Miranda’s Promise

Miranda is one of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare. She is raised by her father, the exiled Duke of Tunis, all but alone on an island. This epitomizes something about the helplessness of children in general. When we are young, we have very little control over our environment. Miranda comes into consciousness without the company of other children. Indeed, the only people she knows are her father and a slave who was a native to the island, and that relationship has gone very badly.

Miranda taught Caliban, though he is older than her, how to read. Caliban was at that time her father’s slave, but she felt some kind of compassion for him. Caliban represents another interesting thought experiment as this play is full of philosophical ideas. What happens to someone when they learn the language of a colonizing force? In this case, the situation of colonization has been narrowed down to three individuals. Prospero and Miranda shipwreck on the island. Caliban is there all alone after his mother has died.

When Prospero–with three-year old Miranda–makes Caliban his slave, Caliban is full of hatred towards Prospero, understandably. Caliban was born on the island after his mother Sycorax was exiled. She was banished there from Algiers, pregnant at the time. Caliban, then is much like Miranda: a victim of circumstance. He is only nine years older than her. At the time of the play, she is 15, he is 24. Sycorax has died, however, leaving Caliban alone and he is vulnerable to Prospero’s power.

Caliban is powerless against Prospero, but he attempts to rape Miranda. Prospero stops him in time, but Caliban is unrepentant about his desire to do so. While the idea of rape is obviously repulsive, there is an underlying desire to have a family. “Else I would have peopled this isle wih Calibans,” he says. Without any other humans to mate with or power to court young Miranda, Caliban attempts to take her sexual freedom from her.

While she doesn’t lose her virginity, she does lose her innocence. Her feeling towards Caliban is transformed from one of a compassionate teacher to someone who hates her abuser to the point of hating his entire race. This is one of the trickiest elements of Miranda’s character. She has no experience with other humans but for some reason attributes his race, not his circumstance, to his abhorrent character.

Since Miranda has taught Caliban how to read, however, we can assume that she has spent some portion of her dozen years on the island reading Prospero’s books. The fact that his books caused him to lose his political power and that at the end of the play he throws those books away may represent to us the idea that there is something wrong with those books. Since Miranda’s only knowledge of mankind comes from her father and those books, it is also reasonable to suggest that they contain some negative ideas about race, or that they are indeed racist.

In other words, racism in the case of Miranda is inspired by Caliban’s act of attempted rape, but it is informed by literature. Racism occurs at other points in the play, such as when Sebastian blames Alonso for causing their misfortunes by giving his daughter to be married to an African prince instead of an Italian one. Since he turns out to be a villain, we can read racism as both ignorant and malignant in the play.

Miranda can’t be blamed for her ignorance, as she comes by it innocently. Her exile is due to no fault of her own. She has inherited her father’s political problems. It is no wonder, then, that as soon as she sees a man, she is excited to learn about other humans. Before the play begins, Miranda is a teenager who has only had bad experiences with men outside of her family. While the literature she has read has taught her to blame Caliban’s behavior on his race, it has also opened her mind to the possibility that some men may be of a better temperament.

So, when she meets Prince Ferdinand, she is in love at first sight. This is Prospero’s plan, but it goes faster than he had hoped. He has to spend time and energy slowing down their courting process, once again protecting Miranda from her own innocence. He must test Ferdinand and learn what his true intentions may be. He also desires to have them properly married so that they may return to Italy and rule with the propriety of the law. It is an arranged marriage, but one that both parties are happy to engage.

Miranda is the most powerful force in the play. She is the only woman character and is a magnet to her potential suitors. She is also the motivation behind all of Prospero’s decisions. She provides him with comfort and gives him the desire to return to Italy so that she can live a proper life, not just one in exile. As such, she is powerful beyond her own knowledge and this play is the beginning of her coming to know her own power.

Prints from this Series

Prints of these images are available. Half of the profits will go to the model, Lillian Thorington, and half will go to me. Thanks for supporting independent art and culture!

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