PROSPERO Then was this island
(Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp, hag-born) not honoured with
A human shape.
ARIEL Yes, Caliban, her son.
PROSPERO Dull thing, I say so—he, that Caliban,
Whom now I keep in service. Thou best knowest
What torment I did find thee in: thy groans
Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts
Of ever-angry bears. It was a torment
To lay upon the damned, which Sycorax
Could not again undo. It was mine art,
When I arrived, and heard thee, that made gape
The pine and let thee out.
ARIEL I thank thee, master. (1.2.281-293)
So much packed into this brief introduction of Caliban, which is much shorter than we might remember or expect; on the page, the parentheses certainly emphasise that. But the parentheses are important, because they make it utterly clear that Caliban is human in appearance; that he is human. (Of course he is: he has to be played by a human actor.) Save for the son, except for Caliban, the island was not honoured with a human shape, there were no humans there. But there’s a kind of floating ambiguity, which suggests that it’s Caliban himself who is not honoured with a human shape, that he is some kind of beast – and Prospero’s dismissive, offensive account of his birth, littered like a puppy, a whelp (a son of a bitch?), hag-born. And Caliban is, it seems, freckled – which in this context suggests spotted, marked, stained, a term that is very commonly moralised. Caliban is first named in the play not simply as a dog, an animal (albeit in human form) but as morally compromised, sinful, marked, perhaps, by the sins of his mother. He is, Prospero implies, a fallen creature. The name firmly established by repetition (and Prospero snaps back at Ariel – I say so, you dull thing, you stupid spirit, don’t interrupt – but then Caliban disappears again, it being noted only that he too is kept in service by Prospero. What Prospero is (still) more obsessed with is Ariel’s apparent ingratitude for their liberation from the pine-tree prison, as Prospero takes a sadistic delight in reminding them of the pain that they were in. It was a torment to lay upon the damned – it was hell – and Sycorax, being dead, could not undo the charm and release the tortured spirit. It needed Prospero, and his art, to release Ariel, to make the pine gape, open up, and let them out. I thank thee, master, says Ariel, again, politely.
One of the things that this passage and this part of the scene more generally does is to think about the definition and the boundaries of the human. All the characters – including Ariel and Caliban – must be played by human actors, one of them a spirit, one of them perhaps closer to a beast. Prospero is obsessed with ingratitude, which he sees as something monstrous, bestial. And the torments which Ariel suffered made them cry out in ways that apparently drew a kindly response even from wild beasts, moving, penetrating the breasts of ever-angry bears, and wolves who howled in sympathy. Wolves and bears were considerably more sympathetic towards Ariel’s plight than Prospero, who sounds as if he was compelled to free them as much by the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of his art as by any kindness or compassion or sense of justice.