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Default Masculine: Caliban and the Question of Legitimate Labor


Jyoti Biswas

M.Phil Scholar

Dept. of English Studies

Central University of Tamil Nadu


The ability to put labor force is not strictly restricted within physical exercise. Intellectual labor does not require a buff physique. But what if someone is asked to carry a burden of log as well as other sorts of manual works? And what if has he not been provided with fair pay? What if does he face injustice in the name of color or caste or ethnic origin in the hand of the owner? All these questions are inextricably related with Caliban, a minor but important character in The Tempest. Caliban helps us understand the master-slave relation on one hand, and the relation between legitimate labor force and productivity on the other in the play. Having chosen the character of Caliban, this paper interrogates the dialectical relation between the oppressor and the oppressed on one hand, and examines the societal norms towards the accepted definition of masculinity based on the power of muscle and Caliban’s status in it on the other. For the theoretical framework, the present writer uses Ambedkarite scholar Prof. Kancha Ilaiah’s concept of ‘productivity.’ In other words, Caliban has been compared to a ‘dalit’ in this paper from Ambedkarite perspective and tried to critique the default status of masculinity in which Caliban is subject to.   

Keywords: Masculinity, Labor, Master, Slave, Oppressed, Productivity, Injustice, Dalit, Ambedkarite. 

What is masculinity? In popular perception, the definition of masculinity rests upon the exhibition of certain attributes and qualities by a male such as strong physique, ability of doing all sorts manual labor, earning means by risking life in any work anywhere, physical appearance with beard and moustache, sexual dominance and more importantly a masochistic attitude towards weak fellow men and women in a given social setting and culture. In Greek mythology, Hercules immortalizes the concept of masculinity by his twelve labors. As the mythic narrative tells us, Hercules possessed by madness murders his eight children born out of his union with Megara. As expiation for his heinous infanticide, he is told by the oracle of Delphi “to go to Tiryns in the Argolid, where he was to live for ten years while performing a series of labours that would be imposed on him by Eurystheus, king of Mycenae” (Hard 241-42). His twelve labors including holding the earth by the tip of two fingers only remain a chosen reference point or citation while writing about masculinity, physical potentiality and representation of manhood both in popular imagination and culture in the West.  Although many scholars argue that the  common perception of masculinity is a social construction (Shehan 2018), and ‘manliness’ has become obsolete in a society that is becoming gender-neutral (Mansfield 2016), words like ‘manhood’ and ‘manliness’ are often taken as parallel to masculinity even in a democratic society. And in all these three words, the popular imagination takes a halt at a blonde, muscular and hardworking male figure. In popular culture, bodybuilding competition such as Mr. Universe and Arnold Classics1 gives a solid platform to boys to exhibit their muscles in public, thereby demonstrating the swelling biceps and triceps and other body parts as the most authentic source of masculinity. All these arguments can be countered from the perspective of Feminist and Gay studies (Selden 2005), but the weight of male muscle holds on the arguments in favor of a preferred stand on masculinity.

            On talking about the creation of this popular notion of masculinity, George Mosse observes “It is impossible to point to a precise moment when the ideal of masculinity was born and become part of modern history, other than it happened sometime between the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth” (5). Mosse evaluates the creation of the concept of masculinity as a social and cultural formation.  He frequently used ‘stereotypes’ to fix the traditional attributes of masculinity within the wider social constraints that do not allow it to keep it isolated from the question of gender equality. But what sort of notion about masculinity was prevailing at the time of Shakespeare? Elizabeth A. Foyster uses ‘manliness’ instead of masculinity in her study Manhood in Early England (2014) because, according to her, ‘masculinity’ is quite a new formation, perhaps around mid-eighteenth century. On the other hand, manhood is as old as Greek mythology. Robin Hedlam Wells shows how chivalry was widely taken to be the hallmark of masculinity both in the Hundred Years War2 in the 15th century and in defeating the Spanish Armada3 in 1588 in English society (11). But the root of chivalry and masculinity lies in the legends of King Arthur and his Round Table4 in medieval Britain as well as in the adventures the knights undertook in the time of crusades. Major Shakespearean heroes such as Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Anthony, and Coriolanus are all heroic figures, representing the chivalric qualities. But they are protagonist in the respective tragic plays, dominating the plot and other characters: “not only are they, in their different ways, powerful and noble, but their capacity for living is stupendous” (Gardner 1). But this is not the case of Caliban. He is neither a major character nor someone bearing such high standard of chivalry and masculinity as exemplified among Shakespearean heroes. Caliban is more of a bonded labor the kind of which is found in India where dalits as they are known by this name in contemporary political parlance survive with the status of an eternal slave to upper castes irrespective of their qualities and contributions. The question is: Does a minor character like Caliban represent any particular trait of masculinity or is he a default masculine? 

            The text introduces him as ‘Caliban, a savage and a deformed slave’ in the dramatic personae. ‘Savage’ and ‘deformed slave’ have pushed the imagination of readers to creating the image of Caliban as a beast on the one hand, and a subjugated, defeated living hands and limbs on the other. His hands and limbs remain useful to Prospero only, and not his anguished and frustrated speeches. The way he is introduced to the audience in the text gives a fair idea of a polarized relation between a master and a slave. Prospero tells Miranda “Shake it off… come on,/ We’ll visit Caliban, my slave, who never/ Yields us kind answer” (1.2.306-308). At the very beginning the master-slave relation sets the central argument. Caliban has been enslaved in his own island by Prospero. This island that Prospero found for him and his daughter Miranda becomes the habitat of dominance. But Caliban is the owner of it: “I must eat my dinner…/ This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/ Which thou tak’st me” (1.2.332-334). Caliban who inherited this island from his mother Sycorax is an indigenous member whereas Prospero and his daughter Miranda are outsiders. The finding is that “ ‘cannibal’ is derived from ‘carib’, the first tribal Indian name made known to Europe. Caliban seems to have been created, on his historical side, by a fusion in Shakespeare’s imagination of Columbus’s first New World savage” (Fiedlar 198-99). The indigenous member (irrespective of his physical look and in-built character) has been enslaved in his native land. It establishes the motif of slavery rooted in daily chores of life: carrying the log, lighting the fire and other sorts of manual work that Caliban is bound to work for Prospero. When Prospero says that Caliban does not give him any “kind answer” loyally, it visualizes the anger and dissatisfaction boiling in Caliban’s mind: “Curse be I did so!” (1.2.339). His anger legitimizes his position in this power relation: “In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me/ The rest o’th’island” (1.2.343-344). In this context the present writer wants to discuss the concept and practice of slavery from ‘Dalit’ perspective and to analyze the character of Caliban by bringing a proportionate relation between physical labor and the concept ‘productivity’ put forward by Ambedkarite scholar Kancha Ilaiah.

            The concept of slavery or the state of being a slave in the West is as old as the Classical Greece: “True slaves were persons without the bindings and linkages common to even the lowest free persons, and who were thus completely dependent on the will of their masters” (Klein 2). The Greek economy utilizes slave labor in the middle of the first millennium the practice of “which historians would later define as the original development of the institution” (Klein 3). “For in classical Athens… all the perhaps 80-100,000 douloi of both sexes may be categorized precisely as chattel slaves” and in a Weberian sense “the chattel is the ideal type of salve- the most unfree of the unfree, the most servile of the enslaved” (Cartledge 35-36). In the Roman law, the etymological definition of ‘slave’ is rooted in servi and servitus “Slaves (servi) are so called because commanders generally sell the people they capture and thereby save (servare) them instead of killing them” (Jackson 88-89). In the biblical canon there are many provisions certifying the practice of slavery with certain terms and conditions. “The temporal status of debt-slavery is a recurrent theme in biblical literature… Deuteronomy 15:12 imposes a maximum limit of six year, fixed by the calendar to occur every fifty years” (Jackson 91). The Covenant Code in Exodus decrees the specific rules of slavery as well. “Roman slavery was a thriving institution so long as the Roman empire survived” (Klein 7). Around the fifteenth century the European powers initiated their colonizing mission in the New World, Latin America and Africa. The plantation industry was also introduced at the same time. With this there spread the modern system of slavery: purchasing slaves from Africa and selling them to different plantations across the Atlantic, the sea route connecting western coast of Africa, eastern coast of two Americans and the western coast of Europe, known as The Middle Passage: “The arrival of Portuguese explorers and traders on the sub-Saharan African coast in the early 1400s would ultimately represent a major new development in the history of the slave trade in Africa… Even when they began shipping slaves in 1444, they were mainly sent in Europe to serve as domestic servants” (Klein 13).

From the above discussions it is found that slavery has a long history in the West.  But the theoretical orientation of this paper is to justify the ‘Dalit’ status of Caliban and the use of physical labor as a default status of masculinity in a hierarchical society. In the domain of Hindu society there is a distinct slavery system. Dividing the society into the four castes (jati or varna)5, namely Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaishya and Sudra the Hindu social order creates two opposing poles: upper caste and lower caste. The first three castes, such as Brahmin, Ksatriya and Vaishya constitute the upper caste status; whereas Sudra and later on Ati-Sudra or Untouchables constitute the lower caste status. According to Dr Ambedkar:

Besides dividing the society into four orders, the theory of [Chaturvarnya] goes further and makes the principle of graded inequality the basis for determining the terms of associated life as between the four Varnas. Again, the system of graded inequality is not merely notional. It is legal and penal. Under the system of Chaturvarnya, the Shudra is not only placed at the bottom of the gradation but he is subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities so as to prevent him from rising above the condition fixed for him by law. (385)

            Hindu scripture Manava-Dharmasastra6 (Manu’s Code of Law) prescribes strict rules and regulations for a Sudra. Let us see how Manava-Dharmasastra looks into the matter: “… for the Sudra was created by the Self-existent One solely to do slave labor for the Brahmin… Even when he is released by his master, a Sudra is not freed from his slave status; for that is innate in him and who can remove it from him?” (Olivelle 189). It has described slavery in the following way: “There are seven kinds of slaves: a man captured in war, a man who makes himself a slave to receive food, a slave born in a house, a purchased slave, a gifted slave, a hereditary slave, and a man enslaved for punishment” (Olivelle 189). In all seven types of slavery, a Sudra is always been treated as a slave, not any member from three twice-born7 castes. If a Sudra is a slave, then what is his right over property? Manava-Dharmasastra has its prescribed instructions too: “A Brahmin may confidently seize property from a Sudra, because there is nothing that he owns; for he is a man whose property may be taken by his master” (Olivelle 189).

The transition of Sudras and Ati-Sudras or Untouchables into Dalits is a paradigm shift in the social, political and academic discourse taken a concrete shape in contemporary India: “In descriptions of struggles for dignity and against caste inequality, the term ‘Dalit’ is today widely used to describe India’s former untouchables” (Rawat and Satyanarayana 2). It was first used in modern parlance by an official of East India Company, J. J. Molesworth in a Marathi-English dictionary. From Jyotirao Phule in nineteenth century to Ambedkar and activists of Dalit Panther in twentieth century ‘Dalit’ more categorically and methodologically has become an identical denominator in the public domain. “Dalithood is a kind of life condition which characterizes the exploitation, suppression and marginalization of dalits by the social, economic, cultural and political domination of the upper caste brahminical order” (Guru). But it is around 1970s that the use of ‘Dalit’ has become widely recognized both in public domain and in culture because of the Dalit Panther movement8 of Maharastra. What was treated to be a slave society now turned into a militant one, trying to dismantle the Brahminical hierarchy in every sphere of life. “In the 80s and 90s… Dalitbahujan intellectuals have emerged from the context of Ambedkarite theory and practice to displace brahminical forces and seize power structures in all spheres” (Ilaiah 51).

Kancha Ilaiah, an eminent Ambedkarite intellectual formulates his concept of ‘productivity’ based on the productive skills and inexhaustible range of doing manual labor of ‘Dalitbahujan’ communities in his writings and numerous lectures. While putting his inaugural speech at Jamia Millia Islamia University on 19th December, 2013, Prof. Ilaiah raises fundamental questions in respect of ‘productivity’ in Indian context. Who are the pot-makers, ironsmiths, farmers, barbers, shoe-makers, sweepers, toilet-cleaners, and members of other likeminded professions in India? What is their status in the society? Is there any dignity of labor in all these professions or is their work legitimate in the context of social hierarchy? Are they nothing but eternal slaves despite having all sorts of productive skills?9 Prof. Ilaiah observes that “Brahminical Hinduism adopted an anti-production and anti-scientific ethic, compared to the scientific, technological and productive knowledge systems that Dalit-Bahujan communities have developed and nurtured over the years” (Introduction ix). Prof. Ilaiah argues further by showing the inherent contradictions between ‘productive culture’ and ‘unproductive culture.’ Brahmins and other upper castes have cut off their existence from the productive society because their prescribed works produce only caste and racial discrimination on one hand, and unscientific, ridiculous and useless knowledge for the future generations on the other. In contradiction to them, the productive communities despite being subject to all sorts of humiliation and torture both physical and mental continue their productive professions: “The human essence gets generated and regenerated when something is being transformed from one form into another. For example, there is in the process of transforming a piece of leather into a pair of shoes a transcendental experience of giving shape and birth to a new thing” (37).

The use of physical strength in all of their productions is fundamental and Prof. Ilaiah reminds us that in all these productive professions, the use of brain is equally fundamental: “Dalitism… would consider them as acts of labour that give pleasure, for they exercise both the body and the mind” (35).  In other words, only muscle cannot go alone; it requires the brain to give a clay pot a perfect shape or to make a toilet basin crystal-clear.

As stated earlier, the master-slave relation between Prospero and Caliban is the most discussed issue in The Tempest. Connecting Caliban with Dalits is a new perspective that this paper wants to highlight. The way slavery works and the outcome it provides in the text gives some space to write about Caliban’s assigned work and its productive outcome. Before the arrival of Caliban into the scene Prospero sets the atmosphere. His conversation with Ariel regarding the inhabitants of this island casts a bright light upon the ethical origin of Caliban. Caliban’s father has not been revealed, but his mother Sycorax is the primitive settler of this island. When the ownership of the island gets transformed to Caliban, he is enslaved by Prospero. Prospero addresses Ariel, the spirit as his slave too: “thou, my slave,/ As thou report’st thyself” (1.2.271-2). But his relation with Ariel is more of a mutual kind as exemplified in Ariel’s speech: “Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains,/ Let me remember thee what thou hast promised” (1.2.243). The promise of relieving Ariel of his service is like an unsigned treaty between Prospero and him, but this is not the case with Caliban. The rebellious voice of him is heard multiple times the way a Dalit’s voice is heard in their autobiographies and mass movements. Caliban tries to overpower his physical prowess over Prospero. But the latter being a master magician, Caliban is snubbed. But the rebellious character of Caliban is well-expressed: “As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed/ With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen/ Drop on you both: a south-west blow on ye,/ And blister you all o’er!” (1.2.322-25). It is quite clear that Caliban finds no respite from the daily chores of manual work Prospero commands him to do.  But a slave gets it no more unless the master wants as found in the case of Ariel. Whenever Prospero sees Caliban being furious over his subjugated position in his own island and tries to overpower him, he either threatens him: “For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,/ Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath” (1.2.326-7), or asks Ariel to disturb him with loud noise. In this matter, Ariel who was enslaved by Sycorax and later on rescued by Prospero is the chief instrument with the help of which he conducts his magical feat. To control a slave like Caliban is not an easy task because he is enslaved in his own island, the very place once upon a time ruled by his ancestors. The sense of belongingness with the soil is an integrated part to a native settler, but what happened with Caliban is perhaps one of the earliest literary representations of European colonialism. “Outsiders provoked more debates, anxieties, and representations than the population statics might warrant” (Loomba 148). The cultural and ideological conflict between a native and an outsider in The Tempest is best exemplified in the language. Caliban is presented as a ‘savage and deformed’ creature. More the play moves on, more readers get acquainted with his human speech that becomes a powerful weapon to him to curse Prospero and set a plot against him: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse’ (1.2.364-5). Whether cursing someone is immoral is a different issue, but what is more important is: why is Caliban cursing Prospero?

To sketch out Caliban’s character in the play, critics frequently refer to how he attempted to rape Miranda, how he gets drunk and sets a plot against Prospero with the help of Trinculo and Gonzalo; but the central argument of this paper is neither of them. Instead of interpreting him from a commonly accepted view, the paper focuses on how much manual labor Caliben puts as a slave and what sort of recognition he receives as his fair pay. Survival in a deserted island cannot rest upon magic; one requires food, and fire in any place of Northern hemisphere. Prospero and Miranda utilized the full potentiality of Caliban’s physical strength to meet their daily chores. “Hag-seed, hence…/ Fetch us in fuel, and be quick thou’rt best/ To answer other business” (1.2.367-69). Tamil Dalit writer Bama gives an authentic portraiture of the limitless hard work a Dalit does through the life of her Patti10: 

More than three quarters of the land in these parts are in the hands of the Naickers. People of our community work for them… as pannaiyaal, bonded labourers… Everybody said that my Patti was a true and proper servant. She worked as a labourer to a Naicker11 family… She’d rise before cock-crow at two or three in the morning… walk a long distance to the Naicker’s house, work till sunset, and then come home in the dark and cook a little gruel for herself. (48-49)

But the social status of slaves’ remains always fixed despite their labor. The question is not related with transferring the power from master to slave in a de-colonized world; it is related more with dignity. A careful study of speeches of Prospero shows how each of his utterance meant for Caliban is loaded with verbal abuse: “I’ll rack thee with old cramps” or “Thou most lying slave” or “I have used thee-/ Filth as thou are.” These and many others are examples of linguistic domination, that language is the first tool of making someone slave is well-proven in Prospero’s relation with Caliban. To locate Caliban in the matrix of characters in the play, Harold Bloom writes “Yet to associate Caliban with displacement is a peculiar irony; only he, in the play, is where he belongs to” (243).

 It is not a matter of surprise that Caliban witnesses the departure of Prospero and others from the island of his ancestors; neither is it important that Caliban becomes the rightful owner of the entire place after their departure. The important part of the discussion is the concept of slavery prevailing in the power relation between the powerful and the weak on the one hand and the slave-master relation between Caliban and Prospero till Prospero’s stay in Caliban’s land on the other. The first one is more ideological whereas the second one more textual. In both of the cases, the concept of masculinity in the life of a slave has never been acknowledged despite their hard work and physical labor. As examined earlier in the case of Dalits and Caliban, the indignity of their labor remains tied with their social and parental status: a Dalit is a dalit by the accident of his or her birth and Caliban is a ‘savage’ by the virtue of his birth and ethnic origin. Despite his use of muscle and physical labor to accomplice the daily chores which are immensely productive, Caliban has turned out as a ‘default masculine’, an unfit status in the terminology of popular masculinity like his dalit counterpart.

End Notes

1 Two global bodybuilding competitions held every year in USA.

2 Fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453. This is one of the longest-run wars in the European history. See Baker, Denise Nowakowski, editor. Inscribing the Hundred Years' War in French and English Cultures. SUNY Press. 2000.

3 A landmark incident of Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604). Hundred and thirty Spanish war ships under the command of Duke of Medina Sodinia invaded England in May, 1588 to defeat Queen Elizabeth. See Hanson, Neil. The Confident Hope Of A Miracle: The True History Of The Spanish Armada. Random House, 2011.

4 Legendary tales highly cherished by kings and knights in the Court culture of Medieval Britain. See Sanders, Andrew. A Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York, Oxford, 1998.

5 Jati is name of a community attributed to it after its prescribed profession. Varna means color, that is, the division of humans on the basis of complexion. Both terms have significant implication in understanding Indian caste system.

6 It is widely known as Manusmriti or Manusamhita. Dr. Ambedkar burnt its copy on 25th December, 1927 as a protest against Brahminism. 

7 According to Manusmriti, boys from three upper caste families, such as Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya have the only right to have Upanayana, the special ceremony in which a sacred thread is awarded to him. This ceremony certifies his second birth. With this, he naturally becomes superior to a Sudra who, according to Manusmriti, lost the right to have Upanayana.

8 Modeled after the Black Panther movement in USA, it is one of the most tumultuous mass protests in contemporary India by dalits held in Maharastra in 1972. For an authentic source on it, read  Power J. V.  Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, Forward Press, New Delhi, 2019.

9 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-vFqNWYmm0&t=998s)  

10 Tamil word for grandmother.

11 One of the many upper castes in Tamil Nadu, India.

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Ibid, p. 13

Rodrigues, Valerian, editor. The Essential Writings of B. R. Ambedkar. New Delhi, 2002, p. 385.

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Rawat, S. Ramnarayana and K. Satyanarayana, editors. Dalit Studies. Durham, Duke University Press, 2016, p. 2.

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Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I Am Not A Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutya Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Kolkata, Samya, 1996, p. 51.


Ilaiah, Kancha. Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution. New Delhi, Sage Publications, 2009, p. ix.

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