Caliban’s Deformity

Caliban’s Deformity

  Alon.  This is a strange thing as e’er I look’d on.
  Pros.  He is as disproportion’d in his manners
As in his shape.

The Tempest, 5.1.290-92

The dramatis personae of The Tempest casts Caliban as “a savage and deformed slave.” Interestingly, Shakespeare’s three deformed characters – Richard, Thersites, and Caliban – all serve a similar dramatic function: each is an irreverent clown and audience favorite who ends up trashed at the end of the play by some hero: the Earl of Richmond slaughters Richard III, Hector runs Thersites off the stage, and Prospero leaves Caliban alone on his island. But it is even more remarkable that Shakespeare extended his system for handling physical deformity to other kinds of stigma: he used the same dramatic strategy to represent characters with physical deformities, racial differences, bastard births, and mental deficiencies. In other words, Richard, Thersites, and Caliban perform the same dramatic function as Shylock, Edmund, and Bottom. If so, then Shakespeare was not representing deformity nor minority nor bastardy nor idiocy but stigma, discredited difference from cultural norms. And Caliban is Shakespeare’s final, and in some ways his fullest, stigmatized character: he is certainly physically deformed, potentially racially different, arguably mentally challenged, and allegedly a bastard child of the devil.

More than any of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, however, The Tempest dramatizes the idea that stigma is interpretation, and that it is bad interpretation. Caliban is Shakespeare’s most explicit dramatization of the notion that the abnormal body bears no meaning in and of itself, that abnormality acquires meaning through anxious and often hostile social interactions, and that the abnormal body sometimes cannot bear the weight of the stigma saddled upon it, so that body is exaggerated and embellished, turning men into monsters.

Throughout The Tempest, Shakespeare litters Caliban with language drawn from the demonic incubi of Renaissance witchcraft tracts and the preposterous prodigies of the Protestant Reformation, but conceptually the character comes from a different discourse. While writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was reading John Florio’s translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essayes: the play famously quotes from the essay “On the Cannibals,” which is the single most important source for The Tempest insofar as scholars know of no source for the main action. Montaigne’s text marks the apex of a skeptical crisis in Renaissance Europe by bringing the noisome body to philosophical import: we humans can know nothing for certain, Montaigne said, except how it feels to inhabit a body that does not behave as it ought to. In this philosophy, the humiliation of having an unimpressive body is the sole universal experience of humankind, though we tend to overlook our common creatural existence and demonize each other as soon as we catch sight of the slightest physical difference. Reminding us that we are animals caged in unimpressive bodies, Shakespeare made Caliban base, dirty, even deformed, but not – as Prospero would have it – demonic: like Montaigne, Shakespeare asks us to distinguish between animalistic and inhuman. Shakespeare also staged Montaigne’s philosophy when Stefano and Trinculo first to come upon Caliban: all three act with equal vice, but the “civilized” Italians mistakenly see the “savage” islander as biologically inferior, sloppily drawing from the discourse of monstrosity to apprehend the unfamiliar man. For Montaigne and Shakespeare alike, culture promotes an artificial picture of human being, each society its own image of normal society, disparaging difference as deviance, because the human mind constantly misconstrues alterity, which Shakespeare satirized in The Tempest by having the Italians call Caliban “devil” or “monster” even though his behavior closely mirrors their own. Constantly construed as demonic or monstrous, yet consummately human, Caliban’s body becomes a sign of the other from one angle and of the self from another, as the stigmatic’s body always is.

The ambivalence inherent in the construction and experience of stigma creates an uneasy, unanchored social situation for both the stigmatized and the stigmatizer, as well as – crucially – for those who witness the scene of stigma. Indeed, like Shakespeare’s Italian characters, his audiences and critics constantly misconceive Caliban as a devil, a monster, a humanoid, or a racial other. Hardly anyone thinks of Caliban as “just” physically deformed, effectively reproducing what Shakespeare was satirizing in The Tempest: without careful evaluation of evidence, difference is exaggerated to make what is difficult to interpret into something radically strange, even unnatural and inhuman. Thus Shakespeare concluded his studies of stigma with a conjecture that has been born out in modernity: after the skeptical crisis of the late sixteenth century, the new scrutiny of human understanding creates a new frame for the aberrant body as an epistemological problem. Despite the tendency to treat it as a radical departure from the natural order of things, physical deformity is entirely natural, as long as the world is approached phenomenologically rather than rationally. The notion of deformity is only useful to the tidy pictures of a beautiful universal order invented by reason drenched in desire. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” Prospero concludes, pointing to Caliban. Provocatively, to own the deformed Caliban is to own up to the deformity all humans exhibit when set beside the beautified images of ourselves we construct.


Physical Deformity in the Renaissance
Physical Deformity in the Jacobean Age
Physical Deformity on the Jacobean Stage
Physical Deformity in Shakespeare
Cannibals in the Renaissance
Montaigne on the Cannibals
Montaigne on Physiognomy
Monstrosity in Shakespeare
Savages in Shakespeare 


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