Caliban in The Tempest is a complex character. The idea perhaps first struck Shakespeare as he heard the queer tales of shipwrecks and sailors stranded in enchanted islands and confronted with fantastic beings, neither fish nor man. The fantastic yet wonderful conception of Caliban owes much to these current stories- Caliban in fact is conceived as the symbol of gross earthly things and passions, the half-brute, half-man. He is also contrasted with the ethereal spirit of air, Ariel. Wilson Knight considers Caliban an ugly creature growing out of the imagery of stagnant pools and earthly wood-land.
At the opening of the play, Caliban is found to be twenty-five, born on the island of a union between the foul witch Sycorax and the very devil himself. Caliban’s parentage thus shows inborn monstrosity, brutality, ugliness, deformity, and a natal connexion with black magic. According to Prospero, he is a foul and unnatural monster. Reference to such wild beings are available in Horace and Virgil but in Shakespeare, the treatment is a bit different in that Shakespeare was trying to find out an intermediate link between brute and man. That is why Caliban is more complex than Ariel to understand-he is the servant monster, plain fish, tortoise, legged like a man and his fins like arms with very ancient and fish-like smell. While Wilson asserts that these appellations confirm Caliban as a primitive sea monster, Mortor Luce comes more to the point when he comments that one-half of the suggestions about the forms, features, and endowments of Caliban cancels the other half. The resulting indistinctness, however, is not confusion worse confounded but the real staple for the symbolist art, which conveys more than it can clearly indicate.
Caliban is a gross, earthly brutal savage. He thinks of himself as the rightful owner of the island wherein Prospero is just an intruder whom he cannot tolerate. He is treacherous by nature and tries to violate Miranda. He learns human language from Prospero only to curse his master. He wants a change of master at the very sight of the drunken sailors, Stephano and Trinculo with whom he conspires to murder Prospero. His intrigue failing, he condemns himself as a thrice-double ass who took the drunkard for a God.
Caliban again has the imagination of an artist, he has the ear for music and he feels that the “isle is full of many noises, sounds and sweet airs that delight and hurt not”, to quote his own words. In his very earthiness, he is a foil to Ariel and he is endowed with a soul that Ariel has not. The real secret of his character lies in his sensuality, his physical deformity symbolizing his mental abnormality. This thing of darkness, Caliban, has a remarkable personality that singularly lacks intellectual judgment. He converses in half-picture, half music and thus creates a poetry that is more musical than cerebral. All these indicate that this half brute, this thing of darkness endowed with a soul and a passion for poetry and music, however sensual, is not without the chance of redemption in the hands of his creator, Shakespeare who ultimately feels that it would be too offensive to look at him in all his deformity. He is after all the natural man ridden with lust and lethargy, foul cursing, and conspiracy. He is again superior to many corrupt civilized beings like Stephano, Antonio, or Sebastian. He has a sense of beauty and music and poetry comes naturally to his sensuous nature. Shakespeare who originally conceived him as a detestable deformed monstrosity, a mere converse of Ariel, ultimately decides to save the soul of this half-formed creature as he falls in love with his own creation out of his known and native kindness. A few Shakespearean touches bring about this grace and we find at the end of the play Caliban sincerely praying for Prospero’s forgiveness. He wins it and wins also our sympathy despite all his bestiality which is far outweighed by the other qualities he is endowed with. The thing of darkness finally sees the light of grace.