The Tempest in the Trivium
Published in Connotations Vol. 15.1-3 (2005/06)
To the delight of his audiences, both past and present, Shakespeare rarely created names of stubbornly obscure origin. In his last play, however, it seems he did just that. I refer, namely, to Sycorax—witch−mother of Caliban and, though absent, arch enemy of Prospero in The Tempest. Minor and unseen as she is, she is mentioned by name seven times and is a major topic of dispute between Caliban, her son, and Prospero, her rival. Over one hundred and twenty lines are devoted to Prospero's wrangling, first with Ariel then with Caliban, about the nature and effect of "this damned witch Sycorax."1) She represents nothing less important than the island's other magician to whom Prospero is implicitly compared.
In naming his characters, Shakespeare typically either found a well−known historical and⁄or mythological precedent, used a clearly allegorical name, or coined a name from recognizable parts or sources. Such audience−friendly habits, however, seem to have been ignored when it came to the name "Sycorax." Far from common−knowledge, we are told it is Classical Greek for sow (sys) and raven⁄crow (corax),2) heartbreaker (psychorrhax),3) fig (sukon) and spider (rax),4) "Go to Hell" (es kórakas),10) Arabic for "deceiver" (shokoreth),5) a thematically significant misspelling of Scythian6)—and the list of recondite improbabilities goes on.
There is, however, a simpler, funnier, and more thematically pertinent solution and one that fits what Shakespeare was wont to do so often in his preceding plays: poke fun at pedants and pedantry. The target of his scorn this time is no less than the first 'trial lawyer' and the commonly acknowledged progenitor of the art of rhetoric. This [→page 128] magician of language, this witch of rhetorical exercise, was the fifth century Greek, Corax of Syracuse. Snip a syllable from one word, snap it on another and, quick and home, Corax of Syracuse becomes Sycorax, a portmanteau of significant jest.
Because Shakespeare got at least most, if not all, of a grammar school education, he would have studied the famous and inescapable Trivium (logic, grammar, and rhetoric all taught in Latin), the three subjects most basic to the "liberal arts"—subjects in which Prospero claims to have excelled "without a parallel."7)
The Ad Herennium, and the works of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian were the principle sources for grammar school rhetoric and the latter three mention Corax, the Sicilian, as the sole founder, or, with his student Tisias, co−founder of the first 'systematic' rhetoric.8) He is also obliquely mentioned by Plato who, along with Aristotle, questions the logical soundness of the rhetorical 'reasoning' (the doctrine of oikos)9) Corax supposedly taught to various citizens of Syracuse who hoped to persuade the courts of their property rights after the fall of the Tyrants, circa 467 BCE. Not only would Shakespeare likely have known much, if not all of this, but much of his all−important audience would have known this, too. The name Corax of Syracuse, or anything significantly like it, reverberated with all sorts of recollections, and not all of them pleasant.
Such a reference, as well, enhances certain thematic concerns, especially in Act 1, scene 2. This entire scene is either exposition or verbal jockeying for position. When it becomes the latter, when, that is, Ariel asks for his liberty and Caliban asks for his land, it becomes a forum for Prospero's oratorical wizardry. And this is precisely the moment of Sycorax's 'nominal' entrance.
Much of the important business at the end of The Tempest's long second scene deals with establishing who has the better claim to the island in a dispute over property rights, AND who can present that claim most persuasively. It is because of Prospero's superior skill at rhetorical manipulation that he wins the argument. Clearly, his claim is based on his superior "nature"—he is the civilized one and brings [→page 129] to the island superior qualities. And although it is not the possible cacophony of Sycorax's speeches ("terrible⁄To enter human hearing"11)) that bothers but the vile nature of her sorceries that is most offensive, it is, nonetheless, clear that some of the threads Shakespeare braids into his web of motifs explore the use and abuse of rhetoric and the magical⁄poetical art of language. The "nature" of good and evil may be the most important aspect, but its fundamental, inextricable relationship to the art of persuasion cannot be ignored.
Prospero reaches the pinnacle of rhetorical skill, and such skill is truly magical. He—and by extension, Shakespeare—bests the best, the very founder of one of the three liberal arts of the Trivium. In The Tempest, Corax of Syracuse, the 'inventor of rhetoric,' is unseated by the "upstart crowe" on the Jacobean stage.
International High School
San Francisco, California