Feminism was an important movement in seventeenth century England, generating many attempts by king, clergy, and male writers to suppress women's attempts to create a greater equality. Men's patriarchal concern about possible social changes was expressed in the many debates on this issue. Some of this concern was expressed in vehement sermons delivered by clergy and directed toward women, who were a captive audience forced to listen during church services.
Improvements in printing and less expensive books created an explosion of how-to pamphlets offering additional instruction for men on how best to control their wives and daughters. Patriarchy received additional support from both the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church, which advocated gender inequality as divinely ordained. According to the religious authorities of the period, women were inferior to men because the Bible says they are, or at least biblical scripture was interpreted in this way. The church blamed Eve, and through her all women, for man's fall from grace. Eve's story was interpreted to mean that all women needed to be suppressed and controlled. This control was especially important in a society in which women served as political currency. Women were the brides of kings and the mothers of future kings. Controlling their behavior and their sexuality was particularly important, thus the many references in The Tempest to Miranda's virginity.
Miranda is the only female character in The Tempest. On an island filled with men, her presence serves one important purpose — to provide a bride for Ferdinand, since by marrying him, she helps to bring reconciliation and redemption to their fathers, Prospero and Alonso. Miranda's primary value is in her virginity, which determines her worth on the marriage market. Upon seeing Miranda, Ferdinand quickly asks, "If you be maid or no?" (I.2, 431). His immediate concern is to her chastity. They love one another instantly, and if she is a virgin, she has value to Ferdinand, who can only wed a virgin. Virginity is a matter of politics. Ferdinand may love Miranda, but he cannot wed her unless she is pure. A man of property, especially a king or his son, must be assured that his offspring are truly his. A woman's virginity, which implies her chastity, is promise that her husband's paternity will never be questioned.
Miranda is a commodity, as was her mother, and her value as barter is in her nobility and purity. Virtue is a characteristic of nobility, and in telling his daughter about their past, Prospero emphasizes his own wife's nobility:
Thy 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. (I.2, 56-59).
Prospero emphasizes that Miranda's mother was an excellent example of chastity and nobility, and her offspring is just as noble. Miranda is provided little information about her mother, except that which is most important about her — her chastity. The implication for Miranda is clear: Her value, too, is defined by her chastity. It is an interesting paradox that Miranda's sexuality serves as bait to entice Ferdinand, while at the same time, he is warned by Prospero not to touch the bait (IV.1, 14-23).
In fairy tales, the captive princess is usually rescued by the prince. In this case, Miranda and Ferdinand appear to rescue each other. He rescues her from isolation on the island and offers her both his love and a crown. She rescues him from her father, offering to help him carry logs and offering her love. However, the reality is that both young people are playing the role Prospero has mapped out for them. That Prospero loves his daughter is clear, but he also needs her to bring his plans to fruition. At the play's conclusion, Prospero's biggest success is in marrying Miranda to Ferdinand. Certainly, regaining his position as duke of Milan is important also, as is the redemption of Alonso. But both these events are tied to the marriage between Miranda and Ferdinand. These two young people represent the promise of the future, since this promised marriage ensures that Prospero's children will inherit from the king of Naples. Clearly, this union is a sizable victory for Prospero.
The 1613 presentation of The Tempest to celebrate Princess Elizabeth's coming wedding further reinforces the fairy tale elements, in which the princess is rescued by marriage, taken to a new land, and lives happily ever after. This was after all the plight of princesses everywhere, who were little more than political pawns in a game of diplomacy.
Political marriages — and the union of Miranda and Ferdinand is a political marriage — were normal parts of Elizabethan life. The audience learns in Act II that Alonso's daughter has been married to the king of Tunis. She was also married in opposition to her wishes, according to her uncle Sebastian, who reminds the king that Claribel (Alonso's daughter),
the fair herself
Weighed between loathness and obedience at
Which end o'th' beam should bow. (II.1, 129-131)
Claribel, although loath to marry her father's choice, had to weigh her obedience to her father against her own desires. Obviously, her obedience to her father weighed more heavily than her own desires about marriage. This supports the argument that a woman's primary value is as chattel, to be bartered on the marriage market for the husband her father most desires.
Politics is often a sleazy business. But that is not the case for Miranda, who has little awareness that she is a political pawn in Prospero's plan. Her sense that it is a "brave new world" (V.1, 186) reflects her innocence of both her role and of the life she will soon be leading, both as the wife of a king and later, perhaps, as the mother of a princess. Should Miranda eventually have a daughter, the daughter will also someday be bartered for a foothold in a kingdom or as an alliance to end a conflict. This was the expectation for daughters.
But not all women went willingly into the marriage market, and the new feminist movement seemed to offer support for revolt. Seventeenth-century drama was a safe way to explore the political and social issues of the period. Theater provided a voice and a way to disguise discussion of politically charged topics. If we examine The Tempest from this perspective, what is Shakespeare suggesting about the political use of women in contracting marriage? Shakespeare often used social issues as a way to explore the way society functioned, using the stage to present a microcosm that represented the larger macrocosm of the universe. The marriage relationship is a microcosm of the larger relationship between man and king, which was in turn a microcosm of the larger relationship between man and God. In focusing on the political implications of Miranda's marriage, Shakespeare is offering the audience a chance to consider the alliances that women form and the means by which they are constructed.