On Prospero’s Island

My husband was not bothered by Prospero being “Prospera” in the new film of The Tempest. I was bothered by it. This bothers me.

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.

So what?

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.


Out Here coverUrsula 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.



On Prospero’s Island — 45 Comments

  1. I didn’t have the same reaction to the gender change, but that’s not why I decided to comment …

    Of course, I’m way too young to have seen Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, but I did see Dame Judith Anderson’s, in the early 1970s. Anderson was a fine, fine actress (although probably not in Bernhardt’s league) and she absolutely couldn’t pull off Hamlet. This may have been about gender, but it was also because she was in her early 70s, and she thought that being small and high-voiced was enough to make it possible for her to play a young man. This was a bad decision.

  2. I saw a stage performance with a female Prospero in the eighties, and I didn’t believe it. It seemed to me that Prospero as a man was not a good father, but within the realms of how fathers are, but Prospero as a woman was an appalling mother — not telling Miranda anything for all that time? Manipulating her romance? There’s a gender axis in that play and swapping Prospero alone does strange things to it. And you’re absolutely right, Shakespeare was writing within gendered expectations of his time, and you can’t just ignore that.

    There’s also a thing about power and Prospero — it’s not just age, it’s the kind of power. I’ve always thought he’d have been a lousy duke of Milan when he got home for the same reason he was before, and the senate and people of Milan were probably better off with Antonio. He’d have been back to the library, which is what he’s really missed on the island. Prospero had power by right and casually, and he is renouncing magic to take up politics. Women have power, sure, but female power in most historical societies comes in different ways. Shakespeare knew this backwards — try imagining a gender reversed Antony and Cleopatra. You have to do a lot of worldbuilding to get female power that comes as duty.

  3. We all have boundaries of elasticity, in terms of how much we can shift our expectations of a mental/emotional landmark.

    Kate’s speech at the end of The Taming of the Shrew would provoke very different (and uncomfortable) thoughts if spoken by a male actor. I would also argue that King Lear could easily have been a woman: the Queen Bee, common in many fairytales.

    Sorcery and witchcraft are less gender-tied though they still carry gender-specific evaluations and judgments. My view is that these are interesting experiments that expand our thinking, even if we dislike or oppose them.

    Finally, it’s relevant to keep in mind that Shakespeare himself stole and co-opted countless plots and characters, copyright being non-existent back then. For all we know, Prospero may have been originally female before s/he got shoehorned into the Elizabethan mould of what a powerful sorcerer should be.

  4. Did anyone see the stage version of NICHOLAS NICKELBY, starring Richard Rees? It was filmed and aired on PBS in the 1980s. In the stage production the Crummles’ acting troupe stages ROMEO & JULIET, with extensive rewrites by Mr. Crummles. To force a happy ending upon the thing, with the attendant marriages, Benvolio was revealed, at the last moment, to be Benvolia. That’s the moment when you realize that Mr. Crummles has no talent.

  5. In Sweden I haven´t seen any advertising at all for the movie. I´ve been a fan of your books since I was a teenager (now 55:-)) The only thing I ever have regretted was that when I finally decided to write to my absolute favour finnish writer Mika Waltari (Sinuhe the Egyptian and so on..?) so he had died…..
    So I hope this mail reaches you….! I absolutely love your book The Left hand of Darkness – primarly because I still have not exactly understood the ending….And maybe it is because I´ve read it only in Finnish and in Swedish translation, but not in original – I think they just do not have it in our library…. What a film THAT book would be! I allways have been thinking that it would be the ultimate roll for David Bowie – either of the main rolls – I saw one science fiction film that he made iI think in the ´80s, and in that androgyne roll he was just brilliant…
    Oh – I love your other books as well; but I still think that The left hand of the darkness is one of the top 10 written in last century! All the best for this century – for Mika Waltari it was not so easy…..
    Love: Mirja Markkula, Basgränden 10, 22468 Lund, Sweden

  6. I think I disagree with you, but I haven’t seen the movie yet (because apparently it hasn’t played in Austin yet), so I’m basing my assumption on my memory of the play. It seems to me that the idea of Prospera rather than Prospero might upset a lot of preconceptions of gender and power.

    And I think I’d like to see a female Lear, though it might be a good idea to also switch the gender of other characters. Have men play Goneril and Regan, perhaps, or else have all those struggling for power be female, including the bastard Edmund.

    I can’t see role reversal being particularly effective in Taming of the Shrew — it becomes a farce. Nor do I think it would work for Rosalind in As You Like It: she passes as a man to make herself and Celia safer. A man passing as a woman is almost always done for comic effect. (I find myself thinking of how the boys in my high school dressed up as girls to be cheerleaders for the Powderpuff football game. They made it clear that the whole thing was a joke, despite the fact that we girls on the football field were deadly serious about winning the game.)

    How about a woman playing Shylock? Ever since I saw Hal Holbrook play Shylock in such a way as to make him the hero rather than the villain of the piece, I have thought about the potential in that play. Shylock is by definition an outsider. Women are outsiders, especially in the business world of that particular play.

    I saw a stunning Othello with reverse racial casting: Patrick Stewart played Othello, and the rest of the cast was African American. I was just sitting here thinking a woman couldn’t play Othello because of the relationship with Desdemona, but then I thought of Othello as an Amazon, someone who differs from the others both by ethnicity and gender. Desdemona loves her, but I can see a female Othello with a female lover being even more vulnerable to Iago’s lies than a man.

    The more I think about it, the more of it I think I’d like to see. If we can monkey with Shakespeare by setting the stories in different time and places, why not play with gender as well?

    But maybe when I finally get to see Mirren’s Tempest, I’ll change my mind!

  7. This is a wonderful post/essay – very interesting, and I find myself agreeing with you. Your points are persuasive, but these points and examples are not necessarily why I agree with your overall reaction to the introduction of ‘Prospera’.

    For me, it comes down to the years I’ve spent researching alchemy (ultimately, a tiny portion of that research has found its way into my debut novel), and the many sources that say Shakespeare COULD have based Prospero on Dr. John Dee. When I think of Dee, I cannot possibly think of changing him into a woman… Dr. Joan Dee, perhaps?

    Dee was–in some accounts–an incredibly strange and undesirable character, with questionable sexual practices and almost abusive tendencies towards his wife. I don’t know the truth of any of this, and I don’t know if Shakespeare really DID base Prospero on Dee. But… that idea is stuck in my head, and has been for many years, so for me there is only Prospero–the man–not Prospera the woman. No matter how much I admire Dame Helen as an actor, which I absolutely do.

    Thanks again for a great post!

    Best wishes for the coming year,


  8. Having grown up on Kurosawa’s numerous Samurai adaptations of Shakespearean plays, the thought of a Prospera instead of Prospero is not something I would find troubling. Actually, with one of my wife’s cousins being a local (Singaporean) filmmaker, he and I occasionally talk about Shakespearean plays that can be adapted to a local cultural context. Recently, I (half-heartedly) suggested we do an alternate history in which the Malays in 1511 successfully defend the port city of Malacca against the Portuguese (instead of being conquered, as actually happened) with the plot loosely based upon Henry V.

  9. Coming from a culture whose myths and historical figures (the Homeric figures, Leonidas, Alexander to name just a few familiar from recent Hollywood chariot wrecks) have been endlessly — and most often horribly — monkeyed with, I don’t see why Shakespeare, a reteller of already told tales, need be sacrosanct from adaptation. He’s admittedly a genius with language and some of his characters have become archetypes to Anglophone readers. But the stories themselves are already adaptations.

    Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

    Some may recall Kenneth Branagh’s marvelous, exuberant Much Ado About Nothing. He cast against the grain: half the characters went to American actors, including Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton in major roles — and for Don Pedro he chose Denzel Washington. It may be a reference to Spain’s Moorish past, but I guarantee you Shakespeare did not see Don Pedro as anything beyond black-haired. And he was wonderful in that role, he made it totally his.

  10. I respect your opinion that gender-bending Shakespeare is a bad thing. It does, however, have a longer and more successful history than I think you are giving it credit for. For instance, Bernhardt’s Hamlet was indeed not well-received in England but got rapturous reviews in France. (Bernhardt was following in the footsteps of Sarah Siddons, who had played Hamlet to great acclaim in 1775.) Bernhardt’s other signature role, “L’Aiglon”, had the same middle-aged Frenchwoman with one leg playing the dying teenaged Napoleon II. PIcture here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sarah_Bernhardt_as_L'Aiglon_1900.jpg

    I found a 1911 New York Times article (paywalled, alas) reviewing the history of women in male roles, with many Shakespearean roles including Othello, Iago, and Romeo — the Times reviewer commented “It is enough to say that the Romeo of Miss Cushman is far superior to any Romeo we have ever seen”.

    On the flip side, there have been well-reviewed all-male As You Like It performances as early as 1965, and possibly earlier; some of these in drag, and some where all the parts are played as male.

    One of the great challenges of playing Shakespeare is to make people think, to make them see the play fresh. Gender-bending the roles is one way to achieve this; it’s a dramatic tool like any other, and a tool with a long history.

  11. For me, a female Prospero won’t work, because it throws the whole play of opposites out of whack. Caliban v. Ariel, Sycorax v. Prospero and so on (I generally wind up cheering for Caliban and am happy because, when all is done, he is left in sole possession of what is, after all, his island once the European imperialists sail away).

    I have seen one role in Shakespeare switched by gender effectivly, however. A college production of Much Ado about Nothing, short on male students auditioning, cast a female as Don John, the Bastard.

    In this case it worked, because John’s disaffection, due to his exclusion from inheriting the princely state of Aragon on account of his illegitimacy translated well into Joan’s exclusion on the basis of gender – which woung=d up striking some new chords with the interplay of Beatrice and Benedick.

    Then again, it was after all my sister who was playing Dame Joan, the Bitch, so I was inclined to like it. I found the transposition pleasing and effective, and far less jarring than Keanu Reeve’s unfortunately spiritless delivery in the 1993 film (which was doubly unforunate as Branagh and Thompson were so engaging).

  12. The issue of Sycorax is a particularly interesting one. For one, she brings up the disproportionate absence of mothers in Shakespeare’s world (not an unusual phenomenon in most art, prominently including Hollywood). For another, although Sycorax is the real owner of the island and a sorceress in her own right, she never appears in the play leaving Caliban to act as her proxy (with a broad hint that in fact Prospero is Caliban’s father).

    When adopting the traditional POV, Sycorax is Hagar with Miranda’s equally absent mother playing the role of Sarai (this also points up the race issue implicit in the play, bringing to mind similar arrangements in such places as the antebellum South).

    If the gender of Prospero is reversed, we are essentially seeing two female quasi-gods vying for primacy: the older goddess is a chthonic manifestation like Tiamat, whereas the newer one is closer to a sky goddess like Dhiktynna or Arianhrod. Which serves to shift the viewpoint of female versus male, and into the often conflicting versions of what it means to be a powerful female presence.

  13. I managed to mangle that last sentence! It should say:

    Which serves to shift the focus from the standard opposition of female versus male, and into the often conflicting views of what it means to be a powerful female.

  14. Here’s my problem with Prospero becoming Prospera: For me (others may see it otherwise) much of the power in the play concerns the relationship between a father and his daughter and, as any parent knows, that dynamic is wholly different from the relationship that exists between a mother and her daughter. SO, to change the gender of the parent does much more than leave open opportunities for a different view of the play – it changes the play (and, of course in my view, not for the better.) I saw a production of The Tempest in Ashland a few years ago in which this gender-switch was made and it just didn’t work for me. When I spoke to some of the cast later, I was interested to hear them say that it didn’t work for them either. Just sayin’.

  15. ” the relationship between a father and his daughter and, as any parent knows, that dynamic is wholly different from the relationship that exists between a mother and her daughter. ”

    This parent (of both a daughter and a son) would disagree with you. I just checked — so would my husband. (He then reminded me of XKCD 386 http://xkcd.com/386/ and suggested I go to bed.)

  16. I’m sorry that you think a Queen Lear is silly. To me, the idea of a Queen Lear is marvelous and exciting, and one I would want to see in a production of Lear. I think using the word “silly,” in particular, is a feminine-coded word, and an expression of internalized oppression.

    Switching genders in Shakespeare’s plays is a major rewrite simply because you’re saying it is. I’m sure people said the same thing about cross-casting by race. “Ophelia can’t be Asian! That would Change The Whole Dynamic!” The problem is, The Whole Dynamic is merely a construction of current social norms. Even an Asian Ophelia in the context of 1950 Nebraska, say, would be extremely different from an Asian Ophelia in the context of 2010 San Francisco.

    No, gender isn’t destiny. Theoretically, it’s not determinative of anything. If we keep thinking that it is, we reinforce oppressive gender norms. In a day and age and society when gender is more fluid (inshallah), I think a Queen Lear would be eagerly received. Or even–dare I say it–received with a yawn, and judged by the actor’s performance and not by her sex.

  17. Monica, very well said!

    The fact of the matter is, every production of Shakespeare alters the dynamics and story involved. I can’t understand how altering the gender of one character “radically” “rewrites” a play. I can believe a woman acting as Prospero does just as easily as I can believe a man doing so. Sure, he has a sort of unquestioned assumption of authority and righteousness, but those qualities are far from being the sole province of male humans.

  18. “The problem is, The Whole Dynamic is merely a construction of current social norms.”

    Okay, but social norms are a huge part of what Shakespeare’s plays are about. Take them away and there’s drastically less story. There are an infinite number of ways to adapt Shakespeare, and I do think gender swaps present some very interesting possibilities. But they’re only interesting if the consequences to the rest of the story are thought through, unless every production of Shakespeare is going to be set in a totally egalitarian future world (in which case I don’t see how all his stories about kingship would make any sense). A world in which everyone yawns at a Queen Lear–in which nobody’s even interested in how a change in gender would affect a medieval story–sounds like a world where it’s not worth going to the theater.

  19. Pearlrose–

    So, MacBeth in Stalinist Russia is invalid? As is Romeo and Juliet in modern-day Verona Beach? Because I don’t remember either production having suffered from being set in another time and space. In fact, if I remember, they were both spectacular.

    King Lear is not a story about women and men–and that therefore, female characters must be played by women and male characters must be played by men– unless you say it is, and therefore, that it must always be. You can also say the cast must be forever white, too, because those were the social norms in Shakespeare’s time, and casting people of color would result in “drastically less story.”

    No, rather than being about men and women, the story is about parents and children. And pride and humility and ambition and cruelty and love and repentance and madness and reconciliation.

    None of these are sovereign territories of the female or the male. They’re human.

  20. I will also say–just because it helps to illustrate where I’m coming from–that I come from a theater community that uses cross-sex casting all the time, especially in Shakespeare. It’s not arbitrary–not that anyone can be cast in any role–but that each person is considered for a role with regard to what they might bring, as a person, to that role. In other words, the priority is not on casting the perfect person, but casting the interesting choice–especially because “perfect” is often code for something else, like an unexamined prejudice.

    For example, Delta Boys in Chapel Hill recently staged a production of Troilus and Cressida where Achilles, Patroclus and Hector were all played by women. And they were spectacular. Helen and Cressida were also played by women. They were also spectacular. And no one had any trouble telling anyone apart, or mistaking that Achilles was anything but a conceited warrior, and Helen a winsome naif.

    Trust the characters’ words, for heaven sakes; that is where the story lives.

  21. Monica: What are you responding to? I said: “There are an infinite number of ways to adapt Shakespeare, and I do think gender swaps present some very interesting possibilities. But they’re only interesting if the consequences to the rest of the story are thought through.” You said: “So, MacBeth in Stalinist Russia is invalid?”

    I’m really not interested in labeling some works of art as valid and some not. I’m not interested in locking us eternally into preconceived gender roles, either. What I’m very interested in is what those gender roles have been, and why, and what people have done with them. That understanding seems to me crucial if we hope to change them, and it’s what feminist criticism of Shakespeare has been about for decades now.

    Go ahead and set Macbeth in Stalinist Russia, and put Hamlet in 1950’s Nebraska–what a fantastic opportunity to re-examine Shakespeare’s portrayals of power! It’s when that re-examination isn’t there, when a bunch of people are killing each other over who gets to be king of 1950’s Nebraska and the play hasn’t helped us understand why, that performances fail to convince. Based on the critiques I’ve seen here and elsewhere, it seems like that’s the problem with Taymor’s “Tempest”–not that she made a change but that she hasn’t (in the opinions of many) offered a fresh vision of the play to go with it.

  22. Pearlrose, your last statement may well be the problem with Taymor’s Tempest. But that is completely distinct from the issue of Prospero’s gender, which was the topic of this post and the comments it elicited.

    Beyond theatrical practices, objecting to a female Prospero is particularly odd given that old women and old men end up on a convergent trajectory, having lost many of the secondary gender attributes that result in role pigeonholing. In many reactionary gender-segregated cultures, old women are allowed to practice magic when they stop menstruating. It’s frankly astonishing to see the gender distinction being touted in this particular context.

    I have been mulling these issues over and, as is usual with me, this has caused an essay. I’ll post the link when it appears.

  23. Pearlrose,

    I think we mostly agree.

    To answer your question, I was responding to this statement: “Okay, but social norms are a huge part of what Shakespeare’s plays are about. Take them away and there’s drastically less story.”

    I’d argue that Shakespeare’s plays have survived and thrived over the last four hundred years precisely because they transcend social norms.

    “But they’re only interesting if the consequences to the rest of the story are thought through.”

    You’re assuming that the sex of a character is of consequence. Allow yourself to imagine a world where it’s not.

    I admit, I’m not up on the latest feminist Shakespeare criticism. What I do know is that I’m a young feminist artist who’s very, very tired of having the same conversation about How Gender Works, in theater or otherwise. We know how it works. We’ve known for decades. As I see it, it’s my job to be the change I want to see in the world. That’s the conversation I want to have.

  24. Interesting discussion…this is my first visit and I’m quite surprised. There is a lot to think about here, but the first thing that popped into my head was — I’d be bothered if it bothered me too! But then I thought about it…and I’m no longer bothered, because I rationalized her response and my own.

    Would I be bothered by a Prospera? Maybe, if I had a tight relationship with the play and had analyzed and appreciated the relationships between the characters. I’m familiar with it of course and appreciate the story but not the trials of the individual characters — much like watching an action flick that is exciting, but I’m not really invested in the characters.

    Could you change Ripley in Aliens into a man? No. It would be a different story.

    Knowing and understanding the characters’ fullness (both their mindset and backstory) makes us appreciate their actions, their worlds, and relationships with other characters. It helps us to understand their WORDS and what they imply and reveal about themselves and the story. The mindset and backstory we have for many characters in plays is limited to what they tell us and the mindset we associate with a character’s gender, profession, age, ethnicity, or wealth. This mindset and backstory is an intricate part of that character’s situation in their world and in our perception of that world and ultimately the story itself.

    Our complicated and layered psyche forms a package of preconceived notions based on the character’s situation. Change a part of the character’s situation (i.e. gender, age) you will change the reader’s psyche package and thus change the reader’s perceptions of the story — what is impressed upon the audience. I think you change the story itself especially for someone who is intimate with that story.

    Pick your favorite character. A Miss Marple tale played by a Mr. Marple isn’t the same mystery. Society’s relationship with old Mr. Marple is different from Society’s relationship with Miss Marple.

    Could Thelma and Louise have been sisters, blood relative sisters, instead? No. Changes the story.

    What if the doctor in City of Angels was a man and the angel a female?

    These are not even comparable to Shakespeare’s works, so why would we think we can change genders in his works and NOT change the story? How could it not bother someone who enjoys Prospero?

    UKL says “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.”

    I agree fully with her and think that someone had an idea for a movie just like she discribed, maybe envisioned Helen in the part or Emma Thompson — but they didn’t have time to write a script — so they fell back on the master! Hey, you never know with movies… Maybe someone saw French and Saunder’s Lord of the Ring’s spoof, but then Saunder’s was dressed as a male wizard…so it isn’t the same thing.

    I don’t care how many parents say they love all their children equally and treat them all the same — they may be right, but the talk in their heads is not the same (their psyche package is not the same). We don’t perceive people identically — we can’t because we are complicating creatures and so is everything around us.

    I apologize for rambling. When you write, no one but yourself can interrupt — so I can’t seem to stop myse–

  25. Here’s another thought on the importance of opposites in the play. According to some scholars on the subject (I’m afraid I can’t lay my hands on the refs right now, but will look if anyone’s interested) father-daughter incest – or rather the incest wish – may well be a theme in The Tempest. Very much in the Freudian tradition of course, but Shakespeare does approach this conundrum in other plays, most overtly in Pericles.

  26. Joanie–you’re conflating gender with character. They are not the same thing. Gender is one trait among many; character is the compilation of all traits. Gender influences character only inasmuch as an artist chooses that it does. In the case of performance, that choice lies with the director and her actors.

    Helen–you’re saying that female and male are opposites. But this is a social construction like any other. Gender is a continuum with no absolute relation to biological sex (which is also a continuum–depending on your definitions, there are up to five human sexes, not two).

  27. @Monica – Um, no, that’s not what I’m saying. In Shakespeare’s text the relationship between Prospero and Miranda is between two people of opposite biological sex, in this case father and daughter.

    There is both a conventional dynamic (in psychological terms) between this particular father and daughter, and undertones of a less conventional, though not necessarily uncommon, dynamic. The same set of dynamics portrayed by a Prosper*a* and Miranda must have a different psychological flavour, if I can put it that way. That’s not the same as saying that biological sex = gender = destiny. I should say that my original remark wasn’t made specifically in response to the on-going discussion here, though I do of course acknowledge it.

    BTW, has anyone here read Cordelia Fine’s new book, Delusions of Gender? It’s had good reviews in the UK. Fine is an excellent writer, but I’m having to wait for the paperback edition of this one.

  28. Helen:

    “In Shakespeare’s text the relationship between Prospero and Miranda is between two people of opposite biological sex, in this case father and daughter.”

    Again: you’re saying that the female sex and the male sex are opposite to each other. This is a social construction. Not an absolute.

    Or maybe (?) you’re saying that because this was Shakespeare’s construction, we must honor it thoughout all time. But again, great enduring art transcends whatever conventions prevailed at the time of its creation. The Tempest is not solely Shakespeare’s creation. All art is a communal creation, and theater even more so. So for you to say, in modern day, that changing the sex of a character must also essentially change the relationship IS precisely equating sex = gender = destiny.

    The relationship between Prospero and Miranda is not the relationship between a man and a woman. It is the relationship between Prospero and Miranda.

  29. For me, Shakespeare plays exist for one reason only: to give the actors the most incredible prose they’ll ever have to conquer. Who the actors are race, gender, age-wise makes little difference. The only thing that’s important is how they deliver their lines. We want to see Mirren in this part so we can rank out on her if she can’t cut it. The ultimate test for any English-speaking actor is how they interpret Shakespeare. Sure, I’d love to see a male Juliet play against a female Romeo. I want to see women in sword fights. Why, because it’s realistic? No, because I want to see how these actors stack up. They can all play to their casted type but what can they do with something difficult? I want to compare Mel Gibson’s Hamlet to Kenneth Branagh’s to Olivier’s to anyone else’s. I like to see how the various directors adapt the plays to different times and places but sticking to the text. Shakespeare is a puzzle, a toy, a game. How does Well’s Macbeth compare to Scotland, PA? Which is better? Apples and oranges, my friends and there all magnificent entertainment. The play’s the thing, after all.

    Ever since I saw Taymor create beauty out of Shakespeare’s ugliest play, Titus Andronicus, I decided to follow her anywhere. Cannot wait to see this version of The Tempest.

    You want to see some bad Shakespeare, check out Michelle Pfeiffer in Midsummer Night’s Dream or Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet. Both actors were cast in what you’d call the stereo for their type, but they couldn’t convince me. And why would I waste my time? Bad theater.

    Wanna see some great stuff, check out Michael Keaton playing Beetlejuice in Much Ado about Nothing. Or Robin Williams in Hamlet.

    Lots of really great stuff out there; I’m sure this Tempest is the height of art. Hurray for Julie Taymor.

  30. Monica – I do dislike having opinions attributed to me that I have not expressed. And I really haven’t the patience to spend time unpacking all the issues your response raises. This is the Book View *Cafe* after all – relaxed discussion. Sadly, discussions of sex and gender seem to generate more heat than light.

  31. Monica — I guess you are right, I am combining gender and character. But I think UKL was saying that she enjoyed Prospero’s character — who the MAN is, the FATHER — the complexity of his character. She missed him in the new movie.

    I apologize, I am not very adept with language and have a rather limited vocabulary, I had to look conflating up… 🙂 thanks.

  32. Wow, interesting comments. I only have time to post something short, which is: I’ve always thought of Ariel as male. Ariel, in Hebrew, is a gender neutral name, which, in the Bible, is used for a man. So I never thought that because Ariel was the name of the spirit, it had to be female.

    Ever since I read A Wrinkle in Time (Ariel is mentioned there, though I can’t remember if it was in a gender neutral or male way), before the first time I read The Tempest, I thought that Ariel was male. Then I read the The Tempest and in class we talked about Ariel as male. Then I saw the play and Ariel was played by a man. So if we’re talking about The Tempest as having a dichotomy of genders intrinsic in the play — I just screwed that one up. Caliban and Ariel are both male in my view.

    I think of Shakespeare as fairy tales: there are the original stories and then there are rewrites and remakes and re-envisionings. I haven’t yet seen this version of The Tempest, and I admit that when I first heard of Prospero as Prospera I was like what what what? That changes the story*! And then I was like, of course it does, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s like playing with a fary tale — it makes you think about it more and examine the themes in a new light.

    *Because there have been arguments about this up above: I do think changing the character’s gender changes the story, but so does changing anything else about a character that’s not in the original, and so does changing anything else about the story, such as the setting.

  33. Alas, Danceswithwaves, you date yourself with precision. You passed beyond childhood before Disney inflicted Ariel the Mermaid upon a cowering universe. Now and forever, the name is associated with soprano voice and a fishtail.

  34. not a wizard but a witch

    I thought only Harry Potter gendered magic users like that: to me, a female wizard is a wizard, and a male witch is a witch (or warlock, if you absolutely must), because – however you define them – there is something about those terms that speaks of a particular type of power.

    (As an aside, I now hope to be able to see Mirren’s Prospera – I’ve seen her on stage, and she’s utterly amazing, and I want to know what she’s done with this.)

    • I was puzzled by this also and also thought of Harry Potter. To me, a witch can be a man or a woman, and so can a wizard. I don’t know if the film used the term “witch,” as I haven’t seen it yet. I am going to, though. This discussion is fascinating, and I came to this page via Athena Andreadis’ article on Lucy Liu playing Watson in *Elementary.* I am one who agrees that variety is the spice of Shakespeare–and Doyle, too.

  35. @Brenda

    Actually, you’re off by about 21 years. The Little Mermaid came out the year I was born. And it was my favorite movie all through childhood.

    However, I learned Hebrew starting in kindergarten and had boys with Hebrew names in my classes each year. That might have something to do with it.


    I agree. I think of wizards and witches as two different types of magic users.

  36. Danceswithwaves – for what it’s worth, Ariel is listed in the dramatis personae after Miranda… i.e. With the female characters. I’ve seen productions set in the Native North American community with Ariel as Nanabush – a spirit that can be male or female. Very apropos of this discussion.

  37. A Queen Lear shouting “Blow! … Til you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” Oh, that’s magnificent! I laughed out loud.

    And speaking of double entendres, I have a link for you:


    I’ve been having a ball re-envisioning sexuality in The Lord of the Rings. My inspiration was your comment, long ago (1974, in fact) that anyone who thinks Tolkien was a “sweet old dear” should think again. I daresay Ursula Le Guin is a sweet old dear herself–when it suits her. Fortunately, in this essay, it did not. Thanks!

  38. Fiona Shaw playing Richard in Richard II was a revelation to me (I saw the film – not lucky enough to see it on stage). I had never felt any real sympathy for Richard before, but here I did. Richard became brilliant, dazzling, beguiling while still being deeply flawed and entirely the wrong person to be king. The relationship between Richard and Henry became so much more complex.

    This undoubtedly all played with gender perceptions – this Richard had a fragility even when wielding absolute power that had to have been partly from seeing a woman alone in a mans world. And I know I’m being very straight here, for the extent to which men can be dazzled and attracted to another man to only come clear to me in this play when a woman plays the part.

    Also, as someone else noted above, for a different play, here the sex of the character was not being changed – this was still King Richard, not Queen Richenda.

    However, I love to see different productions of Shakespeare precisely in order to see the different meanings that people give the plays to carry. And I found changing the gender of the actor here just one way of doing this.

    I should of course give credit also that Shaw is also an outstanding actor, and this was also part of what gave the play it’s impact for me, not just her gender.

    I also saw an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, at the Globe. It was one of the years when their entire season consisted of either all male or all female casts. I did enjoy it, but it hasn’t left a deep impression in my memory. Although, if I remember correctly, the production did have Kate’s submission at the end appear as the onset of madness.

  39. LeGuin’s comment, “But when I see The Tempest, I want to see The Tempest,” implies a fixed thing called “The Tempest,” whatever that is.

    But no one so far commented on the script adjustments that Taymor made in the backstory. She had ProsperA displaced from HER dukedom because of her gender and not, as in the original, because of overmuch concern for scholarship. Doesn’t that change make a difference? I think so.

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  42. I’ve just read this, two years late, after spending the evening with my kid looking at great speeches for a school assignment. (Led here by a site which had your left-handed commencement address on it.) And the first speech we looked at was Mark Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar. My kid read the text, and then I wanted to show him it being spoken, and I was frustrated because the most powerful version I have ever seen wasn’t on youtube – the Donmar Warehouse all-female production set in a women’s prison. (It is, by sheer coincidence, currently playing in New York – I saw it last year in London.) The young woman (Cush Jumbo) playing Mark Anthony spoke the famous “friends, Romans…” speech lying on her face on the floor, placating hands out like a hostage trying not to be shot, dressed in a truly horrible grey track suit, surrounded by women in a circle – wearing Pussy-Riot-style balaclavas and more horrible grey tracksuits – pointing primary-coloured, obviously plastic toy guns at her. It should have been utterly risible, but my god, it was like those words were being said for the first time. I usually like proper costume and spectacle in my theatre, but that production was the most powerful bit of theatre I have ever witnessed. I found it difficult to watch all these other versions of the speech this evening, even the really celebrated ones, because having seen Cush Jumbo do it, all the others seem to be pale, thin imitations Doing It Wrong. Maybe because it was a Russian Doll of a show (actors playing people acting) it worked, but I believed Harriet Walter absolutely as Brutus without any problem at all.

    I wasn’t a fan of the Mirren Tempest (although, bizarrely, my 11 year old really liked it and watched it about three times on tape). I really didn’t like the special effects, though I liked Mirren well enough. But I probably would have liked her more if she’d played Prospero not Prospera.