Written in an age of exploration, The Tempest was heavily influenced by contemporary politics and contained some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated verse. It’s been seen by some as a commentary on colonialism, and by others as a meditation on the nature of theatre itself.
Written about 1611, The Tempest is perceived as Shakespeare’s last solo play. It was performed 8 years after the death of Elizabeth 1 and well into the reign of James 1. Political change mattered greatly for Shakespeare, because even though his plays were for public consumption, he knew that at any moment his dramas could be requested to be performed in front of the monarch in court. He therefore needed to think carefully about not offending the monarch and putting on plays about things that the monarch was interested in. What’s striking about the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603, after the death of Elizabeth, is that the later plays are always interested in questions of family, in a way that some of the earlier plays weren’t. This is unsurprising as Queen Elizabeth was infamous for being unmarried, yet King James was conscious of the fact that he had a son, a daughter, and the question of who they married was of great political importance. James was also very interested in magic, the idea that there might be such a thing as good magic. Of course, he was also interested in bad magic, evident in the 1604 Witchcraft Act across England as it was one of the first things he accomplished as a ruling monarch.
During this period, theatre is also becoming increasingly similar to court masque, through the increasing use of indoor theatres that use more technological special effects and artificial light to create the illusion of the storm at the beginning of the play. This also reflects the monarch’s extravagant and flamboyant nature- he encouraged theatrical performances and spent severe amounts of parliamentary money on his own pleasure and enjoyment of the court, instead of nationwide matters such as foreign policy and religious uniformity. Plays are increasingly being written by Shakespeare with a view of possible performance before a very grand, courtly audience. This leads to a more spectacular theatre, more dependent on visual spectacle. It also begins the age of new exploration- in 1600 John Dee presented Elizabeth 1 with the phrase, ‘The British Empire’, starting an age of expression and surge of national identity. While lots of Shakespeare’s plays have non-English settings, this setting isn’t in any recognisable European country, a long way from what’s credited as being part of European civilisation. This is a new perspective of the time, with a sense of looking into the unknown, discovering new forms of life that a Jacobean audience will view as something not even quite human, evidenced from Caliban’s description as a ‘salvage and deformed slave’. Prospero’s values are authoritarian and inherently European, that don’t have much value in a non-European being. The island is a setting where there’s both the possibility of non-human nature, such as plants and animals being unfamiliar to Europeans, and included in that is human-like creatures that are unaccounted and unknown.
The Tempest has nine carefully crafted scenes and after Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, it’s his shortest play. The entirety of the play, except the first scene, is set on a foreign island, and there are no elements of familiarity given to the European audience. Likewise, it’s suggested that the play’s events are going to cover approximately four hours of an afternoon, a specificity and pressured concentration not usually present in Shakespeare’s plays. Thematically The Tempest is very much a play about theatre and art, and the structure itself brings attention to that- the scenes pair with each other and point inwards to the central scene (Act 3 Scene i) which is the courtship of Miranda and Ferdinand. The idea of creation (whether it be magic or art) is essential to the play: Prospero creates the storm and therefore the play’s conflict, and makes his own ending through the epilogue. The very stage is reflective of the empty, barren island, and Shakespeare fills it with people, much like Prospero brings people to the stage through creating the storm. Prospero is in a sense scripting and directing the performance of the play the audience witnesses, much like Shakespeare himself, perhaps as a goodbye in his final solo play.
The plot of The Tempest is unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays in that it depends almost entirely on the use of supernatural powers. In Macbeth, for example, the witches may have an influence on the hero’s behaviour but he has free will and is thud capable of determining his own actions. This is not true of The Tempest, however, where the destiny of everyone from Prospero to Ariel, from Alonso to Caliban, is decided by supernatural intervention rather than by their characters or their actions. Part of the belief for witchcraft in society was the result of living in a harsh society where education was limited to the few and where there often seemed no natural explanation for events. An additional point worthy of some consideration is that certain places were associated with magic: wells, cross-roads, hawthorn groves. In The Tempest, the entire island has strong associations with the supernatural. Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, a renowned witch, was banished there; Ariel and the other spirits belong on the island; Prospero’s magic powers seem to have developed only after he reached it and they are given up before he leaves. It is as if the island is enchanted.
In terms of female characters within the play, Miranda is the only women on stage and she is both assaulted and honoured for her virginity. Despite the main theme of magic, no female character is a witch, subverting typical narratives relating femininity and magic. Despite this, her life still revolves around the traditional female narrative of love and marriage. Sycorax is an unseen character in the play. She is a vicious and powerful witch and the mother of Caliban, one of the few native inhabitants of the island. She has produced what other characters deem to be a ‘salvage and deformed slave’, differing from the magician Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, who is described as ‘a goddess’ by Ferdinand. Sycorax directly introduces the idea of magic into the play, and at its most basic interpretation, the female witch commands black magic, whereas the male magician has the possibility for good magic, magic that is all too often correlated with art and beauty. Shakespeare was inspired by magic through his reading of Ovid and Medea, which accompanied all his plays. The fine line between Sycorax’s black magic and Prospero’s white blurs even further during his renunciation of magic in Act V, a speech which has strong parallels to one given by the dark witch Medea in the Metamorphoses. In comparing himself to Medea, Prospero is implicitly comparing himself to Sycorax. Emphasizing the relationship between Prospero and Sycorax demonstrates the ambiguity of Prospero’s supposedly benevolent character. The idea of magic is powerful, and there’s another topical reference that Jacobeans would’ve been aware of at the time of the play’s performance: the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, known as the wizard emperor, had his reign usurped by his younger brother. He buried himself in magic books and appeared to be content with giving up his position, unlike Prospero’s reaction to his brother’s reign. Antonio usurps the throne of Milan and Prospero sees this as the wicked overturning of a lawful authority, even though Prospero had neglected his duties (as he himself admits).
Prospero and Sycorax are extreme ends in the spectrums of power and gender. The patriarchy that Prospero enforces is not an independent or coherent system; rather, it reacts to its opposite, which Sycorax symbolizes. Although some dismiss Sycorax as “long dead by the time the play’s events take place” (Ann Thompson 339), she still shapes the characters’ perceptions of power and gender. While one can analyse male characters directly by their actions on stage, one can analyse Sycorax only by her influence on these characters. With Sycorax absent, Prospero envisions her as his female opposite. Through Prospero, Sycorax symbolizes everything that may question patriarchy. Sycorax exists only in male characters’ accounts; however, Sycorax influences the men’s perception of power because she is absent. Scholars generally agree that Sycorax, a foil for Prospero, is closely related to the Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Contextually, there was the idea of black magic involving witches being in league with the devil, but there was also the idea of white magic (as supported by the monarch himself), that involved the magician harnessing the forces of nature to good effect and purpose. Prospero sees himself as a white magician, whereas Sycorax is presented as the black magician, perhaps as a reference to the racial ignorance of Jacobean and Eurocentric society. Similarly, while Prospero has numerous speeches and soliloquies to defend his magic, Sycorax is already dead by the time the narrative begins- she is given no voice, a reference to the crimes convicted of innocent women during 17th century witch trials. Despite this, many post colonialist writers and critics see Sycorax as giving voice to people, particularly women, recovering from the effects of colonisation. Sycorax’s silent role plays an important part in postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest. Because she is native to Algiers and her story is only heard through others (Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban), she is celebrated by some scholars as a representation of the silenced black woman. Interpretations of Sycorax as silenced focus not only on her race but her gender as well. Most of what is said about her in the play is said by Prospero. However, Prospero has never met Sycorax—all he learned about her he learned from Ariel—and his suspicion of women makes him an unreliable source of information. Sceptical of female virtue in general, he refuses to accept Caliban’s prior claim to the island, accusing him of being a bastard “got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam.” Prospero’s comments around Sycorax describe her as an ancient and foul witch native to Algiers, and banished to the island for practicing sorcery “so strong / That [she] could control the Moon”. Prospero further relates to how, many years prior, sailors had brought her to the island, while she was pregnant with her bestial son, Caliban, and abandoned her there, as by some ambiguous reason, she was spared being put to death. The reference to her ‘bestial son’ implies that she is closer to animals and nature than humanity, a criticism that is in current society as a reconnection with pagan roots. One of the questions the play asks is whether Prospero’s white magic is so very different to Sycorax’s black. In some sense, they’re the same kind of magic, linking not only to progressive ethnic ideas in Jacobean Britain, but also to the questioning of binary oppositions and the duplicity of something unknown and unidentifiable as magic. While Sycorax tortured the island’s spirits, Prospero tortures and bullies Caliban.
Sycorax has been described as the matriarchal figure of The Tempest. Modernist authors such as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes have alluded to Sycorax in their writing in order to illustrate destructive feminine power. As Hughes writes, “…the difficult task of any poet in English is to locate the force which Shakespeare called Venus in his first poems and Sycorax in his last.” By emphasising the female power found in characters such as Sycorax, Plath and Hughes hoped to counteract what they saw as the patriarchal nature of canonical Western literature. Feminist critics, however, have maintained that matriarchal readings of Sycorax are shallow, as they often find importance only in Sycorax’s motherhood rather than her thoughts, feelings, and past life.
Witchcraft isn’t just seen in the characters of Prospero and Sycorax, but also in the gender-fluent character of Ariel. As his name implies, Ariel is a spirit of the air, swift and delicate, ethereal and occasionally mischievous. He has never lied or cheated: ‘Remember I have done thee worthy service:/ Told thee no lies, made no mistakings, serv’d/ Without grudge or grumblings’ (I.2.247-9). It is interesting to contrast the terms of endearment applied to Ariel, ‘my dainty Ariel’, ‘my bird’, ‘my Ariel, chick’ (interestingly all terms related to femininity) with the terms of opprobrium hurled at Caliban. He maintains magic within himself, one of his key roles to provide music, His melodies are heard throughout the island and they can control the actions of the characters. Caliban is frequently lulled by airs: ‘that give delight’ (III.2.134) and Ferdinand is lured to his meeting with Miranda by Ariel’s music.
Ultimately, according to Orgel, The Tempest provides enough evidence about the women in the play for us to speculate about them, but not enough for us to make any justified conclusions or arguments. The Tempest does not provide us with enough evidence to analyse Sycorax like one analyses the male characters physically present on stage; however, the male characters, especially Prospero, continually recount and emphasize Sycorax’s absence. The Tempest‘s dramatis personae names only one woman, yet the possibility of women in power is present. Prospero is a white, male patriarch, and Sycorax is a woman, possibly of colour. Yet, their genders push them into opposing extremes, and this opposition creates tension in the patriarchy and space for potential female power. Sycorax, however, is not like the woman in early modern England; she is not even physically present. Her absence is an extreme example of women lacking agency and representation. In demonizing Sycorax and projecting his fears onto her, Prospero only creates her into something powerful enough to incite fear. Although constructed and absent, Sycorax is a serious threat, because Prospero names her a witch. Attempting to make her out to be as evil as possible, Prospero endows Sycorax with his greatest fear: losing his patriarchal power. In calling her a witch, Prospero reveals his anxiety about women, especially their potential power to challenge patriarchy. ‘Witch’ was a common insult in early modern England and was usually directed towards women because women were believed to be “desirous of power” (Mendelson and Crawford 71). Gendered insults “built on specific fears.” Most of all witch meant the “mirror reversal of all that the patriarchy deemed good in a woman”. It was a name for women who threatened to upset the patriarchy. In calling Sycorax a witch, Prospero is identifying her as a threat to patriarchy, and his anger shows that the threat is serious enough to enrage him. In trying to condemn Sycorax, Prospero shows that her power remains in a new form despite her absence.