By Jean Balchin 23/01/2018


As you may know, I’m very interested in the intersection of science (or pseudo-science) and literature. My favourite play of ol’ William Shakespeare has to be The Tempestset on a wild and remote island. In a nutshell, the sorcerer Prospero, the rightful and usurped Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using illusion, enchanting spirits, and manipulation. Prospero conjures up a storm to cause his nasty, throne-stealing brother Antonio and the complicit King Alonso of Naples to believe they are shipwrecked and marooned on the island. Gradually, Antonio’s lowly nature is revealed, the King is redeemed, and Miranda falls in love with Alonso’s son Ferdinand.

The shipwreck in Act I, Scene 1, in a 1797 engraving by Benjamin Smith after a painting by George Romney. Wikimedia Commons.

However, what I find most interesting about this play is the comic character of Caliban, a “freckled monster” and the only human inhabitant of the island that is otherwise “not honour’d with a human shape” (Prospero, I.2.283). In some traditions he is depicted as a wild man, or a deformed man, or a beast man, or sometimes a mix of fish and man. What fascinates me most however, is the various depictions of Caliban during the Victorian era, from an oppressed proletariat, a downtrodden indigenous person, Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage’, to a Darwinian ‘missing link’ between humanity and the apes.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was the foundation of evolutionary biology. Darwin’s book presented a body of evidence to prove that populations evolved over the course of generations through a process called natural selection. His theory generated considerable controversy regarding the relationship between human beings and the animals who most resembled them. This controversy may be illustrated by the infamous debate between Darwin’s advocate Thomas Huxley and the antievolutionist Bishop Wilberforce at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford in 1860. This squabble culminated with the Bishop asking Huxley whether he was descended from a monkey on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side. One woman, privy to this debate, was so shocked that she fainted!

Darwin’s various treatises were couched in language comprehensible to the lay reader, and were widely disseminated throughout the general public. You can be pretty sure that the average, educated Victorian had at least a rudimentary understanding of the theory of evolution and its implications. Darwin’s theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (1871) augmented Caliban’s status as the ‘missing link’ between humans and apes.

Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons.

Caliban: The Missing Link? 

Daniel Wilson’s (1816-92) influential work Caliban: The Missing Link (1873) championed the idea of Caliban as an amphibious intermediate between brute animal and human being; “our predecessor and precursor in the inheritance of this world of humanity” (Wilson 1873, 17). However Wilson also contended that “the form of Caliban is, nevertheless, essentially human,” with “huge canine teeth and prognathous jaws…He is a novel anthropoid of a high type.” (Wilson 1873, 25). Wilson also propounded degenerationist ideas in his article, claiming that Caliban lacked “the moral instincts of man” but also the “degradation of savage humanity” (Wilson 1873, 28).

The book explicitly associates Caliban with the New World’s inhabitants. Wilson notes how Prospero found such a monstrous being as “traveller’s tales had already made familiar to all men as natives of such regions” (Wilson 1873, 74). Wilson thus anticipated the Indianization of Caliban in his discussion of Darwinian influences on The Tempest (Vaughan 2003, 110). Caliban, according to Wilson, is a:

“novel anthropoid”, who possesses “some spark of intelligence [which] has been enkindled, under the tutorship of one who has already mastered the secrets of nature” (Wilson 1873, 79).

Wilson thus posits a double-edged argument; Caliban requires tutoring and development – as argued by Imperialist theorists who defended European ‘civilising missions’. Yet, he is also more advanced than actual ‘underdeveloped’ peoples. Basically, he occupies a liminal position between a highly organised ape and rational humanity.

Robert Browning’s “Caliban upon Setebos”

Robert Browning’s (1812-1889) poem “Caliban upon Setebos” (1864) is riddled with allusions to Darwinian discourse. Like Wilson, Browning conceives of Caliban as a transitional figure between man and beast; one who lives in the margins of humanity, but nonetheless reveals essential human traits such as greed, creativity and self-deception. Browning references Darwin’s field work and findings in The Voyage of the Beagle (1845). For example, the “she-tortoises / Crawling to lay their eggs here” (11. 206-207) recall a passage in Darwin’s chapter on the Galapagos Archipelago, wherein

“the female, where the soil is sandy, deposits [the eggs] together and covers them up with sand.”

As with Wilson’s book, Browning’s poem engendered debate regarding the Victorian sense of ‘self’ as opposed to the ‘other’, a being embodying qualities of savagery, blackness and apishness. Both texts thus juxtapose scientific theory with the imaginative qualities of literature in order to heighten associations between the idea of the ‘missing link’ and racist conceptions of blackness as connoting a lack of evolutionary development. Caliban, as envisaged by Browning and Wilson, is a relic of the lower orders, regardless of whether such orders are construed as biological or social manifestations.

Frank Benson

Wilson’s claim that Shakespeare had anticipated the idea of a missing link in the Darwinian evolutionary chain influenced Frank Benson’s depiction of Caliban in his 1890s production of The Tempest (Vaughan 2003, 185). Benson’s disgruntled wife Constance noted that he spent hours in the zoo observing baboons and monkeys in order to appear realistically apish upon the stage. Benson’s costume was accurately described as “half-monkey, half-coconut”, as may be observed in Fig.1 (Vaughan 2003, 185).

J. Caswall Smith, Sir Frank Benson as Caliban in The Tempest.

Here, Benson resembles a hilariously apish creature, with long matted hair, brown face-paint and a real fish in his hand. In contrast to other contemporary theatrical representations of Caliban, Benson has created a hilariously pathetic, oppressed and animalistic creature. Given that the theatre was widely accessible to all societal classes, one may assume that the average, educated Victorian was familiar with Benson’s interpretation of Caliban.

Benson later admitted that he carried his athleticism as Caliban to extremes. Indeed, a review in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News complained of the difference between Shakespeare’s Caliban and Benson’s Caliban. This review described Shakespeare’s Caliban as being “a monster, but human”, the product of “superstition and ignorance, he is surly, brutal, cunning, servile, lustful and vindictively cruel.” In contrast, Benson’s Caliban was described as “comic and amusing”, a “kind of man-monkey performing various acrobatic feats, and passing through a series of grotesque antics” (Griffiths 1983, 167).

The British Empire

Thus, while Caliban may be perceived as an intermediary between apes and humans, he is not wholly brutish or degenerate. As evinced by Browning’s poem and reviews of Benson’s performance, Caliban has human feelings, and words to express them. His expressions of petulant malignity and resentful discontent echo the cries of oppressed Saxon serfs and Native Americans. Great Britain in the Victorian era was an empire on which the sun never set. Initially, the Victorians felt little need to justify their greedy and exploitative actions in the great scramble for new land; just as Prospero never considers himself a usurper on the island.

However over time, Victorians saw themselves as having a certain duty to civilise the ‘natives’, hence the introduction of Christian missionaries, the teaching of the occupying country’s language and the interference with local culture and dress. Certain Victorian intellectuals argued that these contemporary ‘savage’ societies closely resembled the condition of prehistoric humankind. Given that their current state was the result of delayed evolution, they justified the belief that ‘civilised’ European society was more evolved and thus superior. The Tempest embodies imperialist doctrines; the occupier Prospero is noble and upright, while Caliban is stubborn and belligerent, refusing to thank his master for all he has done. The average Victorian expected a newly ‘civilised’ native to be grateful and more subservient; not resentful and implacable like Caliban. No doubt they rejoiced when, at the end of the play, Caliban gratefully returned to his previous servitude.

The Wild Man

Caliban was also perceived by the average Victorian person as embodying the figure of the ‘wild man’; the manifestation of human universals such as life, death, human survival and threats to survival. The ‘wild man’ may be interpreted in two different and contradicting ways. In the first instance, if one considers nature a brutal world of hardship and deprivation, and society as preferable to the natural state, the ‘wild man’ is the antithesis of desirable humanity. He is a horrifying warning of what might happen should one reject society. Alternatively, if one considers nature glorious and liberating, and society as a rejection of natural perfection, then the ‘wild man’ represents the purest form of humanity.

Oroonoko kills Imoinda in a 1776 performance of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko. Oroonoko was considered a kind of “noble savage.” WIkimedia Commons.

As previously discussed, anxiety over Darwin’s idea of the ‘missing link’ was exacerbated by the former worldview, as evinced by Wilson’s article and Benson’s theatrical interpretation. However the latter attitude was championed by the philosopher Rousseau, with his idea of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau was the first to internalize the ‘wild man’ and suggest that he represented humanity’s authentic inner state, stripped of both evil and the refinements of civilisation. So, Caliban represents the ambiguous potentials of humanity; he is both a monster and a charmed dreamer, vindictive savage and trustful learner, cowardly slave and brave rebel.

A Noble Savage?

This idea of the “Noble Savage” was attacked by various anthropologists such as John Lubbock, who insisted in his article The Manners and Customs of Modern Savages (1865) that savages were neither ‘noble’ nor degraded from an original noble condition. According to Lubbock, so-called “savages” lack the fundamental characteristics of humanity; they are morally inferior, possess rudimentary conceptions of religion and are severely mentally impaired. (Note: I almost threw Lubbock’s book out the window, it was so problematic and racist).

Edward Tylor’s book Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilisation (1865) also equated contemporary savages with early humankind, employing evolutionary and monogenesist discourse (the theory of human origins which posits a common descent for all human races) to represent “savages” as bestial. The inherent racism of Victorian society resulted in black people – deemed ‘savage’- being equated with apes. Darwin’s theory of evolution was used to endorse the moral superiority of white humankind over black “savage”, even though Darwin himself was both a monogenesist and a supporter of the abolition of slavery.

Even More Racism

In an 1851 edition of the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Dr Samuel Cartwright explicitly affirmed the association of blackness and madness by specifying a list of fabricated psychopathologies which allegedly affected blacks alone. For example, Cartwright claimed that the illness “Drapetomania” caused slaves to “run away”. Thus the black’s rejection of slavery was deemed as symptomatic of insanity. The British anthropologist James Hunt reaffirmed these racist views by arguing that there were a number of significant analogies between apes and black humans. These analogies included the “disgusting odour, the uncleanliness, the making of grimaces whilst speaking, the clear shrill tone of the voice, and the apelike character”.

Although the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 forbade slavery throughout the British Empire, racism was deeply rooted in white bourgeois Victorian society. There existed a number of racist, rudimentary stereotypes of black people that were recycled and disseminated throughout Victorian-era media, dehumanizing black people further. Sambo; the comic slave, was one such stereotype. The image of Sambo originated in the southern states and was a product of large plantation agriculture where a high proportion of the slaves were unskilled and illiterate. Sir John Tenniel’s cartoon Scene from the American “Tempest.” Caliban (Sambo), published in Punch magazine on January 24, 1863 comprises a vivid example of the Sambo stereotype.

John Tenniel, Scene from the American “Tempest.” Caliban (Sambo). “You Beat Him ‘Nough, Massa! Berry Little Time, I’ll Beat Him Too.” January 24, 1863. Punch archives.

The image depicts a slave interacting with Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson in the words of Caliban. The depiction of the slave as Caliban is highly problematic and unsettling. Caliban’s long hair and jutting eyebrows recall the African gorilla; in general, his features are more apelike and bestial than most other eighteenth century engravings. The slave stands knock-kneed with an idiotic grin plastered all over his wide, shiny face. Shakespeare’s high cultured English is bastardized with the appropriation of the fake African minstrel accent and the expression of “massa”. He thus perfectly encapsulates Shakespeare’s depiction of Caliban as a “demi-devil”, “abhorred slave” and “savage” who rebels against his master because he is unintelligent and childlike. This conception of Caliban consolidates the image of a black slave, the regressed ‘wild man’, and the ‘missing link’.

And then the Irish!

Caliban was also employed to satirize and dehumanise the Irish proletariats, who were also colonized and exploited by the English throughout the centuries. The Punch cartoon The Irish ‘Tempest’ (March 19 1870), also drawn by Sir John Tenniel, succinctly captures the fraught English-Irish relationship of the Victorian era. This striking, appalling cartoon depicts the stereotypical Irishman – ‘Rory of the Hills’ – in the guise of Caliban. In keeping with the animalistic manner by which the English depicted the Irish in the nineteenth century, the Irishman’s face and body are crudely delineated. His unkempt facial hair and a jutting jaw call to mind a monstrous ape.

The Irish “Tempest.” Caliban (Rory of the Hills). “This island’s mine, by sycorax my mother, which thou tak’st from me.” – Shakespeare.” March 19 1870. Punch Archives.

His aggressive stance, with his sharp teeth, clenched fist and arsenal of weapons illustrate the violence that the English attributed to the Irish Fenians and other discontented groups. William Ewart Gladstone (a Tory MP) is Prospero in this analogy, clad in a wizard’s robe, with his magic staff of the Irish Land Bill. Gladstone stands tall and upright, the figure of English nobility, protecting the beautiful lady Hibernia, who represents Ireland herself. The chasm separating the landscape in the background represents the division between England and Ireland. This cartoon illustrates the conflict over the Irish Land Bill and the Irish Question in general: Should Ireland be let to govern herself, or should the English ‘save’ Ireland from her own people?

So what can we learn?

To conclude, analysing the varying interpretations and depictions of Caliban throughout the Victorian era reveals certain issues of evolution, race, class and politics pervading Victorian society. From Browning’s rather pathetic Caliban to the incredibly racist depictions of Caliban in Punch, the figure of Caliban acts as a barometer of the changing critical, social, and political conditions of Victorian society.

Image: Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban dancing on the island shore from The TempestJohann Heinrich Ramberg – Cornell University Library. Wikimedia Commons.