Helen Mirren plays the role of Prospero in a new film of The Tempest. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post she said: ‘I played the man role. Shakespeare very often had boys dressed as girls but not so often women dressed as men, but I play it as a woman. I don’t play it as a man.’
That may be so, but Shakespeare intended Prospero to be a man. It is true that one can really do as one likes with a Shakespeare play as long as one sticks to the text, and anything that one does throws new light on the text for the generation in which it’s done. However, although in his time Shakespeare was forced to use boys to perform female roles, he was very clear about whether his characters were male or female.
Helen Mirren is confused. When she says that Shakespeare very often had boys dressed as girls she is not altogether right. Shakespeare always had boys dressed as girls in plays with female characters, and every one of his plays had female characters. He was forced to use boys as it was against the law for girls and women to appear on the stage. But each role was clearly either male or female.
Shakespeare was unconcerned about having to use boys to play women and went ahead and wrote the roles as though women were going to perform in them. Think about Juliet and her authentic teenage girl’s passion. And in Antony and Cleopatra, often referred to as the greatest love story ever told, Cleopatra is female through and through, from her passion, through her flirting and sexual scheming, to her ability to make all men fall in love with her, a quality absolutely authentically portrayed in the text.
Shakespeare tried to neutralize the effect at times, however. He took advantage of the theatrical convention of using disguises. In some plays a character would start dressed as a woman and then disguise herself as a boy or a man, which would enable the actor to be a convincing male throughout most of the play. He would then be revealed as a woman and act out the last part of the final scene as a woman. Clever.
There is no real reason for the selection of Helen Mirren to play Prospero, apart from the fact that she has a huge fan base and will therefore bring in the money. But, as she says, ‘It would just give a new take on the relationships in the play. Shakespeare is such an extraordinary writer — you can do all kinds of things with him and the core of the piece stays strong, but you do get different reverberations through the play.’ That’s true, and it’s a testament to the genius of Shakespeare that whatever you do doesn’t ruin the play – it adds new insights for that particular generation. And that will go on for as long as the English language exists.