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Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Gender Roles

Introduction

The works of William Shakespeare have received a lot of attention throughout history. His works have been analyzed by themes, line by line, or the characters he invented. His works can be interpreted one way or another, and as such, Shakespeare seems to have gained immortality. The Tempest has been identified as one of the greatest plays written by the literary master and the last play he ever wrote alone (Tillyard 98).

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The Tempest was first performed before King James I and again during the marriage festivities of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. Scholars have endorsed that the source of the play was the 1609 shipwreck of an English ship in Bermuda and the various reports of the island by survivors. The Tempest has been widely accepted as Shakespeare’s most mature comedy (Faucet 17).

The play was written during the Elizabethan era and was thus influenced by some social beliefs. One issue that has always been of interest to scholars was his portrayal of women in his work. Throughout his plays, Shakespeare uses strong-willed women with certain weaknesses that mirror Victorian era society. At times, Shakespeare develops his women characters as vicious, evil, and spiteful. Although some feminist critics have labeled Shakespeare’s presentation as misogynistic and sexist, it can be seen that the gender roles in The Tempest present a platform for the author’s plot.

The Tempest has little progressive action throughout the plot. The union of Miranda and Ferdinand is settled at their first interview. Prospero throws constant obstacles in their way. The shipwrecked individuals move freely about the island, the assassination attempts of Antonio and Sebastian, and the plot of Caliban against Prospero are nothing but a ruse as the magical skills of Prospero will outmaneuver them. The main characters in the play have been developed with remarkable strength. The Tempest gender roles reflect beliefs in the Elizabethan era and help build the platform for the plot.

Gender roles in The Tempest

To understand gender roles in The Tempest, one should look at how Shakespeare presented his characters. The Tempest has only one main female character, Miranda. The other women are only mentioned and include Miranda’s mother, Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, and Alonso’s daughter Claribel (Chedgzoy 42).

Miranda’s mother is only mentioned once in the play when Miranda questions Prospero whether he is her father. Accordingly, Prospero tells Miranda that her mother was a woman of virtue who told him that Miranda was his daughter and his only heir (Shakespeare 112). The wording used by Prospero indicates that although his wife was virtuous, women as a class have no virtue. In the Elizabethan era, women were supposed to follow several social rules and be submissive to their husbands.

Infidelity was highly frowned upon and was very dangerous for married women. If a husband doubted his wife’s virtue, her children’s legitimacy would be in problem, and she may find herself and her children cast away. In the play, Shakespeare uses Prospero’s wife to legitimize Miranda as Prospero’s heir. It is her world that Prospero accepts, and once assured, he turns his attention to himself and his succession.

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Apart from this instance, Miranda’s mother is absent throughout the play from the memories of Prospero and Miranda (Orgel 8). Miranda can recall being attended by several women but not her mother. This also shows the attitudes of the time in which women were required to give birth to children, and for those in nobility, children had little contact with their parents as they engaged with other social issues leaving their children under the care of servants. This can also be confirmed when Prospero narrates the crimes committed by Antonio, to whom Miranda answers:

“I should sin
But to think nobly of my grandmother:
Good wombs have borne bad sons”
. (Shakespeare, 113)

Miranda is a sweet, well-spoken character. In the play, she is deprived of freedom by Prospero. The only duty given to her is to remain chaste. Thompson (168) argues that Miranda, in a manner typical to the Elizabethan era, has fully internalized the patriarchal order of society. She views herself as totally subordinate to Prospero, accepting his views as the only correct views. Shakespeare’s presentation of Miranda in this way may be an attempt to bring forth Prospero’s part in the play.

Critics have argued that Prospero is the only dominant character dominating both the narratives and the characters in the play (Thomson 53). Therefore, Miranda’s submissive nature only helps Prospero reach his goals and communicate his ideas to the audience.

During the Elizabethan era, colonialism was also an important topic in society. Shakespeare then uses Miranda as a victim of an attack from Caliban’s brute nature when he attempts to rape her, forcing her father to protect her and turn the brute into a slave (Woolf 1241). Shakespeare uses Miranda to moralize the act of colonization, i.e., Caliban was the only native on the island.

The relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand is only a means to bring out the plot. Miranda is submissive to Ferdinand and, at one point, offers to carry logs for him. Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda’s playful character. Shakespeare presents Miranda in this manner to develop Ferdinand’s character in the play.

Shakespeare also uses The Tempest gender roles to present the theme of magic. In the Elizabethan era, magic was frowned upon, and it was common for people to be persecuted on suspicions of witchcraft (Loomba 82). To develop the plot of Prospero as a powerful magician who uses his powers for good, he presents Sycorax, who defies all the social norms of women in the Elizabethan era. Sycorax is a non-white woman who has no virtue, as evidenced by her illegitimate pregnancy (Chedgzoy 64). She uses black magic for evil means spreading suffering to others. She is also the mother of Caliban, a character of questionable morals. Shakespeare makes Sycorax go against all social norms.

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Apart from the presentation of women, Shakespeare also uses male gender roles in The Tempest to bring out his plot. Prospero is a respectable man, a prince of considerable power, and a loving father. Shakespeare presents Prospero as protective towards Miranda and a man who is not afraid to face danger to carry out his duties. He controls his daughter giving her no freedom not to be corrupted (Thompson 169). He protects her from the attack from Caliban, thereby enslaving him. He is also interested in the relationship between his daughter and Ferdinand, which mainly progresses according to his wishes.

Caliban, on the other hand, is present as a wild man who has questionable morals. He is not honorable as he attempts to rape Miranda. Due to his weak nature, he is forced into slavery by Prospero. Caliban is unkind and a child of an immoral woman and, as such, serves as a perfect tool for Shakespeare to present the theme of good versus evil in the play. Finally, Shakespeare uses Ferdinand to present the aspect of romantic love in the play. Ferdinand is the prince of Naples and is quite honorable. He falls in love with Miranda, and Prospero uses this relationship to regain his position as the Duke of Milan.

Ferdinand is later accused and imprisoned, forced to arbitrary move logs. Miranda, however, is still in love with him and continues to interact with him despite her father’s wishes. Prospero notices their desire for each other and allows them to interact and marry after Ferdinand proves he is worthy, respectable, and honorable. The Miranda-Ferdinand plot is one of love, and as Faucet (102) notes, the play ends beautifully with the final happiness of a pair that has captured the interest of the audience from its beginning to the end.

Conclusion

Shakespeare presents his characters in very different ways and for very different purposes. He utilizes various The Tempest gender roles to meet specific goals related to the final plot. Of significant interest are colonialism, magic, love, and duty. The male characters are heads of their homes, dictators of women, and fighters for honor and duty. Women characters are submissive and good (Miranda) or independent, non-virtuous, and evil (Sycorax).

Works Cited

Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare, Feminism, and Gender: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: MacMillan, 1996.

Faucet, Helena. On Some of Shakespeare’s Females Characters. New York: AMS, 1970.

Loomba, A. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989.

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Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero’s Wife.” Representations 8.10 (1984): 1–13.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: With New and Updated Critical Essays. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Thompson, Ann. “Miranda, Where’s your Sister: Reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Kamps 1 (1995): 168-177.

Thomson, Peter. “The Comic Actor and Shakespeare. In Wells, Stanley and Sarah Stanton” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tillyard, E. M. Shakespeare’s Last Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1938.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Second Compact Edition: Volume B. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson, 2004. 1240-1242.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, May 5). Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Gender Roles. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/shakespeares-the-tempest-gender-roles/

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