Mothers in William Shakespeare's The Tempest
Although Miranda’s mother and Sycorax never actually appear in The Tempest, their memories occupy a precarious position in Prospero’s will to power. Prospero invokes the memory of Miranda’s mother to legitimize his lineage, yet feels threatened by the control she exerts over it. His narration deftly erases his wife’s presence from Miranda’s memory, rendering him the sole purveyor of his daughter’s imagination. Prospero employs a discourse which affirms maternal authority through the denial of female sexuality. He negates the legitimacy of Sycorax’s matriarchy by constructing Sycorax as not only an evil witch, but also an unchaste mother. Such a discourse opposes Caliban’s claim to the island while justifying Prospero’s usurpation of power.
Although Miranda recalls having four or five female attendants, she has no memory of a mother. Indeed, Prospero alludes to his wife only once during his recount of the events which forced him from Milan to the island:
Prospero: Twelve years since, Miranda, twelve years since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan, and,
A prince of power –
Miranda: Sir, are not you my father?
Prospero: The mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter; and thy father
Was Duke of Milan, and his only heir and princess no worse issued. (1:2:52-58)
Miranda’s unwitting question provokes a strange response from Prospero. He admits to relying on his wife’s word that Miranda is his daughter. In doing so, he reveals his alienation from Miranda’s birth and the possibility of illegitimacy. Miranda’s mother’s power to bear children exerts a threatening control over Prospero’s lineage. Prospero is dependent on his wife to produce heirs; yet also fears her sexuality which, if unmonitored, could pollute his legacy with bastard children. Prospero attempts to diffuse this threat by constructing Miranda’s mother as a paragon of virtue whose word is sufficient affirmation of the purity of his lineage.
Once Prospero establishes Miranda’s nobility, he embarks on a narrative which deliberately erases his wife’s existence:
Prospero: O, a cherubin
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile,
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have decked the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burden groaned; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue. (1:2:152-158)
Although Prospero is overtly referring to the strength which Miranda’s presence inspires in him, his use of pregnancy imagery renders him a parthenogenetic figure. Prospero and Miranda’s voyage to the island is one of rebirth, in which the two are yoked together by Prospero’s absorption of Miranda’s mother. While...