This thing of darkness: Caliban and the Creature from Frankenstein

As the days get shorter and witching hour approaches, one’s thoughts turn away from present-day horrors and towards famous fictional ones. At least mine do.

One of the enduring confusions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that “Frankenstein” is not the name of the Creature, brought to life on a laboratory table, but the name of his creator, the “natural philosopher” who became “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” It’s an understandable mistake, as there’s definitely a chicken-and-egg question about the two characters: Which came first, the Creature, who’s considered a monster, or his creator, Victor Frankenstein, who treated him monstrously?

Or, to ask it another way, are monsters born—or made?

The Tempest at His Majesty's Theatre, Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Caliban. Chas. A. Buchel. Tatler, 1904. Folger Shakespeare Library.
The Tempest at His Majesty’s Theatre, Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Caliban. Chas. A. Buchel. Tatler, 1904. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Similar questions can be asked about Shakespeare’s Caliban, the “hagseed” son of Sycorax the witch, whom Prospero enslaves and treats abominably in The Tempest. Prospero’s disdain and violence towards Caliban isn’t even subtle. In his very first scene (after the titular storm that brings his enemies to his island), Prospero calls Caliban inhuman and his slave and wishes he weren’t underfoot all the the time, while confessing that the creature “does make our fire, fetch in our wood, and serves in offices that profit us.” We soon discover, in fact, that Prospero betrayed Caliban by stroking him at first and making much of him, giving him water with berries in it and teaching him the names of the stars in the sky, before locking him up and beating him, declaring that “stripes [from the lash] may move [him], not kindness.” Is it any wonder that Caliban spends the play attempting to kill Prospero?

Although Mary Shelley only mentions Shakespeare once in her novel, her husband, the celebrated Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, specifically cites The Tempest in his preface to the published edition as one of Frankenstein’s literary ancestors. This felt like permission enough to incorporate elements of The Tempest in my stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. Readers who only know Frankenstein through its many film adaptations are surprised to discover that Shelley’s Creature is quite a well-read and literate fellow, learning language, history, philosophy, and morality through Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The Creature is incredibly thoughtful and articulate, explaining to his creator that he “learned from Werther’s imaginations despondency and gloom,” qualities that I thought he could identify with just as easily in Caliban and in a way that would be more immediate to a modern audience. In the novel, the Creature finds the books accidentally; in my adaptation, he clings to Victor’s copies of Paradise Lost and The Tempest as totems from his creator and finds increasing meaning in their pages.

The Creature also specifically tells Victor (in Shelley’s novel), “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” and confesses, near the end, that, “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even imagine.”

Caliban, in The Tempest, is similarly thoughtful and articulate, telling Prospero:

             I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so!”

Then, almost exactly in the middle of the play (Act 3, Scene 2), Caliban gives a speech that is fundamental to both his and the Creature’s pain:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
…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 in Tempest. Thomas Stothard. Print, 1798. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Caliban in Tempest. Thomas Stothard. Print, 1798. Folger Shakespeare Library.

My version of Shelley’s Creature quotes these specific lines because they speak so powerfully to his own preference for rest over an awful world and to the plight of the Other, the put-upon, the segments of society feared because of their looks or their skin or their potential power.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is incapable of feeling any empathy towards his creation (which suggests the Creature is morally superior and not actually made in Victor’s image at all). In The Tempest, Prospero finally says, about Caliban, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” (Even Mary Shelley, initially embarrassed by the success and notoriety of her novel, was finally able to acknowledge her “hideous progeny.”) While I’m certainly not the first nor the last to draw connections between Shakespeare’s Caliban and Mary Shelley’s Creature—in the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein’s Creature (played by Shakespearean actor Rory Kinnear) was literally given the name “Caliban”—it seems appropriate, as we approach Halloween in the 200th anniversary year of the novel’s publication, to acknowledge the kinship and symbolism of these famous literary characters.

And—speaking of present-day horrors—maybe it’s always the right time to ask ourselves, Aren’t the real monsters the ones who demonize and ostracize others?

Rory Kinnear as The Creature in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 9). - Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME
Rory Kinnear as The Creature in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 9). Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME



  • Agreed. Prospero’s anger toward Caliban is largely due to his absolute need to protect Miranda–she was the key to his survival and central to his plan upon returning to civilization. Caliban tried to rape her and when Prospero reminds him of this Caliban gloats over the idea that he would have “peopled” the isle with Calibans. Caliban is presented as an almost unredeemable monster in the play, despite Shakespeare giving him a few sympathetic qualities. What’s in this idea that we need to make Prospero into a villain? He’s far from perfect, of course, and his conflicted nature and bristling anger are crucial to the play’s themes. But there’s no need to alter the facts of the play to make Caliban a victim.

  • I am so glad you included the photograph of Rory Kinnear as The Creature in “Penny Dreadful” I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing in this short series and the literary references are many. Also the depiction of “The Creature” was one of the closest characterizations, in my humble opinion, to Mary Shelley’s possible intent in her novel. Of course Rory as a Shakespearean actor always helps!

  • My “half-hearted” defense of Shakespeare’s Prospero is the fact that both he and Miranda treat Caliban with “humanistic” kindness until he attempts to “violate” Miranda. He is in fact beyond the reach of humanistic values as are some folks in our contemporary world.

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