Stephano is a butler and Trinculo is a clown, so they are both very lowly servants in King Alonso’s household – at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. And yet Stephano (whose name is derived from the Ancient Greek for “crown”) has aspirations to become king of the island and make Trinculo one of his viceroys (deputy kings). The unrealistic nature of his aspirations and the gulf between the noble, heroic figure he perceives himself as being and the vulgar, bathetic figure he actually is is one of the main sources of comedy in the play.
Both are presented as stupid and vulgar, but Trinculo more so than Stephano. Trinculo is associated with bodily fluids, from his first appearance, when Stephano mistakes him for Caliban’s excrement (“How cam’st thou to be the siege of this mooncalf? Can he vent Trinculos?” Act 2 Sc 2 lines 103-105) to Ariel’s luring him into the cesspit behind Prospero’s cell in Act 4 (“I do smell all horse-piss” Act 4 Sc 1 line 199 ).
Nonetheless, Trinculo at times acts as a cynical commentator on Stephano’s pretensions, e.g. calling Caliban “A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard” (Act 2, Sc 2 lines 162-163), e.g.2 ridiculing Stephano addressing Caliban as his “servant monster” : “Servant monster? The folly of this island! They say there’s but five upon this isle. We are three of them. If th’other two be brained like us, the state totters.” (Act 3 Sc 2,lines 4-6).
We know that Trinculo wears a jester’s costume, quartered into two colours and covered with patches, because Caliban says, “What a pied ninny’s this! Thou scurvy patch!” Act 3, Scene 2, line 63.
Stephano’s pretensions to nobility are undercut by his devotion to drinking and bawdy songs. When Ariel leads him into a cesspit in Act 4 Scene 1, his main concern is not the lack of dignity in being covered in bodily fluids, but the fact that he has lost his bottle of wine and he is determined to lose his dignity even further in going back to recover it, even if it means being totally submerged in the foul pool. “I will fetch off my bottle, though I be o’er ears for my labour” (Act 4 Sc 1, lines 203-204). The fact that he uses the language of aristocratic honour to describe completely inappropriate things makes him look even more ridiculous and unsuited to be a king (e.g. saying of losing his wine bottle in the pool “There is not only disgrace and dishonour in that, monster, but infinite loss” Act 4 Sc 1, lines 209-210)
Both Stephano and Trinculo speak in prose, which is conventional for clowns and lower-class characters in Renaissance verse drama and marks them out as vulgar and less sophisticated than the noble characters. It could, however, arguably also make them look more honest and less deceptive, though, as their dialogue is less obviously artificial and constructed.
Nonetheless, the fact that Caliban, the native whom they view as their “subject” and a subhuman “monster” whom they can show in a travelling fair if they take him back to England, speaks in blank verse, like the aristocratic characters, undercuts them even further: even Prospero’s non-European slave speaks in a more dignified, aristocratic fashion than Stephan, the would-be “king”.
Historical and literary context
On Twelfth Night (5th January), the last day of the Christmas celebrations in Jacobean England, it was traditional for one of the youngest and lowliest servants in royal and noble households to be declared Lord of Misrule – he would be king for a day and would issue prank “orders” for his “subjects”, commanding them to do funny or stupid things. The overturning in the play of what would appear to a Jacobean to be natural, God-given status hierarchies, by a lowly servant aspiring to be king, mirrors the reversal of normal status boundaries in the Twelfth Night celebrations. (Apparently the first reference to the play being performed was at King James’s court on 1st November 1611, so it wasn’t written to be performed at Twelfth Night, but it seems to draw on a similar tradition).
It is also part of the kind of metaphorical tempest that takes place in the play, whereby many normal Jacobean hierarchies are disrupted (Sebastian, the younger brother of a king, plots to usurp his elder brother – as Antonio has already done – and murder him and disinherit his niece; Caliban, the non-European slave, plots to murder his European master).
The purpose of the Twelfth Night Lord of Misrule celebrations was to defuse any tensions amongst the servants, so they would be less likely to question the established order the rest of the year. In the play, too, the disorder that occurs when Stephano and Trinculo try to transgress their “natural” place in the social pecking order leads to them cowed and gratefully submitting to authority again.
The play also fits the pattern of Shakespeare’s other “green world” comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, where people from the city run away from their problems to an anarchic, dreamlike, pastoral world and by submersion in this strange environment, they find a solution to their problems and can return to city. In this case, the social unrest of lower-class characters unhappy with their allotted place is one of the problems which is solved in the green world.
The play can, thus, be seen as endorsing the Jacobean hierarchical social structure, as it appears to sneer at the stupidity,cowardice and delusional dreams of the lower-class characters and they are eventually depicted as learning to accept their lot at the bottom of the social ladder, as if it is the natural order of things.
However, a Marxist critic might look at it another way and point out that the way the invisible spirit Ariel is seen as manipulating Stephano and Trinculo under Prospero’s orders represents how the workers are manipulated by the bourgeoisie: Ariel’s use of a tabor and pipe to control the clowns, like a snake charmer controls a snake, depicts those higher up the social scale as calculating puppet masters, the way he manipulates Stephano into hitting Trinculo could be emblematic of the way that the ruling classes divide and rule by sowing divisions between different oppressed groups,and the “glistering apparel”, “trash” and “trumpery” which Ariel dangles before the pair to distract them from their plot to kill Prospero could represent the superficially seductive products with which capitalism tempts the consumer and distracts them from rising up in revolution against an unjust system.
Stephano’s ridiculous commands as king could also be satirising the whimsical and self-serving commands of those in power in real life.The play can thus be read as exposing the exploitative nature of the hierarchy, not endorsing it.
From a postcolonial perspective, moreover, Stephano’s desire to exploit Caliban for his own financial gain can be read as a critique of European exploitation of non-Europeans:
“Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not lay out a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (Act 2, Sc 2 lines 27-32)
“If I can recover him and keep him tame, I will not take too much for him. He shall pay for him that hath him, and that soundly.” (Act 2, Sc 2 lines 74-77)
In these lines, using Stephano as a mouthpiece, Shakespeare appears to be ridiculing the superficiality, materialism and gullibility of an English public who will not give even a low value coin (“doit”) to charity to help the poor and disabled, but will pay a lot (“a piece of silver”) to gawp at any fairground novelty from the New World.
These lines also highlight how non-Europeans are viewed as subhuman commodities: “monster”s and “beast”s who can “make a man” (= make a fortune for someone) and “pay for him that hath him, and that soundly” (= make a good living for the person who owns them). Stephano views Caliban as so valuable as a money-making investment that he would not sell him for any amount of money (“I will not take too much for him”).
Thus Stephano is arguably a device for exposing and satirising the horrors of the colonial project.