"This damn'd witch Sycorax,|
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Argier,
Thou know'st, was banish'd."
|— Prospero to Ariel, The Tempest Act 1 Scene 2|
According to the backstory provided by the play, Sycorax, while pregnant with Caliban, was banished from her home in Algiers to the island on which the play takes place. Memories of Sycorax, who dies several years before the main action of the play begins, define several of the relationships in the play. Relying on his filial connection to Sycorax, Caliban claims ownership of the island and Prospero constantly reminds Ariel of Sycorax's cruel treatment in order to maintain the sprite's service.
Scholars generally agree that Sycorax, a foil for Prospero, is closely related to the Medea of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Postcolonialist writers and critics see Sycorax as giving voice to peoples, particularly women, recovering from the effects of colonization. However, much about Sycorax remains elusive.
Later versions of The Tempest, beginning with William Davenant's eighteenth-century adaptation, have given Sycorax a vocal role in the play, but maintained her image as a malevolent antagonist to Prospero.
The Tempest, Prospero describes Sycorax as a foul witch from Algiers, banished to the island for practicing sorcery "so strong / That [she] could control the Moon". Prospero further relates that many years earlier, sailors had brought her to the island, while she was pregnant with her son, Caliban. She proceeded to enslave the spirits there, chief among them Ariel, who she eventually imprisoned in a pine tree for disobedience. Sycorax taught Caliban to worship the god Setebos. She dies before the arrival of Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. Caliban grows to hate Prospero's presence and power on the island, claiming that the land belongs to him since it was his mother's before Prospero appeared.
Several competing linguistic theories have been put forth. Some scholars argue that her name may be a combination of the Greek sus ("pig") and korax ("crow"). Another rough translation produces the phrase "the Scythian raven", an etymological description of Medea. (Batman upon Bartheme, a play which Shakespeare may have been aware of, contains a raven called Corax.) Also, psychorrhax ("heartbreaker"), may be a play on the Greek word psychoraggia ("death struggle"). One critic searched for a connection to Sycorax's North African heritage, and found a parallel in Shokereth, an Arabic word meaning "deceiver". Another recent idea suggests that, for thematic as well as historical reasons, the name is the reverberant combination of syllables in the name Corax of Syracuse - the oft acknowledged founder of rhetoric and worthy, fictionalized rival of Prospero. An especially odd and early guess at a meaning by one critic was sic or rex, a Latin homophone alluding to Queen Elizabeth's pride.
The general idea for Sycorax's character may have come from the classical literature familiar to many in Shakespeare's day. Sycorax is similar to Medea, a witch in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in that both are powerful, magical female figures. Scholars have also pointed out that Sycorax resembles the magical Circe from Greek mythology as well as perhaps a version of Circe found in the mythology of the Coraxi tribe in modern-day Georgia.
Sycorax also draws on contemporary beliefs regarding witches. For example, she may embody the belief that all witches have blue eyes. The character may even be a reference to a specific historical personage. According to Romantic literary critic Charles Lamb, a witch, whose name has been lost to history, had recently been banished from North Africa about half a century before the time Shakespeare was writing the play; her similarity to Sycorax has struck a few scholars as notable. Lamb's claims, however, remain unverified.
|"[Sycorax is] a paradigm for all women of the Third World, who have not yet, despite all the effort, reached that trigger of visibility which is necessary for a whole society"|
|— Kamau Brathwaite|
Sycorax's silent role plays an important part in postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest. Because she is native to Algiers and her story is only heard through others (Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban), she is championed by some scholars as a representation of the silenced African woman. Postcolonial authors have also claimed her; for example, Kamau Brathwaite, in his 1994 work Barabajan Poems, includes "Sycorax's book" as a counterpart to "Prospero's book" (mentioned in Act 5 of Shakespeare's play). In an attempt to give voice to unspoken indigenous cultures, Brathwaite's poems outline the history of the Caribbean through Sycorax's eyes. Sycorax is presented as Brathwaite's muse, possessing him and his computer in order to give full voice to the history of the silenced, who in Brathwaite's philosophy are not only Caribbean natives, but any culture underrepresented during the colonial period.
Other postcolonial scholars have argued that Shakespeare's audiences would have connected Sycorax with the threat of Islamic expansionism. Islam had successfully conquered and colonized much of the Middle East and some of southern Europe during the Middle Ages. The Algerian Sycorax may represent Christian Europe's fear of Islam and its growing political power. This interpretation inverts the traditional postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest, however. If Sycorax is viewed as an Islamic expansionist, then she herself is the colonizer, not Prospero (who becomes merely a re-colonizer of the island). However, Sycorax's portrayal as an absent, silent woman still allows the play to solidify the idea of European over Islamic power.
Interpretations of Sycorax as silenced focus not only on her race but her gender as well. Most of what is said about her in the play is said by Prospero. However, as scholars point out, Prospero has never met Sycorax—all he learned about her he learned from Ariel—and his suspicion of women makes him an unreliable source of information. Skeptical of female virtue in general, he refuses to accept Caliban's prior claim to the island, accusing him of being a bastard "got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam."
Sycorax has been conceptualized in a variety ways by adapters and directors of The Tempest. In John Dryden and William Davenant's version of The Tempest (1670), Sycorax is survived by two children, Caliban and a daughter also named Sycorax. This second Sycorax makes sexual advances toward Trinculo, the drunken sailor, and (according to Trinculo) also has incestuous relations with her brother Caliban. Die Geisterinsel, a 1778 version of the play in German, includes a living Sycorax, a witch who has full power during the night, while Prospero rules the day. In this play, she is the one who causes the tempest and shipwreck, not Prospero; Prospero is extremely wary of her actions as each night approaches, as she has power over those who sleep. Several times he struggles to keep Miranda awake to protect her from Sycorax's power. In Eugène Scribe's French 1846 version, Sycorax is alive but imprisoned behind some rocks out of sight. She spends most of the play trying to convince her son, Caliban, to free her. Peter Brook's 1968 British version of the play portrays Sycorax as an ugly witch, including her in a birth scene in which the equally ugly Caliban is born. Film versions of The Tempest have portrayed Sycorax in flashbacks of the islands history. Derek Jarman's 1979 version, Sycorax is shown leading Ariel around by a chain, and breast feeding an adult Caliban. Peter Greenaway borrowed from Jarman's portrayals in his 1991 film version, entitled Prospero's Books.