Caliban and the Rhetoric of Sincerity

Joshua R. Held


The character Caliban in William Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest (1611), an enslaved, demeaned, and misunderstood anthropoid, arguably inhabits the most complicated situation on a magical island in a complex plot, filled with all the romance machinery of natural disasters, political intrigue, and romantic attachments. As his situation grows increasingly intricate during the course of the play, as he encounters new human beings, new liquor, and new prospects for freedom, Caliban displays (and further develops) a skill in rhetoric that, initially revealed in violent curses, ultimately issues in an ambiguous resolution:

I’ll be wise hereafter,

And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass

Was I, to take this drunkard [the butler, Stephano] for a god,

And worship this dull fool [the jester, Trinculo]! (5.1.294-97)

Through the trials of action and rhetoric in the play, Caliban comes to an Aristotelian anagnorisis, or recognition, regarding his situation at the end of the play, respectively, vis-à-vis his former companions (“drunkard,” “fool”) and his future hopes to be given self-rule based on wisdom and grace.

The increasingly timely, sensitive, and sometimes imaginative rhetoric Caliban shows in the course of the play establishes a precedent for his inventive rhetoric here at the end of the play, as he aims to win favor with his master Prospero. This final speech adumbrates the Janus-faced orientation of his rhetoric, and whatever shroud of sincerity that it affords. In his rhetoric he produces a façade of subservience, as in his obsequious promises of a search for “grace,” and yet he apparently grasps selfishly toward liberation. Although with the one hand (or “face,” à la Janus) he indicates sincerity through his overt submission, with the other hand he uses this putative sincerity as a cover for his ulterior goal of freedom.

The problematic nature of the lines perhaps explains why Julie Taymor cuts them (“I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace”) in her 2010 film and why, much earlier, John Dryden and William Davenant cut the second line from their own alteration of The Tempest in 1667. In scholarly approaches to the play, likewise, the lines in question have generated widely divergent interpretations, which significantly influence the concluding tableau and the whole interpretation of the character of Caliban. That Caliban’s cryptic phrase highlights the term “grace” only complicates matters, for the term carries widespread resonance in the early modern religion, and in genteel manners.

On the one hand, Caliban in the word “grace” may reveal a manifest tone of sincerity, shifting from earlier rebellion to genuine repentance, a shift no less believable for its quickness. The very brevity of Caliban’s possible changes, rather than indicating hollowness, might instead reveal a deep but largely inexpressible sincerity. Indeed, the paradox between inner realities and outer appearances ultimately derives from the fact that sincerity can sometimes emerge clearly in the artificial space of the theater, the ancient Greek etymological context for the word “hypocrite.”

On the other hand, however, Caliban may propose his repentance only to escape immediate punishment, without any intention of permanent change. By changing his allegiances earlier in the play, he establishes a precedent of following the path of least resistance, which might yet cause him to reverse course at the slightest hint of advantage, using the cover of rhetorical declarations of sincerity. This interpretation is grounded in the enterprise of reading against the grain of a particular statement, a practice hardly new to The Tempest, because readers and viewers of the play have long distrusted Prospero’s statements regarding Caliban, such as the name “demi-devil” (5.1.272). Like Prospero’s rhetoric, Caliban’s final speech displays mixed motives, uses words with competing connotations.

The rhetorical skill that Caliban sharpens over the course of the play suggests the problems of assigning tone, motive, and behavior to this character here, at perhaps his most crucial lines, certainly his most important for his own future prospects. Yes, Caliban implies his own sincerity, and does so in several forms throughout the play, even claiming a non-superficial sincerity when he spews Prospero’s learning back at him (“I know how to curse”). Yet perhaps most pointedly in this and other moments of putative sincerity, Caliban celebrates it as an instrument, something he can control, in addition to an attitude that he knows also exercises a certain control over him.

Caliban could be rhetorically dexterous and yet ultimately unsuccessful in expressing himself because he bases his own performances of sincerity on the performances of the society around him. Through the use of his learned rhetoric and, more broadly, performances of sincerity, Caliban challenges the suggested meaning of the very concept. He is sincere, if by sincere we mean his rhetoric of sincerity, but such sincerity does not assure other characters, much less viewers or readers, of anything beyond appearances. Given Caliban’s history of evolving, mutable logic and rhetoric, audiences simply cannot know his final purposes.

Whatever Caliban’s place on the sincerity spectrum, he hardly matches the dissimulation displayed most brashly by other characters in the play, such as the traitors Antonio and Sebastian. Even Prospero and, to a lesser extent, Ariel and Ferdinand (at the chess game in the concluding scene, if not before), prove deceitful, a feature especially realistic in a stage performance that, despite its magic charms, mimics the pressures of the outside world toward conformity, whether religious, political, or otherwise.

In the characters of The Tempest, Shakespeare implies that, in life and on stage, sometimes sincerity is impossible to discern, and Caliban is perhaps the most enigmatic of these figures, an oppressed character who has much to gain through rhetorical ambiguity. He reveals through his developing rhetoric over the course of his performance that he cannot be interpreted simply. If he be sincere, as he claims, are the claims for sincerity themselves sincere? Or are his claims to sincerity, paradoxically, a rhetorical façade? His rhetorical art ensures that the audience cannot know.

The public nature of a performance, featuring the push and pull of society, the abrasion of beings amongst others, gives greater flexibility to the concept of sincerity, as a character shifts and changes across a play, even a short one that obeys the three unities, as The Tempest. Thus, although Caliban may be more identifiably sincere or insincere in some portions of the play than in others, his development highlights not a reified sincerity or insincerity but the mercurial potential of inner forces such as reason and the passions to use the notion of sincerity as a cover for selfish ends.


The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Caliban and the Rhetoric of Sincerity: Postcolonialism, Performance, and the Self,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.1 (2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.