Prospero's Girls


  • Deanne Williams York University


The Tempest, Performance Studies, Miranda, Ariel


This essay examines the afterlives of Miranda and Ariel, Prospero's "girls," on stage and in film. A longstanding editorial and theatrical tradition that assigns Miranda's "abhorrèd slave" speech to Caliban informs the ongoing representation of Miranda as a passive and submissive character, even after the speech is restored in the twentieth century. The two-hundred-year-long history of reassigning Miranda's speech to Prospero coincides with the tradition of casting a girl actress as Ariel. Dismissed in recent years as an outmoded and déclassé theatrical convention, Ariel's history as a girl left a strong impression on the play's theatrical and artistic legacy. Restoration adaptations of The Tempest added more and more girl characters to Prospero's island, reflecting an intensified interest in girls and girlhood as the play charted the paths to Miranda's marriage and Ariel's freedom. With Miranda representing domestic expectations and Ariel embodying the dream of liberation, Prospero's girls and their history reflect the conflicting and competing expectations placed upon girls and the dream of a patriarchal power that, rather than stifling girls, sets them free.

Author Biography

Deanne Williams, York University

Deanne Williams is Associate Professor of English at York University, Toronto. She is the author of The French Fetish from Chaucer to Shakespeare (Cambridge 2004), which won the Roland H. Bainton Prize for best book in literature from the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference. She is co-editor, with Ananya Jahanara Kabir, of Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures (Cambridge 2005), and, with Kaara L. Peterson, of The Afterlife of Ophelia (Palgrave 2012). She has published articles on a wide range of topics, including Shakespeare adaptations, the history of feminist scholarship, and the reception of classical and medieval literature in the Renaissance. Her new book, Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood, was published in the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies series in 2014.