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“I, poor monster” («Twelfth Night», II. 2. 33): Monsters as Subjects in «A Midsummer Night’s Dream» and «The Tempest»

Par Manon Turban : Doctorante - Université Paris Diderot
Publié par Marion Coste le 02/10/2018

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This paper aims to study how the unusual characterisation of Caliban and Bottom as feeling and thinking subjects in Shakespeare’s ((A Midsummer Night’s Dream)) and ((The Tempest)) provokes the emergence of compassion, an emotion which monsters seldom inspired in the early modern period and which invites the audience to catch a glimpse of the mutability of human identity in these two monstrous characters.


Ambroise Paré’s 1573 medical treatise, Des Monstres et prodiges, sheds light on the diverse physical singularities which turned a human body into a monstrous one in the eyes of early modern Europeans (1841, 1-68). A girl suffering from hypertrichosis, an excessive amount of hair growth, an infant born without a left leg, a hermaphrodite, a boy with a human trunk and the legs of a dog and conjoined brothers all appear in the study of Henri III’s surgeon. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, a body was therefore deemed monstrous when it featured an excess, a lack, when it was deformed, or when it transgressed the ontological distinctions between the human and the animal, between the sexes or between the singular and the plural. Shakespeare’s plays capture the multifaceted and diverse categories which monstrosity embraced as they are teeming with misshapen characters, like Richard III, the “deformed, unfinished” tyrant (Richard III, I. 1. 20), excessively tall or small people like giants and dwarves (King John, I. 1. 225; Love’s Labour’s Lost, III. 1. 166), one-eyed cyclops (Titus Andronicus, IV. 3. 46), protagonists whose clothes and actions blur the distinctions between the sexes, like Rosalind in As You Like It, and hybrids like Bottom, the donkey-headed man of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Caliban, the inhabitant of the island of The Tempest, who simultaneously appears as a man (II. 2. 34), a fish (V. 1. 269), a tortoise (I. 2. 316) and a dog (II. 2. 145). Belonging to an already existing category of monsters, the hybrids, Bottom and Caliban nonetheless introduce an original treatment of the monstrous identity, as they are staged as subjects. This paper aims to study how and why Shakespeare builds up this unusual characterisation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in The Tempest

Showing that monsters were seldom depicted as feeling and thinking entities in the early modern places and texts in which they appeared, the first part of this paper will highlight the originality of Shakespeare’s staging of Caliban and Bottom. I will then study how this innovative characterisation of monsters is built up onstage and how it triggers compassion. Finally, I will show how this emotion, which monsters only seldom inspired in the early modern period, invites the audience to recognise the mutability of human identity in the two monstrous hybrids.

1. Monsters as mere bodies

In the early modern places and texts where they appeared, monstrous men and women were very seldom depicted as subjects because the emphasis put on their uncommon physiognomies hushed up their intimate thoughts and emotions and turned them into mere objects.

The crucial importance given to monsters’ physical singularities can be ascribed to their being interpreted as signs which a superior entity – Nature or God – sent to Earth to warn humans of impending catastrophes. This interpretation was not an early modern creation as is shown by the Greek “teras” and Latin “monstrum” which both meant a monster, something abnormal, and a sign, a warning (Céard, 1996, vii). And yet, it became particularly rife in the aftermaths of the Reformation when European populations anxiously looked for signs that would help them grasp what God approved or disapproved of. In this context, monsters’ bodies played a particularly crucial part since they were sometimes thought to bear the marks of the practices God condemned. The excess of flesh around the neck of a child born in 1566 was thus interpreted as God’s disapproval of ruffs while the downward-looking eye on the knee of a monster, which was allegedly born in 1512 in the city of Ravenna, was believed to condemn humans’ ungodly interests in terrestrial things (H.B., 1566, 1 and Boaistuau, 1961, 308-310). At a time when religion was a source of personal and national anxiety, the messages that monstrous men and women’s bodies were thought to bear were thus given such visibility that it left no space for their intimate thoughts and emotions to be heard.

Such focus on these physical singularities at the expense of the subject did not only result from the anguished search for religious answers. It also derived from the early modern taste for the curious and the extraordinary.

The eagerness of early modern populations to glimpse monstrous bodies led to the proliferation of the places where they were exhibited, like fairs, taverns, private houses but also European courts. Velasquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas, picturing the Infanta next to a dwarf, or Thomasina, a small person who was one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, show that it was frequent for people of unusual sizes to live with royal families (Thornton Burnett, 2002, 21). The cabinets of curiosities which emerged and flourished in the sixteenth century also became places where monstrous specimens were often seen, as is shown by the presence of a two-headed dog and of a six-legged lizard in the frontispiece to Ferrante Imperato’s 1599 work of natural history, Dell’Historia Naturale, representing the naturalist’s personal collection of rarities.

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez (1656). Source: Wikimedia Commons
Frontispiece from Dell’ historia naturale, by Ferrante Imperato (1599). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet again, the way monsters were displayed in all these places enhanced their physical singularities. At the court of Henrietta Maria of France, the bodies of Jeffrey Hudson, an unusually small man, and of William Evans who was unusually tall, appeared side by side in performances in order to stress their uncommon sizes and to divert the audience (Brown, 2015, 143). The entertaining value of monstrous bodies was such that monsters were sometimes deprived of the status of subjects and treated as mere commodities, which people paid to catch a glimpse of in fairs or even purchased and displayed in their private collections to study them but also to please their visitors (Thornton Burnett, 2002, 11-13). The Swiss tourist Thomas Platter thus reports that Walter Cope, an English government official, had acquired the horn which had grown on a woman’s head and exhibited it in his private collection in London (1937, 172).

In the early modern period, monstrous men and women were therefore denied the status of subjects because of the focus on their unusual bodies interpreted as divine warnings or treated as entertaining objects. Shakespeare consequently introduces an innovative treatment of the monstrous identity in his staging of Bottom and Caliban as feeling and thinking entities, an unusual characterisation I will now study.

2. Seeing through a monster's eyes

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Shakespeare stages Bottom and Caliban as subjects as he reverses the one-way perspective built in the early modern texts and places where monsters mostly appeared in the position of the observed. On the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages, the monstrous hybrids share their intimate thoughts, emotions and perceptions, and thus become the observers through whose eyes the world is perceived

The intimate experience that monsters have of their strange bodies is shared with the audience, as Caliban and Bottom voice their physical sensations. While Prospero’s slave expresses the daily pains he undergoes as he is bitten and pinched by malevolent spirits (II. 2. 8-14), Bottom mentions how itchy his hairy face feels (“If my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch,” IV. 1. 24-25), tells the audience the strange type of food he craves (“Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay,” IV. 1. 31-32), but also his sudden drowsiness (“I have an exposition of sleep come upon me,” IV. 1. 36-37).

The stage also becomes a unique platform for the monsters’ affective and emotional reception of the world and of others to be heard. Mistaking Stephano for one of Prospero’s spirits, Caliban expresses his fear as he begs him: “Do not torment me!” (II. 2. 53). The hybrid’s emotion then materialises in his shaking, which the butler repeatedly notices: “This is some monster of the isle with four legs who hath got, as I take it, an ague” (II. 2. 61-62), “He’s in his fit now” (II. 2. 69) or “this will shake your shaking” (II. 2. 77-78). First afraid, Caliban then experiences different emotions as he grows better acquainted with Trinculo and Stephano. The two buffoons become a source of wonder for the hybrid, which appears in his describing them as “fine things” (II. 2. 107) and “wondrous” (II. 2. 155), and of joy, an emotion that the monster enthusiastically voices: “Thou mak’st me merry. I am full of pleasure” (III. 2. 109). Caliban also shares with the audience the specific affective bond that connects him to his island. Describing it as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (III. 2. 128-129), he reveals his unique aesthetic appreciation of the place and the pleasure its harmonious tunes inspire in him.

 In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the playhouse similarly becomes a place where Bottom can express his emotional responses to others. As he re-enters the stage, unaware of his monstrous transformation into a hybrid, he experiences fear. Just like his companions, he scurries out in his fright [1]. Coming back onstage, he shares his bewilderment with the audience as, abandoned in the Athenian wood, he asks to himself: “Why do they run away?” (III. 1. 100) and tries to understand his companions’ reactions: “I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me” (III. 1. 106-107).

Through the expression of their physical sensations and of their special affective and emotional relationships with others, Bottom and Caliban are thus staged as feeling entities. But they also prove sensible as they share with the audiences their intimate thoughts. Bottom is surprisingly wise when he tells Titania his reflections on love: “reason and love keep little company together nowadays” (III. 1. 127-128), a statement which aptly describes what occurs onstage, while Caliban sagaciously reckons it was foolish of him to follow Stephano: “What a thrice-double ass / Was I to take this drunkard for a god / And worship this dull fool!” (V. 1. 297-299).

3. Compassion, a new emotional response to monsters

In their ground-breaking study, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park showed that monsters elicited three major emotions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They would terrify when they were considered as divine portents warning sinful humans of an upcoming catastrophe, amaze when they were thought to be evidence of God’s boundless creativity or repel when they were deemed to be errors of nature (Daston & Park, 1998, 173-214). Shakespeare captures some of these emotions in A Midsummer Nights Dream and The Tempest. When he comes back onstage after his monstrous metamorphosis, Bottom terrifies his companions who run away crying out: “Oh, monstrous! Oh, strange! We are haunted! Pray, masters! Fly, masters! Help!” (III. 1. 92-93). In The Tempest, Caliban first frightens Stephano who believes his monstrous body is the work of some devil of the isle (“Have we devils here?” II. 2. 54), before inspiring wonder in the butler who admiratively calls him: “A most delicate monster!” (II. 2. 83). If the characters’ affective responses to Caliban and Bottom capture the fear and wonder monsters usually inspired in the early modern period, another emotion is elicited from the audience. As they are told the hybrids’ emotions and experiences, the spectators can identify with them, share their affects and thus foster compassion for them.

Even though one cannot help but smile at Bottom’s ridiculous hybrid body, and especially at the puns the polysemy of “ass,” meaning both a donkey and an idiot, gives rise to, his monstrous transformation also renders him somewhat touching as his growing emotional and physical isolation reinforces his bewilderment. Unaware of his metamorphosis, Bottom’s lack of understanding heightens his confusion whereas his companions’ fear progressively fades away. Coming back onstage, Snout expresses incredulity rather than fear at the sight of the hybrid: “O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?” (III. 1. 102), while Peter Quince’s rational statement, “Thou art translated” (III. 1. 105), suggests that his terror has vanished. Unlike his companions, Bottom’s confusion and bewilderment do not peter out as his questions (“Why do they run away?” III. 1. 100; ”What do you see?” III. 1. 103) remain unanswered. His intellectual and emotional isolation becomes physical when Snout and Peter Quince leave the stage and abandon him in the heart of the wood where a tormenting spirit abides. Left alone on the stage, unable to understand the craftsmen’s sudden panic and words, he resorts to child-like tricks to regain his composure: “I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid” (III. 1. 108-109). Singing, pacing the stage, the hybrid appears like a forlorn child, tricked by malevolent playmates, a resemblance which his words reinforce: “this is a knavery of them to make me afeard” (III. 1. 100-101) and “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me, to fright me if they could” (III. 1. 106-107).

In face of Bottom’s loneliness and bewilderment, the audience’s laughter may therefore be tinted with compassion especially as the character’s resemblance to a child, maliciously tormented by others, lays bare his vulnerability.

When, alone onstage, Caliban enumerates the violent chastisements he repeatedly undergoes, he inspires a similar emotional response in the audience:

For every trifle are they [Prospero’s spirits] set upon me,
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me; then like hedgehogs, which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness. (II. 2. 8-14)

As it unravels, the list of the harsh treatments the monster suffers from spurs the audience’s compassion. The violence of the punishments, their regularity, the physical and psychological pains they cause, giving the monster no respite, blatantly lay bare Prospero’s cruelty. The very shapes of the spirits which torture him put the finishing touches to the harshness of the chastisements as their bodies are composed of animals which often appeared as a monstrous bestiary in Shakespeare’s plays. In Macbeth, for instance, the apes, hedgehogs and adders are all ingredients of the Weird Sisters’ horrific hell broth (IV. 1. 1-54). Taking the shapes of monstrous beasts, the dreadful hybrids sent to torture Caliban turn his harsh castigation into nightmarish ordeals, thus prompting the spectators to think, without Trinculo’s irony that Caliban is indeed a “poor monster” (II. 2. 149). The jester also proves particularly cruel to Prospero’s slave as he expresses the unjustified urge to hurt him: “I could find in my heart to beat him” (II. 2. 147), and repeatedly insults him, calling him, for instance, “a very shallow monster” (II. 2. 135), “a very weak monster” (II. 2. 136), “a perfidious and drunken monster” (II. 2. 141-142), “a most scurvy monster” (II. 2. 142), “an abominable monster” (II. 2. 149-150) or “a most ridiculous monster” (II. 2. 156). Trinculo also draws a derogatory portrait of Caliban when he describes him as “a puppy-headed monster” (II. 2. 145-146), an expression which calls to mind the monstrous race of the cynocephali, also commonly known as the “dog-headed men” in the early modern period. Substituting “dog” with “puppy,” Trinculo ridicules Caliban as he turns him into a lesser, more immature version of the hybrid. But in doing so, Trinculo also unwittingly spurs the audience’s compassion for Caliban since his association with a puppy develops in the rest of the scene and renders him somewhat touching.

The eagerness of Caliban to please Stephano furthers his resemblance to a young devoted dog as he promises to hunt for him (“I will fish for thee,” II. 2. 152; “I’ll get thee / Young scamels from the rock,” II. 2. 162-163), to dig holes in the ground for him (“I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts,” II. 2. 159) and even more significantly to fetch him wood sticks, an action he now refuses to perform for his former master, Prospero: “I’ll… get the wood enough… I’ll bear him no more sticks but follow thee” (II. 2. 152-154). Thus, Trinculo’s insult triggers an association between Caliban and a young dog which changes the emotional reception of the monster as, appearing as a faithful puppy that is eager to please his master, he becomes quite touching.

Staged as feeling and thinking subjects with whom the audience can empathise, Caliban and Bottom no longer appear as mere bodies which one scrutinizes to decipher God’s will or to be entertained. In A Midsummer Nights Dream and The Tempest, they become alter egos thanks to whom the spectators can glance at their own human condition, as the final part of this paper will show. 

4. Monsters as mirror images of the human condition

In his Essays, Michel de Montaigne observes:

Je n’ay veu monstre et miracle au monde plus expres que moy-mesme. On s’apprivoise à toute estrangeté par l’usage et le temps; mais plus je me hante et me connois, plus ma difformité m’estonne, moins je m’entens en moy (2004, 1029). 

Habits, customs make one more familiar with external phenomena but, according to Montaigne, the “I” always remains strange, deformed and protean, just like a monster. In Shakespeare’s plays too, the audience can glimpse the ineluctable mutability of the human self in the monstrous.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, the monstrous characters aptly epitomize the chameleonic nature of humans. The sundry animals conjured up to describe Caliban, alternatively called a tortoise (“come, thou tortoise,” I. 2. 316), a fish (“a fish, he smells like a fish,” II. 2. 24-25), and a cynocephalus (“this puppy-headed monster,” II. 2. 145-146) render the character’s hybridity difficult to grasp. The indeterminacy of Caliban’s physical singularities may explain why the other characters often refer to him as the “mooncalf” (II. 2. 99, II. 2. 103, II. 2. 125, III. 1. 19 and III. 1. 20), a term the OED defines as “a deformed animal, a monster” and which therefore stresses his strange aspect without specifying where his monstrosity lies. Such indeterminacy and the ensuing impossibility to assign Caliban to a clear-cut category encapsulate the mutability of human identity, which is, like the body of the monster, never definite.

The song Bottom woefully sings after his monstrous transformation, also sheds light on this changeability:

The ouzel cock so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill;
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill - (III. 1. 110-113)

Here, a defining trait is ascribed to each bird. Be it a colour, a song or the shape of their feathers, they all can be recognized thanks to immutable traits. In the light of Bottom’s sudden transformation as a monster, of his radical physical alteration, the song establishes a sharp contrast between the unchangeability of animals, their stable characteristics, and the threat which always looms over our human heads to be “translated” (III. 1. 105), to undergo radical changes.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, monstrosity thus allows Shakespeare to shed light on the ineluctable mutability of human identity as the stress on the indeterminacy of Caliban’s hybridity and Bottom’s radical metamorphosis into a monster lay bare its indefinite and unstable nature.


In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, the ontological and emotional gap which separated monsters from other humans in the early modern period is bridged as Caliban and Bottom appear surprisingly close to the other characters and, even more significantly, to the audience. Just like them, they are feeling and thinking subjects who experience complex emotions, have their unique perception of the world and intimate thoughts. In face of such ontological closeness, a new emotion arises. Identifying with monsters, the spectators suddenly feel compassion for them as they witness their distress onstage. From mere bodies which one scrutinizes to decipher God’s will or to be entertained, they thus become alter egos thanks to whom one can catch a glimpse of the ineluctable mutability of the human self.


[1] In the First Folio version of 1623, the stage direction indeed reads: “the clowns all exit” (III. 1. 93).


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« Pour aller plus loin »

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WALTRAUD, Ernst, éd. 2006. Histories of the Normal and the Abnormal: Social and Cultural Histories of Norms and Normativity. Oxford: Routledge.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Manon Turban, "“I, poor monster” («Twelfth Night», II. 2. 33): Monsters as Subjects in «A Midsummer Night’s Dream» and «The Tempest»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2018. Consulté le 14/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/Shakespeare/monsters-as-subjects-in-a-midsummer-night-s-dream-and-the-tempest