In 1947, John E. Hankins expounded on Shakespeare’s The Tempest stating that Caliban, the play’s enigmatic part-fish/part-man antagonist, represents the playwright’s perception of primitive, uncivilized man. Hankins states that “while Caliban worships a Patagonian god, he is the child of an African witch from Argier (Algiers). This would seem to indicate that Shakespeare is not trying to represent primarily a red Indian from the New World but has broadened the conception to represent a primitive man type” (793). Hankins identifies Caliban’s intelligence repeatedly throughout his argument identifying his eloquent speech as proof of residual intellect from his ‘primitive’ state, yet does not possess the qualities to live among humankind, and affirms this by stating:
"...he is a slave because he cannot live successfully with human beings on any other terms. He is educable to a certain extent but is completely lacking in a moral sense. He had repaid Prospero’s kindness by attempting to violate Miranda’s chastity, and he cannot be made to see anything wrong in his action, but neither punishment nor kindness can give him a sense of right or wrong." (796)
To Hankins, Shakespeare’s representation of Caliban refuted popular views of “savages” and reflects a being that embodies, not evil, but a non-evolved intelligent human entity who lacks fundamental morality and civility reflected in the Elizabethan era – a term defined as “the noble savage.” The “noble savage theory” excused colonizing societies such as the India-Caribbean-South African occupying England to venture forward and attempt to civilize “uncivilized” societies for hundreds of years. Considered a favorable action, Anglo-centered hegemonic rule intended to bring forth non-European people into the modern age – all for the economic benefit of English people without being cruel or sadistic. To Hankins’ generation, Shakespeare’s Caliban confirmed this worldwide “manifest destiny” that foreigners without English speech and manners can be “civilized” and shaped into dainty Englishmen.
Through the years, science and liberalism debunked the validity of English colonization and redefined the term “noble savage” as the epitome of un-political correctness. Today, labeling Caliban as a by-product of English colonization and proof of Anglican civilization’s superiority would be quickly demonized as both racist and unsympathetic to the plight of native people within England’s imperial peripheries. So how does twenty-first-century humankind define such a character, a man deformed into the shape of fish who lacks communication abilities, who wishes to not co-exist with other humans, and lacks remorse for his ill actions? By taking the characteristics laid out by John E. Hankins and correlating them with modern humankind’s knowledge of the mind and illness, the “noble savage” theory can be quickly dismissed; by twenty-first-century standards, the character of Caliban exhibits the classic symptoms of a man suffering from a high-functioning level of autism called Asperger’s Disease.
Asperger’s Disease refers to individuals with the typical social communication impairments of autism, but who have fluent language and good academic ability alongside obsessions and narrow interests (Hill 281). In 1944, Dr. Hans Asperger described a conditional branch of autism which classified individuals who displayed unique features “includ[ing] social interaction impairments, speech and communication characteristics, cognitive and academic characteristics, sensory characteristics, and physical and motor skill anomalies” (Smith et.al. 298). Asperger further defines the affliction by stating that individuals with autism have higher cognitive development and more typical communication skills, possessing the ability to speak and to learn speech patterns yet lacks knowledge and the ability to gain a comprehensive grasp of societal behaviors. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) diagnoses sufferers to show “qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following: a) marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction, b) failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level, and c) a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people… [also] a lack of varied, spontaneous social imitative behavior appropriate to developmental level” (Smith 290). The similarities of Hankins’ description of Caliban and the DSM-IV’s diagnosis of autism reveals the two descriptions to be nearly identical.
While Shakespeare could not have had knowledge of Asperger’s Disease at the time of writing The Tempest, he may have witnessed the symptoms of the infliction within his contemporary Elizabethan audience. The characterization of a wise yet socially-uncouth personality manifests itself repeatedly throughout Shakespeare’s comedic plays in the role of a fool. The fool, a light-hearted and truth-speaking character, takes pleasure out of pointing the faults and follies of other characters, remains sadistically connected to the pratfalls of comedic elements yet single-handedly steers the audience’s attention to the errors in the characters’ ways. Twelfth Nights’ Feste manifests these very qualities: while absent at the end of the play when the jubilation of the carnival has worn down and characters must accept their place in the untangling of wills, he illustrates his extreme intellect when he appears to understand and accepts what will happen at the end of the comedy, knowing the resolution of the comedic confusion before the Duke and company (Barton 441). Shakespeare acknowledged people whose intelligence surpassed his or her higher authority figures, who could dismantle the thinking of a King or Duke without consequence, yet lacked the ability to lead others. The fool possessed only half the qualities of political greatness: an innate ability to analyze but lacked the social skills to be an effective leader. Obviously, Shakespeare observed people of this nature: subservient in societal norms and shapes yet whose intelligence became respected, admired, and sought. If Elizabethan culture and The Bard utilized fools for political agenda, then Shakespeare may have adapted the mental characteristics of other eccentric contemporaries into other characters within his plays.
The term autistic literally means “alone,” Dr. Leo Kanner, the man who defined and the first to study the disease in the 1940’s, named the infliction this because of his patients’ intense desire to be alone (Koegel 2). Caliban enters the play cursing his colonizers, demands seclusion on the island he claims ownership of and tells Prospero “I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak’st from me… In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me the rest o’ th’ land” (Act I.ii lines 330-343). Another example of Caliban illustrating a desire to be alone can be found in Act II.ii. Caliban enters with a soliloquy, following this Trinculo enters and begins to speak about the “beast” Caliban. After his speech, Shakespeare leaves no stage direction to illustrate exactly what Caliban does when Trinculo enters, leaving us only with Caliban saying, “Here comes a spirit of his, and to torment me for bringing wood in slowly. I’ll fall flat, perchance he will not mind me” (lines 12-15). Typical anti-social behavior among people with autism involves shutting down the outside world. Shakespeare writes, however, no lines for Caliban during Trinculo’s entire monologue. Caliban’s reaction to lay motionless on the ground correlates with an early belief that autistic individuals make a conscious decision to withdraw from the world; if Shakespeare witnessed people behaving in this manner, he may have believed the same (Smith 289). Not until Stephano begins to sing his song that Caliban, much later after being taunted, responds; this means that Caliban did not fall asleep or the presence of Trinculo and Stephano was not unknown to Caliban. Caliban ignores or shuts out Trinculo’s taunting. Caliban also pushes Trinculo and Stephano to kill the King in hopes of reclaiming his island: “Do that good mischief which may make this island/ Thine own for ever, and I, thy Caliban,/ For aye they foot-licker” (Act IV.i lines 217-219). Caliban’s intense desire to be alone on the island possesses the urgency for him to turn his back on his King and his comrades.
An autistic individual, when experiencing an unwanted presence or confrontation, can react by lying still on the ground, rolling into a fetal position, or nervously “flapping” his or her hands – known as “stimming behavior” (Smith 290). Trinculo talks of Caliban’s “very ancient and fish-like smell… a strange fish!... Legg’d like a man; and his fins like arms!” (II.ii lines 27-33). Trinculo does not say that Caliban’s “arms are like fins,” but rather the other way around, meaning that Caliban’s upper appendages are man-like arms that move like fins, therefore, Caliban looks everything as a man ought, but only smells of a fish. Trinculo assumes Caliban’s a fish based solely on his fish-like smell. If Caliban “stims” constantly when confronted with unwanted people or in uncomfortable situations, he may be flapping his hands and forearms in a flipper-like fashion; hence the characters on the stage equate his fish-like movements to his fish-like smell. Caliban, lying flat, ignoring the insults of Trinculo and Stephano, while “stimming” his arms like a fish moving its fins when taken out of the water, would be typical traits shared by autism and Asperger’s Disease.
Caliban’s idiosyncrasies become immediately known to the reader upon his introduction within The Tempest. He enters the play cursing the people who invaded his personal island, he beckons disease onto his oppressors; he wishes for a southwest wind (thought to bring pestilence) to blister Prospero and his people (I.ii lines 321-323). A reader may interpret this curse as a reflexive action of a native against the people who colonized his native soil, but further analysis of other lines by Caliban throughout the play display a repetition of words referring to disease, curses, and pestilence: “The red plagued rid of you for learning me your language” (I.ii line 363), “All the infections that the sun sucks up/ From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him/ By inch-meal a disease/ And yet I needs must curse” (Act II.ii lines 1-3), “A plague upon the tyrant that I serve” (Act II.ii line 162), “What a pied ninny’s this! Thou scurvy patch” (Act III.ii line 62), and “The dropsy drown this fool!” (Act IV.i line 229). Typical behavior among individuals with autism, even at the high-functioning level as Asperger’s Disease, includes an unwavering fascination with objects or phrases with great obsession. An individual with the disease may only be able to communicate through the terms relating to his or her obsession, whether train schedules, species of birds, video games, or, as in Caliban’s case, diseases. Individuals with Asperger’s Disease use communicable repetition as a means of “self-stimulation” similar to the physical “stimming” described above (Koegel 113). An autistic individual lacks the ability of expressing direct thought to others; instead, he or she would speak symbolically of objects or themes which embody the intention of his or her speech (Koegel 13). Caliban’s fascination to disease falls into the DSM-IV’s categorization of the disease, stating:
Restrictive repetitive an stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus. (DSM-IV 32)
An autistic individual in Caliban’s case, would not tell his colonizers to leave his island, but would use his obsession with disease and pestilence as a vehicle describing his state of unhappiness, as Caliban does. If Caliban believes that the arrival of disease and pestilence coincides with the arrival of the European and never experienced widespread illness before colonization, a historically accurate assumption, he would associate disease equally with Europeans. Caliban would use the image of plagues to express his dismay and desire for the English to leave. Dr. Kanner referred to this repetitive behavior as “insistence of sameness” encompassing the repertoire of behaviors both intentional and non-intentional (Hill 284). Caliban’s discomfort with colonial manifests vocally through his continual repetition of vocabulary associated with illness.
Caliban possesses no innate moral concerns for those around him. He lacks the ability to comprehend the interests and needs of others (Smith 1657). Robin Allott, in her article titled “Autism and the Motor Theory of Language,” quotes the narrative of an autistic individual who learned to coexist with the challenges of autism and to later receive a bachelor’s degree in psychology: “When people didn’t touch me I never experienced it as neglect. I experienced it as respect and understanding. Love and kindness, affection and sympathy were my greatest fears… I heard speech only as a pattern of sounds” (3). Compare this narrative to Miranda’s rant against Caliban:
which any print of goodness wilt not take, Being capable of all ill. I pitied thee, Took pains to make thee speak, taught each hour One thing or another When thou didst no, savage, Know thine own meaning. But wouldst gabble like A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes With words that make them known. But the vil’d race (Though thou didst learn) had that in’t which good natures. Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou Deservedly confin’d into this rock, Who hadst deserv’d more than a prison.
(Act I.ii 352-362)
Miranda’s speech gives clear indication that Caliban accepted the tongue of Miranda but did not appreciate her kindness, the same expressed in the Allott’s quoted narrative. Miranda demonizes Caliban for his lack of gratitude having taught him to speak English. Both Caliban and Allott’s narrator share common deficiencies in social skills. Hankins’ interpretation of this speech, specifically Miranda’s comment that Caliban would “gabble like a thing most brutish” led the essayist to believe that Caliban possessed a cognitive native language and adopted the Queen’s English as language of choice once the English arrived (Hankins 793-794). Hankins fails to recognize a vital point in the play when Caliban tells Miranda: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse!” (Act I.ii lines 362-364). Hankins correctly assumed that Caliban wielded the power of speech (the “gabble most brutish”) but did not have the ability of communication which would entitle him the ability to curse outside of English lexicon – why wouldn’t Caliban be able to curse in his native tongue if it truly existed? He could not because Caliban did not possess a native language. The “Definitions of Communicative Disorders and Variations” by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association defines a speech disorder as “an impairment of voice, articulation of speech sounds, and/or fluency” while defining a language disorder as “the impairment of deviant development of comprehension and/or use of a spoken, written, and/or other symbol system” (ASHA 949-950). The gabble which Miranda references clearly indicates that a speech disorder was not apparent from Caliban when first discovered. But, Caliban states that he lacked the ability to curse before learning Miranda’s tongue, indicating that he suffered from a language disorder: he lacked the ability to comprehend spoken and written word systems. Dr. Koegel states that “although [autistic individuals] may make some noises, they don’t develop any meaningful words or sounds on their own” (38). The “gabble most brutish” as described by Miranda may not be Hankins’ proof of a primitive language, but rather child-like cooing and leading-behavior similar to an English-born individual with high-level functioning autism, possibly witnessed by Shakespeare. Caliban’s transformation from communicable leading behavior into a well-spoken English speaker coincides with Elisabeth Hill’s comment that “many an autistic adult who is now a fluent talker and is earnestly trying to make friends, was mute and socially withdrawn at pre-school age” (281).
Individuals with autism or Asperger’s Disease display a symptom called echolalia or echolalic speech: when an individual repeats parts of or an entire phrase spoken by another person, usually without understanding them or “cuts and pastes” dialogue from previous events into the current in order to supplement the need for new speech but promote the same emotions or feelings (Koegel 39). Interestingly enough, echolalic speech can occur the next day, week, or month after the individual first hears the phrase, known as delayed echolalia. Often mistaken as communication, echolalia leads to confusion of others and can brand an individual with autism or Asperger’s Disease as insane. Take into account the following scene from Act II, when Stephano and Trinculo first speak to Caliban, with Trinculo lying below giving the impression of Caliban’s “four legs,” after meeting him in the woods:
Caliban: Do not torment me! O! Stephano: What’s the matter? Have we devils here? Do you put tricks upon’s with salvages and men of Inde? Ha? I have not scap’d drowning to be afeard now of your four legs; for it hath been said, “As proper a man as ever went on four legs cannot make him give ground”; and it shall be said so again while Stephano breathes at’ nostrils. Caliban: The spirit torments me! O! Stephano: This is some monster of the isle with four legs, who hath got (as I take it) an ague. Where the devil should he learn our language? I will give him some relief if it be for that… Caliban: Do not torment me, prithee. I’ll bring my wood home faster. Stephano: He’s in his fit now, and does not talk after the wisest… Caliban: Thou dost me yet little hurt; thou wilt anon, I know it by thy trembling. Now prosper works upon thee. (Act II.ii lines 56-81)
Caliban, who sees the two men in the woods before they see him, says “Here comes a spirit of [Caliban’s Master Prospero], and to torment me for bringing wood in slowly” (Act II.ii lines 12-15). Caliban’s violent reaction to the harmless Stephano may be delayed echolalic behavior; Stephano possesses no powers or magic that can hurt Caliban yet he reacts equally. The expression of pain vocalized by Caliban may be a conversation heard or spoken by Caliban from a previous event, possibly a similar situation involving the magic-wielding Prospero. Caliban uses delayed echolalia here to express his discomfort of the newly arrived strangers. Another possibility, using another symptom of autism and Asperger’s Disease, the kindness offered by Stephano pains Caliban who views kindness as a violation, similar to Abbott’s case study mentioned earlier.
Hankins cites Caliban for “completely lacking a moral sense” and uses Caliban’s threatening comment to rape Miranda as evidence of his inability to recognize right from wrong:
Prospero: Thou most lying slave, Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have us’d thee. (Filth as thou art) with human care, and lodg’d thee In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate The honor of my child. Caliban: O ho, O ho, would’t had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This isle with Calibans! (Act I.ii lines 344-350)
Supposedly, Caliban sinks to his most low at this point within the play; his threats to rape Miranda display a certain immorality, but they do not conclude his complete lack of sympathy, and Prospero expresses another example of Caliban’s rejection of human kindness. The hollow threats of Caliban seem more detached from Prospero and Miranda’s emotions than his own morality. Frith states that “[autistic individuals] shows over-literal understanding of communication: for example, asking earnestly for glue when told ‘stick your coat over there’” (98). It could be possible that Caliban fully intended to have sexual relations with Miranda, and knew this act would still, even when consensual, violate his daughter’s honor: Miranda having sexual relations with an “abomination” would ruin her name. Note that Caliban concludes that he would “people this isle with Calibans,” this statement pluralizes the offspring between the two, alluding to sexual intercourse occurring more than once and not an isolated rape incident. If this allegation of consensual intercourse is true, it would explain Miranda’s quick retaliation at revealing her hidden sexual desire (“Abhorred slave…” Act I.ii lines 352-362). Caliban’s response under this premise, no longer seems so sinister, if he would have had sex with Miranda, it would disgrace her honor, and it would populate the isle with Calibans, in pure literal fashion.
However, if Caliban did intend to rape Miranda, his lack of empathy for Miranda and Prospero in his retort falls within the parameters of Asperger’s Disease: empathizing or even sympathizing with others proves to be most difficult for autistic individuals. Interestingly enough, a high-functioning autistic individual pulls further away from the emotional responses of his colleagues when the dialogue contains extreme urgency or intense emotion, and his or her responses may seem to “honest” or “calloused” to whomever he or she speaks with. Caliban may be attempting to exit the conversation and escaping the intensity of the moment by conceding with Prospero’s allegations. So Caliban’s answer, that he planned on raping Miranda, does not lack morality, but acts as a response mechanism intended to end the conversation, agreeing to the other side’s argument in hopes of ceasing the discussion (Koegel 165).
Hankins’ assumption that Shakespeare’s enigmatic character, Caliban, refuted the Anglican image of “the noble savage” maintains the same damning characteristics which could be deemed racist and Euro-centered. Hankins based his formulation on the knowledge of science and societal norms celebrated and adopted at that time as valid. The writer merged the thoughts and belief systems of his era and incorporated them into a possible critique of Shakespeare’s most original and puzzling character. If Hankins justly adopted the societal norms of his time and generation into Caliban, than the twenty-first-century’s scholars must be able to do the same without damnation or ridicule. The idiosyncrasies of Caliban, his strange behaviors, odd speech, and appearance, must be viewed from a modern standpoint to be explained by contemporary standards. Caliban’s intense intellect, his ability to gain language and deliver The Tempest’s most eloquent speeches, but his inability to interact with those around him, cannot be simplified by Hankins’ “refuted noble savage theory.” Shakespeare must have witnessed people in Elizabethan England capable of articulate speech, unsurpassed intelligence, but lacked the ability to conform to community settings and lacked social skills, and incorporated them into Caliban. Caliban’s eccentric behavior, his physical manifestations, and his inability to grasp social cues and conduct can all be classified and, therefore, understood by twenty-first-century standards to be classic symptoms of a person living with high-level functioning autism called Asperger’s Disease.
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