By Cynthia Mejia-Cajero
Gender roles within The Tempest portray how women’s roles were shaped during the Elizabethan Era. Even though England had been ruled by a female monarch for over four decades, women still had limited rights. As demonstrated with Miranda and her father, Prospero family life centered on the traditional patriarchal paradigm where women belonged to their fathers or husbands and were thought of as property or nuptial economy. During this time, women had hopes for only two pathways: marriage or joining a convent. Other limitations women had during this era included being unable to receive a proper education, be heirs to their father’s titles, enter politics, or even act in theatre. Upper-class Elizabethan women, however, did have certain privileges such as an education even though it was very restricted. These patriarchal ideals are heavily noted in The Tempest, especially with the appearance of the single female character, Miranda.
Throughout the play, Miranda is subordinate to Prospero and is expected to be attentive to his every speech and command. Prospero controls every aspect of her life, including her education, who she marries, and when she sleeps. Miranda serves as the example of how women were expected behave during this time period. The only other significant mention of a woman is of Caliban’s mother, Sycorax who is physically absent, yet holds a pretty strong presence. In the play, she is referred to as a witch who was banished from Argier and then died on the island. Like Prospero, she has magical properties and can, therefore, hold power over people, which can be viewed as a threat to male masculinity. Furthermore, her magic, unlike Prospero’s, is considered witchcraft and is even accused by Prospero of engaging in sexual intercourse with the devil. In a feminist point of view, Sycorax can be seen as a character that challenged the patriarchy and as a result, was exiled.
While Shakespeare does include a subordinate woman in The Tempest to demonstrates the kind of limitations women had during his time, it is also interesting that he would also add a character who in a way, challenges the patriarchal ideals that weighed during this era. This character is Alice, the shapeshifting creature who acts as a servant to Prospero. Even though Ariel is referred to by male pronouns throughout the play, their gender remains rather ambiguous. In the play, Ariel takes on the shape of a water-nymph, which in mythology, is portrayed as a female deity. Miranda also says that Ferdinand is the “third man that e’er I saw…” which supports the assumption that Ariel is a woman (Shakespeare 1.2.441). Lastly, throughout the play, Prospero refers to Ariel as “quaint”, “my bird”, and “Dainty”, all terms that are stereotypically used to describe a woman (1.2.322, 4.1.178, 5.1.94). It can be argued that Ariel highlights the shift of gender than began during this period and the anxieties that arose from it. Prospero’s enslavement of Ariel serves as a way to stop this stray from the norm. Overall, The Tempest mains how important it is for gender to be a binary and anything challenging that notion is a threat to the patriarchy that should be eliminated or controlled.
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Lara, Irene. “Beyond Caliban’s Curses: The Decolonial Feminist Literacy of Sycorax.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 9.1 (2007): 80-98. Web.20 Dec. 2016.
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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print.