The Treatment of Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest

Throughout The Tempest Prospero interacts with two characters that are directly under his control: Ariel and Caliban. The Tempest was written during the time of colonialism and it is easy to see when looking at the interactions between Prospero and Ariel (a spirit), and Prospero and Caliban (a savage). The differences between the ways Prospero treats these two characters really showcases the ideas and attitudes surrounding Europe during colonialism.

Paul Brown looks at the relationship between Caliban and Prospero and points out that their relationship and Caliban’s attitude are a true representation of how Europeans saw the places they were colonizing. “The narrative of 1.2 legitimizes this exercise of power by representing Caliban’s resistance to colonization as the obdurate and irresponsible refusal of a simple educative project” (283). Here Brown talks about how Caliban is written in such a way that he seems more like a kid that has no desire to learn. He seems ungrateful, which, to people during Shakespeare’s time, would have been the way it seemed to all of the “civilized” people of England.

Prospero: Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself

Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!

Caliban: As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed

With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen

Drop on you both! A southwest blow on ye

And blister you all o’er!

Prospero: For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps,

Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins

Shall forth forth at vast of night that they may work… (1. 2. 323-330)

In the first sentence that Prospero says to Caliban he calls him “got by the devil himself”, this is exactly how European colonizers thought of the Native Americans. They were savages, and because they were not civilized like them, and had no knowledge of god, they were obviously of the devil.

It seemed that, though Prospero technically had two slaves, one of them was treated much better than the other. As Brown says “…for Ariel he is a rescuer and taskmaster; for Caliban he is a colonizer whose refused offer of civilization forces him to strict discipline…” (281). Ariel is a spirit, who, if they were to have a nationality, would probably be from one of the “civilized” nations. Ariel is treated as more of an indentured servant who has been educated and is civilized. Prospero treats Ariel relatively well, he tells them what to do, but he treats Ariel more like a human than the way he treats Caliban. Caliban, Prospero sees as an uncivilized savage because he is non-white, and from a place that is not in Europe.

Because Ariel is written as more of a white, civilized character, they are treated much better by Prospero than Caliban, who is written as a non-white, non-civilized character.