Prospero’s books, for without them Prospero is bereft of his powers.

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.

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.

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most enchanting and enchanted plays: a fantasy or ‘romance’ featuring a magician, the ‘monstrous’ offspring of a wicked witch, fairies, a lavish masque, drunken conspirators, young lovers, and much else. Caliban’s ‘The Isle is Full of Noises’ speech captures the hypnotic enchantment of the island in language that is distinctive and memorable. It is also significant that Shakespeare gives a ‘monster’ like Caliban (to use Stephano’s words about the hapless native) such beautiful words, humanising him further.

We have analysed The Tempest in more detail here.

One Comment

  1. Over the years, I have come more and more to sympathize with Caliban, as well as the Creature in Frankenstein and Beowolf.

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