Most of us have read our fair share of classics, be it at school or later in life. While these texts in the literary canon are well worth reading, they don’t always live up to our modern morality or ideas of equality.
A common problem with classic texts is the sidelining of female characters. Wide Sargasso Sea broached this subject, giving us the story of Charlotte Brontë’s mad woman in the attic. Now Katharine Duckett continues to the tale of Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, giving Miranda agency in the narrative of her life.
We spoke to Katharine about her obsession with The Tempest, how you go about tackling a story written by a giant of literature, and the appeal of the darker side of humanity.
Miranda in Milan is out now from Tor.com.
What drew you to writing a ‘sequel’ to Shakespeare’s The Tempest? What did you feel you could bring to the text?
I’ve been obsessed with The Tempest and its mysteries for a long time. I first studied the play in college, in the context of a class dealing with the rise of the British Empire and the expansion of colonialism, and also explored postcolonial reworkings like Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête. So I was already thinking about the play as a living work that could be transformed and responded to, and for me, the sidelining of Miranda was a glaring issue in the text. She’s used as a pawn by her father throughout The Tempest, and he’s constantly telling her to heed his words and his version of events, instructing her in what to do and to believe. Her “choice” of Ferdinand didn’t really seem like a choice to me at all: after all, he’s the first
So I wanted to place Miranda at the center of the narrative and watch how her existence in the “brave new world” of Renaissance Italy might actually unfold. The Miranda we’re shown in the play is intelligent but also oddly incurious: she claims it never entered her mind to know more about her father and how they came to their enchanted island, which seems completely implausible, and she’s more of a cipher of a dutiful daughter and beautiful young bride than a full human being. It’s surprising for Shakespeare, who created some wonderfully vivid and outspoken heroines and usually gave women more weight in his works, including women, like Cordelia, who pushed back against their fathers. I felt I could bring a tangible sense of who Miranda might be to the text, with all the confusing realities of being a teenage girl and the complications of growing up in isolation without the presence of other women included.
How do you go about tackling a sequel to a classic piece of literature? What difficulties did you face in writing a story limited by source material?
Well, I started by imagining that these were real people existing in a real and definable world, even though it’s a world laced with magic. The Tempest is pretty murky when it comes to the exact history of its players, and within the play itself their characterizations are fairly uneven. There’s a lot of contradictory reporting and action, from Caliban, from Ariel, and from Prospero himself, and ultimately Prospero controls the action of the play and our experience of the strange scene in which we find ourselves. To me the entire thing has a sleight of hand feel: Prospero is more of a fussy stage manager trying to maintain an illusion than a reliable narrator.
In order to tackle those complications, then, I had to make some strong choices about my reading of the text and how to proceed. It was intimidating, since people naturally have got opinions about Shakespeare, but in a way it was no different from what any director does when they mount this play. I faced the same difficulties they do, except that I gave myself license to expand the world more fully and dig into more complex explanations of why Prospero behaves the way he does, and why the play has such an uneasy feel at its close, why he seems to be asking for some form of forgiveness. Why is he putting on this show? To what end? How does he really see Miranda, who he treats more as a pretty coin to buy what he wants (his dukedom and the alliance with Naples) than as a person? The limited scope of the text actually drove me to be more inventive with the mechanics of his mind than I might have been otherwise, and I found myself discovering things underpinning his unique psychology that became crucial to the story.
What other classic stories feature side-lined female characters you would like to see given their own stories, motivations, and agency?
Ooh, there are so many. I’d especially love to see characters from outside of what we typically consider the Western canon given their own books, because a lot of English-language literature tends to recycle the same stories again and again, and there are scores of other sources to draw from. One example is Kyz-Zhibek, a legend that’s kind of the Romeo and Juliet of Kazakh folklore. It takes place in a time of dueling steppe clans and features a young woman facing a tragic fate at its center: I’d love to see the story reworked around her perspective.
Your work often focuses on darker sides of magic and fantasy. Why are you so drawn to writing about things that cause unease and tap into our fears? Why do you think we enjoy frightening visions of magic more than positive ones?
I believe acting with kindness and goodness is a choice we all must constantly make, and it’s a difficult one in a world that constantly tests our boundaries and our perception of our own ethics. How do you challenge your own prejudices and step outside of your privilege to help protect others? How do you forgive your own failings but also learn, and evolve, and live on to fight another day? That’s where literature, and fantasy in particular, opens up a space for plumbing the depths of the unsavory side of human nature and acknowledging that the line between “good” and “evil” is thinner than the everyday world would have us believe. Terrors can come out of the corners of the world most familiar to us. The question of how we respond to those terrors, and whether it transforms us into something monstrous ourselves, is massively compelling, and I think that’s why we’re drawn to frightening visions of magic that make the conflict even more epic. They’re a mirror but also a cautionary tale, and a way of processing the horrific realities of the world we already know to be true.
Why should we be reading your book? Pitch Miranda in Milan to us!
It’s a love story, a ghost story, and a coming-of-age tale all in one! It’s got magic and mystery, and masked balls, and alchemy, and cute girls kissing. If you love Shakespeare, you’ll enjoy some of the Easter eggs I’ve thrown in there for particularly devoted fans, and if you don’t, the story stands alone as its own narrative, since it’s really about Miranda and her evolution as a person. And it’s fundamentally a story about women and their relationships with one another, about existing in a world that restricts your choices but trying to break out of those societal boxes to pursue the life you want (and need).
Katharine Duckett’s fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, Interzone, PseudoPod, and various anthologies. She is also the guest fiction editor for the Disabled People Destroy Fantasy issue of Uncanny. She hails from East Tennessee, has lived in Turkey and Kazakhstan, and graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she majored in minotaurs. Miranda in Milan is her first book. She currently resides in Brooklyn with her wife.