An Examination of Nature Versus Nurture in The Tempest

In The Tempest, the civilized and the powerful rule over the uncivilized and the powerless. Recently, Frank Kermode has argued that because Prospero rules over Caliban, The Tempest shows the triumph of art over nature. He states that Prospero is the heroic symbol of civilization that triumphs over Caliban, the subhuman representation of nature. However, Kermode’s essay views civilization from the eyes of Prospero, or one of the powerful. We must also consider that Caliban seems to act as less than human because of how Prospero raised him. So, Caliban is not subhuman because of his nature, but rather because of Prospero, thus confusing the representations of the two characters. This is not a play of black and white, either/or, but a play with multiple complexities. This idea is explored by Paul Brown, though he primarily focuses on the behaviors of Caliban as “other.” A closer look at Prospero’s treatment towards Ariel lends a new perspective to this reading of the play. In direct contrast to Caliban, Ariel is cooperative with and obedient to Prospero; he helps Prospero take revenge against Alonso and company by keeping watch over each group. Because of this Prospero promises freedom. Caliban is never helpful to Prospero and is always very challenging, such as delaying tasks when Prospero tells him to or getting into fights with Prospero, and because of this Prospero treats Caliban as subhuman. Prospero’s better treatment of Ariel because of Ariel’s respect encourages Ariel to remain obedient. In The Tempest, Prospero’s treatment of Caliban and Ariel and their reactions shows that nurture wins against nature.

In “This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism, Brown argues that Prospero’s triumph over Caliban is part of a colonialist discourse that seeks to show a strange and barbaric “other” to assert the superiority of the colonizers (280). Brown discusses Caliban as the “other” to show the view of the powerless colonized people. By giving Caliban the label of “other,” Prospero also establishes a threat to his power. Yet, Brown also points out that as the play progresses, Prospero gives up a lot of his power; in fact, he relinquishes his magic, which is the source of his power (290). The colonialist discourse of The Tempest is convoluted, because at times it seems like Prospero wants all of the power in the world, and at others he wants to escape from the world of power. In the same way that Prospero gives up his power, he also relinquishes blame in Caliban’s attributes. Prospero holds power over Caliban, but he believes this power has not affected Caliban in any way.

Though time after time Prospero blames Caliban’s nature for his behaviors, the play shows that throughout Caliban’s upbringing, he was treated as a ferocious animal meant to be domesticated. Caliban was never shown love or care, and for this reason he is a bad person; he was not born evil, but made evil. However, the characters can never separate Caliban’s nature from his nurture. After Ariel tells Prospero of Caliban’s plans to kill his master, Prospero emphasizes his hatred of the slave:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature

Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains

Humanely take, all, all lost, quite lost!

And as with age his body uglier grows,

So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,

Even to roaring. (4.1.188-193)

Here, Prospero argues that Caliban’s nature overrules his nurture, but obviously Caliban’s upbringing was not the greatest. Considering Prospero taught him for most of his life, Caliban has been abused and put down continually. That sort of treatment for years on end does not do good things to a person’s character. Furthermore, Prospero tells Ariel of Caliban’s “humane” treatment, but The Tempest demonstrates that Prospero has not treated Caliban with any sort of respect or care. Prospero blames Caliban for his actions, when he should really be blaming himself.

Prospero’s muddled ideas of nature versus nature are shown at the end of the play when he converses with Alonso and crew about Stephano and Trinculo’s wrongdoings. Though it appears as if Prospero takes responsibility for Caliban’s actions through his upbringing, he is only labeling Caliban as his slave:

These three have robbed me, and this demidevil‒

For he’s a bastard one‒ had plotted with them

To take my life. Two of these fellows you

Must know and own. This thing of darkness I

Acknowledge mine. (5.1.272-276)

In this passage, Prospero once again conflates nature and nurture. He seems to accept responsibility, but by calling Caliban “demidevil,” he reveals his belief that Caliban could never have been saved from his nature. Furthermore, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” is Prospero accepting responsibility for Caliban’s actions as a ruler, not a caretaker. This is shown through asking about Trinculo and Stephano; he tells Antonio, the master of these two characters, to take responsibility for their actions, as he will do for Caliban. Considering that Antonio is the ruler of Trinculo and Stephano, we can see that Prospero is taking responsibility as a ruler, like he believes he should. If he took responsibility as a caretaker, then he would have taken the blame for raising Caliban as subhuman.

Prospero’s belief that “devils” can never overcome their nature contradicts his somewhat adequate treatment of Ariel. We know that Prospero does not view Ariel as a human, because throughout the play, Ariel is referred to as “spirit” by Prospero (1.2.215). This forces us to ask why Caliban is seen as a lost cause as opposed to Ariel, if Prospero views both of them as other.  Why is Ariel treated better than Caliban, if both of them are subhuman in Prospero’s eyes? If it was Prospero’s belief that nature rules over nurture, then he would treat them both the same. The reason why Prospero treats them differently is because Ariel gives him the respect he thinks he deserves, while Caliban is defiant.

Throughout the play, the dynamic between Ariel and Prospero and Prospero and Caliban greatly differs because of the deference Ariel gives Prospero. When we first meet Ariel, he reinforces his complete obedience towards Prospero, saying, “All hail, great master, grave sir, hail!/ I come to answer thy best pleasure” (1.2.189-190). The affirmation “I come to answer thy best pleasure” indicates to us that Ariel is willing to do whatever Prospero orders. Ariel also calls Prospero “my master” (2.1.293). Unlike Caliban, Ariel is willing to do anything Prospero tells him to do. He is devoted to helping Prospero get revenge and never argues with Prospero because of the promise of freedom. When Prospero threatens Ariel, Ariel does not fight back but instead acknowledges his perceived wrongdoings:

Prospero: If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak

And peg thee in his knotty entrails till

Thou hast howled away twelve winters.

Ariel: Pardon, master.

I will be correspondent to command

And do my spiriting gently.

Prospero: Do so, and after two days I will discharge thee.

Ariel: That’s my noble master!

What shall I do? Say what? What shall I do? (1.2.295-303)

Ariel is more than eager to help Prospero, even after threats of harm and pain. He even apologizes after the threats because of his supposed wrongdoings. His reactions to Prospero shows a devotion and awe for his master.

Caliban’s reactions to Prospero are completely different from Ariel’s. Caliban never seems easily controlled as he continually challenges Prospero’s rule. When we first meet Caliban, he insults Prospero with “a southwest blow on ye/ And blister you all o’er” (1.2.326-327). This lack of respect is seen throughout the play; for example, Caliban calls Prospero a “tyrant” (3.2.40). When Prospero threatens Caliban with pain after Caliban insults him, Caliban fights back in direct contrast to Ariel, telling of Prospero’s wrongdoings:

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,

Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me

Water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how

To name the bigger light, and how the less,

That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee

And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,

The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.

Curse be I that did so! All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!

For I am all the subjects you have,

Which first was mine own king; and her you sty on me

In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me

The rest o’ th’ island. (1.2.334-347)

Caliban is the complete opposite of Ariel in reacting to Prospero’s threats. Ariel takes the verbal abuse, even admitting to perceived wrongdoings, but Caliban challenges the threats by reminding Prospero of his crimes against Caliban. Instead of accepting the abuse, Caliban fights against it, telling Prospero of his own evil. Caliban does not easily back down from his ruler, even with threat of torture. Caliban behaves terribly towards Prospero because of his cruel upbringing.

In the same breath, Prospero calls Caliban a “tortoise” and refers to Ariel as a “fine apparition” and “quaint” (1.2.319; 1.2.320). Though he threatens both Ariel and Caliban, Prospero really only follows through on his threats with Caliban. When Caliban is carrying back wood for Prospero, he describes the ways in which Prospero tortures him in order to ensure obedience:

… But

for every trifle are they set upon me,

Sometimes like apes, that mow and chatter at me

And after bit me; then like hedgehogs, which

Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount

Their pricks at my footfall. Sometimes am I

All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues

Do hiss me into madness. (2.2.7-14).

This scene is a confirmation of Prospero’s torture, so it is no wonder why Caliban is so nasty. Prospero has taught Caliban all he knows and raised his for his entire life. Prospero has treated Caliban as subhuman for his entire life, and so Caliban acts like he is less than human because that is the only thing he has ever known. After telling Miranda the story of how they came to the island, Prospero comments on Caliban’s unwillingness to comply with his rules: “Shake it off. Come on,/ We’ll visit Caliban, my slave, who never/ Yields us kind answer” (1.2.310-312). Caliban never “yields… kind answer” because he has never been shown kindness by Prospero.

Prospero’s treatment of Ariel, however, causes Ariel to always be at his beck and call. After Ariel confirms that he causes Alonso and company to go crazy, Prospero proceeds to ask Ariel to do yet another task:

Ariel: Before you can say ‘Come’ and ‘Go,’

And breathe twice, and cry ‘So, so,’

Each one tripping of his toe

Will be here with mop and mow.

Do you love me, master? No?

Prospero: Dearly, my delicate Ariel. Do not approach

Till thou dost hear me call. (4.1.44-49)

In this passage, we see both Ariel’s need to be loved by his master and Prospero’s better (if false) treatment of Ariel. Time after time, Prospero calls Ariel his “delicate Ariel” or “my brave spirit,” while he calls Caliban “hagseed.” Ariel is so devoted to Prospero because he knows his reward will be good treatment, as opposed to Caliban.

Prospero treats Caliban more harshly than Ariel because Ariel affords him the respect he thinks he deserves. Because Ariel is rewarded when he obeys with pet names or the absence of torture, he is encouraged to continue acting respectfully. Prospero’s maltreatment of Caliban causes him to be bad, showing that nurture wins against nature. Even though Prospero believes Caliban is bad because of his nature, it is Prospero’s nurture that most affects Caliban. This, in turn, shows us that the powerful try to blame the powerless for their actions, but the reason the powerless act out is because of the powerful’s awful treatment and creation of a society based on inequality. The powerless have to act out to earn the same opportunities afforded to the powerful. Those with power try to say these actions reflect poorly on those without. But really it just reflects poorly on the rulers. Take, for example, when people say that the marches for equality across the U.S. are violent and destructive. However, these marches occur to fight for equality; this equality materializes through the laws set in place by the rulers. In order to create a world of equality, the powerless need to fight back.

Works Cited

Brown, Robert. “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, 2nd ed., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.

Kermode, Frank. “From Shakespeare: The Final Plays.” The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, 2nd ed., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, 2nd ed., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.