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  • Seduction and Service in The Tempest
  • Melissa E. Sanchez

The Tempest is unique among Shakespeare's plays in that it lists only one female character in the dramatis personae. Yet Miranda's isolation is neither inconsequential nor entire; in actuality, she is the touchstone for the women who enter the play via its tissue of allusions and whose presence makes legible a contemporary political discourse that likened the relation of sovereign and subject to that of husband and wife. The sixteenth century had seen critiques of Elizabethan policy couched in the erotic entanglements of such influential romances as Sidney's Arcadia and Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and Shakespeare's late plays evoke similar narrative structures to participate in an ongoing debate regarding the location and scope of sovereignty in early Stuart England.1 Read in such a discursive context, The Tempest's attention to female desire and consent registers the participation of both populace and ruler, women and men, in sustaining structures of authority. Miranda's enactment of political subjection differs conspicuously from that of Ariel, Caliban, or any of the shipwrecked Italians, for her femininity accentuates an erotic dynamic that is less visible-but equally significant-in Prospero's relations with his male subjects and rivals.

Given the prominent conjunction of courtship and politics in early Stuart discourse, it is surprising that female figures have generated little interest in criticism of The Tempest, which has typically responded more to the masculine struggles emphasized in the play's comic subplot than [End Page 50] to the male and female negotiations staged by its romantic main plot. Early twentieth-century readers saw The Tempest as a struggle over the angelic-but passive-soul (Miranda), between the forces of divine enlightenment (Prospero), on the one hand, and bestial desire (Caliban), on the other.2 As numerous postcolonial adaptations of the play have demonstrated, such mythic interpretations, far from being apolitical, are saturated with precisely the ideological mystifications that helped justify the brutalities of colonial regimes.3 Drawing on these identifications of Caliban with the insurgent native, Prospero with the ruthless colonizer, Shakespearean critics of the past few decades have tended to see The Tempest less as a simple encomium to humanist, European values than as an imaginative arena of political struggle and ambivalence.4 While postcolonial criticism of The Tempest has offered an important [End Page 51] corrective to the naïve politics of mythic readings, it has often shared with early criticism the tendency to consign female characters to the status of passive objects within the play's politics, rather than the active participants they in fact are. And the consequent location of political struggles in an exclusively masculine realm almost inevitably overlooks the play's focus on the erotic relation as both real and analogical matter of seventeenth-century debates on sovereignty.

My argument follows recent feminist work that has brought Miranda and her ghostly surrogates, the "widow Dido,"5 Sycorax, and Claribel, from the margins of The Tempest to its center, and I propose that the erotic dimension these figures bring to the play disrupts simple narratives of dominance, submission, and revolt.6 Because women introduce the possibilities of marriage, courtship, and sexual desire, the female figures of The Tempest remind us that politics-particularly in the domestic sphere-are not reducible to purely rational calculation but driven in large part by desire, fantasy, and identification. In particular, the play's attention to Miranda's marriage negotiations demonstrates that subjects will, ideally, consent to be ruled at the same time that such a focus acknowledges the precarious nature of narratives that base political order on fickle desire rather than resolute force.7 From the second [End Page 52] scene of the play, in which we recognize that we have shared Miranda's perception of the storm and thus also occupy her role as spectator to be both manipulated and pleased, the congruent analogies of audience and woman as political subjects merge in the figure of Prospero's nubile daughter. Prospero's insistence that he has "done nothing but in care of thee" (1.2.19), however cynical, is true insofar as Miranda represents the populace upon whose...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-0383
Print ISSN
0039-3738
Pages
pp. 50-82
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-10
Open Access
No
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