The botheration has nothing to do with the quality of Helen Mirren’s performance. She is a very fine actor, her heart is in her part, and she knows how to speak the poetry. (Some of the younger actors in the film don’t; they just don’t get the beat.) Once or twice she looked so dishevelled and harried that the word “menopausal” came into my mind, which it shouldn’t have; but that was costuming, makeup, more the director’s fault than the actor’s. Mirren was splendidly in control, as she must be, control being the mage’s great and perilous gift. She showed affection for her daughter most convincingly — a matter of body language and expression, mostly. And in the great speeches, the camera’s closeness to her worn face and clear eyes lent touching immediacy to her strong, straightforward rendition of the words. If Shakespeare was saying farewell to his art, his own magery, in this play, as it seems he surely was, Mirren has the age and the authority to make that farewell most poignant.
But all the same, it bothered me that she wasn’t the Duke of Milan but the Duchess, not Miranda’s father but her mother, not a wizard but a witch.
What difference does it make?
Do I believe a woman can’t be a great mage? Am I an Archipelagan quacking “Weak as woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic”? (a line that still gets quoted as if to show that my fiction exists to deliver my opinions and that what my characters say is my opinion.) No, that’s not it. Making the mage a woman didn’t bother me because I think a woman isn’t up to the job. Far from it.
What bothers me about Prospera is this: she isn’t Prospero. She isn’t the same person. She’s somebody else.
Of course every actor who plays the part is a different Prospero. But I believe there are limits to how far you can change the physical being of a character in a play without putting both the character and the play at risk.
A famous example of such limit-testing by an actor (and an interesting reversal of this one) is Sarah Bernhardt’s playing Hamlet when she was a middle-aged woman with an artificial leg. She didn’t turn Hamlet into a woman; she played the Prince not the Princess of Denmark. So the experiment was a different one. But she tried to prove that the limits of gender, age, and physique were not limits to her genius.
Some surviving reports by the witnesses of her Hamlet make polite efforts to admire, but have a kind of stunned, disbelieving tone. It was just a bit too much. It didn’t work.
It’s sad to think about. By all accounts Bernhardt was a genius, and she still had her golden voice, her passionate temperament, and her adoring audience. So why couldn’t she play the greatest role in English drama? It wasn’t fair. . .
It isn’t fair.
Fair or unfair, I question the wisdom of radically changing a Shakespeare play just as I’d question the wisdom of chipping at the Venus of Milo to make her thinner so as to suit modern ideas of beauty, or repainting the Sistine Ceiling to brighten it up, or performing the Halleluiah Chorus in waltz time.
I can do some thought experiments on this subject. For instance, a male Rosalind in As You Like It.
Yes, I do know Shakespeare’s women’s roles were played by young men, the convention of the time. It hasn’t been the convention for several hundred years. And it doesn’t explain much about his women except their convenient propensity, which Rosalind shares, for dressing up as boys. (If you want to see a wonderful momentary glimpse of what the reality was probably like, get the 1940’s film of Henry V with Laurence Olivier and watch the transformation of the French princess into the boy who acted her in Shakespeare’s time.)
I didn’t get far with my thought experiment of a male Rosalind. I got stuck as soon as he dressed up as a girl.
I got a little carried away with my thought experiments. For example, Richard III played by a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot, gorgeous young hunk, to show that the Tudor myth about his being a monster was a bunch of lies. . . The problem is that everything Richard says and does in the play is magnificently, mythically monstrous. He is the Tudor myth. He is Shakespeare’s Richard. He can and should be fascinating, but to make him pretty would be idiotic. Even Olivier succeeded in looking sort of ugly when he played Richard, which shows what a good actor can do with unpromising material.
But I should stick to gender reversals. So, how about making Kate the Shrew into a man, and Petruchio the Shrew-Tamer a woman? Has it been done?
If it were done, would it show or prove anything beyond the director’s egoism and the actors’ virtuosity? The Taming of the Shrew is an explicit comedy of injustice. As such it makes us laugh and rage, teases our complacence, goads us by its endorsement of male triumph and female submission, and through its partiality may lead us to look at facts we’d like to deny and lies commonly accepted as fact. To change the genders of the main parts would diminish it to a portrait of a couple of odd bods, a bullying woman and a sharp-tongued but weak guy.
Arguably, gender is important in As You Like It and the Shrew because Rosalind and Kate are young women, sexual beings in passionate heterosexual relationships. Whereas Prospero is the widowed father of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Anybody that old doesn’t have any sex, really, right? He’s fifty, he’s past it, what gender he is doesn’t matter, right?
So then how about King Lear? Lear’s even older than Prospero, maybe even sixty, seventy. . .
Serious consideration of the proposal of a Lear sex-change leads me to declare that there’s something at stake in the gender of this character beyond mere sexuality. I find the idea of Queen Lear intensely silly. Though for all I know she’s blundering half-naked across a blasted Hollywood heath towards me at this very moment, bellowing “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”
The relationships in Lear’s highly dysfunctional family have a lot to do with gender, since gender has a lot to do with power, and power, again, is what the play is about. The exercise of it, the sharing of it, the lust for it, the loss of it. And the renunciation of it. Lear handles and mishandles his power as a man, having been taught certain ideas of what it is to be a man, as all men are taught. His daughters seek power as women, who’ve learned what it is to be a woman — as all women learn — and how a woman can get power through manipulating men. Cordelia is as much a manipulator as her sisters, though she is motivated by self-respect and affection as they are not. She wants to shore up her father’s power, not to take it from him, but her behavior is as gendered female as his is gendered male. None of them can break out of the expectations and limitations their society has set around them.
We in the 21st century, some of us at least, have a little more freedom as regards gender, larger expectations. So we grieve to see Lear and Cordelia trapped in a narrower, meaner definition of what a man is and can do, what a woman is and can do. We know that gender is not destiny; we know that the idea of gender as binary leaves out an endless number of actual and possible variations and combinations; we know that gender as we commonly experience it is to a great extent a social construct, often an extremely cruel and stupid one. And so we can lament at seeing Shakespeare as a man of his time caught in the prejudices of his time.
But I don’t see that that ability to make a moral judgment gives us any reason or right to change his plays. Reinterpret them, endlessly, yes. Rewrite them, no.
Though very few words were changed in this Tempest, to change the sex of the main character of a play was a major rewrite.
Prospero is an imaginary person, who exists only in the words the playwright wrote for him to speak. He is the words he speaks, and they belong to Shakespeare.
Prospera is another imaginary person, one not invented by Shakespeare. But she speaks Prospero’s words. And so she bothers me. Is she a person or a ventriloquist’s puppet? If she is genuinely a character, why has she co-opted another character’s speeches?
A gorgeous movie with Helen Mirren playing a powerful magician-queen on Hawaii’s Big Island full of frustrated monsters and airy spirits and sweet music and the best poetry in the world — if somebody could write that script and shoot that movie, I’d go see it, sure!
But when I see The Tempest, I want to see The Tempest. I want to see Prospero. I’ve known him for years and years, and every time I see him played by a different actor I learn a little more about who he is, see a different side of him. I love and admire the man, cross-grained as he is.
In this Tempest he wasn’t there. Somebody else was there.
I liked her; I’d like to meet her — somewhere else. Only not there. Not on Prospero’s island.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.