The virgin-knot bit, alas (4.1.13-23) #StormTossed

PROSPERO     Then as my gift and thine own acquisition

Worthily purchased, take my daughter. But

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before

All sanctimonious ceremonies may

With full and holy rite be ministered,

No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall

To make this contract grow; but barren hate,

Sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew

The union of your bed with weeds so loathly

That you shall hate it both. Therefore take heed,

As Hymen’s lamps shall light you. (4.1.13-23)

Urk. This is one of the creepily prurient, dodgy dad moments for Prospero that needs careful handling in performance, not least in how the silent Miranda reacts, and Ferdinand too. Modern sensibilities might (should) continue to bridle at the suggestion that Miranda is Prospero’s to give or sell, or Ferdinand’s to purchase. But that’s the early seventeenth-century proto-capitalist patriarchy for you. It’s break her virgin-knot which occasions a particular wince here, because of its explicitness and also, perhaps, its implicit violence. But the sentiment isn’t that different from Friar Lawrence’s to Romeo and Juliet (‘for by your leaves, you shall not stay alone, till holy Church incorporate two in one’, 2.5), or even Leonato in Much Ado, prepared to forgive Claudio if, before he and Hero are actually married, he has ‘vanquished the resistance of her youth, and made defeat of her virginity’ (4.1), when Claudio accuses her of unchastity at their wedding. It’s conventional moralising and a pragmatic acknowledgment of the urgency of youthful desire, and made explicit here, as elsewhere in early modern drama, not least because it was so very common for early modern relationships to be sexually consummated after formal betrothal but before marriage; a significant proportion of brides (perhaps around 1/3 in rural areas) were pregnant on their wedding day. (As Anne Hathaway had been, in 1582, when she married, aged 27, the 18-year-old William Shakespeare.)

But I think that there are two other angles here. One is the need to emphasise that Prospero claims no priestly power; that the over-arching frame of the play is a Christian one. Hence Prospero speaks of the need for all sanctimonious ceremonies, with full and holy rite to be ministered. He can’t marry them. They’ll have to wait. There might be a theatrical in-joke, of a kind: so many of Shakespeare’s plays are thought to ‘end with a wedding’, but in fact none of them does; comedies like As You Like It and Much Ado end with betrothals, and religious ceremonies (whether weddings or funerals, like Ophelia’s) could not be shown on stage. And when plays include or have just celebrated a wedding, they tend to end badly: Hamlet. Othello. Romeo and Juliet. Most obviously, and closely, Winter’s Tale, with the ghastly destruction of the relationship between Leontes and Hermione by his irrational jealousy (Perdita and Florizel are close cousins of Miranda and Ferdinand, and could well have been played by the same actors.) Importantly, Prospero is not saying that sex is bad, however, and the specific point he makes is that, rather than heavenly blessing, sweet aspersion, on the union of their bed, if they don’t wait for the proper time, they eventually won’t be able to stand each other: sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew the union of your bed with weeds so loathly that you shall hate it both. Something that is inherently good will become hateful. The reference is to the custom of strewing a bridal bed with flowers (as Gertrude thought she would Ophelia’s), but here they are imagined as weeds, a poisoned marriage (and perhaps specifically a poisoned sexual union; barren hate also suggests infertility). Take heed, as Hymen’s lamps shall light you: wait, so that the torch carried by Hymen, god of marriage, will shine brightly on your union.

And this is also Prospero the pragmatic, cautious politician. He wants this marriage; he thinks that it will be a key part of his restoration as duke, and of a new, more equal alliance between Milan and Naples. But it’s only part of his plan; he still has to finish dealing with his brother and the king. If Ferdinand and Miranda consummate their relationship now, it’ll be legally binding, even without a further ceremony (at least in English law), which could be tricky if the rest of Prospero’s plans don’t work out. Prospero is, perhaps, leaving an escape route. (Probably too realistic and cunning a point to make.)



View 2 comments on “The virgin-knot bit, alas (4.1.13-23) #StormTossed

  1. John Wood, who played Prospero in Nick Hytner’s production (RSC/RST, 1968), said that, for his take on Prospero, this was a memory of what had happened in Prospero’s own marriage. Wood knew that there was no way of communicating that imagined back-story to an audience but it motivated his pained delivery of the lines, a kind of ‘I know from experience what an unhappy marriage can be’ (incidentally, Wood was certainly not blaming Mrs Prospero for this), and, as a result, more sympathetic than most Prosperos as they play Angry Dad, fearful of their daughter’s being sexually active.

    1. Oh this is interesting! thanks Peter. I do think that Angry Dad or Dodgy Dad is too easy, and also dull. What’s struck me so often is how often Prospero speaks of his pain; he’s not just angry with Antonio, for instance, but desperately hurt by him.

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