Caliban enters with a load of wood, and thunder sounds in the background. Caliban curses and describes the torments that Prospero’s spirits subject him to: they pinch, bite, and prick him, especially when he curses. As he is thinking of these spirits, Caliban sees Trinculo and imagines him to be one of the spirits. Hoping to avoid pinching, he lies down and covers himself with his cloak. Trinculo hears the thunder and looks about for some cover from the storm. The only thing he sees is the cloak-covered Caliban on the ground. He is not so much repulsed by Caliban as curious. He cannot decide whether Caliban is a “man or a fish” (II.ii.24). He thinks of a time when he traveled to England and witnessed freak-shows there. Caliban, he thinks, would bring him a lot of money in England. Thunder sounds again and Trinculo decides that the best shelter in sight is beneath Caliban’s cloak, and so he joins the man-monster there.
Stephano enters singing and drinking. He hears Caliban cry out to Trinculo, “Do not torment me! O!” (II.ii.54). Hearing this and seeing the four legs sticking out from the cloak, Stephano thinks the two men are a four-legged monster with a fever. He decides to relieve this fever with a drink. Caliban continues to resist Trinculo, whom he still thinks is a spirit tormenting him. Trinculo recognizes Stephano’s voice and says so. Stephano, of course, assumes for a moment that the monster has two heads, and he promises to pour liquor in both mouths. Trinculo now calls out to Stephano, and Stephano pulls his friend out from under the cloak. While the two men discuss how they arrived safely on shore, Caliban enjoys the liquor and begs to worship Stephano. The men take full advantage of Caliban’s drunkenness, mocking him as a “most ridiculous monster” (II.ii.157) as he promises to lead them around and show them the isle.
Trinculo and Stephano are the last new characters to be introduced in the play. They act as comic foils to the main action, and will in later acts become specific parodies of Antonio and Sebastian. At this point, their role is to present comically some of the more serious issues in the play concerning Prospero and Caliban. In Act I, scene ii, Prospero calls Caliban a “slave” (II.ii.311, 322, 347), “thou earth” (II.ii.317), “Filth” (II.ii.349), and “Hag-seed” (II.ii.368). Stephano and Trinculo’s epithet of choice in Act II, scene ii and thereafter is “monster.” But while these two make quite clear that Caliban is seen as less than human by the Europeans on the island, they also treat him more humanely than Prospero does. Stephano and Trinculo, a butler and a jester respectively, remain at the low end of the social scale in the play, and have little difficulty finding friendship with the strange islander they meet. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” says Trinculo (II.ii.36–37), and then hastens to crawl beneath Caliban’s garment in order to get out of the rain. The similarity, socially and perhaps physically as well, between Trinculo and Caliban is further emphasized when Stephano, drunk, initially mistakes the two for a single monster: “This is some monster of the isle with four legs” (II.ii.62).
More important than the emphasis on the way in which Caliban seems to others more monster than man, is the way in which this scene dramatizes the initial encounter between an almost completely isolated, “primitive” culture and a foreign, “civilized” one. The reader discovers during Caliban and Prospero’s confrontation in Act I, scene ii that Prospero initially “made much of” Caliban (II.ii.336); that he gave Caliban “Water with berries in’t” (II.ii.337); that Caliban showed him around the island; and that Prospero later imprisoned Caliban, after he had taken all he could take from him. The reader can see these events in Act II, scene ii, with Trinculo and Stephano in the place of Prospero. Stephano calls Caliban a “brave monster,” as they set off singing around the island. In addition, Stephano and Trinculo give Caliban wine, which Caliban finds to be a “celestial liquor” (II.ii.109). Moreover, Caliban initially mistakes Stephano and Trinculo for Prospero’s spirits, but alcohol convinces him that Stephano is a “brave god” and decides unconditionally to “kneel to him” (II.ii.109–110). This scene shows the foreign, civilized culture as decadent and manipulative: Stephano immediately plans to “inherit” the island (II.ii.167), using Caliban to show him all its virtues. Stephano and Trinculo are a grotesque, parodic version of Prospero upon his arrival twelve years ago. Godlike in the eyes of the native, they slash and burn their way to power.
By this point, Caliban has begun to resemble a parody of himself. Whereas he would “gabble like / A thing most brutish” (I.ii.359–360) upon Prospero’s arrival, because he did not know language, he now is willfully inarticulate in his drunkenness. Immediately putting aside his fear that these men are spirits sent to do him harm, Caliban puts his trust in them for all the wrong reasons. What makes Caliban’s behavior in this scene so tragic is that we might expect him, especially after his eloquent curses of Prospero in Act I, scene ii, to know better.