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May 02, 2011
It did not take me very long at all to get used to Prospera in Julie Taymor’s new film The Tempest. I wondered, before going to the cinema, if a female lead would feel too dissonant for my Shakespearean sensitivities. There were other aspects of the movie that felt dissonant: some of the musical changes into the rock music felt like a train wreck, and so did some of Ariel’s CG effects when painted over the natural Hawaiian landscape. But from the moment Helen Mirren spoke Prospera’s first lines for her distressed daughter, “Be collected;/ No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart / There’s no harm done”, I felt comfortable with her. And herein lies the problem with making Prospero a woman.
Switching Prospero’s sex automatically genders the play. Whether we like it or not, whether it is played by so fine an actor as Helen Mirren whose skill defies gender categories, the switch changes everything from Miranda’s first line, “If by your art, my dearest father/mother, you have/ Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.”, to Caliban’s last look at Prospero/Prospera before his island is returned to him. The first change that I felt was the new meaning threaded into Prospera’s story of the usurpation in Milan. Antonio’s overthrow of Prospero is a common play amongst men of power, but his toppling of Prospera is a sexist denial of a woman’s power in a man’s world. The second change that struck me was that the mother-daughter relationship between Prospera and Miranda felt very different – (sweeter? more insular?) than the father-daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda. Also, Prospera’s scolding of her servants, Ariel and Caliban, felt different to me than when Prospero does it.
I have no problem owning that my upbringing as man in a sexist society is a most likely cause for this different reading. As a father, I stand outside my daughters’ relationship to their mother, and as a son I felt different when I was scolded by my mother than when I was scolded by my father. As a feminist I bristle at the usurpation of women’s power and rights. In at least some of these positions I am a representative of Taymor’s audience for this film: an audience that will read this story differently due to the gender switch.
The Tempest belongs to Shakespeare’s late plays where he was working with themes of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. His protagonist, Prospero, is greatly wronged. His intended revenge makes sense; it settles scores. However, Shakespeare’s theme in this play is not revenge, but humanization. Prospero had become hardened by his misfortune. He turns his exile into imperialism; conquering the island from its natives and pressing them into servitude. He rules his island with an iron fist and an artful magic. He catches his enemies slipping in his territory and reels them into his plans for payback. Then something unexpected occurs: Ariel humanizes his hardened master. A Marxist would say that Ariel de-reifies Prospero.
Miranda tries to humanize her father from her first lines in Act One. She tearfully exclaims that she suffered from seeing the tempest sink the ship. The drowning men’s cries “did knock/ Against [her] very heart!” Miranda is modelling empathy to her father. Prospero responds by telling her the story of his usurpation and exile as justification for what he has done to the men on the ship. A second lesson in empathy is offered to Prospero in Act Five by his spirit servant Ariel. This time Prospero listens and learns.
Your charm so strongly works ‘em
That, if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Dost thou think so spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their affections, and shall not myself
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passions as they be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel. (5.1.17-30)
Ariel speaks his opinion in the conditional, “were I human”, delivering, with that line, a definition of humanity that extends from Montaigne to Shakespeare and then, later in history, from Hegel to Marx. To be human is to have empathy for other humans; to feel their affection and to base one’s actions on that feeling. Prospero accepts the lesson and allows himself to be transformed from vengeful fury to nobler reason, prefiguring Hegel’s vernunft (reason as expressed through mutual recognition). Shakespeare offers his audiences an alternative to patriarchy’s power plays whose expected outcome is that Prospero fries his enemies to death with flames from his staff. It is the unexpected mercy from a man that makes the play so touching and (dare I say) didactically effective.
Mirren’s Prospera succeeded in faithfully depicting this same story. She also was pled to by her daughter in Act One and transformed by Ariel in Act Five. However, her gender changes the effect of the story. Women, in sexist society, are expected to forgive. They rarely get to violently redress the wrongs done to them. By turning Prospero into Prospera, Julie Taymor reverted the unexpected back into the gendered expected. I would much rather have seen Helen Mirren fry her enemies with Circe’s magic staff.