I have seen several productions of The Tempest over the years, all done with different design aspects, as well as different casting choices. I have seen both male and female Alonso’s, Gonzalo’s, Trinculo’s, Antonio’s, Ariel’s, and Prospero’s. It could be said that The Tempest is the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to gender swap. While some Shakespeare purest detest this practice, saying it takes away from the story, I disagree. All of Shakespeare’s plays are about the characters and their relationships to one another, their genders can almost be seen as an afterthought. The stories are universal despite what genders are used. Prospero’s rage doesn’t come from the fact that another man took what was his, but that his brother, his own flesh and blood, betrayed him. Ariel’s loyalty doesn’t have to do with Prospero or himself being a man, but because Prospero freed him from a horrible prison. Antonio’s grief for his lost child isn’t strictly because Ferdinand is his sole heir, but also because Ferdinand is his only child. Thus in my mind, you can easily change the gender of these characters. While certain moments might change for the characters, the overall story will remain the same.
Gender swapping is what happened when I cast Homestead High School’s version of The Tempest this spring. It did not go into casting thinking I’d gender swap the whole show, instead I went in thinking anyone could play any character no matter what their gender. By the time I had most the show cast with women playing the male roles, only then did I make the conscious decision to switch Miranda and Ferdinand’s genders as well. High School theatre is run by the women in the department, they dominate at everything and this year, my women are fabulous actors. For the past two years the men in our department have diminished in number so that in a cast of 26, we only have four men. For this play I went with the most talented person playing the character instead of trying to fit the gender. Although I’m biased, I feel this gender swapped production works well.
Prospero’s motive for hooking up Miranda with Ferdinand can be described as a form of bartering his daughter’s hand to Ferdinand in order to try and cement his status. However, with a female in the role, it can change from a frightening manipulative male motive, to one of a mother testing the worth of Ferdinand for Miranda, while also seeing the possibility of being able to regain her status in the hierarchy through their union.
When it comes to Ariel, and the spirits in general, I would rather not assign a specific gender to any of them. Why should fairies or spirits have a gender at all? What need is there? Androgynous looking actors, I feel, could be best put to use here. The loyalty they feel toward Prospero is the important element. These spirits are already thought of as feminine and soft by our standards today. With a masculine Prospero, it provides a curious combination of dominant male over submissive creatures, while a dominant female can provide an equally as interesting effect of dominant female over submissive creature dynamic.
Ultimately this story is about burying old grudges, redemption, and love both (parental and romantic). As long as those themes are kept within the story, to me at least, the gender of the character is not important.