Volume 71, Issue 3, Summer 2019
“Be Not Afeared”
Sycorax and the Rhetoric of Fear in The Tempest
This paper looks at the thematic and rhetorical variations of a fundamental fear that frequently surfaces in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: the fear of illegitimate birth, which may also be understood as the fear of non-contractual sexuality. Sycorax is the prominent supernatural figure that the play deploys to depict unpredictable, indeterminate and horrible acts of creation unsanctioned by society. The paper shows how the fear of illegitimate birth not only shapes entire characters such as Sycorax and Caliban, but also infiltrates the language and figures that prevail in Prospero’s orchestrations of the marriage plot, his betrothal masque and his deployment of Greco-Roman mythologies (Hymen, Venus and Cupid). This fear is also connected with the play’s other fears and desires evoked in Gonzalo’s anarchist utopia and in the play’s preoccupations with the issue of legitimate government. The focus on the fear of illegitimate birth and non-contractual sexuality connects the different plot elements and rhetorical devices used in the play in a novel way, providing a plausible explanation for Prospero’s burst at Caliban in the masque scene and foregrounding (and hence doing justice to) the long-neglected figure of Sycorax.