Women in Elizabethan England and Shakespeare's Miranda in The Tempest
Treatment of women has evolved much since Elizabethan England. As a preface to the dissection of The Tempest – in particular, the character of Miranda, Shakespeare’s role for women as a whole must be addressed. According to Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz’s introduction of Woman’s Part, “patriarchal order takes different forms and is portrayed with varying degrees of emphasis throughout the Shakespearean canon” (5). In the midst of this patriarchy, where do women stand? What social assumptions guided the pen of the great English poet and playwright as he wrote The Tempest? Lenz discusses that “In the comedies women are most often nurturing and powerful; as their values educate the men, mutuality between the sexes may be achieved” (6). However, “in tragedy…their roles are at once more varied, more constricted, and more precarious…they are condemned for acting, accused of being deceitful even when they are not” (6). Why the canyon between the two? How does Shakespeare reconcile women in what The Norton Shakespeare terms a romance play?
Given the tragic outcomes of certain female characters (i.e., Desdemona and Juliet), sexuality must be promptly considered. Desdemona’s “jeopardized” fidelity ignites Othello’s murdering hands. Her sexuality controls him. In the same way, it might be argued that severe sexuality is the compulsion of Romeo and Juliet. Considering the brevity of their relationship, which implies the absence of shared memories and the absence of mutual and intimate knowledge, one may deduce that all they really can share is bodies. And it may be precisely their bodies that drive the entire relationship and tragedy. In Woman’s Part, Paula S. Berggren reinforces this idea that “the central element in Shakespeare’s treatment of women is always their sex, not as a focus for cultural observations or social criticism, but primarily as a mythic source of power, an archetypal symbol that arouses both love [Romeo] and loathing [Othello] in the male” (18). By this statement, the primary source of power for Shakespearean women was their vaginas. It was because of their genitals that they lived, died, ascended or descended in the class structure. Juliet Dusinberre provides a corresponding commentary in her book Shakespeare and the Nature of Women:
“Playing down virginity as a virtue benefited women. A married woman can grow old with impunity. Late Elizabethan drama is full of jokes about virgins who have hung on to their virginity until its currency is devalued… A woman must know when to trade it in.” (49)
Apparently the Elizabethan age regarded a woman’s virginity as a form of currency. In England’s strictly classified social structure, currency wielded a large measure of power. A woman’s sexuality was something to be bartered, and when the time became opportune, sold and taken. In a modern context, this resembles veiled prostitution. But one must consider that because...