IMAGE:Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban dancing on the island shore from The Tempest Source.

This month we are exploring Native American tribes mostly in North America, but we are going to start with one particular island native who is strongly associated with what Shakespeare understood as an “Indian” and that is the character of Caliban. 

This week we are asking the question: Did Shakespeare Write Caliban as an Indian?”

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When we use the term “Indian” in context of Shakespeare’s world, it has a fluidity in terms of meaning. Early international explorers, like Columbus, thought they had found India when they discovered Native tribes in North America, and despite correcting their geographical error, the term itself continued and became a 16th century synonym for indigenous people groups. 

Shakespeare himself would have known about indigenous people groups being discovered by English explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh because the sailors, captains, and teams who worked on these expeditions kept fastidious notes, often wrote extensive logs, and were intentional about sending home ot England official reports of their travels and what they found there because the reigning monarch in England was financing this expedition, so they wanted to be kept apprised of how their money was being spent.

The shipwreck in Act I, Scene 1, in a 1797 engraving by Benjamin Smith after a painting by George Romney Source

Historians who explore Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, about a shipwreck which ends up on a mysterious island and encounters a native there, seem to agree that the character of Caliban was based on a Native American. Many people will tell you that the isle of Illyria where Caliban is found is a purely fictional place, but personally I question that conclusion. Instead, I think Shakespeare was conflating his own contemporary history with exploring what, for him, was a wild and mysterious place full of unknowns, and the only concrete thing he had to associate with that experience, and that’s Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greece, Illyria was the name of a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, inhabited by numerous tribes of native people, all of whom were called “Illyrians.” The area was inhabited at various times by people groups from what is now the United Kingdom, including Celts. 

In Greek mythology, Galatea is identified as the parent to one of the rulers of Illyria, and is the name of another early modern play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Lyly. Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Lyly’s Galatea, as he based some of his other shipwrecked play, Twelfth Night, on Lyly’s work. So it seems to me that the story of Illyria is not a purely fictional place Shakespeare dreamed up, but instead was a real place from classical antiquity that Shakespeare borrowed, as he often does, to write his own story. 

While I do not think Shakespeare’s Illyria was based on the American colonies, nor purely fictional, I do think Shakespeare infuses some of the current 16th century mindset about Native Americans into his character of Caliban.

Title page of Galathea by John Lyly, 1592. Source

The name Caliban is thought to be a derivative form of “Carib,” the name of the original inhabitants on the islands which were discovered by Columbus. In 1492, when Columbus discovered part of what is now known as The Bahamas, (the island he named San Salvador), he was accompanied by a cartographer, Juan de la Cosa who was also the owner of the Santa Maria (the largest ship in Columbus’ group). After they landed on the island in the Bahamas, Columbus described the island but it was so vague, he could have been describing almost any island. For that reason, historians are unsure which part of the Bahamas Columbus actually landed on, despite there being a current island called San Salvador today. 

The interesting part about this history in connection to Shakespeare is because of what happened in 1609. 

In 1609 English explorer John Smith set out for the newly minted Virginia colony with a fleet of 9 ships. During this journey, one of the 9 ships was separated from the fleet by a violent storm and ended up on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave an account of the ship’s experience, upon which some Shakespeare scholars believe Shakespeare based his play, The Tempest.

Carta do Mundo de Mercator (1569). Source

When you look at a map of the Bermudas and the Bahamas, they are physically almost 1,000 miles apart, but for someone that had never seen this part of the world, and only understood either the Bahamas or Bermudas as “islands in the ocean far away” which is likely all Shakespeare knew about them beyond the rather sketchy map of Juan de la Cosa (and even that map doesn’t make them look far removed) it is conceivable to think the reputations of both places could have been combined by Shakespeare to form his opinion and representation of Caliban.

Download an annotated copy of
Juan de la Cosa's Map of the World

Join the newsletter using the form below, and I will send you a free, printable copy of Juan de la Cosa's World Map, that he created while on Columbus' famous 1492 voyage to Cuba. This map helped writers like Shakespeare understand the world as they wrote about far away islands in the ocean. This map features notes and history about the world in 1500.

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