Magic and Witchcraft in Shakespearean England: Macbeth and The Tempest
Shakespearean Witches: Sycorax’s Absence and Dark Magic
Shakespeare’s absent witch died many years before the story takes place. However, even though she is not present, the audience knows more about her that it does about other characters: it is also true that the information is not completely reliable because given by Prospero, her enemy, and her son Caliban.
Sycorax’s story is told in a few lines that do not flesh out a character: in 1.2, Prospero scolds Ariel for wanting its liberty “before the time be out.”(1.2, 47) and reminds him of a torment he has freed it from, mentioning Sycorax.
PROSPERO: This damned witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Algiers
Thou know’st was banished. For one thing she did
They would not take her life. […]
This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child,
And here was left by th’ sailors. […]
A freckled whelp, hag-born-not honoured with
A human shape.
ARIEL: Yes, Caliban her son. (1.2, 265-9, 271-2, 285-7).
The only things the reader knows are that Sycorax was a vicious witch, Caliban’s mother, that she had ruled the island before Prospero and that she had imprisoned Ariel. It is known that Sycorax was probably banished because of witchcraft and that she was not killed because she was pregnant: in fact, in Europe capital sentences were commuted for pregnant women; ordinary condemned witches were either hanged or burned at the stake. Moreover, the physical description Prospero gives of her being blue-eyed seems to suggest another proof of Sycorax’s pregnancy, for blue eyelids were thought to be a sign of it.
Thus, it is possible that Prospero had met Sycorax once he arrived on the island: before the play starts, they were probably at war with each other to claim the control of the island. They are exact opposites: Prospero is a great sorcerer who uses white magic, he has a daughter and is noble; Sycorax was a witch who dealt with black magic, she had a son and came from Algeria.
As Duarte suggests in her study, Prospero and Sycorax are also opposite for they incarnate the ideas of patriarchy and matriarchy. Prospero sees in Sycorax something that may question his patriarchy. Her absence gives Prospero the chance to build the figure of the evil woman, his antagonist: when he arrived on the island, he had to fight and defeat matriarchy in order to impose himself as a ruler. Ania Loomba suggests in Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama that power and gender are not the only opposing forces between the two characters. In fact, race is another important means to determine power: in Loomba’s view, Prospero uses a “language of misogyny as well as racism” constructing Sycorax as black, wayward and wicked in order to legitimize his own power as a white man.
All these things considered it is clear that Prospero is a white patriarch who demonizes Sycorax because she is black. Some scholars hypothesize that Prospero’s constant reminder of Sycorax being foul and damned suggests he feels threatened even though she does not exist anymore: “he feels threatened enough to create a monster born out of his own uneasiness and the preconceptions he has about her”.
Over the years, Sycorax has been studied under many different aspects and one of the most interesting is the origin of her name. Shakespeare is famous for giving his characters names with either a mythological and historical origin, or a name that would express important traits about the character. There are many hypotheses about the origin of the witch’s name and two of them will be briefly explored. Duarte suggests the name comes from Corax of Syracuse, one of the founders of ancient Greek rhetoric, an art that is very present within the play; the writer underlines that Shakespeare had had a classical education, which means he had studied both classical authors and Greek, and he might have taken some ideas from there.
Marina Warner offers another possible origin for the name Sycorax: it may come from the Latin corax meaning ‘raven’, combined with the Greek sus or sys meaning ‘pig’, ‘hog’ or ‘sow’. Caliban also expresses this association in Act 1.2, when he swears against Prospero: “As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed / With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen / Drop on you both!” (1.2, 324-6). To support her thesis, Warner writes that behind the figure of Sycorax lie two of the most famous witches of antiquity: Circe and Medea. According to the Renaissance stereotypes on witches and to Greek myths, the raven was a familiar of witches and of Medea; the figures of the pig and sow are connected to Circe, the enchantress in Greek and Latin myths.
From a colonial and patriarchal perspective, one of the most interesting traits about The Tempest is how it explores the idea that empowered, fearless, black women can become a threat to male characters: also their legacy provokes fear and loathing in the mind of the male character. The characterization of Sycorax helps the audience to understand how the West has demonized and repressed spiritual and sexual power of racialized women. Sycorax is in fact subjected to a triple minority: she is colored, a woman and a witch.
According to the Daemonologie, the Malleus Maleficarum and other texts of the seventeenth century, witches were thought to have sexual relations with the Devil in exchange for something. As Warner suggests, it may be that Sycorax, in order to save herself from death, had had sexual bonds with her master and that the monster Caliban was the fruit of that union.
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