Although there is only one onstage female character in the play (Miranda), perhaps reflecting the fact that female actors were not allowed on the Renaissance stage and the company had to rely on a limited supply of boy apprentices with limited skills to play
female parts, there are two offstage female characters who are frequently spoken about, although they never appear onstage: Sycorax and Claribel.
Sycorax is Caliban’s late mother. She is depicted as old, deformed and hideously ugly:
The foul witch Sycorax who, with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop. Act 1 Sc 2, lines 258-259
The idea here is that arthritis has deformed her, so her nose is nearly touching her toes, so her body is set in the shape of a hoop. However, it also alludes to the Jacobean belief that physical appearance reflected moral calibre and a villain would be physically ugly.
She was exiled from Algiers in North Africa for witchcraft:
This damned witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Argier,
Thou know’st was banished. Act 1 Scene 2, lines 263-266
and would have been sentenced to death if she had not been pregnant at the time, and her life was spared for the sake of her unborn son:
For one thing she did
They would not take her life […]
This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child Act 1 Scene 2, lines 266-269
(Here there are crude sexual puns on “thing” and “did”, so the line means both “Because of one act she committed” and also “Because of one penis she serviced”.
However, the early 19th century critic Charles Lamb interprets this line very differently. He believed that Shakespeare was referring to a story of a witch in Algiers who saved the German Holy Roman Emperor Charles V [the same one that appears in Doctor Faustus!]’s life in 1542. He thus believes that saving Charles’s life was the “one thing she did” that helped her escape execution and this isn’t a penis gag, at all. )
A triple association is thus set up between witchcraft, pregnancy and Africanness and can be read as a symbol of how both female sexuality/fertility and Africa are viewed with distrust and fear: the Other is associated with “damned” occult arts and “sorceries terrible”.
Female fertility and Africans are also depicted animalistically:
the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp, hag-born – not honoured with
A human shape Act 1 Sc 2 lines 282-284
The verb “litter” usually refers to a bitch giving birth to a number of puppies and “whelp” is another word for puppy. Prospero views Sycorax and Caliban as subhuman and being as vicious as dogs.
Prospero later refers to Caliban as
Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself
Upon thy wicked dam Act 1 Sc 2, lines 319-320
“Got” means “fathered” and “dam” means “mother” (although, again, it is a word more frequently used of animals than humans). Prospero here accuses Sycorax of having had sex with the devil and Caliban as being fathered by Satan (it was a common belief at the time that witches had sex with Satan as part of their rituals).
When Ariel refused to do what she commanded him, she imprisoned him in the split in a pine tree:
for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorred commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee
[…]Into a cloven pine, within which rift
Imprisoned, thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years Act 1 Sc 2, lines 272-279
Sycorax’s magic, unlike Prospero’s, is depicted as disgusting (“abhorred”) and she is described as if she is a presumptuous diva who is not entitled to the powers she assumes (“grand hests” makes it sound as if she is acting above her station).
Furthermore, some critics have perceived a sexual suggestion in the word “earthy” and have suggested that the “commands” that Ariel was “too delicate/To act” were orders that he perform sexual acts on her. It has also been suggested that the feared “rift” in which he is “imprisoned” is symbolic of the vagina and the male fear of being entirely subsumed by the woman in the sexual act.
Please note the contrast between the language used to describe Sycorax’s magic and that used to describe Prospero’s:
Sycorax is “the foul witch”, “this damned witch” (“damned” here is meant in the literal sense – as a practitioner of witchcraft, Sycorax is condemned to go to hell), Caliban’s “wicked dam”, who practises “mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible”, with many words connoting evil, Satanism and/or animalistic qualities. This, to an extent, reflects how female witches and “cunning women” were viewed at the time and depicted in texts such as the 15th century German witchfinder’s textbook, Malleus Maleficarum (look it up on Wikipedia).
By contrast, Prospero’s magic is described as if it is an impressive academic accomplishment (it is an “art”, “secret studies” of a man “all dedicated/ To closeness and the bettering of my mind” whose “library/Was Dukedom enough”). This, to an extent, reflects how male “white” magicians, such as John Dee and Simon Forman, were viewed at the time – somewhat disreputable, but not guilty of blasphemous, illegal practices like female witches. Respectable people, including the Queen, would consult “white” magicians – they were a mixture of astrologer, GP and proto-scientist.
A historicist critic might read Prospero’s depiction of Sycorax at face value and argue that most Jacobeans would share his view of her as an ugly, devil-worshipping fiend.
A feminist critic, however, might read her as a symbol of how women were both feared and marginalised in the patriarchal Jacobean society. Their capacity for childbirth and ability to arouse men were seen as mysterious, devilish powers, and old women, who were no longer any use to men as sexual partners, were thought of as superfluous and untrustworthy.
A postcolonialist critic, meanwhile, might view Sycorax as a symbol of how non-Europeans were demonised and viewed as dirty and subhuman by white colonists. But the fact that Sycorax is a coloniser herself complicates this picture – she and her son are both the Other that is marginalised and oppressed by the invading Europeans and the Colonist who invades the island and oppresses its indigenous inhabitant, Ariel.
A psychoanalytical critic, on the other hand, might view her and Caliban as symbolising the Id and the instinctive, bodily urges, at war with Ariel, who represents the Superego, the conscience and the idealistic, high-minded, prudish part of a human that is revolted by sexuality and physicality.
In Derek Jarman’s film, Prospero’s Books, Sycorax is depicted as naked, grotesquely fat (thus playing up the idea that she represents a subsuming female sexuality) and with snakes in her hair, like Medusa (but also playing on African dreadlocks and European fears of the non-European).