Where are all the women?
At the end of The Tempest, Miranda says, “O brave new world / That has such people in’t.” However, the only human beings she’s seen so far are men, and, in fact, Miranda is the only female human character the audience sees in the whole play. The lack of female characters in The Tempest says a lot about how the men in the play imagine the role of women in society. Perhaps the most obvious instance where a male character explicitly situates women in a broad social vision occurs when Gonzalo describes how he would run the island if he had an opportunity to rule. Gonzalo outlines a society defined by leisure and the lack of commerce: “No occupation: all men idle, all. / And women too, but innocent and pure” (2.1.). Gonzalo’s inclusion of women seems like an afterthought, as if he had all but forgotten about them, then remembered that they play a necessary role in society, provided that they are “innocent and pure.” Just as Gonzalo consigns women to the social background, so too does The Tempest as a whole keep its female characters backstage.
Aside from the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno, who are non-human projections created by the male spirit Ariel, the only female character with an active role in the play is Miranda. Even Miranda remains somewhat passive, as she is subject to her father’s command. Even though she feels sincerely attracted to Ferdinand, Prospero manipulates her psychologically in order to stoke the fire of her attraction further. The fact that Prospero manipulates Miranda like a pawn in his larger political game indicates how men in The Tempest subordinate women to their desires. His speech, in blessing the upcoming wedding, indicates Prospero sees his daughter as his property: “Then, as my gift, and thine own acquisition / Worthily purchased…” (IV.i.) For Prospero, Miranda’s value lies mainly in her virginity, which makes her politically advantageous marriage to Ferdinand possible. Miranda’s marriage represents the promise of a new beginning, which Prospero desperately wishes for himself. Prospero’s future therefore depends on Miranda’s virginity, which is why he must guard against all sexual advances, whether from Caliban or Ferdinand.
Shakespeare names but never introduces several other female characters in The Tempest. Of these characters, Sycorax serves as Prospero’s evil female alter ego. As the mother of Caliban and the previous ruler of the island who died before Prospero could take direct action against her, Sycorax bears the brunt of Prospero’s misogyny. He refers to her variously as a “damned witch” (I.ii.) and a “blue-eyed hag” (I.ii.), and he relishes recounting how cruel a mistress she was. For instance, he reminds Ariel “once [every] month” (I.ii.) that Sycorax locked him in a tree for twelve painful years. Prospero also narrates the story of how she came to the island in the first place. Pregnant with her monstrous child, Sycorax was banished from Algiers for committing unspeakable crimes. If Prospero places so much emphasis on Sycorax’s abominable nature, he does so to highlight his own comparative benevolence, and thereby secure his underlings’ obedience. In contrast with the evil Sycorax, Prospero appears a rather benign ruler, and he must continuously revive her cruel memory to make himself look good.