The Tempest and Its Woman – Masked Theme

August 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

The abandoned damsel, the lonely daughter, the beautiful virgin… In The Tempest, Shakespeare depicts all of these ideal constructions of womanhood in his character Miranda. However, looking closely at the text reveals that Shakespeare had a subtle, but clear message to send to his royal audience of the early 17th century. In allowing Miranda to defy the patriarchal traditions of her day in the way she speaks to her father, in her defiance of him, and in her impulsive decision to marry Ferdinand, Shakespeare develops his message of frustration with the absolutism of the monarchy.Among all of the main characters in The Tempest, Miranda seems tosay the least. While her limited amount of speech could present a weakness in her character, Miranda’s scarce but skilful choices of words seem to be a strategy on Shakespeare’s part. By presenting her as a quiet, humble daughter, Shakespeare reveals to his audience a naive construction of womanhood that would estray them from hearing Shakespeare’s ulterior thematic. To discover the meaning and significance of Shakespeare’s underlying message, one must look back to the time period in which The Tempest was written. Elizabeth I’s respected reign had recently ended. Her successor, James I began to rule in a much different manner than Elizabeth; Elizabeth recognized the power of her subjects, James ideas of absolute power placed him in the highest of classes, and allowed him to do as he pleased. This made his reign very controversial and led him to be disliked by many religious groups. When James came to the throne, his family became financial supporters of London’s theatres, including Shakespeare’s company. Shakespeare’s actors would do regular performances for the royal family, and this is where the subtlety in Miranda’s character becomes so vital. Obviously, Shakespeare did not agree with the way James ran post-Elizabethean England. The fact that Miranda is a lone female character in a play in which she defies a level of patriarchy that is similar to the way the current King rules his country is not a coincidence. William Shakespeare is sending a direct message to the King of England that he disagrees with the way he is ruling. Basically, Shakespeare wrote the character Miranda to parallel the rule of Elizabeth, and to clash with the reign of James. Most members of the audience would never hear this message, which would of course be beneficial to Shakespeare because any play-writes who offend the crown could be sent to prison. Shakespeare was, in his own way, outwitting the man who had the most power in England, second only to God.Shakespeare begins this thematic protest in the very beginning of the play. He sets up the limited, and sympathy-evoking life of Miranda early in the first scene, and quickly opposes it with her response to the tempest that is brewing over the sea: “If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (Shakespeare 6). Because The Tempest was written in the year 1610, the picture of women that it presents is very different from the average women of the 21st century. Around this same time period, the essayist Richard Steele described women as “…Daughter[s], sister[s], wive[s] and mother[s], mere appendage[s] of the human race” (Davis 15). Obviously, individuality was frowned upon, as was speaking out against one’s father or husband. In this first scene, even though Prospero has the ultimate power in controlling the island, and the tempest, Miranda doesn’t hesitate to reveal her thoughts, and ask her father to stop the dangerous storm. Miranda is able to voice her opinion in a graceful way, (“my dearest father”) however, she still speaks out against her father’s actions. This is an area in which most women and daughters would not be heard. In this act alone Miranda is speaking out against an absolute power figure, her father.Miranda defies her father again when she reveals her name to the enslaved Ferdinand:’…I do beseech you, chiefly that I might set it in my prayers, What is your name?”Miranda. O my father, I have broke your hest to say so!’ (Shakespeare 49)In this circumstance, Miranda has gone behind her father’s back, and specifically ignored a request her father asked of her. Even worse still, she is not supposed to see Ferdinand, and yet she goes to him when she thinks her father is unaware of it. She then offers to do the work her father has assigned Ferdinand to do:’Alas, now pray you, Work not so hard! I would the lightning had Burnt up those logs that you are enjoined to pile! Twill weep for having wearied you. My fatherIs hard at study; pray now rest yourself;He’s safe for these three hours…If you’ll sit down, I’ll bear your logs the while.Pray give me that: I’ll carry it to the pile.’ (Shakespeare, 48)It would be an absolute atrocity for a woman of the 17th century to specifically go against her father’s will and meet with a man that she is not related to either by marriage or blood. This is not to say that courting did not take place in this time period, but rather it was regulated and arranged by the father, or legal guardian.Marriage was also an arrangement made by a young bride’s father. Although, in this particular situation, Miranda decides on her own accord that she will marry Ferdinand:’I am your wife if you will marry me;If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellowYou may deny me; but I’ll be your servant,Whether you will or no…My husband then?”Ay, with a heart as willing as bondage e’er of freedom.Here’s my hand.”And mine with my heart in’t…’ (Shakespeare 51)Not only does Miranda not wait for Ferdinand to ask Prospero for her hand in marriage, she asks Ferdinand herself. This of course takes her father out of all aspects of the decision, which would be an extreme rarity for the time:From the moment a girl was born in lawful wedlock, irrespective of her social origins she was defined by her relationship to a man. She was in turn the legal responsibility of her father, and her husband, both of whom she would honour and obey. The duty of a father, was to provide for his child until marriage, when he negotiated a settlement for his daughter with a groom. (Davis 16)On the surface, Miranda’s ideas of getting married seem sweet and innocent, as the reader knows she is a virgin, and in love for the first time. Although, when one looks deeper, this marriage is completely against the patriarchal traditions and regulations of her time, and could even be viewed as a slight towards her father.In writing the play The Tempest, William Shakespeare was not only able to create a character who portrayed the typical constructions of womanhood, but he was also able to use this female image as a mask for an underlying thematic. Miranda was the perfect character to use in a plot full of men to send a message about patriarchy; a message that Shakespeare parallels to absolutism, which in turn subtly mocks the rule of King James I. The fact that Shakespeare’s plays remained so popular and favoured throughout his life leads one to believe that the King never realized Shakespeare’s minor, but clever protest. One can only imagine the anger that King James would feel being ridiculed by any member of the lower class, let alone an actor, or even worse still, an actor playing a woman.

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