The Hegemonic System of Production: How Shakespeare and History Commodify and Confine the Feminine
Luce Irigaray, a French feminist and theorist, postulated a theory in which gender constitutes an economic exchange. Women become commodities within a patriarchal economic system and their identities are thus derived from their value to men. Irigaray claims that the female identity is constructed from its commodification in a patriarchal society. Consequently, women are occluded from participating in cultural and socio-economic systems as the feminine can only be represented in relation to men (Irigaray 59). According to Irigaray: “The law [commodification of women] that orders our society is the exclusive valorization of men’s needs/desires, of exchanges among men… Men make commerce of them [women], but they [men] do not enter into any exchanges with them [women]” (Irigaray 172).
Thus, within this patriarchal economy, women are not bodies of participation, but rather objects of utilization and catalysts for profit. Irigaray furthers this theory of gender as commodity by expounding a trio of social roles which are typically imposed upon women— mother, virgin, prostitute. To Irigaray:
“The characteristics of (so-called) feminine sexuality derive from them: the valorization of reproduction and nursing; faithfulness; modesty, ignorance of and even lack of interest in sexual pleasure; a passive acceptance of men’s ‘activity’; seductiveness,…” (Irigaray 186-188).
This theory of gender as commodity and the various social roles of the female object can be used to analyze to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Aurora Levins Morales’ Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorrique ñ as. In The Tempest, the only female character is characterized as a commodity and only valued for her virginity, while in Remedios, the indigenous women of Puerto Rico become a reproductive labor force for colonizing men.
For there to be an economic system in which women are commodified, there must be an underlying patriarchal power structure from which the objectification and commodification of the feminine disseminates. In The Tempest, Prospero’s patriarchal power is quickly established. He conjures a tempest and displays a fiery desire to avenge his banishment. Not only does Prospero assert power and authority, but he also establishes himself as a patriarch, a ruler. However, what seems to be most revealing about Prospero’s position of power is his subjugation of Miranda. Miranda’s role as the subordinate female reinforces Prospero’s role as the patriarch — forming one of the more crucial power dynamics of the play. Throughout the play, Miranda is more of a prop for her father than a dynamic character. She is an object, a possession to be had. Prospero exerts power over her by bending her to his will—“Here cease more questions:/Thou art inclined to sleep. ’Tis a good dullness,/And give it way: I know thou canst not choose” (I.ii. 214-216). Prospero uses his magical abilities to control Miranda completely— she is fully at his mercy. Not only is Prospero the director of Miranda’s physicality, but he also controls her education and sense of self. When informing Miranda of the conditions of his banishment, Prospero states, “’Tis time/I should inform thee further” (I.ii.27-28), revealing that Prospero has control over Miranda’s knowledge of her own past. Further, it is Miranda’s response to Prospero that is equally as revealing of the power dynamic between the two. Miranda replies to her father’s story with, “More to know/Did never meddle with my thoughts” (I.ii.25-26). This response exemplifies Miranda’s naive femininity— she is serving her place as the subjugated woman by not thinking for herself and only thinking when instructed to by a male authority figure. Prospero dictates what Miranda can think and learn, thus, Miranda becomes a simple object of Prospero’s affections, and ultimately, manipulations. According to Ania Loomba in “Miranda’s Schooling” from Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, “Miranda is ordered to sleep, awake, come on, see, speak, be quiet, obey, be silent, and be mute. She is his [Prospero’s] property, to be exchanged between father and husband” (331-332). Prospero’s power over Miranda is not simply relegated to her past and education. Instead, Prospero also has the ability to define Miranda’s worth. In The Tempest, it becomes clear that the most valuable part of Miranda is her virginity. This excessive valuation of Miranda’s virginity is what ultimately transforms her into a product for the play’s male characters. When Ferdinand and Miranda first meet, Ferdinand almost immediately remarks, “…my prime request,/which I do not last pronounce is — O you wonder! — /If you be maid or no?” (I.ii.492-494), emphasizing the importance of Miranda’s retaining of her virginity. When Miranda confirms she is a virgin, Ferdinand then offers to marry her (I.ii.520-522). Here, Irigaray’s social role of the virgin comes into play. Miranda becomes not only a commodity of her father’s, but also a possession to be traded among men, her value as a commodity determined by her virginity. When Miranda pledges to Ferdinand “I am your wife, if you will marry me:/If not, I’ll die your maid” (III.ii. 98-99), the ownership of Miranda is transferred from Prospero to Ferdinand. This act of transition is finalized when Prospero gives Miranda away to Ferdinand, saying “Then, as my guest, and thine own/acquisition/Worthily purchased, take my daughter” (IV.i.13-15). When Prospero equates Miranda’s marriage to an acquisition and later a purchase, the act of the commodification of Miranda is complete. Miranda’s femininity becomes exchangeable. Thus, Miranda, valuable because of her virginity, is able to perform her role in the patriarchal economy.
Correlating with Irigaray’s theory, Miranda’s identity is derived from her value to Prospero and Ferdinand and she is reduced to the simple social role of virgin.
The patriarchal commodification of women can also be found in Aurora Levins Morales’ Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorrique ñ as, but more so in the form of discourse and criticism. While Shakespeare participates in and propagates the institution of commodifying the feminine, Morales criticizes this institution through an anti-colonial lens. Remedios is an alternative narrative to the typical colonialist representation of the native female and a pathos-driven lamentation against the erasure of indigenous female labor. Morales passionately declares the forgotten and unappreciated labor of indigenous women, saying “Puerto Rican women have always held up four-fifths of the sky. Ours is the work they decided to call un-work… Not a single thing they did could have been done without us… Not a town built up around its plaza, not a fortress manned without our… childbearing. As reliable as furniture, as supportive as their favorite sillón. Who thanks his bed? But we are not furniture… We were out of their sight… nursing babies” (XXXII). The colonizers reduced the purpose of the Puerto Rican women to simple reproduction— they were forced to fulfill Irigaray’s social role of mother. Labor, for these indigenous women, was not simply manual, but also familial. A woman’s value depended on her ability to produce offspring. Men commodified indigenous women’s reproductive abilities— women were not seen as anything beyond a possession, just a catalyst for the production of a future workforce. Irigaray’s theory of the commodification of women and social roles of the feminine can be used to analyze both The Tempest and Remedios. In The Tempest, Miranda becomes a commodity traded between father and husband, her value as an object derived from her social role as virgin, which can be observed from both Prospero’s and Ferdinand’s incessant valuing of her virginity. And, in Remedios, Iragaray’s theory of the patriarchal economy can be seen in Morales’ description of women simply used to procreate— indigenous women become objects used to produce more goods within an oppressive economy. Thus, these native women were also confined to the hegemonic, social role of mother.