Film Comment calls it Julie Taymor’s “own yonic paradise” – yonic, if you didn’t know, being the female version of the word ‘phallic’. Powerful and feminised, Taymor’s The Tempest is revolutionary if only for its female version of Prospero—or rather, Prospera, played by none other than Dame Helen Mirren.
When you first read some of Shakespeare’s plays, you may ask, “Where are all the mothers?” It’s a good question to ask; after all, mothers are some of the most important figures in our lives, and some of the best literary characters ever written. Five years ago, Julie Taymor (The Lion King, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) seemed to have similar questions, so she did the only thing a sensible director would do—she made one. And not any old mother, either—she gave her the magical, powerful, mysterious role of Prospera, mother of Miranda in Shakespeare’s revered The Tempest.
Taymor knew what she was doing when she gave Dame Helen Mirren the title role in her 2010 film, changed Prospero to Prospera, and replaced “father” with “mother” in all of Miranda’s (Felicity Jones) lines. With only a 5.4 rating on IMDb (on a par with Grown Ups 2 and Evan Almighty), The Tempest hasn’t received entirely supportive reviews. The NY Times compares it to a “70s-era laser rock planetarium show” which, if you’ve seen the film, isn’t too far-fetched. But almost all reviews seem united in one opinion: The Tempest needed a Prospera.
Helen Mirren broke it down in an interview with The Telegraph:
“Women have been punished for being powerful for many centuries and I thought that was the remarkable thing about changing Prospero into Prospera: you can bring in that history of female struggle.”
Taymor did exactly that. In the first act, when Prospera tells Miranda the history of their coming to the island, Taymor builds upon the story of Prospera’s loss of title by claiming that her brother accused her of witchcraft, adding the line “knowing that others of my sex have burned for far less” which forces us to acknowledge that history of female oppression.
Even before any added lines, the switch to Prospera changes the entire play and its situation in history. Prospera’s protection over Miranda, patriarchal and overbearing in the original play, now hints to a mother’s love and protection of her daughter from the evils of men in the world. She has been treated badly by men, particularly her brother, and Prospero’s same words spoken by a maternal figure give us insight into her fear for herself and her daughter, not just her vindictive need to control all others in the play—that trait is there too, but it’s built into a more complex and relatable character.
Prospera and Miranda’s relationship becomes complicated when Prospera meddles in her relationship, even potential relationship, with Ferdinand. Prospera no longer rules with an iron fist for pleasure’s sake, but all sorts of potential motives and themes emerge from her gender. Her sudden desire to persuade Miranda against Ferdinand could be seen as jealousy, as a reminder of her own husband’s death (mentioned at the beginning of the film), loneliness, fear that her daughter will leave her, and multiple alternatives. Going against the classical canon of men dominating women’s minds and bodies from birth to marriage to death is not easy but it is rewarding. As Shakespeare is read and performed all over the world, girls get to read it and see themselves rarely represented in a powerful role, let alone one that also allows them to be a mother, a wife, and a badass all in one. Not the mention the fact that Taymor herself becomes the playwright, Shakespeare herself, so even Prospera is granted at least some freedom from the ruling of men. Who knows if The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final play, but for the future of female characters, this is just the beginning.