Man Vs. Nature: Caliban’s Role in The Tempest

Note: this paper is one in a series of papers written for one of my classes. Each paper is to examine the text from a specific critical perspective.... which is why this essay begins with an in-depth explanation of both structuralism and poststructuralism.

Poststructuralism is a critical approach to literature that attempts to show that no static meaning can be discovered in a text. Instead, poststructuralists show how meaning is something that evolves and changes as word use, meaning, and social reconstruction or understanding of the world shifts over a period of time. In this way, poststructuralists show that there is really no meaning that can be discovered in a text that is universal enough to conquer the passage of time: instead there is a knowledge that can help us to better understand both literature and the world around us. However, in order to come to a better understanding of the specific claims of poststructuralism, it is necessary to first get a solid grasp on structuralism, a previous approach to literature.

Based on the study of semiology, structuralism attempts to show that meaning can be found in the interplay of signs within opposing binary structures (good vs. evil, man vs. nature and other opposing forces which are necessary for structures to exist). Specifically, structuralists claim that any sign is composed of two parts -- the signifier and the signified. A signifier is a word or phrase that calls to mind a specific thing: the signified. For example, the word heart is the signifier which means “♥” A further point of importance is that signifiers gain meaning through difference. That is to say, the only reason that we know that a word means something is because it is not a different word. For example, heart means “♥,” only because it is not the word diamond (♦) or the word club (♣). Structuralists hold that meaning can be found at the point within literary structure where, after a chain of signifier equals signifier events, a signifier eventually equals a signified (historically: God, truth, self). In this way, a study of life or of literature will eventually lead to some ultimate truth or idea whose vastness cannot be encompassed by mere words.

A reaction to the structuralist movement, poststructuralism brings new focus to these established ideas in literary analysis. Instead of the “signifier equals a signified” relationship highlighted by structuralists, poststructuralists have identified this relationship as a group of signifiers:
“Poststructuralists have demonstrated that in the grand scheme of signification, all ‘signifieds’ are also signifiers, for each word exists in a complex web of language and has such a variety of denotations and connotations that no one meaning can be said to be final, stable, and invulnerable to reconsideration and substitution” (Bedford 300).
The main point where poststructuralists differ from structuralists, is that poststructuralists believe that once a signified has been named, the name itself becomes a signifier. If you label a great idea “God,” then “God” can no longer be the signified. “God” is now a signifier for something else.

Unfortunately, in order for meaningful communication to occur, things must be labeled, must be named, and must have identifiable characteristics that differ from some other named thing. Therefore, according to post structural thought, because a signifier equals a signifier, which indicates yet another signifier (and on into an eternity of possible other signifiers), all meaning is arbitrarily placed and determined by our need to center every structure on a known transcendental signified.

Even though meaning from this perspective is arbitrary, our understanding of the world is based on a series of signifiers and signifieds, which means that meaning must be placed somewhere, arbitrary or not. In literature, this means that we must understand two things before any search for further knowledge of a text can begin. First, any structure built around a binary pair will eventually attempt to ground itself out in an appeal to a fundamental given. Second, by definition such grounding out (though necessary for meaning to occur) is arbitrary or fictive (Gilcrest). In order to find literary meaning then, poststructuralists reveal aspects of a text that can neither be contained by the “structure” of the text, nor explained by detailed comparison of known binary pairs.

In order to find meaning then, poststructuralist critics must first identify binary pairs within a text, choose one, and then identify which half of the pair is privileged. One of the pair must be privileged in order for them to be oppositional. We know this because the other is downplayed in some way. For example, one type of literary structure is plot: a structure that requires that these oppositional forces exist. In addition, these binary pairs are easy to identify, because we are often biased in favor of some of the better-known binary halves.

As a basic example, in the “good vs. evil” binary pair we are biased in favor of “good” largely because we have spent most of our lives learning that “evil” is synonymous with “bad.” When we read a text with this binary pair then, we first apply our learned knowledge, and second our knowledge of textual events. At some point, however, realization hits that this cultural knowledge is not necessarily the same as the textual knowledge that we are acquiring. Because of this, it is important to know that sooner or later the identification of binary structures is a process that breaks down. Eventually critics find themselves at a point where structures based on these binary pairs can no longer contain the number of possible interpretations. This point is where poststructuralists emerge, stretching their wings, from the literary cocoon of structuralism.

William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is a play alive with binary structures that beg for interpretation. One such pair, which I am going to call “Man vs. Nature,” presents itself at the beginning of “The Tempest” and remains active for the length of the play. Indeed, it is this one binary pair that specifically establishes not only what “reality” is within the text, but whose realities are important. In historic terms, man has almost always been considered superior to nature, especially since the introduction of the scala natura, which places man under God, but before animals, plants and other elements of the natural world. Prospero then is a great example of this, because in addition to being a man, he is a King: a position that places him above all other men (except perhaps other kings). Prospero’s apparent manipulation of nature in Act One, Scene Two of “The Tempest” seems to draw attention to this attitude of superiority because it places him above and in control of nature.

In addition, Prospero’s actions and experiences within the play serve to establish his reality as the reality of the text, as well as the reality in which readers are most inclined to believe. This is possible largely because despite his role as king, Prospero is first and foremost a man who has fallen on misfortune, a position that readers can identify with. Because of the empathetic relationship that readers feel they have with Prospero, readers feel like they have been given something every time Prospero gives them a piece of knowledge which helps to move the plot of “The Tempest” along. However, the realities of “The Tempest” are somewhat misleading on a first reading. Even though Prospero’s position in the play is in some ways the easiest to understand, his role is actually that of a diversion. Readers sympathize with him for the loss of his kingdom, but even from Prospero’s own story telling we find that he wasn’t very good at ruling. In addition, although nearly every indication in “The Tempest” directs readers to believe that Prospero is a hugely magical person, it is clear that the only talent he is overly gifted with is the manipulation of other characters. Miranda believes that her father is responsible for causing the storm that destroys the ship of king Alonso, and she is correct. But rather than the direct intervention that Miranda suspects, it is Prospero’s control over the mystical being Ariel that allows him to create the storm:

Prospero: Hast thou, spirit performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?
Ariel: To every article. I boarded the King’s ship: now on the beak, Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, I flamed amazement: sometime I’ld divide And burn in many places (Tempest, I, ii, 194-199).

This excerpt indicates that it was not Prospero, but Ariel who actually created the storm, and that this creation was done at Prospero’s request. Ariel, as a spirit, has a stronger connection with nature than humanity. In addition, because this knowledge (though subtly represented in the play) somewhat lessens Prospero’s power to manipulate the audience, it shows that Prospero, perhaps, is not the character whom readers should focus on.

Reading “The Tempest” from Prospero’s perspective, it is easy to get caught up in an elementary school style argument of “he said/ she said.” Prospero’s justification for the manipulation of the other characters and events is based in a need for revenge against the people who stole his throne and exiled himself and his daughter. This is where nature again flares up as an active binary half. The creature Caliban, who is half man, and half sea witch, is despised by (and despises) Prospero. The main problem with reading “The Tempest” from Prospero’s point of view is that Caliban, who embodies aspects from both man and nature, is largely ignored.

However, because of his nature, in which the “Man vs. Nature” binary pair combines, Caliban is perhaps the most interesting character in the play, and is probably where readers’ attentions should focus if investigating this binary sequence. It is my suspicion that this does not happen with more frequency because it is Prospero’s reality that readers tend to be enamored with, and because readers have Prospero’s word that Caliban is not a creature of quality. In fact, Caliban’s reactions to Prospero seem to agree with Prospero’s ideas:

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 south-west wind blow on ye And blister you al o’er (I, ii 320-324)!

Caliban’s angry response to Prospero does not at first seem logical, until we find that much as Prospero’s throne was taken from him, Prospero took Caliban’s throne. In addition to this insult, Prospero then kept Caliban on as a slave.

In many ways, Prospero shares aspects of his life with Caliban: both are displaced Kings in their own ways, and both are trapped on an island. However, where Prospero ultimately gains freedom for himself and his daughter, Caliban is forced to serve as a slave whose story is largely forgotten when placed in close proximity to Prospero’s.

In conclusion, I would like to say that this by no means brings us to a solid interpretation of meaning in the text. There are still several unsolved subjects to cover in “The Tempest.” For example: if, as I have argued, Caliban is the point of interest in the play, why is it that his perhaps dangerous role in “The Tempest” is never taken to it’s logical conclusion? This play seems to suggest that because he does not, and in fact seems unable to repulse Prospero’s will at the end of the last act, nature is once again de-privileged. As for why that is the case . . . another question to be clarified by some other critic.

Works Cited:

Keesey, Donald, comp. Contexts for Criticism. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
McDonald, Russ. “Reading The Tempest.” Keesey 99-111.
Murfin, Ross. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford 1998.
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