"If I be Waspish, Best Beware of my Sting". Feminism and the Role of Women in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" and "Henry V."

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

17 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background of the play - the role of women in the Elizabethan Era

3. The problem of the subjected female characters in The Tempest
3.1 Sycorax
3.2 The paradox of Miranda
3.3 Shakespeare's ideology in The Tempest

4. Henry V. and feminism
4.1 The role of Katherine de Valois in Henry V
4.2 Shakespeare's worldview in Henry V. in context

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

With feminism and especially feminist writers on the rise and a newly found interest in gender studies within younger generations the question of renewed gender critical studies of classic literary works arises. It has to be said that particularly Shakespeare's works has been a centre point of those studies for quite a time now, specifically in a context in which women are doing close readings of his work. If the book Women reading Shakespeare, 1660-1900 is to be believed, women critically read his works starting in his own lifetime, up until now (ed. Thompson and Roberts). But of course, the perception of his work changed over the centuries with the changing of the female role in society. A rather new definition of feminism is the one from the Merriam- Webster dictionary, which states that feminism is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” (“Feminism”).

Whilst the quote in the title of this paper stems from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (2.1.204), it is very much a fitting quote for the theme of this research, as it shows a woman standing up for herself and can be interpreted as quite a progressive and feminist quote. Two other interesting plays by Shakespeare that can be read either as feminist or as anti-feminist literature and which are also the main topic of this paper are Henry V. and The Tempest. The following paper aims to answer the following question in mind: Is William Shakespeare a feminist author? Of course, it must be stated here, that the term of a feminist did not really exist at Shakespeare's time and the role of women were very different than the one today.

The first chapter of this thesis intends to be a short overview about the historical frame of the plays and the role of women in general. The Tempest is going to be the topic of the next chapter, with an analysis of Miranda, her speeches and how she is treated on the male-dominated island. Additionally, the absence of the (supposed) witch and mother of Caliban, Sycorax, is to be discussed alongside of Shakespeare's ideals in this play. Following the analysis of The Tempest is the one of Henry V. with a breakdown of Katherine's character and how she interacts with the men in the play including another look at Shakespeare's own worldview in this play. Lastly, with the help of the preceding research, follows a conclusion that aims to answer the question posed in this introduction.

2. Historical Background of the play - the role of women in the Elizabethan Era

Of course it can't be expected that when a man in the Elizabethan era writes female characters, or at least writes about them, that he would be treating them like a modern man from the 21th century. It's always coming down to the circumstances. So how would a man like William Shakespeare treat a woman in his everyday life? Because that's the basis he writes his female characters on and how they're treated and perceived by other people. It is common knowledge that during Elizabeth's I. rule the patriarchy had the power. Women were seen as less worthy than men. The gender profile was very much a “one-sex-model”: Men were seen as the completed gender, whilst women were lacking masculinity - they were the unfinished by-product. (Mahler 319) That is contradictory seeing that England's ruler was a woman, but normal women in society were suppressed by men (Klein 25). The exception were a few women in aristocracy, whose status as a noble gave them some (if little) kind of authority. (Klein 25) But usually the women were dependent on their fathers first and later their husbands, which were usually chosen by their fathers. Bernhard Klein expresses it like that: “[Es] wurde die Ehe als Spiegelbild des Commonwealths entworfen: Wie das Volk dem Monarchen, so habe sich die Frau dem Mann unterzuordnen.“ (25). Roughly translated this meant that a marriage imitated the relationship between ruler and her nation.

There can't be talk of Shakespearean plays without the aspect of theater, which played a huge role in the life of Elizabethan England, surprisingly for all social classes. (Klein 43-45) Even in that influential part of daily life, women roles were simply played by men. Women did usually, with very few exceptions, not participate in a play as an actor. Every role was either played by men or even boys. (Castrop 110)

Women were expected to be devout and faithful to their husband and bear them children, preferably sons. If a husband couldn't keep his wife under control, he was regarded as weak and less of a man. This ideology is very important to keep in mind when interpreting Shakespeare's works later on. In aristocratic families women were treated like exchangeable objects to connect two houses and families. (Klein 27)

Literature was a men's only club as well, which was based on the traditional female roles as written above. (Schabert 285) Female roles in comedies would sometimes offer some kind of comic relief or act more boyish than it was usual, but in the end would come back to that traditional role, often after said woman met her love interest. (Schabert 285)

Elizabeth I. was a big exception to all those rules, which inspired some women to claim their right to be seen as equal as a man. (Mahler 319) There was a tiny spark of early feminism to be found between all of the misogyny.

3. The problem of the subjected female characters in The Tempest

The following chapter lays out the first step in researching the question if Shakespeare could be called a feminist author. It depicts the female figures in his comedy The Tempest. On one side is Prospero's daughter Miranda, who is the female half of the romantic coupling in the book. On the other hand are the rarely talked about characters of Sycorax, Miranda's (nameless) mother and Alonso's daughter Claribel. All of these women are only mentioned in passing by the male protagonists of the play - they are never seen or really talked about otherwise. Does this blatantly obvious omitting of women in the play count as a negative or positive point in regarding Shakespeare as a feminist? Even Miranda isn't that present in the play, but she has been read as some kind of rebellious woman. It is quite a contradiction here again, to see one woman interpreted as rebellious and part-taking in the play, and others just left out. Especially since their story seemed to be very interesting and could've added another layer to The Tempest.

The subchapters of this are going to be divided between Sycorax and Miranda. Sycorax is focused on because of the aforementioned three women she is the one still being talked about the most (mostly by Prospero, who didn't even know her). Following her chapter is an analysis of Miranda, both as a subjected and a rebellious character, how she sees herself and how others, especially the men in the play and Ariel, see her. Last but not least is a conclusion to The Tempest and a first evaluation of Shakespeare as a (non-)feminist writer.

3.1 Sycorax

For everyone who has ever read The Tempest it might come as a surprise to hear that there was actually more than one significant female role in the play: the present Miranda and Caliban's mother, Sycorax. Granted, Sycorax doesn't make a single appearance in the play. Which is what makes her so intriguing to write about. What use is a female figure if she's never present and rarely talked about?

The first time Sycorax is mentioned, and therefore introduced to the reader is in Act 1, Scene 2 by Prospero:

Thou liest, malignant thing; hast thou forgot

The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy

Was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?

(The Tempest 1.2.258)

In this particular scene Prospero talks to his spirit Ariel and reminds him of his place as his servant by using Sycorax as an example what could happen to him should he disobey him. Not only does he describe Sycorax as a “foul witch”, but he degrades her even further by insulting her age and the aging process. Talking about a woman's age has probably always been a weak spot, even on a mythical island. He also says that her envy ultimately led to her death. The meaning of “envy” is that Prospero probably envisions her to be so filled with jealousy of his magic, that he can't help but comment on it as well. Following that statement is a question after her origins, which Ariel says was Algiers. (The Tempest 1.2.261) To that seemingly harmless answer Prospero says:

[...] This damned witch Sycorax,

For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible

To enter human hearing, from Algiers,

(The Tempest 1.2.262-265.).

He also describes her as a “blue-eyed hag” (The Tempest 1.2.269). Not only does it feel like Prospero himself is so unsure about his own magic, but that he also feels the need to put her down by undermining her magic. He is further continuing to insult her, even though he never actually met her. It seems like the very thing a man in the Elizabethan era would do - devalue a woman and her worth, even though he has never met her, by just trading gossip about what he heard from others. Furthermore, he also acknowledges at least some of her talents - by calling her a witch. If he would be truly unbothered by her witchcraft, he would just ignore it. So, to sum that paragraph up, you have that woman, who is dead by the time the play is set, and only ever badly talked about by men (mostly Prospero). It is quite a powerful metaphor for the silenced women of the 1600s who stood under their husbands and other powerful, male figures' rule.

The following is going to be a look at how Caliban talks about Sycorax. She is only ever talked about by the men in the play, Miranda doesn't mention her once. But through her absence, she is actually still influencing the men and has some power of them, as long as they still talk about her and remember her. Caliban mentions his mother the first time he and Prospero are interacting in the play and what he does is indeed a bit surprising. He curses Miranda and Prospero by remembering his mother:

As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed With raven's feather from unwholesome fen Drop on you both. As southwest blow on ye And blister you all o'er. (The Tempest 1.2.322-325)

His usage of “wicked dew” seems to symbolize some kind of potion his mother could make or used to make, that would either gravely injure or kill the recipient of said dew. You could interpret this as a remembrance or admiration of his mothers' work and life she used to lead. The utilizing of the word “wicked” and “raven” are also some allusions to Sycorax' witch-roots. Both terms are very commonly used when talking about or describing witches. Also referenced by Caliban are other charged words like “All the charms / Of Sycorax - toads, beetles, bats - light on you, [...]"(The Tempest 1.2.340­341). The usage and meaning are virtually the same as in the quote above. But it also shows that at least one man1 still respects and in a way worships this woman. It is definitely not a given just because she is his mother. By positively reinforcing Sycorax' value as a sorceress he puts her in a powerful position, especially as a woman. Sycorax' name still is enough of a force to be reckoned with, that with every mention of her, Prospero seemingly grows angrier. Caliban is living the legacy of his mother and shows it through every conversation about her.


1 It's a virtually different discourse whether Caliban can be called a man - for the sake of avoiding another discussion, I am treating him like a man in this paper.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


"If I be Waspish, Best Beware of my Sting". Feminism and the Role of Women in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" and "Henry V."
University of Erfurt
Shakespeare's Race/Class/Gender Globe
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Shakespeare, The Tempest, Henry V., Feminism, Role of women, Shakesperean Literature
Quote paper
Teresa Ruß (Author), 2018, "If I be Waspish, Best Beware of my Sting". Feminism and the Role of Women in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" and "Henry V.", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/513227


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