Role reversals on stage

Women taking on male Shakespeare roles is nothing new.

Kevin Sprague/Shakespeare & Company

Wives or mothers – the traditional roles of women in society – are mirrored by the characters in Shakespeare's plays, with their power, if any, secondhand. Consider Lady Macbeth who prods her husband into violence to make her a queen, or sad Gertrude, mother of Hamlet, choosing her husband's murderer for the security of her throne. When British star Fiona Shaw broke the mold to portray Richard II in 1995, she created waves of controversy. Then American actress Olympia Dukakis took on the mad king in 1998 in "The Lear Project." Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero as a man, if somewhat gender-ambiguous, in "The Tempest" in 2000; however, with the 2011 filming of "Coriolanus," she was cast as her soldier-son's blood-thirsty mother, Volumnia, rather than the title role. In the 2010 film "The Tempest," Helen Mirren remained female as traditional Prospero was transformed into the majestic Prospera.

Given the possibilities, it's no wonder that the straight-talking, feisty Ms. Dukakis has also chosen to play the strong-willed, aged Prospero as Prospera in the playwright's late drama "The Tempest," at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 19. Dukakis is appearing as the deposed ruler of Milan (see photo, Dukakis is in the center), who was set adrift in a boat with her daughter, Miranda, and exiled on a mysterious island. By the end of the play, Prospera declares, "I'll break my staff," which some consider a metaphor for Shakespeare announcing his retirement, but octogenarian Dukakis – a veteran actress like Ms. Shaw, Ms. Mirren, and Ms. Redgrave – does not seem ready to leave the stage.

Gender change holds few surprises for Dukakis. "The audience sees the play differently," she says. "The Tempest" interests her for the "revenge thing, how someone gets over such a humiliation and holds a determination for some kind of justice and revenge." Prospera engineers the marriage between Miranda and the young Prince Ferdinand, to "restore power to my daughter – her birthright."

Shakespeare wrote many of his plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but he dared portray her only as the fairy queen, Titania, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." No doubt he embedded her statesmanship and ambition in the characters of the kings he created. Perhaps Dukakis as Prospera might augur a future when women have a larger voice in government and lead more than 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

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