The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Gender Dynamics Examined in Shakespeare’s The Tempest William Shakespeare’s world-renowned play, The Tempest, addresses the complex dynamics of patriarchal society as well as the influence and oppression of female presence. Though Shakespeare’s cast of male conspirers and avengers certainly provoke the audience’s disgust for domineering males in their objectifying treatment of the only present female, Miranda, The Tempest ultimately conveys its speculation of gender balance through Sycorax, a character who is never granted a physical appearance in the play. By allowing Sycorax’s verbal degradation while simultaneously establishing her undeniable impact on the protagonist, Prospero, The Tempest asserts the power of female influence on society but concedes to male supremacy in Sycorax’s complete exploitation. Due to her physical absence from the play, Sycorax is rendered incapable of directly affecting the audience and denied the chance to state her own intentions. Instead, she is characterized solely through the accounts of other characters, most frequently Prospero, and as a result, our understanding of her character reflects only what Prospero believes.
However, this bias serves to communicate a great deal about Prospero’s perception of authority and thus affirms the presence of female impact. Audiences are first introduced to Sycorax when Ariel, Prospero’s slave, tentatively reminds his master of a prior agreement involving his liberation. Prospero is quick not only to accuse Ariel of ungratefulness and desert his previous promise, but also to deliver a bitter description of Ariel’s former master, “the foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy/was grown into a hoop”(1.2.257).
He continues on to recount the story of Ariel’s imprisonment at her hands, as punishment for failing to carry out “…her earthly and abhorred commands” (1.2.274). This outburst of acerbic insults against Sycorax, we learn, takes place on a monthly basis; Prospero is constantly reminding Ariel and reminding himself of the evils of which he perceived Sycorax to be capable. Thus is Sycorax’s influence established despite her absence in the play.
As a powerful female, she poses a psychological threat to Prospero, whose authority and control is endangered, leading him to fabricate elaborate details of Sycorax’s nature and rule over the island. Ironically, Prospero is tormented and haunted by the mere thought of a woman who he has never met, despite the fact that he claims that his powers are far superior to hers. His infatuation with Sycorax and her power remains a constant presence throughout the story. In fact, Prospero finds ways to incorporate his self-created antagonist into all things that he hates, most notably Caliban, Sycorax’s son. When describing Caliban, Prospero calls him a “misshapen knave, [whose] mother was a witch, and one so strong/ that could control the moon, make flows and ebbs/ and deal in her command without her power” (5.
1.270). Very little of this statement seems to relate directly to Caliban at all; instead, Prospero detests Caliban because of who his mother was rather than his own actions. Though Caliban has committed various injustices to Prospero and Miranda, namely the attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero’s commentary has nothing to do with these crimes. He chooses to incriminate Caliban for the status of his mother instead, blatantly exposing his view of the rightful status of women and the wicked abnormality of Sycorax’s position in relation to his own.
Sycorax’s condemnation is precisely what reveals her power over Prospero; his obsession with her memory conveys his insecurity with his own masculinity when confronted with a female of equal or greater power. The Tempest further establishes Sycorax’s influence on a community with which she has never had direct contact through the language repeatedly used to reference her. Though she is mentioned multiple times throughout the play, Sycorax’s name is seldom used, replaced instead with phrases that become synonymous with her name such as “this damned witch”(1.2.263) or “blue-eyed hag”(1.
2.267). Prospero thus constructs Sycorax as an icon of the unnatural and criminal to be hated universally; rather than confining his insults to convey his own personal views regarding Sycorax’s alleged sins, Prospero transforms her into a figure representative of pure evil to all people, justifying his own hatred. As a threat to the patriarchal system, Sycorax symbolizes wrongful rebellion and deviation from the hierarchy that Prospero is accustomed to and accepts as just. In this way, it is no surprise that Prospero assumes a woman of power would be universally despised for disrupting the chain of authority as the world he comes from was built off of that structure. By turning his self-created demon into a creature hated by all civilized society, Prospero outcasts Sycorax as a woman not only out of place but also inexplicably evil.
However, on the rare occasion that Sycorax’s name is used, its impact is undeniable. While arguing with Prospero, Caliban draws on his only connection to a power greater than that of his master, asserting that “this island’s [his] by Sycorax, [his] mother/ which [Prospero] tak’st from [him]” (1.2.333). He goes on to use his mother’s name to curse Prospero with “all the charms/ of Sycorax—toads, beetles, bats”(1.2.
345) knowing that even the mention of her person is threat enough to Prospero. Caliban uses his connection to his mother as leverage over Prospero, showing his reliance on her power and status, an unconscious questioning of the patriarchy in itself. Thus is Sycorax’s influence on Prospero’s small community established, her mere memory unsettling to the dominating male, and her person so respected that she has become a means of invoking fear in others. Despite asserting Sycorax’s impact on the society in which she has never been present, The Tempest restricts its empowerment of females to influence alone. Sycorax is, after all, completely defenseless to any insults or slander spoken against her, and left just as vulnerable as Miranda, who has grown up removed from contact with any other females and never seriously questioning male dominance.
Because she is incapable of establishing her own character directly with audiences, readers are forced to view Sycorax through the tinted lens of Prospero’s narration, which portray her conveniently as a weaker specimen despite her magical powers. In his initial account of Ariel’s imprisonment, Prospero recalls that “this blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child/ and here was left by th’ sailors” (1.2.270). Sycorax was brought to the island pregnant without details or mention of a husband, which Prospero uses to mutilate her image into one of lecherous promiscuity and disgrace.
He utilizes the female body as a gauge to determine the worth of the individual, placing great value on chastity and purity as is made explicitly clear through his bargaining with Ferdinand, who hopes to marry Miranda only after confirming her virginity. Sycorax is illustrated as contaminated, despicable and impure regardless of the conditions under which she was impregnated, and thus is she degraded without hope of explanation or defense. The Tempest maintains and accepts this system of measurement throughout the course of the play, allowing Miranda to be objectified and bartered away based on her virginity and in this way, Sycorax is accepted as sexually unclean and morally inferior. This depiction of her sexuality is a major blow to her portrayal as a whole as it renders her powerful figure weak in the face of the powers of men. Despite her abilities and notoriety, Sycorax is transformed into a woman incapable of legitimate and respectable sexual relation and thus the only authoritative female figure in the play is dominated and exploited by males.
While The Tempest asserts the influence of females in society through the portrayal of the character Sycorax, it ultimately confirms male supremacy and dominion. Prospero’s obsession with Sycorax, a woman he has never met but whose power he fears threatens his own position of authority, reveals his insecurity and reliance on the patriarchal system for stability and structure; he is constantly contemplating Sycorax’s rule over the island and reminding himself of her evil qualities which we as readers have no way of verifying. Though her impact on the dynamic of the island is significant, Sycorax is ultimately reduced to a woman of low stature due to the characters’ views of virginity and its reflection of moral value. Thus, Sycorax embodies the image of women in power, yet cannot escape the inevitable domination that befalls her gender.