I know how to curse (and Prospero is a bully) (1.2.364-375) #StormTossed

CALIBAN        You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language.

PROSPERO                                                     Hag-seed, hence:

Fetch us in fuel, and be quick – thou’rt best –

To answer other business. Shrug’st thou, malice?

If thou neglect’st, or dost unwillingly

What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps,

Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar,

That beasts shall tremble at the din.

CALIBAN                                                                    No, pray thee.

[aside] I must obey; his art is of such power

It would control my dam’s god Setebos,

And make a vassal of him.

PROSPERO                                                     So, slave, hence.         Exit Caliban.



You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse – one of the greatest lines anywhere in Shakespeare’s plays, and an incontrovertible and bitter truth about the power of words, for good and ill. I know how to curse. I have that power, because you gave it to me. (But also: you took pains to teach me this apparently great thing, and all I can do is curse; all the things that words can do, and that’s the greatest profit I have; that’s the only power I have.) So I will curse you with the red plague (lots of medical speculation about different varieties of plague) because you taught me your language – because that’s all I can do with it – curseHag-seed – again, the obsession with Sycorax – but also a diminution of Caliban, to something small and powerless. (Does Caliban remember his mother? Does he love his mother? Prospero’s insults are playground level, repeatedly mocking and insulting Caliban’s mother.) Go away and fetch wood, that’s all you’re good for, so jump to it. And don’t you shrug at me (look me in the eye and stand up straight when I’m talking to you; don’t you ‘whatever’ me, says the teacher-bully): if you don’t do as you’re told I’ll torture you. And do as I tell you properly, and with a good grace, rather than unwillingly. (Prospero is never content with just being in control – he wants those who serve him to act as though they’re enjoying it, being grateful.) No, pray thee – Caliban is frightened; Prospero has made (and carried out?) these threats before. Prospero has proper power, power that Caliban knows, or fears, is greater than his mother’s, and greater than the god Setebos (apparently Patagonian; pretty random here) whom she worshipped too. So, slave, hence. Goodbye for now, Caliban.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *