Language yields infinite variation. Its ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, and desires with a system of sounds and rules for combining them is one of the greatest distinguishing traits of human consciousness. Amazingly, decades of research have indicated that no one language is less able than any other to describe the physical and abstract intricacies of life. The words of an Amazonian tribesman suit themselves as perfectly to reasoned argument and breathtaking poetry as those of a Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese speaker. Though languages as a whole are phenomena of vast and bewildering complexity, they never escape the grasp of the average individual. They may even become molded by a select few influential and talented speakers. William Shakespeare exemplifies this rare gift, standing as perhaps the most forceful individual shaper of modern spoken and written English.
Not surprisingly, the role language plays across the stage in his final work, The Tempest, reflects the same complexity and ambiguity that this human behavior plays across the stage of the world. Watching the infamous character of Caliban and his counterintuitive ability to speak comprehensibly even as a 'non-human' entity, audiences witness an image painted in strange and unsettling colors of the process of 'civilization' that gave Caliban his voice. Caliban's rough eloquence and the violent reactions it evokes in characters such as Prospero and Miranda reveal a sometimes-unwanted consequence of education—the student casts a mirror to the teacher, reflecting all the teacher has imparted, no matter how greatly she or he may wish to deny a familiar face hovering in the eyes of the 'other.'
The lesson behind the lesson
Though education is often spoken of as an effort expended toward the betterment of the student, it can hold other value for the teacher as a means toward his or her own exaltation. In their discussion of Caliban's education, Miranda and Prospero laud themselves in terms of the former, yet contiguously reveal the latter as stronger motive. Their self-centered views of Caliban's education suggest that they are ignorant of the power language imparts to communicate and unprepared for what a subjugated individual will do with the words they've given him.
Caliban first describes Prospero's lessons—"Thou strok'st me and made much of me, woulds't... teach me how / To name the bigger light and how the less" (1.2.336-38). 'Stroking and praising' Caliban, Prospero seemed to have treated him as a pet, an inferior being cared for by an 'owner.' Yet far from teaching Caliban only words such as "fetch" or "sit," Prospero introduced him to the language of astrology. The ability to consciously name and track the movements of the sun, planets, and stars is unique to humans, something elevated far beyond the station of a mere pet. Prospero's efforts at education carry with them an implication of civilization—that Caliban would become elevated to a higher order of existence by learning this human stranger's secrets.
But Prospero repeatedly shows himself to consider Caliban an animal whether he is in possession of language or not. Relating Caliban's state upon Prospero's arrival to the island in a monologue to Aerial, he declares Caliban was "a freckled whelp, hag-born—not honored with / A human shape" (1.2.284-85). Following Caliban's education, Prospero certainly thinks no better of him—"I have used thee, / Filth as thou art, with humane care" (1.2.348.49). In insulting terms, he levels Caliban to a state of semi-animal existence regardless of his ability to communicate. At the same time, he elevates himself with the comparative compliment of having treated Caliban 'humanely,' after the manner expected of a decent human being.
Prospero brags of his virtue as a teacher while simultaneously asserting his utter failure in the endeavor—"My pains, humanely taken, all lost, quite lost!" (4.1.190). He attributes this failure to a "nature / [On which] nurture can never stick," (4.1.188-89), but Caliban has clearly mastered the content of Prospero's lessons. His English, though vulgar, is no less fluid than any other character's in the play. His dialog carries no stigma of grammatical error, simplified pronunciation, or stunted vocabulary like that often assigned to 'native' characters of plays and novels written in the West. Prospero demands praise and respect for having introduced an 'inhuman' to one of the most important aspects of civilization—language with which to communicate. That Caliban has clearly grasped the implications of this lesson matters nothing to his teacher.
Miranda too played a role in Caliban's nurture. Even during her limited participation in the discussion of his education, she betrays the possibility that she is more concerned with the honor it did her to expend time on a 'savage' than what he has learned from the effort. She prefaces her condemnation saying, "I pitied thee" (1.2.356), laying out a context for her actions associated with a state of superiority. She does not 'suffer with' Caliban in compassion, nor does she 'understand his suffering' in empathy—she feels sorry for a creature inferior to her. Like Prospero, she elevates herself in education, stressing that she "took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour / One thing or other" (1.2.357-58) with no regard to what pains Caliban took to learn. She expresses little consideration for what language may have enabled Caliban beyond the realm of her own superior, condescending 'pity.'
Human words from an animal tongue
In light of Miranda, Prospero, and the other characters' repeated assertions that Caliban belongs to an inhuman realm of existence, it is strange that his behavior shows highly human intelligence. Miranda admits even as she condemns him that, “I endowed thy purposes / With words that made them known” (1.2.360-361). She did not supply him communicable thoughts or feelings. Instead, she allowed him an outlet to express an already-present internal world to those around him. The end of these lines arguably contradicts the beginning, where Miranda declares, “thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning” (1.2.357-358), as though Caliban's self were nonexistent until he could express it in the English language. The question is pertinent: upon what body of thoughts, feelings, and desires could she have endowed the gift of speech if they were unknown to Caliban before her lessons?
From observing Caliban's behavior, instead of the statements characters make about it, possession of a sophisticated self-awareness clearly emerges. He can present a clear argument, as occurs in his complaint to Prospero “For I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me / In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me / The rest o' th' island” (1.2.344-347). Folded into these lines lies evidence for the ability to make independent observations (Caliban knows the island to have been taken from him, regardless of Prospero's continual denials) and deductive reasoning (in becoming Prospero's servant, he has lost both the power and freedom that were his before the arrival of the wizard).
Caliban does not limit his desires to the necessities of an animal—quite to the contrary, he is little concerned with matters of food or shelter, rather focusing his thoughts upon the abstract needs of a conscious individual: human rights. Transferring his allegiance to Stephano, a person he perceives as capable of usurping Prospero and treating his slave with more dignity, Caliban gayly sings “Ca-Caliban / Has a new master. Get a new man! / Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom!” (3.1.176-178). Among reasons to celebrate, better conditions under Stephano's 'new regime' fall secondary to the enticing chance of regaining the freedom he understood to be his own before learning language and demands thereafter. Caliban's usage of his education confirms him to be an individual as capable of thought and feeling as the human beings who look down upon him.
The power of words
Importantly, Caliban understands the utility of the ability to communicate that he has been granted, both for himself and for those who oppress him. He reflects the accomplishments of Prospero and Miranda back upon them through his words, all the more strongly highlighting their malice in absence of means to act against them. He recognizes that his arguments run up against a wall of prejudice and contempt, giving his language little more agency to enact actual change to his situation than as a vent for his frustrations. “You taught me language, and my profit on 't / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (1.2.366-368). His railing words spill from his lips like spells, calling upon blights to strike his hated master. In fact, his curses bear more than cursory similarity to those thrown at him by Prospero in return, setting Caliban's “A southwest blow on ye / And blister you all o'er!” (1.2.326-327) against Prospero's “Thou shalt be pinched / As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging / Than bees that made 'em” (1.2.332-334).
The key to Caliban's despair lies in the slight change of grammar between the characters' two curses, from the subjunctive mood of 'blow,' expressing a situation desired but contrary to fact, to the strong future tense of “shalt be pinched.” In addition to language, Prospero has power afforded by his command of spirits, the only factor distinguishing his curses from Caliban's. The gift of language remains no benefit to Caliban without the means to turn words to actions, though—to Prospero's continual fury—he can call attention to uncomfortable truths.
Faced with a human mind lying behind an inhuman form that clearly expresses itself by means of education—education that Prospero intended to serve his own benefit—the wizard responds not with counterarguments, but blind denial. Unable to challenge Caliban's reasoning, he resorts instead to verbal and physical abuse with the blatant purpose of removing the power of speech that he once granted his slave. Though Caliban never says that which he clearly knows or believes to be untrue, Prospero's agent Ariel attempts to disrupt his complaints to Stephano with the mere repetition of “thou liest” (3.2.43). He offers no explanation, no alternative story to Caliban's own, only negation followed upon by physical abuse. When first coming to address Caliban, Prospero quips, “We'll visit Caliban, my slave, who never / Yields us kind answer” (1.2.311-12), but the strength of his accusation seems to whither when he fires the first volley at Caliban, without any provocation more than a delayed response: “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!” (1.2.322-323). What reason does Caliban have to yield kind answer to such a command?
The creature uses language to combat insult with insult, usurpation with usurpation, curse with powerless curse. Following his past attempt to rape her, Miranda and Prospero's almost hysterical anger with Caliban takes succor from the unseemly aspects of their behavior he reveals with the language they taught him, twisting their exaltation into a challenge that Caliban refuses to withdraw until physically and emotionally beaten into submission by the play's end.
Caliban's rage-wracked language, and the equally furious responses of Miranda and Prospero to his insinuations, put forth a vision of education that casts harsh light on the ways in which teacher and student see in one another a shared nature. Even as he lurches about the stage clothed in rags and smeared with make-up, the character of Caliban makes a hauntingly human plea for the dignity that speaking language with as much skill as any other character in the play should accord him. In curses and laments, he offers the unseemly reflection of Miranda and Prospero's elegant forms, damning their conduct with his own blighted state. Humanity shares with Miranda and Prospero an unfortunate habit of turning away when the mirror they have vainly crafted shows them a face twisted with hatred.