Inherited at such a young age, language appears an embedded, inherent function of human experience. It provides a lexical framework through which meaning can be communicated, shared, and recorded. Shakespeare’s deployment of variable meanings through puns endow language a dominant role in the creation of cultural tradition; language is a tool for persuasion and interaction. The figure of Caliban, however, punctures the hegemony of conventional linguistic traditions that seek to distinguish and categorize through naming. By creating space for alternative sounds, Caliban concomitantly reimagines the position of man in nature that initiates am early eco-consciousness.
Outside the dominant linguistic tradition, Caliban is degraded by epithets imposed by others. His identity is reduced to a variety of unfavorable epithets; he is “hag-born,” a “whelp,”; not “honoured with human shape,” and a “demi-devil,” “poor credulous monster,” “hag-seed” and “strange fish”. His foreign outward appearance — a “thing of darkness” — positions him as other and deny him appropriate nomenclature. As language is applied to Caliban, it is revealed as a tool of subordination and domination.
Alternatively figured in the logocentric Western tradition, language facilitates the defining features of humanity that distinguish man from beast. Prospero (or Miranda? seems there is textual confusion) lectures Caliban: before I “Took pains to make thee / speak” you “wouldst gabble like / A thing most brutish” (1. 2. 355, 357-8). The definitive sounds he is associated with, his “gabble,” is a word initiated by Shakespeare, who’s use is the first listed reference in the OED on “the inarticulate noises made by animals.” Understood as unable to speak, Caliban cannot interact with representations of meaning and thus denied integration into civilized society.
In her cogent assessment of the failings of postcolonial studies entitled Can the Subaltern Speak?, Gayatri Spivak writes that “staging of the world in representation” … “dissimilates the need for “heroes,” paternal proxies, agents of power” (33). Representation, manifest in the logocentrism of the Western tradition, not only denies and silences alternative forms of knowledge, but also determines the available avenues for articulation that constitute defensible knowledge in the first place. The communicative traditions we occupy infiltrate the images of self, influencing a view of our relative distinctiveness or unity. Our available linguistic tools direct and define out interactions with each other and our environment.
Caliban attempts to assert meaning outside language, offering an alternative that entertains expression in the “sounds and sweet air of the isle” (3. 2. 130). Though fearful for those unfamiliar, the abundant “voices” of nature are a source of tranquility for Caliban. In lyrical communion with nature, he privileges harmony of sound in contrast to the “profits” of his educated language which enable him to “curse.” While the sounds of nature “delight and hurt not,” his “curse” conversely sounds dissonant harm. Language, the process of naming, force of domination and control. It provides a toolset to harness nature, categorize and define sounds, claim them for personal service. The alternative philosophy concomitant to Caliban’s holistic engagement with sound anticipates an eco-consciousness that compels unity over nominal distinction. Caliban’s difficulty in participating in the dominant discursive tradition renders him, like the nature that is being codified and divided, vulnerable to exploitation.