The Silenced Witch in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare. Unvoiced Female Alterity in Popular Culture

A Reinterpretation

Term Paper, 2019

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents:

1. Introductory Statement

2. Sycorax: Race, Gender and Female Alterity
2.1 Sycorax in the Play
2.2 Sycorax’s Discourse

3. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest: The Witch in Film
3.1 Sycorax on Screen
3.2 Sycorax’s Discourse

4. Conclusion

5. List of Works Cited

1. Introductory Statement

Shakespeare’s The Tempest has often been read as a play dealing with colonialism and themes such as power, patriarchy, gender and ethnicity. Especially due to the decolonisation movements in many parts of the world, postcolonial readings became very popular amongst critics from the 1960s onwards (J. Singh).

The quintessential example for colonialism in The Tempest is certainly Prospero. For a long time, he was idealistically presented “as an exemplar of timeless human values” (Skura 42) admiring him for “his hard-earned ‘magical’ powers [that] enable him to re-educate the shipwrecked Italians, to heal their civil war – and … to triumph over his own vengefulness by forgiving his enemies” (42). From a postcolonial perspective, however, he symbolises the central and most powerful character in all respects and embodies the white, male, patriarchal and predominant figure in the play.

Taking the entire character list into account, the male rate is strikingly high. Apart from Miranda, who can be read as a manipulated victim of her father’s patriarchy, there are the female absent characters Claribel, Sycorax and Miranda’s mother. While Sycorax’s name is mentioned seven times, not in positive contexts at all, Prospero’s wife does not even have a name. As Judith Buchanan ascertains, “there is no gender imbalance so startingly extreme elsewhere in Shakespeare” (Buchanan 219).

The most interesting female absent character is assuredly Sycorax, who seems to be appealing and intriguing for Prospero. Although she merely represents a secondary character and is voiceless because of physical absence in the wake of death, Prospero constantly demonises and dehumanises her. As a matter of fact, he has never seen her because she died before his arrival on the island. All information about Sycorax is provided by Ariel’s “unreliable … fragmented and biased recollections of her” (Scott-Reyes 7).

As many Shakespearean plays, The Tempest has inspired writers and authors to pick up on the play and create an adaption. One example for a profound postcolonial interpretation of The Tempest is A Tempest by Aimé Césaire. In his play, Caliban refuses to “accept that Sycorax is dead, choosing instead to believe in her as an ongoing symbolic counter to Prospero’s oppressive rule” (Buchanan 218). Other versions of the play emerge more radical and provocative when it comes to the witch: In Peter Brook’s production from 1968 “the monster-mother is portrayed by an enormous woman able to expand her face and body to still larger proportions. … She stands there, like a female King Kong, her legs spread. Suddenly, she gives a horrendous yell, and Caliban … emerges from between her legs: Evil is born.” (Croyden 127) Similarly, Derek Jarman’s Tempest from 1979 features Caliban being breastfed by Syocrax, who is shown as “an obese naked sorceress, heavily made up and smoking a hookah.” (Vaughan 210) As Diane Purkiss detects, “both these sensational depictions show themselves insensitive to Sycorax’s invisibility [and] cannot resist conflating Sycorax willy-nilly with as many images of feminine and ethnic darkness as they can lay their hands on.” (252)

Consequently, it is reasonable to take a paradigmatic modern-day adaption into account and figure out how the newer version deals with the unvoiced female alterity. I am aiming to achieve this by firstly analysing Sycorax in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and secondly the film version from her point of view.

For this purpose, it is useful to consider Julie Taymor’s The Tempest from 2010, which has arguably been one of the more popular adaptions recently. Helen Mirren as the leading actress plays a female version of Prospero, who then becomes Prospera. The main reason for choosing Taymor’s film is because it is often considered to be a feminist interpretation of Shakespeare (Garcia). So, it becomes interesting to analyse such an adaption from Sycorax’s point of view in order to examine how the unvoiced female alterity is illustrated in a piece that apparently claims to be feminist. Since there is plenty of research about the female protagonist, Prospera is not the main subject of this essay. On the contrary, the focus lies on the marginalised figure of the witch. Eventually, this essay intends to propose a comparative analysis and detect to what extent it distinguishes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

My thesis is that Sycorax transcends gender boundaries by baring similarities to the male character in the play and therefore showing that men and women are equal or can potentially be equal if certain immutable traits like race and gender are not seen hierarchically in terms of power and superiority. Taymor, by claiming to perform a feminist approach, merely omits presenting Sycorax at all: She selects passages dealing with Sycorax from the original and evades them visually and audibly in her film, trying to moderate Sycorax’s appearance, but actually erasing her completely out of discourse, which, by implication, is not unquestionably feminist.

2. Sycorax: Race, Gender and Female Alterity

The first analysis part aims at examining Sycorax’s appearance as she comes up – or rather is brought up – in the play chronologically. Due to her principle presence in the second scene of the first act, the analysis is mostly confined to that scene. Afterwards, I am going to classify the results in a broader postcolonial discourse likewise considering its implications.

2.1 Sycorax in the Play

Although Sycorax herself never physically appears, she “is suggestively present … through rhetorical reference” (Buchanan 218). Most of the time she is mentioned by Prospero, wherefore it is reasonable to analyse the relationship between Prospero and Sycorax.

The initial situation of their relationship is unfamiliar, non-reciprocal and hence plainly non-existent. The first time Prospero learns about Sycorax is before the dramatic action begins. When Prospero arrives on the island with his daughter for the first time, he finds Ariel locked “into a cloven pine” (Shakespeare 1.2.277) allegedly by Sycorax, who at that time is already dead. Although only Ariel informs Prospero about her, she is “insistently present in his memory – far more present than his own wife” (Orgel 205).

The second scene of the first act makes Sycorax subject of a dialogue, when Prospero reminds Ariel of her deeds: “Hast thou forgot/ The foul witch Sycorax …?” (Shakespeare 1.2.257-259) He retells a story which Ariel has told him before and apparently does it on a monthly basis: “I must/ Once in a month recount what thou hast been, /Which thou forget'st.” (261-263). Since it has been such a terrible and traumatic experience, it is rather improbable that Ariel forgets about it regularly and needs his memory to be refreshed by Prospero.

In addition, the entire situation of the dialogue is akin to an interrogation in which Prospero is the dominant interlocuter asking rhetorical questions and making commands: “Dost thou forget?”, “Thou dost”, “Thou liest, malignant thing!”, “Where was she born? Speak. Tell me.” (250-260) Ariel, on the other hand, replies with short answers such as “I do not, sir”, “No.” (250-260) and clearly portrays the suppressed subject. One gets the impression that Prospero might exaggerate or add some non-existent aspects to the story trying to manipulate Ariel and make him obey further on. In doing so, Prospero’s manner serves the purpose of ensuring his reign and his patriarchal system on the island.

In the same passage, Prospero insults Sycorax by calling her for example “damned witch”, “hag” (263, 269) as well as “got by the devil” (319). Noticeably, he never offends the males who were responsible for the conspiracy against him when he was expelled from Milan. After all, particularly his brother Antonio is the reason for his dismiss and the twelve year-long stay on the island. Anyhow, when he tells Miranda about Antonio’s plans, he suddenly reveals his benevolent and lamenting face: “My brother and thy uncle, called Antonio … (that a brother should/ Be so perfidious!) – he whom next thyself/ Of all the world I loved” (66-69; my emphasis). Although Prospero’s “brother/ Awaked an evil nature” (92-93) which has inflicted much more harm on him than Sycorax, he barely affronts him compared to the abusive language he expresses towards a mother he has never met. This behaviour complies with Prospero’s negative perception of gender.

He states his attitude towards women not only by means of Sycorax, but also another significant female, namely Prospero’s wife. As Stephen Orgel concedes in his eponymous article, Prospero talks about her in a “context implying that although she was virtuous, women as a class are not” (201). Moreover, “Prospero’s wife is absent from his memory” (205), whereas Sycorax is constantly present in his mind. Since race and gender are the main reasons for Prospero’s tone, it allows the conclusion to describe him as a misogynist.

Although Prospero demonises and dehumanises Sycorax throughout the entire dialogue as scarcely ascertained, he finally exposes himself being similar to her regarding the use of supernatural power to subjugate other subjects. He deplores Sycorax’s magic, but also threatens Ariel: “If thou more murmurs’st, I will rend an oak/ And peg thee in his knotty entrails till/ Thou hast howl’d away twelfe winters.” (294-296). Prospero unmasks himself in as much as his argument against Sycorax becomes inconsistent and paradoxocal: Sycorax is a “damn’d witch” (…) when she performs magic, whereas Prospero is a noble man when he enslaves Ariel and Caliban. Therewith, he involuntarily reveals his colonial and patriarchal mindset as well as his misogynistic attitude both of which are complementary.

Sycorax is mentioned once again when Prospero commands Caliban to show up: “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself/ Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!” (319-320) As expected, Prospero articulates his disgust towards Sycorax. But this time, he chiefly aims at Caliban by discrediting his ancestry stating that he was conceived by the devil and a mischievous mother. In the following dispute with Prospero, Caliban claims to be the legitimate owner of the island and refers to maternal succession, which unsurprisingly opposes Prospero’s patriarchal perception. From a colonial perspective, he refuses “to recognise matrilineality and female property rights, and native sovereignty in general” (Lara 85). Naturally, Prospero does not respond to Caliban’s assertion and accuses him of attempted rape of his daughter instead – which is argumentatively elaborate: he abruptly changes the subject and makes Caliban the blameworthy one instead of being blamed for his illegitimate reign on the island.

2.2 Sycorax’s Discourse

As implied in the previous subchapter, the non-existent relationship turns out to be a construction by Prospero because he presents her as an evil witch entirely contrasting himself. Since she is physically absent and can neither defend herself nor resist Prospero through speech or action his narrative remains the only validate and legitimate one. However, in doing so, he involuntarily constructs her in a way that “makes her an antagonist to Prospero and the patriarchy he represents.” (Blystone 75)

Considering him as a paradigmatic patriarch, “Sycorax’s absence is a convenience – psychologically as well as politically. It licenses him to reach repeatedly, and insistently, for versions of her as the neatly demonizable foil against which he can define himself in reassuringly self-congratulatory terms.” (Buchanan 219) Apart from presenting himself as a benevolent male human in contrast to Sycorax, “his repeated comparisons between their different magics and their respective reigns of the island are used by him to claim a superior morality, a greater strength and a greater humanity, and hence legitimise his takeover of the island and its inhabitants.” (Loomba 152)

What Ania Loomba denominates an assertion of cultural and humane superiority can also be described as sheer ‘othering’ in postcolonial terms. Stephen Menendian and John A. Powell define othering as a “set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality. … Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone.” Considering Menendian’s and Powell’s definition it is striking that most of the mentioned aspects of ‘othering’ pertain to Prospero’s depiction of Sycorax: She is female, black, from Algiers and hence presumably representing Islam (Sachdev 238) and accused of having sexual intercourse with the devil. Thereby, she embodies a paradigmatic example for Prospero’s foil and allows him “as colonialist [to] consolidate power which is specifically white and male and [to] construct Sycorax as a black, wayward and wicked witch in order to legitimize it” (Loomba 152). So, Prospero’s ‘othering’ serves the purpose of highlighting his predominance by distinctly dissociating himself from Sycorax.

By ‘othering’ Sycorax Brittney Blystone explains that “this opposition creates tension in the patriarchy and space for potential female power.” (73) Once recognised the vigorous endeavours by Prospero to make Sycorax look diabolic, the question arises why Prospero behaves in that way.

As repeatedly stated, she is dead and not able to influence him or other characters in the play in any way so that one possible idea would be to forget about her as if she never existed. Yet, he seems quite obsessed with her and therefore allows space for female defiance. Blystone makes clear that “women’s vague identity, and their absence from a male-dominated power structure, could scare men and provide opportunities for subversion. … As in early modern England, Prospero’s patriarchy becomes a dependent, self-contradicting system. Prospero turns Sycorax into a symbol for ideas that threaten his own patriarchy, especially maternal succession, a concept that would reverse the island’s hierarchy and limit his power.” (Blystone 75) Whenever Sycorax is brought up, Prospero projects all the fears that object his patriarchal system onto her and hence demonises and dehumanises her, unintentionally conceding that a female who is actually similar to him in relation to life circumstances would restrict his authority.

In spite of all differences, if one considers both Prospero and Sycorax humanely they are actually quite similar: They were expelled from their home country and brought to the island with a child that presumably has saved them from being executed. Furthermore, both subjugate Ariel and compel him to be obedient. He dissociates from a character that is basically very much like him.

The relationship, in consequence, not only demonstrates its non-existence and constructiveness influenced by patriarchal ideology, but also the ambiguity of Prospero’s compassionate figure that he continually claims to be. In addition to his construction of her as the evil foil, he probably manipulates Sycorax’s narrative by carrying his ‘othering’ to extremes through exaggeration and overdramatization in order to ensure his authority. Ultimately, keeping Sycorax alive serves the purpose of reinforcing his colonial and patriarchal force and rule. However, he actually turns out to be scared of her as Abena Busia puts it straight: “Sycorax is invoked quite insistently throughout the play, but only as the disembodied symbol of the men’s most terrible fears.” (86)

3. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest: The Witch in Film

In the following chapter I am going to analyse how and to which extent Julie Taymor challenges Prospero’s depiction of Sycorax by firstly examining her appearance in the adaption and secondly evaluating her cinematic realisation of Sycorax and its implications.

3.1 Sycorax on Screen

The most striking characteristic of Julie Taymor’s version is evidently the transformation of Prospero into Prospera. Moreover, Taymor provides some additional attributes such as a back story for the protagonist which is obviously necessary as a result of the gender switch. Another additional feature is basically omitting or modifying some of Shakespeare’s lines. Beyond that, the dramatic action as well as the original lines per se remain identical.

After Prospera causes the storm that capsizes the boat in the first scene, she tells Miranda that her former husband, who died many years ago, left the Dukedom for her to rule. Due to her involvement in magic she was accused of performing witchcraft by Antonio, who subsequently was responsible for her banishment on the island. During Prospera’s flashbacks she recalls how Antonio used to call her “a practicer of the black arts; a demon not a woman, nay a witch” (The Tempest 7:55) and how the situation for women generally was, stating that “other of [Prospera’s] sex have burnt for no less” (8:00). This back story differentiates from the original in so far as it tells the story of a protagonist who becomes a victim of her misogynistic brother-in-law instead of a protagonist who acts out his misogyny.

After Prospera enlightens Miranda on their situation on the island, she calls Ariel to appear. Like in the play, Prospea reminds the spirit of Sycorax when he demands “[his] liberty” (13:53) using exactly the same phrasing. Notably, she excludes some lines and hence abbreviates the conversation. On the one hand, one can argue Taymor does that for time reasons. On the other hand, she mostly skips lines that include some of Prospero’s insults. Thus, Prospera does not call her “damn’d witch Sycorax” (Shakespeare 1.2.263) who “with age and envy” (258) and “unmitigable rage” (276) inhabited the island. Notwithstanding, Propera still conveys the message of the frightening and despicable “foul witch” (The Tempest 14:19) who is neither shown nor hinted at visually in any sense. Ariel is solely depicted suffering confined into a tree through flashbacks that are faded in (14:48-15:28). In comparison to Shakespeare, Taymor moderates Sycorax’s appearance but does not change Prospero/a’s contempt towards the witch in a remarkable manner. Compared to the adaption of Derek Jarman, she does not visualise Sycorax on screen, too.

In the next scene, in which Caliban demands the island as her successor (18:55), the original lines remain the same except for a slight amendment of sequence. Since it does not change the depiction of Sycorax, it is not worth to be mentioned in more detail in this context.

3.2 Sycorax’s Discourse

Julie Taymor’s transformation of gender inevitably challenges the relationships between Prospera and all the other characters. In order to form a logically coherent narrative she adds a back story to the protagonist who is surrounded by a patriarchal society without tolerance not to mention admiration for powerful and inquisitive women. Making the protagonist a victim of misogyny and chauvinism, the adaption obtains a feminist dimension. Prospera – exiled on the island with her daughter – becomes a symbol for a powerful and independent woman and lone mother. Her presence improves the chemistry amongst the figures: “Prospera empathizes with [Miranda] as Prospero never did. Indeed, all the relationships on the island curiously seem more natural when the character becomes a woman.” (Ebert).

Establishing Prospera also affects the significance of the marginalised witch. As I ascertained in the previous subchapter, Sycorax’s appearance is noticeably reduced both visually and substantially. Judith Buchanan contends that “the play’s original sorceress […] finds a voice, and a presence, at its centre as Mirren’s Prospera [as she] performatively incorporates the figure of the punished witch into her person.” (222)

Buchanan’s proposition raises the question, whether Sycorax is then superfluous in the film and more specifically what exactly her function is when “her impact is reduced by the fact that much of both her story and her symbolic charge has been centrally assimilated by Prospera.” (222)

To answer these questions, I am going to examine the implications of Taymor’s gender change as well as the resulting ‘new’ relationship between Prospera and Sycorax.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Silenced Witch in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare. Unvoiced Female Alterity in Popular Culture
A Reinterpretation
University of Münster
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Shakespeare, The Tempest, Feminism, Feminist Reading, Feminism in Shakespeare, Witch, Witches, Shakespeare in Film, Shakespeare Film Adaption
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2019, The Silenced Witch in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare. Unvoiced Female Alterity in Popular Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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