The Colonial Discourse of Robert Browning's"Caliban": Subversive Articulations or Method of Containment

Simon Hay
Massey University
Palmerston North, New Zealand

Deep South v.2 n.3. (Spring 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Simon Hay

In this paper I identify with the "School of Resentment"cited by Harold Bloom in his introduction to the book "Caliban". Bloom recognises what he calls a "School of Resentment" in Literary Studies. With a touch of mock despair, he claims that "our archetypal, politcially corect article on Shakespeare these days is likely to be called Caliban and the Discourse of Colonialism ". [1]

Most twentieth-century criticism of "Caliban upon Setebos" sees the poem as a parody of Natural Theology. I take a different approach, along with Thomas Wolfe, who writes "that religion is not so much the subject, as it is the occasion, for the poem" [2]. It is my intention in this paper to focus on Caliban's expressions of his relationship with Prosper, and to use Homi Bhabha' s theory of colonial mimicry to explain this relationship. The explanation this interpretation offers, however, remains ambivalent concerning Caliban' s status as a subject within colonial discourse: as Robert Young points out, it is unclear whether the apparently seditionary articulations of the colonised person within colonial discourse remain "unconscious for both colonizer and colonized, who are . . . inexorably locked into a constant movement of destabilization, . . . or whether the colonized can detect such slippages in the speech of the colonizer and consciously exploit them" [3]. That is, to use Louis Montrose's terms, are Caliban's apparently subversive words a method by which he is contained within Prosper' s discourse, or are they conscious and active expressions of subversion? [4]

Many critics of "Caliban upon Setebos" have commented on the importance of mimicry in the poem, and the colonial nature of the relationship between Caliban and Prospero in Shakespeare' sTempest has been extensively analysed. There are also several clues in the poem which indicate that the colonial metaphor is appropriate: most notably, the epithet Caliban uses to describe Prosper -- "lord now of this isle." Further, a colonial interpretation of Caliban was familiar to Browning's contemporaries.

A cartoon from Punch Magazine, printed a year before the first edition of Browning's poem, portrays Caliban as a black slave in America, the caption claiming him to be a "nigger translation of Shakespeare". In "Of Mimicry and Man&qout;, Bhabha describes an ambivalence in colonial discourse which is due to a discrepancy between &qout;the high ideals of the colonial imagination" [5] and the low effects of colonial practice. Thatis, the epic intentions and high ideals of colonising peoples involve bringing civilisation and enlightenment to the people being colonised. But there is a limit to how far this vision goes. Because of a desire to maintain power, or a belief that the colonised people are not capable of sustaining such ideals without the ruling hand of the colonisers, this ideal is never fully actualised. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea". [6]

Hence the colonial ideal, the desire for the colonised other to be civilised, is in conflict with the actuality of colonial mimicry, the desire for the colonised person to remain oppressed. This ambivalence is not, however, just a split between an ideal and a reality, but a split between desires: the colonist desires both colonial ends. Bhabha explains that as a consequence of this division in colonial desires, the colonised person is placed in a position where he or she cannot be a civilised person, but can only mimic one.

"Mimicry is...the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which appropriates the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both normalized knowledges and disciplinary powers". [7]

Mimicry, that is, signifies two things. Firstly, that the colonised person has been inclusively constructed, appropriated by the colonial discourse to serve as Other, for the construction of colonising selves, to be an object against which the colonising person can reinforce his or her superiority. And secondly, mimicry signifies that the colonised person has been exclusively constructed, that the mimicking colonised person is inappropriate to fulfil any other role in his or her relationship with the colonising person. Hence colonised people, as inappropriate subjects for colonial discourse (though appropriate to be, and appropriated to be, subject to colonial discourse), have only a partial presence; they are predominantly the object of, but not the subject of, discourse.

Even as a partial presence, however, the colonised person does have an effect, an effect of menace to colonial discourse. "The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority" [8]: the perspective of the colonists is not the only viewpoint from which the colonial process is being viewed as it occurs. In order to be able to mimic the coloniser, a colonised person is placed in a position where he or she can observe the coloniser, and act on these observations. In being a presence this way, through having a gaze, colonised people are:"the figures of a doubling, the part-objects of a metonymy of colonial desire which alienates the modality and normality of those dominant discourses in which they emerge as inappropriate, colonial subjects". [9]

That is, mimicry becomes a menace to the discourse of colonialism because it reveals the very ambivalence in attitude which makes that discourse possible -- the ambivalence between the colonial desire for the colonised person to be an enlightened and civilised alterity, and the simultaneous colonial desire for the colonised person to be a repressed Other. Or as Robert Young summarises the point, "[c]olonial discourse does not merely represent the much as simultaneously project and disavow its difference...Its mastery is always asserted, but it is also always slipping, ceaselessly displaced, never complete". [10] Colonial mimicry is a subversive action against the dominant ideology of colonialism.

And yet mimicry functions not only as a threat to colonial power, but also as a form of it: as Bhabha writes, "[t]he success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure". [11] That is, the existence and proliferation of many colonial subjects as inappropriate objects through mimicry menaces the colonial process by showing it to be failing in its aim. But it thereby ensures that this colonial process is never completed, and justifies the continuation of colonial appropriation. In pragmatically justifying the colonial process this way, mimicry acts as a form of colonial power.

This ambivalence that "emerges between mimesis and mimicry is a writing, a mode of representation". [12] Language and discourse, are an important and powerful cultural tools. But language is more than just a tool; as Frantz Fanon repeatedly emphasises in Black Skin, White Masks: "[m]astery of language affords remarkable power". [13] It is in the use of language that the colonial person is excluded from a role as subject of the discourse, and constrained or confined to a position as object, subject to the discourse. It is through language that the inappropriateness of the colonised person for any other role is made clear, and it is in language that this inappropriateness is exercised. It is in his or her attempt torepresent, discursively, the colonist that the colonial subject both mocks and menaces the colonial model, and issimultaneously, in being labelled inappropriate, controlled by it.

Of these features of the colonial relationship which Bhabha describes, there are three which are important to the relationshipbetween Caliban and Prosper in "Caliban upon Setebos". Firstly, the way in which mimicry within the colonial relationship both appropriates the colonised person, and makes him or her inappropriate; secondly, the partial subjecthood of the colonised person as both a menace to the stability of the colonial relationship and a contributing factor to its continuation; and thirdly, the role within the mimic relationship of language as a location of conflict and a source of power. These aspects of the mimic relationship, when used to analyse the poem, reveal within the language of the poem the same ambivalence which Bhabha identifies as informing colonial discourse: between the colonial ideal as "reforming, civilizing mission" and the actualised colonial desire for repressive, authoritarian imperialism.

Himself peeped late, eyed Prosper at his books
Careless and lofty, lord now of the isle:
Vexed, stitched a book of broad leaves, arrow-shaped,
Wrote thereon, he knows what, prodigious words;
Has peeled a wand and called it by a name;
Weareth at whiles for an enchanter_s robe
The eyed skin of a supple oncelot;
And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,
A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,
Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,
And saith she is Miranda and my wife:
Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane
He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;
Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,
Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,
And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge
In a hole o, the rock and calls him Caliban;
A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.
Plays thus at being Prosper in a way,
Taketh his mirth with make-believes: so He.
(lines 150-169)

In this extract from "Caliban upon Setebos", mimicry is explicit: Caliban "[p]lays thus at being Prosper". In the remainder of the paper, I will use Bhabha's theory to analyse Caliban's mimicry of Prosper in this passage.

Mimicry, as pointed out earlier, is both a sign that the discourse appropriates Caliban, and a sign of his inappropriateness. This ambivalent role of mimicry is the first of the three points drawn from Bhabha that I am going to discuss. The discourse of colonialism constructs Caliban inclusively, within its boundaries, to desire the power of Prosper, and so places Caliban in a subject position which fulfils the needs of Prosper as coloniser, a need to have his position desired and to feel powerful. Caliban has also, however, been constructed exclusively, within colonial discourse but excluded from it, constructed to desire a position for which he is, according to that discourse, inappropriate.

This leaves Caliban "vexed". Desiring the position of power which Prosper has over him, Caliban therefore mimics Prosper. That is, Caliban's desire to be (or at least to be like) Prosper, is expressed as mimicry, because this is the way colonial discourse constructs Caliban, as colonial subject, to believe that his desire for power will be fulfilled. But to mimic is explicitly not to be the thing being mimicked. There is always a not-quite-the-same-ness about the copy: the Other is "almost the same but not quite".[14] This remaining element of difference is exactly what identifies Caliban as inappropriate for the position of power which he wants. As a mimic, he is inappropriate for a role in which he would be the subject to be mimicked, but only appropriate to be (and appropriated to be) a mimic.

In the passage from the poem shown here, one of the desires for power which Caliban expresses, is the desire to have Miranda as a wife. Ownership through such forms as marriage is, according to the discourse of colonialism shared by Prosper and Caliban, an appropriate method for males to increase and express their power. Caliban's desires conform to the colonial discourse he is part of. I construct the relationship between Caliban and Miranda, and between Prosper and Miranda, possessively, not simply because Caliban does (he "hath an ounce.../ And saith she is Miranda and my wife"), but because in the patriarchal economy within which these figures exist, women are considered property of this sort:"Then as my gift, and thine own acquisition / Worthily purchased, take my daughter," Prospero tells Ferdinand in The Tempest (IV. i. 13-14).. Marriage to Miranda is almost the same (but not quite) for Caliban as Prosper's fatherhood of her. Caliban's desire for slaves, represented in this passage of fantasy by a mock Ariel and a mock Caliban, is again a mimicry of Prosper's method of having and expressing power.

Further aspects of Prosper's power that Caliban mimics are the possession and use of impressive words, and the ownership of magic books, enchanter's robes, and a magical wand. But because Caliban is other, mimic, appropriated and inappropriate, Prosper does not allow these desires of Caliban's to be satisfied outside of a mimic "bauble-world". Mimicry is a means of colonial power which prevents one of the professed ends of colonialism, bringing enlightenment and freedom to the colonised people, from ever being achieved. The reason, therefore, that "any print of goodness wilt not take", Caliban is to be found in Prospero's imperial domination of Caliban, and is not because Caliban's "race /...had that in't which good natures / Could not abide to be with", as Miranda claims in The Tempest (I. ii. 357-359)

In this post-colonial interpretation of the poem, the second of Bhabha's three points is the menace of the partial subjecthood of the colonial subject to the stability of the colonial relationship, which simultaneously remains a contributing factor in the continuation of that relationship. On the one hand, because he is a partial subject, having a gaze and a viewpoint from which to observe Prosper, Caliban as a mimic menaces the stability of his relationship with Prosper.

In order to mimic Prosper effectively, colonial discourse constructs Caliban as a presence who observes and comments. The poem itself, in Caliban's voice, and giving Caliban's perspective, is an explicit example of this ability to observe and comment. But in being a presence of any sort, Caliban's gaze discloses an alternative perception of the nature of Prosper's power -- alternative to the professed colonial goal of enlightenment. Instead, Caliban's gaze reveals Prosper's colonialism as oppressive, hierarchical, even tyrannical. Caliban's mimicry is a menace to the colonial mission because what Caliban mimics of Prosper is his exercise of power through possession, dominance, and exploitation, rather than any higher ideal Prosper might profess to be operating from. Caliban's oppressive domination of the ounce (which "he makes cower and crouch"), the pouch-bill crane (which he pre-emptorily "bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge"), and the sea-beast ("which he snared, / Blinded the eyes of"), is all done as he "[p]lays thus at being Prosper", implying that Prosper's methods of domination are similar. Earlier in the poem, Caliban says that Prosper and Miranda presume that he "drudges at their task": he is Prosper's servant or slave, not student.

Caliban's partial subjecthood and mimicry therefore present another knowledge of the norms of Prosper's civilisation. This knowledge does not equate to the knowledge which is established by Prosper's gaze because the reader sees the norms of Prosper's colonial power as Caliban sees them: as tyranny and repression, not as guidance and instruction. Caliban's mimicry implicitly challenges Prosper's right to wield that power, in that through mimicry Caliban will never become enlightened, and it is only the goal of enlightenment, Conrad's "idea at the back of" colonial conquest, which morally justifies Prosper's exertion of colonial power over Caliban.

On the other hand, Caliban's mimicry not only menaces the stability of his relationship with Prosper, it also perpetuates that relationship. Because Caliban wants to be like Prosper, he mimics Prosper. But the method of mimicry explicitly excludes Caliban from ever achieving the goal which he has been conditioned to expect that his mimicry will achieve for him. The challenge Caliban's mimicry offers to his relationship with Prosper is absorbed within the colonial process. In not allowing Prosper's aim of enlightenment or Caliban's aim of power to be achieved, mimicry justifies, pragmatically rather than morally, the continuation of the colonial relationship. Caliban has a continuing need to mimic Prosper in order to achieve the power he wants, and Prosper has a continuing need to exert power over Caliban in order to bring him to enlightenment.

The third feature of colonial discourse which is important in establishing the relationship between Caliban and Prosper is the expression of power in the mimic relationship through language. In this relationship, Caliban has been civilised by Prosper, to the extent that he has been taught a civilised tongue, and in entering into the discourse of colonialism he has come to construct his desires in the terms of that discourse. The language which Prosper and Caliban share I am calling a discourse of colonialism partly because it is a discourse which arises out of their physical colonial relationship. Also, it has several preconditions which clearly identify it as colonial: Prosper's paternalism, his presupposition of moral and intelligence standards based on levels of civilisation, and the assumption of moral roles based on power positions. For instance, despite his obvious mental agility (as demonstrated in his use of allegory, his vivid imagery, and his knowledge of nature), Caliban is restricted by Prosper to work described as drudgery. His moral education from Prosper has taught him such paradoxes that it is "good to cheat" showing as much of Prosper's presuppositions about Caliban (that he will be immoral) as it does of Caliban's nature. Further, as Edward Said observes in Culture and Imperialism, every discourse which arises out of a society which is involved in the colonial process is itself colonial.[15]

But, to say that Prosper taught Caliban a civilised language isnot to say that Caliban had no language or desires before thattime: after all he communicated with Sycorax before Prosper'sarrivald. In teaching Caliban a new language, Prosper gave hima power: entry into a new discursive community, and the power within that community of naming, or invoking in name: "Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!" Caliban cries. His invocation is empty because he knows Setebos is absent, but the symbol of his rebellion is the act of naming.

Language plays at least two roles in constructing Caliban as a member of the colonial discursive community he shares with Prosper: it both promises power to him, and simultaneously limits his power. Caliban accesses power, in the bauble world he has imagined or created, through words, as in the "prodigious words" he writes into his book of leaves -- the book is not an object of power for him without the linguistic element. Caliban, in this mimic world, has gained power not through just having a wand, but in having "called it by a name". Similarly, it is not simply to have Miranda as a wife that he wants, but to "saith she is Miranda and my wife". His power over Ariel is to have Ariel obey when he "bids go wade for fish". It is when he "calls him Caliban" that Caliban expresses his power over the sea-beast. And the creatures Caliban has power over, are without the power of language for themselves -- they cannot name him in return.

This imbalance is not just indicative of the power relationship; it is the extent of the power relationship. Caliban has power over these creatures because he can name them. While Caliban takes pleasure in his ability to crush any or all of the crabs, it is his ability to describe the indifferent feeling he has as he does so which he revels in, and it is in language that he expresses his pleasure. And hence, Caliban is led to believe, if he can but name Prosper and Setebos in ways which limit their ability to name him in return, he will have the power he wants: for instance, Caliban talks about Setebos when he can't be heard, and he spies on Prosper unseen. What Caliban desires is the power of naming, of language, which Prosper has, as representative of Prosper's power generally. However, in mimicking Prosper's use of language, Caliban does not achieve Prosper's mastery of it -- a simple example being Caliban's awkward and clumsy use of the third person to describe himself -- and hence Prosper retains power over Caliban. So though linguistic mimicry is a challenge to colonial power, that challenge is simultaneously absorbed by colonialism.

Bhabha's model, it seems, offers some evidence for each of the possible answers to Young's question. Caliban's articulations seem to be both actions which subvert Prosper's colonial power, and a method by which Prosper's power is extended. I don't think, however, that this is a sign that, as Young writes, "Bhabha...vacillates between these two possibilities". [16] Instead, I think Bhabha's point, and this is especially so for Caliban, is that the terms in which this opposition has been constructed are inadequate. That is, Caliban's articulations are both subversive and a method of containment. This is possible, I believe, because Caliban in the poem functions as what Montrose calls a "conceptual site", [17] where the dominant ideological position is challenged by subversive alternatives, and against which this dominant colonial ideology is redefined and redefended. As such a contested concept, the figure of Caliban is a representation of the conflict in Victorian colonial discourse, and hence contains the ambivalences which underpin that discourse.

To conclude, briefly, I would like to return to Bloom's dismissive comment with which I started:"our archetypal, politically correct article on Shakespeare these days is likely to be called Caliban and the Discourse of Colonialism". [18] The title of this paper may be archetypal and politically correct. However, I feel that the insights offered by this reconstruction to an understanding of Victorian society, (and to the poem by reconstruction of Victorian society), are important to the task of constructing a literary history and should not be so readily dismissed.


[1] Harold Bloom. Caliban. (New York: Chelsea House, 1992), p.1
[2] Thomas Wolfe. "Browning's Comic Magician: Caliban's Psychology and the Reader's". Studies in Browning and His Circle 6.2 (1978) p.7
[3] Robert Young. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. (London: Routledge, 1990) p.152
[4] Louis Montrose. "Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture." The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. (New York: Routledge, 1989) p. 21
[5] Homi Bhabha. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 2nd ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 1992) p. 234
[6] Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Paul O'Prey. (London: Penguin, 1985) p. 31
[7] Homi Bhabha. p. 235
[8] Homi Bhabha. p. 237
[9] Homi Bhabha. p. 238
[10] Robert Young. p. 143
[11] Homi Bhabha. p. 236
[12] Homi Bhabha. p. 237
[13] Franzt Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lamb Markham. (London: Paladin, 1970) p. 14
[14] Homi Bhabha. p. 235
[15] Edward Said. Culture and Imperialism. (London: Chatto, 1993) p. 12
[16] Homi Bhabha. p. 152
[17] Louis Montrose. p. 22
[18] Harold Bloom. p. 1


Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 2nd ed. London: Edward Arnold, 1992. p 234-241.

Bloom, Harold. Caliban. New York: Chelsea House, 1992

Browning, Robert. "Caliban upon Setebos." Robert Browning: The Poems. ed. J. Pettigrew and T. J. Collins. Vol. 2. New Haven, CT.: Yale UP, 1981

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Paul O'Prey. London: Penguin, 1985

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. trans. Charles Lamb Markham. London: Paladin, 1970

Montrose, Louis. "Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture." The New Historicism ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989 p.15-36.

Punch, or the London Charivari. January 24 1863

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto, 1993

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987

Wolfe, Thomas. "Browning's Comic Magician: Caliban's Psychology and the Reader's." Studies in Browning and His Circle 6.2 (1978): 7-24

Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London: Routledge, 1990

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