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“This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest

In the final act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the sorcerer Prospero who is also the usurped (but now restored) Duke of Milan, works to settle his affairs before he returns to Milan. He and his daughter Miranda have lived on a mysterious and largely uninhabited island for the past twelve years after being put out to sea by his enemies on a dilapidated boat in which he and Miranda were expected to die. [1]
Having used his magic to arrange Miranda’s engagement to Prince Ferdinand, Prospero has reconciled with Ferdinand’s father, King Alonso of Naples, who has repented for his role in Prospero’s usurpation and has resigned Prospero’s dukedom back to him (5.1.118-19). [2] But amid his preparations for his and the others’ return to Italy, Prospero has the remaining loose end of dealing with Caliban, Prospero’s “savage and deformed Slave,” [3]who, along with Alonso’s servants Stephano and Trinculo, had earlier that day attempted to murder Prospero. [4] When Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo appear before Prospero and the others, Prospero speaks to Alonso these memorable words regarding Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.274-75).
Prospero’s words are remarkable because they, in the words of Anthony Esolen, demonstrate Prospero’s recognition of his “personal and even paternal responsibility” toward Caliban, [5] whom Prospero enslaved some time earlier because, Prospero says, Caliban “didst seek to violate / The honour of my child [Miranda]” (1.2.347-48). Although scholars are divided regarding  whether Caliban’s advances toward Miranda constitutes actual attempted rape or whether they were “merely clumsy courtship,” [6] we do well in any event to consider if Prospero’s subsequent treatment of Caliban was excessively harsh and if his decisions both before and after Caliban’s alleged violation were in fact the prime factors in developing Caliban’s hateful bitterness. 
When Prospero and Miranda first arrived at the island, Caliban, then likely twelve years old, welcomed them enthusiastically, responding with “lov[e]” to Prospero’s (and presumably Miranda’s) “strok[ing]” and “mak[ing] much of” the hirsute Caliban and “show[ing]” them “all the qualities o’ th’ isle” (see 1.2.332-38). We should recognize that at this point in his life, Caliban is an orphan and the lone human inhabitant of the island; his mother, the witch Sycorax, had already died, and Caliban has never had contact with his biological father. We learn that Prospero, prior to enslaving him, gave Caliban “Water with berries in’t” (1.2.333-34), taught Caliban lessons related to nature and theology (see 334-36), and “lodg’d” Caliban in Prospero’s “own cell” (345-46). Indeed, Prospero acted as “a good teacher and a sort of loving surrogate father” to Caliban, “who must have yearned for parental affection and guidance” and who “loved Prospero back.” [7] We also learn that Miranda taught Caliban how to speak their language (see 1.2.353-58). But amid all of this apparently happy community between the three characters, did Prospero demonstrate irresponsibility by not recognizing Caliban’s humanity? [8] Indeed, although Caliban’s atypical appearance elicits confusion on the part of Alonso’s entourage regarding what species of being he is (see 2.2.18-44, 69-75; 5.1.265-66), Prospero seems in retrospect naïve to have had Caliban share a bedroom with himself and the beautiful Miranda and to allow her to spend so much time with Caliban teaching him language. Caliban’s obvious success in learning human speech [9] should have eradicated in Prospero any lingering doubts regarding his humanity and have suggested to him the likelihood of Caliban becoming infatuated with Miranda as she physically developed. 
But if Prospero was previously lax in his paternal responsibility to set proper physical boundaries between Caliban and Miranda, after the alleged assault, he becomes severe indeed, imprisoning Caliban in a “hard rock” (1.2.343) except when he temporarily releases him to perform hard labor and such “offices” that “profit” Prospero and Miranda (see 1.2.311-13). Perhaps even more damaging is the language that Prospero uses to dehumanize Caliban, calling him in their first encounter in the play “earth,” “tortoise,” “Filth,” and, most strikingly, a “poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam” (1.2.314, 316, 345, and 319-20). This final insult is particularly significant because Prospero uses it to justify his treatment of Caliban and absolve himself of responsibility. We see this when Prospero’s spirit servant Ariel reminds him of Caliban’s active plot to assassinate him. Speaking of Caliban, Prospero exclaims, “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, / Humanely taken, are all lost, quite lost” (4.1.188-90). If Prospero can convince himself—despite having no specific evidence—that Caliban is the son of the devil and thus a devil himself, then indeed, Prospero bears no blame for Caliban’s lack of moral development; rather, he can congratulate himself on his “Humanely taken” efforts that were doomed to fail for no fault of his own.  
But for all of his previous self-exoneration, Prospero, convicted by Ariel of his need to show mercy on his enemies [10] and softened by Miranda’s anticipated marriage to Ferdinand and Alonso’s repentant restoration of Prospero’s dukedom, does in his final exchange with Caliban admit responsibility and demonstrate mercy, offering Caliban his “pardon” for attempted murder if Caliban and his cronies merely clean Prospero’s cell (see 5.1.291-93). Caliban’s response is memorable, agreeing to Prospero’s terms and telling him that he “will be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (294-95). Remarkably, Prospero, having renounced his ethically and spiritually problematic sorcery (5.1.50-57) and having released Ariel, the prime source of his power on the island (5.1.316-18), concludes the play by imitating the once-despised Caliban by seeking for grace, [11] asking the audience for prayer to elicit divine mercy so that Prospero himself might know forgiveness (Epilogue, lines 9-20). Indeed, Prospero’s recognition of his own shortcomings and responsibility in the face of his despised but once-loved antagonist affects the spiritual liberty of both characters as they each renounce vengeance and seek for grace and forgiveness.  
[1] Recalling their arrival, Prospero tells Miranda that they arrived on the island “By Providence divine” (1.2.159). This and all other references to The Tempest are from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 1916), edited by William James Craig and available at the Online Library of Liberty.[2] By contrast, Prospero’s brother Antonio, who orchestrated Prospero’s usurpation and has reigned as Duke of Milan for the past twelve years, never apologizes for his wrongs against Prospero. Prospero’s relationship with Antonio is beyond the scope of this brief essay.

[3] This description is taken from The Tempest’s character list, likely written by Shakespeare himself.

[4] Alonso and his entourage arrived at Prospero’s island through Prospero’s direction when he commanded his spirit servant Ariel to create a tempest when Alonso’s ship was sailing near the island.

[5] Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), p. 137.

[6] Tom MacFaul, Shakespeare and the Natural World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 186. For a discussion of this controversy, see Jessica Slights, “Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare’s Miranda,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 41, no. 2 (2001): 357–79, at 371– 76.

[7] Hiewon Shin, “Single Parenting, Homeschooling: Prospero, Caliban, Miranda,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 48, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 373–93, at 373 and 374.

[8] I address at length the matter of Caliban’s humanity in David V. Urban, “Fully Human, Created in God’s Image: Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” Christianity and Literature 69, no. 3 (September 2020): 378-98.

[9] Although neither Prospero nor Miranda discusses this possibility, it seems obvious that Caliban already knew human speech before they arrived on the island, with Miranda’s mistaking Caliban’s speaking in the language he learned from his late Algerian mother for his “gabbl[ing] like / A thing most brutish” (1.2.356-57).

[10] See Ariel and Prospero’s exchange in 5.1.1-32.  I discuss this matter with some detail in “Reason and Grace,” article 2 in “The Conversation” from the July 2016 issue of Liberty Matters, “The Corrupting Influence of Power in Shakespeare’s Plays.”

[11] For fuller discussions of this matter, see David V. Urban, “Prospero, the Divine Shepherd, and Providence: Psalm 23 as a Rubric for Alonso’s Redemptive Progress, and the Providential Workings of Prospero’s Spiritual Restoration in Shakespeare’s The Tempest,”  Religions 10.8.448 (August 2019): 1-16, at 14; and Urban, “Fully Human, Created in God’s Image,” 389-90.