In planning for the Honors Western Humanities Sequence that I will begin teaching in the fall, I’ve now made it all the way through to Shakespeare. Mind you, that’s around 4000 years of Western humanities in less than three months! I’ve been a busy (and, admittedly, a very selective) reader. The first course in the sequence—which I’ve discussed in several previous blog posts—is currently plotted out in detail and pretty much ready to go, while the second course is really only starting to take shape.
Part two of the sequence picks up with the collapse of the Roman Empire in around 476 and continues through the 18th century. The first literary text that I have slated as required reading for this course is Beowulf, an epic tale of a Geatish warrior written in Old English between 700-1000. In sum, Beowulf battles three antagonists in the course of the text: a monster named Grendel, who has terrorized a neighboring community of Danes for several years; Grendel’s mother, who seeks revenge for her son’s brutal death; and a dragon, who meets his demise as he causes Beowulf’s own heroic death. As you might well guess, it is this second battle—the one with Grendel’s mother—that most captures my fancy and that works as a point of comparison with the depiction of Sycorax the witch in The Tempest.
After Beowulf, students in my course will move through some Chaucer, Machiavelli, and others before we get to Shakespeare in the latter part of the semester. I’ve selected a couple of Shakespeare plays for the course, including The Tempest (ca. 1610), a play that depicts the mystical events that occur on an island inhabited by a deposed Italian duke, Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. In the play, Prospero manages to conjure up a tropical storm that ultimately brings about Miranda’s marriage to the prince of Naples and both Miranda’s and Prospero’s safe return to Italy. Like in Beowulf, however, the threat of a monstrous mother looms near throughout much of the action in The Tempest, as we are repeatedly reminded that the island was previously ruled by an evil witch, Sycorax, who, luckily, died before Prospero and Miranda arrived. Sycorax’s legacy survives in her deformed and degraded son Caliban, who challenges Prospero’s claim to the island but whom the exiled duke ultimately enslaves, and the airy spirit Ariel, whom Prospero saves from Sycorax’s curse only to subject him to servitude as well. These characters and their histories with the witch keep the threat of Sycorax alive for Prospero and Miranda throughout their years on the island.
Grendel’s mother and Sycorax, although conceived in the English imagination nearly 1000 years apart, seem to serve similar functions in these two stories. Both are presented as abject monstrosities who wield considerable (maternal) power over our two protagonists; both are depicted as obstacles to the construction of these protagonists’ male subjectivity; and both are ultimately defeated in order to protect boundaries of the patriarchal state and masculine selfhood. That said, Grendel’s mother and Sycorax are different in some also important ways. Perhaps most significantly, the witch Sycorax is particularly figured as originating from Africa, and, in this way, blackness enters into the equation in this latter text. Instead of a clearly fictional monster, the threat and other in The Tempest takes the shape of an empowered black woman.
The similarities between these two characters speak, of course, to the seemingly age-old Kristevan struggle against the maternal (a struggle that continues to be depicted in literature and popular culture even today, as I show in my post on Pink Floyd’s The Wall). Both Beowulf and Prospero must separate themselves from identification with the (m)other in order to establish subjectivity as men. After slaying Grendel’s mother, Beowulf emerges from her terrifying underwater lair—surely a sort of representation of that which Kristeva calls the semiotic—a hero of men. He has proven that despite the fact that Grendel’s mother reacts with recognizably human emotion to her son’s death and then acts on the same social codes as he does by engaging in a blood feud with her son’s killer, he is separate from this monstrous mother. Likely preserved in oral form for over 400 years before it was recorded, the story of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother seems foundational in the maintenance of the cultural identity depicted in this early English text. In the symbolic realm of a culture built on the heroic deeds of men and the exchange of women to secure political ties, Beowulf’s killing of Grendel’s mother reinstates the binaries that underwrite Beowulf’s identity and that of his Geatish community: self/other, good/evil, order/chaos, male/female, etc.
Prospero, too, constructs and destroys a (m)other in order to claim personal subjectivity and also to regain entry into Italy. Although he and Sycorax share the experience of exile, a seeming proclivity for enslaving or entrapping mystical beings, and even an expertise in magic, Prospero defines his goodness in opposition to his own articulation of Sycorax’s evil. A lover of the written and spoken word, Prospero uses language to overwrite the history of Sycorax’s seemingly semiotic island space, reminding Ariel that while Sycorax entrapped him in a tree, he “freed” the spirit from this prison and dismissing Caliban’s claim to his mother’s island by repeatedly enumerating Sycorax’s perceived evil. Already pregnant when she arrived on the island’s shores, Sycorax represents an unleashed maternal power, a threat to the same cultural binaries that figure so prominently in Beowulf.
Considering the historical context of an increased Western colonization of faraway lands and the development of slavery as a dominant mode of ensuring Western profit during Shakespeare’s time, I would argue that Sycorax threatens in The Tempest to blur the boundaries of more emergent binaries as well, such as home/away, center/periphery, colonizer/colonized, and white/black. To reclaim his right to return to the civilized world, Prospero must demonstrate that he does indeed belong to the categorizations of home, center, colonized, and white. Acting on his own perceived paternal benevolence, he therefore conquers a bewitched island, abolishes its established maternal order, and brings to rights a social hierarchy that for a while seemed to privilege female over male and chaos over order as well as away over home and black over white.
As a woman and an African, Sycorax becomes the ultimate (m)other for Shakespeare’s audiences—and remains so for generations of Westerners to come. Her maternal power threatens white and male privilege, and the suppression of her order ensures the continuance of a very foundational construction of Western-ness, something that I ironically hope to dismantle in my teaching of “the Western humanities.”
Note: I’m aware that this post is lacking in textual support, critical engagement, and perhaps even analytical nuance, but I received news today that a press is interested in my book, so I must immediately set to revising my chapters so that I can submit the project in its entirety and get the ball rolling. Yay!