(Hello, everyone; I’m Rook, a new writer here, planning to focus on queer issues in film and literature.)
I recently had the good fortune to be able to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Tempest, directed by Libby Appel. I also attended a pre-performance talk on the play, about its themes, the set design, the costume director’s inspirations, etc.; one of the things the lecturer mentioned was a change they’d made to the characters: Antonio, Propsero’s brother and the usurping duke of Milan, had become Antonia, Prospero’s sister and the usurping duchess of Milan. This was simply because of the available cast, the lecturer explained. In Shakespeare’s day, the actors were all male, so Shakespeare included fewer female parts. Today, there are more women, so they’re always looking for parts that are easy to gender-switch.
What I didn’t realize until some time later was that strictly speaking they’d also switched Ariel’s gender. I didn’t realize this because every other production of the play I’ve seen did the same, and every one I had ever heard of until I started specifically researching. It’s not as though Ariel’s gender is made obvious in the play’s text, nor is it relevant – usually. It was relevant in this version, because through stage direction they added a romantic subplot between Ariel and Prospero.
Neither making Ariel female nor giving her a romantic subplot with Prospero is a bad move, but the combination of the two is tricky: as Ariel spends most of the play seeking freedom from Prospero, in the hands of less than stunningly talented actors, it would take on disturbing overtones of an abusive marriage. It’s not a difficult plot to add – on Prospero’s part, at least. He regularly uses terms of endearment for Ariel, calling her “chick” and “my dainty spirit”. He uses quite similar terms to Miranda, his own daughter, whom he obviously adores. But. Here is where I find myself hiding behind these-plays-were-written-hundreds-of-years-ago – a literal reading would suggest that Prospero thinks of Miranda as his possession, and the same of Ariel. To the actor’s and director’s credit, they didn’t play it literally. When Prospero said “I have lost a daughter” – because she is marrying Ferdinand – it was clearly more a way to get Alonso’s goat than something he believed. But the fact remains that it’s easy to play Prospero as loving someone whom he treats as a possession, because he treats as a possession someone who he clearly loves. And both those people are women – the only two major female characters.
Except, of course, Antonia. Having Antonia makes it somehow less creepy that Ariel and Miranda are both a bit dehumanized, because Antonia is ambitious, driven, obviously smarter than, say, Sebastian, and while her actions are presented as wrong, they are quite comprehensible. She ruled Milan quite competently – in fact, Prospero asked her to act as regent while he studied magic. Then she took it over. She was well on her way to conquering Naples as well. And nobody thought this was at all odd. Of course, in the original, Antonia was a man, but her being a woman didn’t change her character – it just gave the cast a tremendously strong woman, which was some much-needed balance.
I think switching genders in classic plays can be a great way to explore the implications of gender, as well as to give parts to all your players. It’s heartening to see directors making that choice, even if it’s just for practicality. It’s also heartening that Antonia’s character wasn’t changed at all to make her more “feminine”; perhaps a male director would have done differently. And I won’t say it was a pity that Ariel got a romantic subplot, given how skilfully it was executed. However, it was only by great care that the subplot didn’t ruin the character. The idea that a woman will automatically love a man who has power over her, even while she resents him, is a bad message to send, and for Ariel and Prospero, it would be simple to read into the play.
One of the women staying at the bed-and-breakfast mentioned the next day that she had seen a production where Ariel was played by a man, but Prospero was a woman. Very interesting approach, she said. Very well-done.