Villains in “The Tempest” and the Perseus Myth

Introduction

Villains—or in other words, antiheroes—are highly important in all types of literary works. Any piece of literary art typically describes a conflict, and conflict requires a negative side. A villain serves to contrast with a hero, to highlight the latter’s positive qualities and strengths. As examples of villains, the Medusa Gorgon in the Perseus myth and Caliban in The Tempest can be cited. Both antiheroes play a significant role in the plot.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare introduces the character Caliban as an antihero. Caliban is a rough savage who confronts sage Prospero in his wishes and actions. These two characters are completely different. It could be said that they are two sides to the same coin: positive and negative, black and white. Caliban has accumulated many adverse qualities of human beings. He is so malicious that a reader could perceive him as more monster than human.

Taking this fact into consideration, it is interesting to compare Caliban with a traditional monstrous character from a Greek myth. The Medusa Gorgon from the Perseus myth has been chosen for the comparison. Medusa is an unreal evil creature. As a villain, a Gorgon is opposite to the hero Perseus. To understand the similarities and differences of Caliban as an antihero in The Tempest and the Medusa Gorgon as a villain in the Perseus myth, it is essential to compare the appearance of the characters, their personal qualities, and their roles in the literary texts.

The Characters’ Appearance

Usually, it is easy to identify the villains in a text, not only by their evil doings but also by their monstrous appearance. It could be stated that this approach is used to distract a reader from a character and to avoid possible misunderstanding. In both texts, the characters’ appearance represents their evil souls and negative actions. Caliban in The Tempest is not completely human. He is described in the text as “the son that she [witch Sycorax] did litter here, a freckled whelp hag-born—not honored with a human shape” (Shakespeare). Further in the text, it states that Caliban is a son of a witch and a devil: “Thou poisonous slave got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam” (Shakespeare). The non-human origin of Caliban is emphasized by his appearance.

Shakespeare mentions that he is ugly and monstrous several times in the text. Prospero calls him “poisonous” and “abhorred” (Shakespeare). Miranda, a daughter of Prospero, says that “Tis a villain, sir, I do not love to look on” (Shakespeare). More mockingly, the appearance of Caliban is mentioned by Trinculo, a drunken jester: “a very shallow monster,” “A very weak monster,” “a most perfidious and drunken monster,” “puppy-headed monster. A most scurvy monster,” “an abominable monster” (Shakespeare). It could be supposed that by these characteristics, the author is underlining the ugly appearance of Caliban similar to his negligibility, in that no one takes him seriously.

In contrast to Caliban, the Medusa Gorgon is truly a monstrous creature. Even her name underlines this fact: “gorges” means “terrible.” According to the legend, Medusa is a woman with snakes instead of hair. It could be supposed that this description highlights how ugly and terrifying the monster is because snakes are considered to be one of the most horrible creatures. In general, nobody can look at the Medusa to estimate her appearance properly because seeing her transforms all people into stones. Thus, it could be stated that both villains have an unpleasant appearance. Both of them are called monsters: In Caliban’s case, it serves as a joke, but in Medusa’s case, the characterization is real.

Villains’ Personal Qualities

Typically, villains in literary texts contrast with heroes. Also, antiheroes frequently represent one or several typical human drawbacks that should be overcome. Regarding Caliban, this character has a lot of drawbacks. First of all, he is a betrayer: “Thou didst seek to violate the honor of my child” (Shakespeare). Caliban also wants Trinculo to kill Prospero and to become his new master. In the scene with Trinculo, Caliban is shown as a toady who “will kneel to him” and “will kiss thy foot” (Shakespeare) because Trinculo has given him wine. Thus, he is shown as a weak person with a proclivity for alcohol. Also, Caliban is a rough man with no respect for Prospero. He is full of guile because he wants to kill Prospero while the latter is sleeping.

The Medusa Gorgon is one of the Gorgon sisters. Perseus is warned that “whoever looked upon these weird sisters would be transformed into stone” (Berens 207). She is a terrible creature. Perseus’ stepfather, Polydectes, decides that “the slaying of the Gorgon, Medusa, would bring him the greatest renown” (Berens 206). It means that a Gorgon is a so evil and horrible monster that it is worthy of a hero to kill her. However, from the legend, not much information about a Gorgon is available. Therefore, it could be said that this creature plays a role with a function that helps to demonstrate Perseus’ bravery and inventiveness. In contrast, Caliban is a well-developed character with his motivations and actions.

The Characters’ Role

In The Tempest, Caliban is an antihero; however, he is not a serious problem for sage Prospero. His main function is to show contrast with the positive qualities of Prospero, the latter’s sagacity, foresight, and ability to solve problems and to deal with his enemies. Caliban is shown to be an ungrateful savage and betrayer who does not appreciate Prospero’s kindness. Despite all of Caliban’s evil plans, Prospero does not kill him, which shows him as a kindhearted man. This could be considered as another function of Caliban in the play.

Vice versa, in the Perseus myth, the Medusa Gorgon presents a serious challenge for Perseus, and he needs to apply all his wisdom and inventiveness to overcome her. Moreover, according to the legend, Perseus needs “a pair of winged sandals, a magic wallet, and the helmet of Aïdes, which rendered the wearer invisible, all of which were in the keeping of the Nymphs” (Berens 206). This means that even such a great hero as Perseus cannot overcome the magic creature without the help of gods. In this case, Medusa’s terrifying features serve to underline the importance and omnipotence of gods in people’s lives. One of the most important problems with killing the monster is that Perseus cannot look at it directly. To solve this problem, he “caught on his bright metal shield their triple image” (Berens 206). In this scene, Medusa’s characteristic serves to demonstrate the inventiveness of Perseus.

Medusa’s features play a significant role in Perseus’ further life and doings. Perseus uses the Gorgon’s head to overcome other enemies because the ability to transform every living object into stone remains even after the creature’s death. In particular, Perseus “suddenly darted down, and producing the head of the Medusa from his wallet, held it before the eyes of the dragon, whose hideous body became gradually transformed into a huge black rock” (Berens 208). In this scene, it is demonstrated that a horrible ability to transform living things into stone is used for a good cause.

Conclusion

Two villains were compared: Caliban from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and the Medusa Gorgon from the Perseus myth. It could be concluded that these two negative characters serve to contrast with the main heroes and to highlight their positive qualities. Analysis of villains is highly important because it provides an opportunity to better understand the main idea of a text. Traditionally, villains play a highly important role in plot development, as demonstrated in The Tempest and the Perseus myth.

However, it could be concluded that these two villains are quite different. Both have an unpleasant, even terrible appearance. Though Caliban is called a monster as a joke, Medusa is a monster. Caliban is a well-developed character and demonstrates different adverse qualities. Regarding the Medusa, no detailed information is available. It is only known that she is a horrible creature with snakes instead of hair who transforms everybody who looks at her into a stone. Therefore, while Caliban is a well-detailed character, perhaps created by Shakespeare to demonstrate a conflict between a hero and an antihero, the Medusa Gorgon is more of a functional character used to demonstrate Perseus’ qualities but does not have her personality.

Works Cited

Berens, E. M. Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. Xist Publishing, 2015.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” Web.