This Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness

This Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness

This Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness

This Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness


Written across the disciplines of art history, literature, philosophy, sociology, and theology, the ten essays comprising the collection all insist on multidimensional definitions of evil.

Taking its title from a moment in Shakespeare's Tempest when Prospero acknowledges his responsibility for Caliban, this collection explores the necessarily ambivalent relationship between humanity and evil. To what extent are a given society's definitions of evil self-serving? Which figures are marginalized in the process of identifying evil? How is humanity itself implicated in the production of evil? Is evil itself something fundamentally human? These questions, indicative of the kinds of issues raised in this collection, seem all the more pressing in light of recent world events. The ten essays were originally presented at the First Global Conference on Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness, held in March 2000 in Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University.


At the end of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero appears on stage having vanquished all the forces ranged against him. Alongside him are the conspirators, who originally expelled him from the Duchy of Milan and who have vainly plotted to take power on the island. Also on stage are the so-called mock conspirators, Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. Prospero reveals his true identity. in doing so he accepts his responsibility for Caliban with the phrase, “this thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.” We have taken part of this line as the title of this, the first book in the series Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness. For us, the relationship between Prospero and Caliban captures much about the relationship between humanity and evil.

The initial similarities are self-evident: evil is experienced as a paradox. It is something alien and something familiar. Further reflection reveals deeper parallels. Prospero is only able to acknowledge Caliban once he has humiliated him and reduced him to ridicule. It is as if Prospero can only recognize his own culpability for evil when he has conquered it. the only evil Prospero is able to acknowledge is an emaciated and unthreatening version.

Caliban is an ambiguous figure. When played for pantomime, as in the 2000 Globe production, we lose much of his essential pathos; we lose also the force of his rebellion. After all, it is never clear who is the true face of evil in the play. Is it the ugly and deformed Caliban representing the elemental forces of untamed nature? Or is it the far more attractive Prospero who uses his intellectual powers to exploit and manipulate nature and those around him? in an age less optimistic about the power of reason and science over nature, we are correspondingly ambivalent toward Prospero.

If we regard the evil-doer as a monstrous brute, someone who acts under the imperative of forces he can neither control nor understand, we are likely to see Caliban as evil. However, if we see the evil-doer as a man or woman possessed of many intellectual gifts and fully in control of the situation, we are more likely to regard Prospero as truly evil. After all, Caliban only becomes evil in the context of civilization. in n a paean to his former innocence he spits at Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is that I know how to curse; the red plague on you,
For learning me your language! (The Tempest 1.2.365–267)

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