Caliban and Aaron: Monstrous Bodies and Monstrous Language

In: Monstrous Reflection
Kristen Wright
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Medieval literature is densely populated by a wide variety of monsters that, as noted by Cohen and others, represent the threat of chaos and the barbaric ‘other’ that exists in the liminal spaces just outside of civilization. Although some of the more extreme versions of these monstrous characters (giants, cenocephali, etc…) have largely disappeared by the Renaissance, black skin is still used as a marker of someone who is both spiritually and physically threatening. In the characters of Caliban and Aaron, Shakespeare not only presents foreign men with black skin who exhibit monstrous behaviours, but he also specifies their threat in terms of the men’s mouths and ability to use language. While the mouth is easily recognizable as a potential sexual orifice, Shakespeare goes a step further and ties these men’s ability to speak and to manipulate their words to their sexual and physical threat. Caliban has learned language imperfectly in order to curse his captors, and he is also unable to fulfil his desire to rape Miranda and ‘people the isle with Calibans’; Aaron, on the other hand, speaks masterfully and is able to manipulate those around him resulting in his greater physical threat. In both of these characters their sexual menace is directly tied to how effectively they can use and understand language. What Shakespeare presents is not primarily the threat of monstrous physical body, but the threat of the monstrous mind.

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