The Tempest: Alternation of Human Empathy by Change

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Empathy is a key characteristic that even human needs to have. It not only provides the individual with the tools needed to understand one another, but adds compassion and pity to one’s characteristics. In The Tempest, written by William Shakespeare, the idea of ecocriticism and Caliban’s perspective on the land, shapes the ways in which Caliban communicates and interacts with Prospero. Caliban’s empathy for the island in The Tempest is the prime motivation that helps him merge his views and beliefs with the natural world. However, when in the face of Prospero’s hostile oppression, language, and knowledge, Caliban is forced to accept a new European way of living, essentially tearing down his existing empathetic relationship with the natural world. It soon becomes evident that Caliban’s flaws are simply the repercussion of his unfair treatment under the tyrannical control of Prospero. When Caliban is presented with the pressure to change his identity, the act inevitably produces a conflict, followed by retaliation against what Caliban thinks to be just.

The physical environment plays a fundamental part in shaping the individual’s identity. The idea of ecocriticism explores the relationship that mankind has to the natural world. Shakespeare creates the character of Caliban, a half-human, half-monster, who is native to the island that Prospero inhabits. His connection to the island is made clear in many cases when he refers to the island as his own. By stating that ‘this island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother’, Caliban shows his rightful ownership and his inherent connection he possesses to the land. It is in Caliban’s belief that he is responsible for maintaining and occupying his homeland in a way that Sycorax, his mother, would have wanted. Caliban not only has a clear view of who should own it, but has extensive knowledge of the island’s beauty, capabilities, and intricacy. When speaking with Stefano and Trinculo about the idea to overthrow Prospero, Caliban points out all the aspects of the island that appeal to him which he uses for leverage to get his way. He says: ‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices that, if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.” Caliban explicitly comments on his opinion of the island and what is able to do for him, other than provide materialist resources. When Caliban dreams of the island, he is met with ‘invigorating music that delights his ears’ causing him to want to continue to sleep in order to escape his harsh reality with Prospero. Caliban describes how his dreams are much more pleasant when thinking of the island and how it once was. Even when he is compelled to awaken from his fantasy, he desires to return to his dream where he is able to disconnect the life he lives under Prospero, from his image of the island in his head. This position that Caliban holds displays his reliance and connection he possesses to the island, and the want and yearning to protect it. Unfortunately for Caliban, Prospero threatens the composition and the ways things work between Caliban and the island by introducing new language and knowledge.

Language comes in infinite variations. The ability and want to communicate with other beings is instinctively inside of everything. What makes up one’s identity can be heavily be influenced from language. With the introduction of new language, Caliban is forced into a position of uncertainty. As Prospero teaches Caliban how to speak English, he not only forces his culture upon Caliban, but also destroys Caliban’s heritage at the same time. Prospero gets to define what is what, and all Caliban can do is obey because his sheltered life has never seen anything different. During the first act of the play, Caliban delivers a powerful insight into his character when he says: ‘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!” Caliban’s outburst is not only a declaration of his feelings but also an act of linguistic rebellion. He uses the power that Prospero taught him to curse, and therefore revolt against Prospero’s tyranny. Even though utilizing and communicating in this form of language is unnatural for him, Caliban is put in a position where he must use English because otherwise, he is unable to express what he wants to say. Language is mainly used to clarify ideas and guide each other through one’s thoughts and understanding, but for Caliban, it only brings Prospero’s tyrannical control into sharper focus. Prospero is forcing Caliban to essentially go against the island and his natural ways, simply because Prospero’s views don’t align with Caliban’s. Another instance of this is when Prospero teaches Caliban of this new English language, Caliban is amazed by what he thinks he didn’t know. For example, Prospero tells Caliban what the names of the sun and the moon are. Although Caliban already knows technically what the sun and the moon are, the unawareness of their English names causes Caliban to rethink his view on the natural world. He proceeds to embrace and ‘love’ Prospero because the illusion of new information has clouded his vision of individuality. It is in not only Caliban’s inherent nature, but humanity as a whole to hold higher value to those that have a greater knowledge of the world. This is how Prospero manipulates Caliban into reducing his perspective on the land and ultimately setting him on the path of subordination.

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Another fundamental distinction between Caliban and Prospero is how much they know. Prospero is an educated aristocrat; however, upon arrival to the island, he is initially at a disadvantage due to his inexperience and unfamiliarity with the land. Caliban, a native of the island, aids Prospero by introducing him to the array of riches the island has to offer and is essentially responsible for Prospero’s survival. Despite Caliban’s help, Prospero enslaves Caliban to a mere servant. As Prospero’s servant, Caliban is granted a ‘proper education’ of the European ideologies. He believes that Caliban should be thankful for giving him this gift, but all Caliban feels is diminished. Like stated before, when Prospero enlightens Caliban with the names of the sun and the moon, Caliban is lead to believe that what he once knew was wrong. He neglects respect for himself and for his own knowledge. Although the sun and the moon exist as real, tangent facts, and no matter how you see that object, it’s still the same object, the act of introducing a new form of knowledge intertwined with what that Caliban already knows, which effectively alters Caliban’s reality. Another case of this manipulation is when Prospero introduces the concept of putting berries in water. Yet again Caliban is mystified of this new idea, however in actuality; no form of unknown knowledge is brought forward. This can be seen as another form of magic that Prospero has control over as he is able to destabilize the truth and change Caliban’s perspective of the natural world. Not only does Prospero control Caliban when he is present, he also has god-like knowledge of the island at all times. Caliban is very aware of the fact that Prospero deploys magical spirits to spy on him wherever he shall go. In this case, Caliban is truly unable to express himself because he realizes that Prospero will torture him. Even if he were to express himself, the only language he knows is not his own methods; essentially, he is trapped in his own home.

As I stated before, the reader sees how Prospero is the superior creature in this situation. Even taking into account that Prospero has committed these remorseless acts of hierarchy and oppression, in the end, he receives no punishment or instances of tragedy. However, the fact that Caliban attempts to remedy the injustices done to him by plotting Prospero’s assassination and attempting to molest Prospero’s daughter Miranda, shows the underlying resilience of his character. Caliban feels the need to take revenge on Prosper for seizing the island from him and for stripping him of his natural relationship to the land. One way he does this is by targeting Prospero’s obsession with his daughter’s chastity. One may make the connection that virginity is connoted to the pure and natural realm. This can be interpreted as not only Caliban making an effort to offend Prospero, but taking away some aspect of beauty Prospero’s own life. Also, the reader can consider other motives like how Caliban mentions that if ‘Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else this isle with Calibans’ in an act to regain control and occupy the majority of this island in order to take back what was once his.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare alludes to an overarching truth; that man is merely an indispensable aspect nature, relying on nature, while nature relies on man. By specifically looking at Caliban’s pre-existing relationship for the natural world and the interactions with the new language and knowledge, the idea of how empathy is altered by change becomes more tangible as the play progresses. On multiple occasions, Caliban is forced to abandon some of his beliefs and values in order to coexist in his homeland. In this case, the reader also notices that the further Caliban’s reality is shifted; the less and less empathic he is towards Prospero. When he is not allowed to have empathy for the island and do his natural things, it causes an outbreak of reconciliation and thoughts of revenge. Caliban is not merely a slave, but also a natural leader to the island. He is connected to the island’s nature through his culture and his birthright, however, when that is put jeopardy, he must adapt in order to continue his overall wellbeing.

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