Marriage, Magic and Invisibility: The Ungainliness of Female Authority in Shakespeare’s The Tempest
By Mabon Foo
Rulers must make clear the distinction between their subordinates and themselves if they are to demonstrate believable authority, and Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is no exception. The trio of Miranda, Caliban and Ariel, despite the differing individual relationships with Prospero, are relegated to positions of inferiority in part due to their connections with femininity. While both Miranda and Caliban are belittled in response to their uneasy symbolism with potential female power and authority, the former directly and the latter symbolically, Ariel presents an inverted case, where forced femininity is instead used to neutralize his potential threat.
The Tempest conspicuously boasts only a single female character among its cast: Prospero’s daughter Miranda, but she is hardly the only female presence in the play. Her sexual power is of paramount importance to Prospero’s scheme, which prevents her from being as inconsequential as she appears. Her marriage with Ferdinand, a union requiring the contribution of both man and woman, forces the nobles to do good on their promise to restore Prospero to power after their return to Italy, as her new status of princess will secure Prospero with considerable influence in Naples and discourage further attempts by Antonio to dislodge him from his dukedom. Although Prospero appears to reconcile amicably with the nobles in Act Five, one must consider the leverage Prospero holds upon unveiling Ferdinand and Miranda behind the curtain (Shakespeare 5.1.172). Miranda’s vital status as a woman is emphasized by the fact that it is her sexual power that allows Ferdinand to so willingly submit to Prospero and facilitate the political maneuver of marriage. From this, one can consider her capacity to sabotage Prospero’s plan by refusing marriage, even if she never actually does so, and view her declaration that she will “die [his] maid” (3.1.84) as indicative that she will take matters into her own hands if continually denied Ferdinand’s hand, showing that she possesses the inclination to complicate the plot if she so desires. Additionally, she is not the only female presence in the play. The princess Claribel, whose hand in marriage Alonso offers to the King of Tunisia, is the reason why the nobles have embarked on their journey across the Mediterranean. Her acceptance of this marriage is in fact what sets Prospero’s plans in motion, and therefore Prospero appears reliant on both her and Miranda for his triumph. Both characters also demonstrate power as they are linked to unequivocal virtue. Both of these characters are addressed with flattery and respect, Miranda being described as a “goddess” (1.2.422) and Claribel being a “paragon” never before seen in Tunisia (2.1.74-75). In turn, Miranda’s selfless concern for the wellbeing of others, as shown when she pleads with her father to end the storm and the suffering of “poor souls” aboard the ship (1.2.9) as well as offering to help Ferdinand “bear [his] logs” (3.1.24), provokes admiration from the audience in comparison to the manipulative Prospero and many other male characters in the play; she takes hold of the spectators’ hearts in a way no male character can. Indeed, Melissa E. Sanchez, in her essay “Seduction and Service in The Tempest” confirms the ability of the female characters to provide “an erotic dimension” and the “possibility of marriage, courtship and sexual desire” (52); this elevates them from the periphery of an otherwise male-dominated play into indispensable drivers of the plot.
Considering the apparent freedom and sexual power that Miranda and Claribel possess, their ultimate lack of authority stems from their fathers’ intent to capitalize on these sources in order to serve their own needs. Miranda, although seemingly in control of her own destiny through her ability to reject or accept Ferdinand, is raised to be innocent, naïve and oblivious, susceptible to the unforetold outburst of her sexual desires. By charming her to sleep during his discussion with Ariel (1.2.186), Prospero demonstrates his unwillingness to share the secrets of his powers for fear of a female presence threatening his monopoly on magical knowledge, instead manipulating his daughter just as he does the nobles. Her confusion in regards to Prospero’s magic deeds and ignorance regarding the male sex lends Ferdinand an irresistible air of divinity (1.2.419) that immediately juxtaposes the malevolent male figure of Caliban and smoothes out any blemishes in his character that a woman raised in conventional society would notice. This renders her apparent freedom an illusion, as even if she had rejected Ferdinand, Prospero’s enslavement of him and his penchant for manipulative rhetoric would nonetheless invoke her benevolence and allow Prospero to lead her into marriage by promising to free Ferdinand in return. Although Prospero is reliant on Miranda’s womanhood to achieve his goals, his imprisonment of Ferdinand not only mitigates Ferdinand’s power, but limits Miranda’s ability to engage with Ferdinand on her own terms. Lastly, while one may mention Miranda’s age as an equally pertinent factor in his treatment of her, the wedding scene in Act Four reveals that is not the case. Here Prospero, despite Miranda and Ferdinand being similar in age, refers to Miranda as being “[his] gift, and [Ferdinand’s] own acquisition” (4.1.13). He considers Ferdinand as his heir and equal despite knowing him only briefly, while rendering Miranda, with whom he shares a much closer bond, a mere possession in order to deemphasize the instrumental role she plays. Similarly, Claribel is torn between the choice of “loathness and obedience” in her marriage (2.1.130), but her choice of the latter is likely what defines her virtuous character. Following the wishes of her father, she fulfills an appropriate female role, passing from one male guardian to another, the King of Naples to the King of Tunis, and her initial agency recedes under the shadow of Alonso’s authority. It is further crippled when Alonso takes the blame for the repercussions of this marriage, shifting the subject of the conversation away from Claribel to him and emphasizing it was he that “married his daughter there” (2.1.107-8). By aligning femininity with submissiveness and insignificance, women are required to choose between power or societal acceptance, yet both are needed to occupy a seat of power. Thus, in both cases, the characters’ fathers treat their daughters as figureheads, eagerly wresting their sexual authority into their own hands and, as corroborated by Sanchez, “exploiting [them] for political uses” (70). Although the claim still stands that Claribel and Miranda both allow Prospero’s plot to succeed, their power manifests through the authority of their fathers, not through their own.
At first glance, the character of Caliban derives his inferiority from savage expressions of masculinity such as his attempt to rape Miranda (1.2.349-51), spurring Prospero to brand him a “poisonous slave, got by the devil himself” (1.2.319). But another equally and subconsciously pertinent reason stems from the female threat that his mother Sycorax symbolizes. Like Miranda and Claribel, Sycorax also possesses authority, albeit one derived not from her sexuality but from her prolific magical powers, as shown when she traps Ariel in a pine when he refuses to perform her “abhorred commands” (1.2.273). She was the island’s previous monarch prior to Prospero’s arrival, commanding “potent ministers” (1.2.275) that obey her “grand hests” (1.2.274) and Caliban claims authority as the rightful owner of the island due to this (1.2.331). But Prospero is all too eager to denounce her as a “foul witch” (1.2.258) responsible for countless “sorceries terrible” (1.2.264). She is fashioned in the image of a tyrant, and Prospero’s claim to the island is portrayed as a heroic deliverance from her evil legacy. Étienne Poulard writes in his essay “Shakespeare’s Politics of Invisibility: Power and Ideology in The Tempest” that Prospero conveniently “[constructs] her as his mirror image” portraying her as “a figure of absolute chaos and evil” (7) and thus enabling his authority over the island to be legitimate rather than the result of force. Whereas Sycorax imprisons Ariel, Prospero frees him, and by bringing Caliban under his care, he supposedly rescues him from the darkness his mother had ensconced him within. Yet Sanchez raises compelling points regarding the parallels between Prospero and Sycorax, revealing murkiness between the all-too-simplistic dichotomy between the heroic Prospero and evil Sycorax. She questions Prospero’s willingness to reimprison Ariel despite condemning the act when performed by Sycorax, since he is eager to demonstrate his superior power by threatening to use “hard, yielding oak” instead of Sycorax’s “soft pine” (Sanchez 60), without considering how it would vilify him as a greater tyrant than her. Additionally, Sanchez draws attention to the fact that both characters have been exiled from their respective homes due to their magical practices. Considering that Prospero possesses power great enough to “make a vassal of” Sycorax’s own god Setebos (1.2.373-74), the reason for his banishment could perhaps be the result of rising fears among the nobility of his own “mischiefs manifold” (1.2.264) and the story he tells Miranda may be fictional. He could be just as tyrannical as Sycorax, since he fills the void left by her in very much the same manner, placing Ariel under psychological torture by reigniting memories of his suffering every month, ruling, at least in part, by fear rather than benevolence.
Given the claim that Prospero is as much Sycorax’s male counterpart as her foil, one may associate with her a chilling reminder of woman’s ability to exert authority. Prospero’s condemnation of her may not only revolve around her fondness for witchcraft but, as Brittney Blystone argues in her essay “Extremes of Gender and Power: Sycorax’s Absence in Shakespeare’s The Tempest”, can also be explained as a reaction to the fact that she symbolizes, “women in power” and “women’s potential power” (Blystone 77). Sycorax’s independence leads to an ascension to power greater than what she had previously seen under a patriarchal society in Algiers, and Prospero takes it upon himself to associate this with chaos. Under this approach, the reliability of his stories become questionable, as similar to the retelling of his banishment, it may be that Prospero’s monthly retelling of Sycorax’s story to Ariel (Shakespeare I, ii, 262-63) may not be due to Ariel’s forgetfulness, but an attempt to repetitiously install a false history in place of Ariel’s true recollections. Ariel’s time on the island predates that of Prospero and it would have been through his memories that Prospero had learned of her, yet Prospero, as Blystone writes, “speaks Ariel’s memories for him” (76). Similarly, Poulard states that due to Sycorax’s death, Prospero is able to “re-shape the past to his advantage …[and] sustain his fantasy of absolute power” (8). This fantasy may also be distinctly masculine and sadistic, a method of alleviating the anxiety that Sycorax elicits by posthumously humiliating her through condemnation and the obliteration of Ariel’s likely more nuanced and venerating prior perception of her. As Blystone recognizes, Prospero becomes the authority of a story (76) that did not originally belong to him in order to delegitimize Sycorax’s authority and legitimize his own, his warped tale acting as a parable insinuating that a woman wielding power, be it magical, political or otherwise would lead to misery and ruin akin to the state that Prospero claims to find the island in. Although Sycorax is dead, she has left behind a vestige of power in the form of Caliban, who steadfastly believes in his claim to the island and therefore the legitimacy of Sycorax’s rule. He is the product of a matriarchy, having been raised by a woman his entire life without a male authority figure, and he defers to the female authority of his mother, showing irreverence and contempt towards patriarchy by wishing “all the charms / of Sycorax” upon Prospero. Fittingly, this perversion of typical gender roles denies him, in the eyes of the other male characters, the blessing of “human shape” (I, ii, 284) and renders his language mere gibberish. By associating female leadership with an air of savagery, Sycorax the wicked and uncivilized female monarch is juxtaposed with Prospero, the just and learned male monarch, and Caliban becomes evidence of the horrors matriarchal perversion can wreak upon a society. The legacy of a female authority figure is sullied by a man terrified of standing in her shadow.
Ariel, when compared to Miranda and Caliban, appears to wield the most power out of Prospero’s subordinates. He plays an undeniably active role as he is capable of turning invisible and luring characters with magical music and songs, and it is he, not Prospero, that summons the titular tempest (1.2.95-96) and ensures the survival of the ship’s crew. Considering this reliance and, as Sanchez writes, the fact that his opening speech (1.2.189-92) serves to enumerate all the places where the land-bound Prospero cannot venture and so “inverts their relative roles of protector and dependent” (59), he presents the greatest threat to Prospero’s supposed all-powerful authority. This crisis is resolved, however, through the ambiguity of his gender. Although the stage directions refer to him as male, there lies compelling evidence that undermine this clear-cut characterization. Firstly, he takes the shape of female creatures such as the “nymph o’ th’ sea” (1.2.301) and the harpy during the magic banquet (3.3.52) even though male forms would work just as well. In addition, he plays Ceres, a goddess, during the wedding masque (4.1.75), changing gender not only in appearance but in name, and Prospero addresses him using words more descriptive of femininity, calling him “delicate” (4.1.49) and “dainty” (5.1.95). This ambiguity is made intentional rather than coincidental when one realizes that it is Prospero that alters Ariel’s appearance and demeanor to better suit that of a servant. As a spirit who can change forms at will, gender would hold little importance, but for the human Prospero, the appearance that Ariel takes can have significant psychological ramifications. Indeed, it is Prospero that commands Ariel to take the form of a water nymph as well that of Ceres and the harpy, and in addition asks him to “be subject / To no sight but thine and mine” (1.2.301-2). Sanchez aptly describes this as presenting an image of “feminine compliance” and enforcing “feminine submission” (61), arguing it serves no other purpose but to ensure Ariel’s fidelity, as through this, Ariel plays the role of a societally-accepted housewife, invisible from all of society except her husband and family. Furthermore, Ariel in his natural spirit form is only seen by Prospero; he is presented visibly to Ferdinand as the feminine Ceres and the many invisible spirits Prospero commands only appear visible in this scene in the form of other goddesses such as Juno and Iris. In this manner, Prospero reveals to Ferdinand the extent of his authority by presenting a supernatural harem, making clear the distinction between masculine authority and female subservience. He erotically neuters the possibility of usurpation or contention from his spirits, in his own mind at least, by rendering them female and therefore rightfully subordinate. As such, femininity takes on a differing role than with Miranda and Sycorax: it is used as a tool to corral Ariel’s power and potential threat.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest presents a male hegemony of power that must not be taken for granted. The concept of female power presenting a threat to male authority and the idea that femininity and independent power are mutually exclusive come into play via Prospero’s attitudes towards his subordinates. He utilises Miranda’s sexuality without her realizing it, mocks Caliban due to his adherence to a matriarchal hereditary system and molds Ariel into the image of a female in order to ensure his obedience. All of this insinuates a vicious patriarchy, but the aforementioned examples nevertheless indicate that there is a greater female presence in The Tempest than initially assumed. Like many other hierarchies of power, there are women that could potentially possess significant authority if not concealed from the public eye.
Word Count: 2578
Blystone, Brittney. “Extremes of Gender and Power: Sycorax’s Absence in Shakespeare’s The Tempest” Selected Papers of the Ohio Valley Shakespeare Conference 5 (2012): 73-81. Web. 9 April 2017.
Poulard, Étienne. “Shakespeare’s Politics of Invisibility: Power and Ideology in The Tempest.” International Journal of Zizek Studies 4.1 (2010): 1-18. Web. 8 April 2017.
Sanchez, Melissa E. “Seduction And Service In The Tempest.” Studies In Philology 105.1 (2008): 50-82. Web. 8 April 2017.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.