Shakespeare's characterization of Caliban is not easy to summarize. While his physical nature is described as deformed, and the text suggests that he is both lecherous and treacherous, he is eloquent in his protests against his mistreatment by Prospero and others, and he has some of the most poetic passages in the play as he describes the island. He seems to combine the stereotypes of both the "noble savage" and the "wild man."

In some contemporary criticism, Caliban is identified as being representative of the colonized "other," subject to the imposed rule of his european conquerors. Caliban's relationship to them is in some ways explicitly linked to processes of colonization through his comments on Prospero and Miranda: when Caliban first comes onstage, he questions Prospero's authority on the island, saying "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak'st from me" (1.2.334-5). While he may be an exaggeratedly grotesque figure, the accuracy of his criticisms questions the grandeur of Prospero's authority and by extension that of the colonial projects of the Europeans.