Mothers in William Shakespeare's The Tempest

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Mothers in William Shakespeare's The Tempest

Although Miranda’s mother and Sycorax never actually appear in The Tempest, their memories occupy a precarious position in Prospero’s will to power. Prospero invokes the memory of Miranda’s mother to legitimize his lineage, yet feels threatened by the control she exerts over it. His narration deftly erases his wife’s presence from Miranda’s memory, rendering him the sole purveyor of his daughter’s imagination. Prospero employs a discourse which affirms maternal authority through the denial of female sexuality. He negates the legitimacy of Sycorax’s matriarchy by constructing Sycorax as not only an evil witch, but also an unchaste mother. Such a discourse opposes Caliban’s claim to the island while justifying Prospero’s usurpation of power.

Although Miranda recalls having four or five female attendants, she has no memory of a mother. Indeed, Prospero alludes to his wife only once during his recount of the events which forced him from Milan to the island:

Prospero: Twelve years since, Miranda, twelve years since,

Thy father was the Duke of Milan, and,

A prince of power –

Miranda: Sir, are not you my father?

Prospero: The mother was a piece of virtue, and

She said thou wast my daughter; and thy father

Was Duke of Milan, and his only heir and princess no worse issued. (1:2:52-58)

Miranda’s unwitting question provokes a strange response from Prospero. He admits to relying on his wife’s word that Miranda is his daughter. In doing so, he reveals his alienation from Miranda’s birth and the possibility of illegitimacy. Miranda’s mother’s power to bear children exerts a threatening cont...

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...ief invocation of Miranda’s mother asserts the purity of his lineage, yet also divides Prospero’s parental authority. In suppressing his wife’s presence, Prospero emerges as Miranda’s sole guardian, fashioning his daughter into his most prized possession. Prospero constructs Sycorax as an unchaste witch (foiling his construction of his own wife) in order to enslave Caliban and prevent him from polluting Miranda’s body. Although Prospero overpowers Caliban with magic that is unrivalled in Sycorax’s absence, he cannot silence Caliban’s claim to the island via a matriarchal lineage. His rhetoric literally bastardizes Sycorax’s dynasty, but is not convincing enough to remove the shadow of doubt cast by Caliban’s matriarchal discourse. Sycorax’s memory emerges as point of contention, compelling readers to question Prospero’s narrative, and thus his claim to power.
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